When Sigmar Gabriel wrote that Hebron was “an apartheid regime for which there is no justification,” on his Facebook page (March 14), the chairman of Germany’s main opposition party sparked an outcry that reverberated beyond his virtual wall. Gabriel, the leader of Germany’s Social Democratic Party and a likely challenger to Chancellor Angela Merkel in 2013, was not the first European politician to associate Israel with apartheid– nor will he be the last.
While the comment may have been particularly surprising coming from a high ranking German politician, the truth is that Gabriel simply echoed an oft repeated statement made in international discourse about Israel–one that has rarely been questioned in the past. In 2008, the former president of the UN General Assembly Miguel d’Escoto Brockmann likened Israel’s policies to “an apartheid of an earlier era.” In 2002, South African Archbishop Desmond Tutu accused Israel of apartheid policies towards Palestinians.
Other notable officials who have joined in the Israel apartheid chorus include Former UN Special Rapporteur, John Dugard, former US President Jimmy Carter, Turkish President Abdullah Gul, Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas, University of Chicago political science professor, John Mearshimer, prominent Israeli media commentators and South African activists, including anti-apartheid veteran Reverend Allan Boesak who in November 2011 stated that Israeli apartheid is “more terrifying” than South Africa.
Such a conclusion is inevitable when the above-mentioned figures rely on sources and organizations that present Hebron in an extremely skewed light. One of the most active is the Temporary International Presence in Hebron (TIPH), the group that guided Gabriel during his visit to Hebron recently. Established in 1994, TIPH representatives, who hail from Norway, Switzerland, Sweden, Turkey and Denmark, patrol Hebron and provide situation analysis with the aim of ensuring that residents are upholding human rights law while providing “a feeling of security to the Palestinians of Hebron.”
TIPH, whose members enjoy diplomatic immunity and wear special ‘observer’ badges during their Hebron patrols, has given numerous tours to ambassadors, government officials, ministers and diplomats from across Europe. Israeli Foreign Ministry officials have accused TIPH personnel of compiling false reports against IDF soldiers and Jewish settlers, while ignoring violent acts by Palestinians, thereby “vilifying Israel.”
What is most unfortunate about these tours is that they do not provide an all-encompassing perspective of Hebron, rather one that distorts its history and promotes a propaganda campaign that leads to the demonization of Israel.
The tours do not highlight the fact that the Jewish presence in Hebron dates to Biblical times from King David’s monarchy and continued for centuries after, throughout the Babylonian, Roman, Byzantine, Arab, Mamluk and Ottoman periods. Following the Hebron Massacre in 1929, where 67 Jews were murdered, their synagogues and homes ransacked by Arabs, the remaining survivors (who were saved by 19 local Arab families) fled. For the next 38 years, Hebron had no Jewish community until after the 1967 Six Day War, when the Jewish community was reestablished again.
Nor do these tours make clear that Hebron today is divided into two areas—H1 and H2– following the Hebron Accords in 1997, which were signed by Israel, the US, and the Palestinian Authority. The accords offered international recognition for the existence of the city’s Jewish community and its entitlement to security and development. The accords ceded some 80% of the area to the Palestinian Authority and left Israel responsible for the remaining 20%.
The majority of Hebron’s Arabs – approximately 120,000 – live in H1, which is the larger, thriving area of the city, full of factories, businesses, and continued construction. Palestinian Police Forces exercise full control while the IDF is not allowed to enter unless they are escorted. H1 is under Palestinian Authority rule and remains completely off-limits to Jews.
The only area in Hebron that Jews are permitted to live in is H2, the smaller and poorer area of the city, which makes up 20% of the municipal territory. Jewish residents however, have access to only 3% of the city, which entails one street along which several Jewish neighborhoods are located. The 600 Jewish people, who live among 30,000 Arabs, are not permitted to travel into H1.
Furthermore, although Israel’s security measures in Hebron have been questioned, they are crucial for the protection of Jewish residents living in the city and for residents across the country. Stabbing attacks against Jewish worshippers in the vicinity of the Cave of Patriarchs have been attempted numerous times since 2010. And one of the most dangerous Hamas terrorist groups during the Second the Intifada was the Jihad Soccer Club, considered the best soccer team in Hebron, whose players and coach carried a wave of suicide attacks against Israelis, the most recent in 2008 which killed a woman and wounded 11 others in Dimona.
In reality, the best way to gain an objective view of Hebron is to tour the city independently, just as Stefanie Galla, a German lawyer from Cologne did in December 2011. Gala travelled to Hebron and visited the city without a tour guide. She recently wrote about her experience in the German liberal daily newspaper, Der Tagesspiegel, where she called Gabriel’s view of Hebron “one-sided.” “The Hebron I have experienced is another,” wrote Galla who described the Jewish quarter in Hebron as “seeming to be a very small area, sheltered by high walls and barbed wire.” According to Gala’s perspective, Hebron was a “ghetto,” with “Jews included.”