Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu made an unprecedented visit to the occupied West Bank city of Hebron on Wednesday, sparking angry reactions from Palestinian leaders and citizens, who called his visit a “dangerous escalation.”
Marking the first time a sitting Israeli Prime Minister gave an address in the flashpoint city, Netanyahu participated in a ceremony commemorating a 1929 riot in Hebron that resulted in the death of 67 Jews.
During his speech, the PM referred to Palestinians as “blood-thirsty terrorists” who “carried out this horrible massacre 90 years ago,” reinforcing the Israeli narrative that the deadly riots were motivated by Palestinian hatred of Jews.
“They were certain that with that they were uprooting us from this place for good. They were wrong,” Netanyahu said, adding “we returned to Hebron” and praising settlement expansion in the city, particularly the notoriously violent settlement of Kiryat Arba.
The ceremony took place in the plaza in front of the Ibrahimi Mosque, or Tomb of the Patriarchs, a holy place for both Muslims and Jews, and the site of a 1994 massacre of 29 Palestinian worshipers by an American-Israeli settler.
“I say on the 90th anniversary of the disturbances – we are not foreigners in Hebron, we will stay here forever,” the premiere said, adding “the people of Israel are deeply entrenched in Hebron. From our very beginning, we belonged here.”
Remembered by Palestinians as the 1929 ‘Buraq Uprising’, massive protests were sparked across historic Palestine after a group of Jewish migrants went to al-Buraq, known as the Western Wall, carrying Zionist flags and chanting Zionist slogans.
Palestinians saw the move, which coincided with the anniversary of the Prophet Mohammed’s birth, as representative of an increasing Zionist presence in Palestine that threatened the takeover of their land and holy sites.
The events in Jerusalem led to violent confrontations between Palestinians and Jews in the city, which then spread to different cities, including Hebron, across Palestine, starting the Buraq Uprising.
It is estimated that 133 Jews were killed during the uprising, while 116 Palestinians were killed, mostly at the hands of British colonial forces, with some killed during Jewish attacks on Arab communities.
The Shaw Commission, a British inquiry into the uprising, found that there was “no doubt” that the fundamental reason for the uprising was a feeling of animosity among Palestinians “consequent upon the disappointment of their political and national aspirations and fear for their economic future.”
Dispelling the myth that Palestinians were killing Jews simply because of their religion, the commission highlighted the fact that in 10 years prior to the Buraq Uprising, there were only three incidents recorded of Arab attacks on Jews, and in the 80 years prior to that, “there were no recorded instance of any similar incidents.”
Despite historical records, Israeli President Reuven Rivlin joined Netanyahu in reiterating the belief that, as he put it, “the riots of 1929 were directed against all Jews of all ethnicities and views, simply because they were Jews.”
Rivlin even addressed claims by historians that the riots were directed against Zionism, saying “these claims are totally unfounded.”
During the ceremony, which was largely seen as an attempt to appease Netanyahu’s right-wing base ahead of this month’s elections, ministers from Netanyahu’s Likud party called on the premiere to extend Israeli sovereignty to all of Hebron.
Knesset Speaker Yuli Edelstein called for Hebron to be turned into a “full-blown city of Israel,” saying “the time has come for the Jewish settlement in Hebron to grow to thousands of residents,” the Times of Israel reported.
During her speech at the ceremony, culture Minister Miri Regev called directly on the premiere to fulfill his promise of extending Israeli sovereignty to all of the West Bank, saying “there is no better place to start bringing that pledge into fruition than Hebron.” she said.
“If there’s no Hebron there’s no Tel Aviv,” Regev said.
Yishai Fleisher, spokesperson of the Israeli settler community in Hebron, live tweeted much of the day’s events, lauding Regev and Netanyahu for their statements, and praising the day’s events.
The city of #HEBRON welcomes Israeli President @PresidentRuvi, Speaker of the Knesset @YuliEdelstein, and @IsraeliPM @netanyahu to commemorate 90 years to the 1929 Massacre & ethnic cleansing of the Jewish community here – and to CELEBRATE our return and CONTINUED REBUILDING!! pic.twitter.com/lfRaGX8Ak2
— Yishai Fleisher 🕎 ישי פליישר (@YishaiFleisher) September 4, 2019
Palestinian leaders condemned Wednesday’s ceremony, which coincided with increased deployments of Israeli troops in the area and massive restrictions on Palestinian movement in the city.
According to Palestinian Wafa news agency, Israeli forces “clamped a curfew on the Palestinian neighborhoods” while Palestinian shops and schools were forced to close their doors early.
Dr. Hanan Ashrawi called Netanyahu and Rivlin’s visit “an irresponsible and offensive attempt to pander to the most extreme and racist elements of the settler movement.”
“The intolerable reality of segregation, racial discrimination, daily harassment, and oppression imposed on the Palestinian population in Hebron are maintained by the policies and racist illegal policies Mr. Netanyahu wants to perpetuate and promote against the Palestinian people across the occupied Palestinians Territory, including Jerusalem,” Ashrawi said.
Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas’ spokesperson Nabil Abu Rudeineh condemned the visit as an attempt to taunt Muslims in the region, saying “we warn against the dangerous repercussions of Netanyahu’s step, which is being carried out in order to win the votes of [Israel’s] extreme right wing.”
Both Ashrawi and Abu Rudeineh highlighted Hebron’s Old City and the Ibrahimi Mosque’s status as a UNESCO World Heritage Site, and called on the international community to prevent further “aggressions” at the sites.
“The international community has added responsibility to protect this City from further pillaging and devastation and to compel Israel to end its draconian measures against the Palestinian population in Hebron and restore life and freedom to its besieged neighborhoods, which have been forcibly emptied of life and hope by the Israeli occupation,” Ashrawi said.
In the Old City of Hebron, some 800 extremist Israeli settlers live under the protection of thousands of Israeli soldiers that secure the settlers access to the majority of the area.
Meanwhile, the mort than 30,000 Palesitnian natives of the city live under Israel’s permit regime, and are confronted daily with violence by settlers and more than 20 military checkpoints that restrict their every move.