Dispatch from Hebron: At Holy Site, an Unholy Clash of Politics

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Adam Reynolds / Corbis

A street scene outside of the Ibrahimi Mosque, the Muslim side of the Tomb of the Patriarchs on Dec. 6, 2011.

Now that Palestine has been voted into UNESCO, the United Nations Education, Scientific, and Cultural Organization, officials are preparing applications for the organization’s marquee designation: a World Heritage Site. Candidates are abundant. Bethlehem’s Church of the Nativity stands atop the cave where believers kneel to kiss the spot, confidently marked by a starburst, said to be where Jesus Christ was born. Jericho, which marked its 10,000th birthday last year, is among the oldest continuously inhabited cities on the planet. And Hebron boasts the final resting place of Abraham, whose covenant with the Almighty led to Judaism, Christianity and Islam.

(PHOTOS: The potential World Heritage sites of Palestine.)

Genesis 23 lays out the details of his grave in Deed Office detail, including the price (30 shekels) paid for the cave and the adjoining field from Ephron the Hittite. There’s not much about the site that’s in doubt, including what Palestinian officials aim to do with the property if they get control of it — stop Jews from praying there.

The stated reason: The massive stone structure built atop the cave by King Herod, a Jew, and held for a time by Christian Crusaders, has since the 14th century been a Muslim house of worship. The Ibrahimi Mosque has minarets, rugs, washrooms for ablutions and anterooms lined with racks for storing shoes.

“It’s a mosque!” says Khaled Osaily, the mayor of Hebron. “You don’t have to be an architect to see it! Will you allow me to pray in a synagogue or a church?”

Depends on the synagogue. Depends on the church. But the point of course is that, right now, anyone can pray at the Ibrahimi Mosque. Jews and Muslims share a partitioned space, which has been guarded by Israeli soldiers ever since a fanatical Jewish settler opened fire on Palestinian worshipers in 1994, killing 29. Hebron is on the West Bank, about 25 miles south of Jerusalem, and subject to Israeli military rules since the Israeli occupation began in the wake of the Six Day War of 1967.

That reality is not going to change just because UNESCO voted in October to accept Palestine as a member, even as its application for full U.N. membership collects dust before the Security Council. Even if the World Heritage committee lists Hebron as a technically “Palestinian” heritage site, Israeli sentries will continue to hang their helmets at the entrance on the eastern side of the mosque, which on a recent weekday teemed with the chatter of children and worshipers, and Jews will continue to gather on the smaller western side, amid the clutter of bookcases and bearded Torah students, rocking like metronomes as they read.

The interior feels like any mosque, perhaps a bit crabbed by the partitions. Pilgrims crowd around alcoves where large tomb-shaped forms called cenotaphs stand draped in green fabric behind iron grates. The tombs are symbolic. The remains of Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Sarah, Rebecca and Leah were deposited in the cave below, a space glimpsed through a small opening on the floor on the Muslim side, maybe half the size of a manhole cover. Peering down it, you see only the flicker of a few candles.

“I had the privilege to discover it,” says Noam Arnon, an activist settler showing reporters the Jewish side of the complex. Though archeological excavations are forbidden by the Muslim clerics who continue to administer the site, shortly after the Six Day War the stone floor was lifted out and Arnon and a few others scrambled into the chambers underneath. “We found ourselves crawling among human bones,” he says. The bones likely belonged to the faithful who paid to be interred near the Patriarch and his family, whose tombs remained sealed on another level.

As Arnon speaks, a half dozen Israeli soldiers march through the crowd in a phalanx around a bearded man wearing a sheepish smile. “He’s going to start screaming,” the settler warns, a prediction that gets your attention. But the “screaming” turns out to be the Muslim muezzin‘s call to prayer, a deep male voice wafting over the divided, militarized city of 200,000.

Mosque director Hijazi Abu Snaineh says “daily conflicts between Jews and Muslims” were in fact the norm before Dr. Baruch Goldstein opened fire in the mosque in 1994. A hero to settlers who loathed the then-new Oslo Accord, the Brooklyn native was buried in a park named for the extremist icon Meir Kahane at the entrance of Kiryat Arba, the settlement adjoining Hebron. The strife has badly wounded the Old City, now a dead zone dominated by Jewish extremists and the hundreds of troops assigned to guard them.

Getting what Jews call the Tomb of the Patriarchs onto the UNESCO list was never going to solve that situation, of course. Palestinian political leaders say they know the Israeli occupation will only end through negotiations, and that the U.N. bid merely aims to enhance their position in stalled talks with Israel. And as a practical matter, the vagaries of bureaucratic scheduling means no Palestinian site will be even considered until 2014 by UNESCO, which after all “was created to work for peace,” notes an official speaking from the organization’s Paris headquarters. “You’d be hard pressed to find a person at UNESCO who says, ‘Yes, Christians should be banned from there or Muslims should from here.’”

So why frame the World Heritage application as a bid to restrict the use of a religious site, when the only practical effect will be to create bad feelings? For the same reason Palestinian Authority Mahmoud Abbas, in his September speech to the U.N. General Assembly, evoked the the Holy Land by name-checking Jesus Christ and the Prophet Mohammed but said nothing about the Jews:  In a word, spite.

“Bad feelings?” says Mayor Osaily, incredulous at the very question. “You know we have lots of bad feelings here already. I’m a big mayor, and sometimes I stay at a checkpoint for one hour, while the soldier talks on the telephone to his lover. What about my feelings?”