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Israel-Palestine conflict seen in Ibrahimi Mosque, Cave of Patriarchs

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IsraelPalestine News Hebron (1 of 43)Tour guide Eliyahu McLean in front of the building known as the Cave of the Patriarchs to Jews and Ibrahimi Mosque to Muslims.Harrison Jacobs/Business Insider

  • Hebron is the biggest city in the Palestinian West Bank with a population of 200,000 Palestinians and around 1,000 Israeli settlers. 
  • The city is home to the most important religious site for Jews and Muslims outside of Jerusalem: a 2,000 year-old building known as the Cave of the Patriarchs to Jews and Ibrahimi Mosque to Muslims.
  • The history of the religious site and the tense situation around it today illuminate much about the persistence of the Israel-Palestine conflict.
  • I recently visited Hebron on a “dual narrative” tour. Half the tour was guided by an Israeli Jew and the other half was guided by a Palestinian from Hebron. Each told their side of what has happened at the Cave of the Patriarchs/Ibrahimi Mosque.

It’s not an exaggeration to say that if you want to understand the Israel-Palestine conflict, go to Hebron.

But, more specifically, if you want to understand how history and conflicting narratives collide into a tense and tenuous present, visit one of the region’s most important and contested religious sites: the Cave of the Patriarchs in Hebron.

Referred to as Ibrahimi Mosque by Muslims and Palestinians and the Tomb of the Patriarchs by Jews and Israelis, the structure is said to be the tombs of the biblical figures of Abraham and Sarah, Isaac and Rebecca, and Jacob and Leah. The 2,000-year-old building was built by King Herod the Great, and is considered to be the oldest continuously used prayer structure in the world.

As both Muslims and Jews revere Abraham and his descendants, the site is immeasurably important to both cultures. And it has a contentious and bloody history over the centuries and even today. 

It has passed hands from Jews to Christians to Muslims throughout that time. The building holds a series of cenotaphs, or commemorative tombs, for the biblical figures, though some believe they are actually buried beneath the building.

On a recent trip to Israel — my first — I decided to visit the religious site to better understand the conflict. 

I decided to take a tour led by Eliyahu McLean, an Orthodox Jew who moved from the US to Israel 20 years ago, and Mohammed Al-Mohtaseb, a 27-year-old Palestinian.

Here’s what it’s like:

As a result of the 1995 Hebron accords, the mosque was divided such that Jews must enter by the southwestern side and are limited to the corridors that run between the cenotaphs. Muslims enter by the northeastern side and have the remainder of the building — about 81%. The ceiling of the mosque side contains gorgeous Ottoman, Mamluk, and even Crusader-period architecture.

Source: The Jerusalem Post

The cenotaph of Abraham is visible to both Muslim and Jews through a bullet-proof glass. McLean visited the mosque for the first time three weeks before the massacre. At the time, Jews and Muslims often prayed together.

On the Jewish side of the site, McLean gave us the alternate point of view of the aftermath of the 1994 massacre. He agreed that the months-long curfew was “oppressive” in the short term, but said the restrictions “calmed the waters” in Hebron.

At the time, there had been near constant protests and clashes between Palestinians and Israeli soldiers. Twenty Palestinians were killed and another 120 injured by Israel Defense Force (IDF) soldiers in the weeks following.

“I’m not saying it was fair, but there was a valid security rationale for imposing that,” McLean said.

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