THE CITY OF THE BELOVED
By Israel Shamir
Their names bear a touch of medieval morality plays, but instead of Hope,
Penance and Mercy, the three sisters are called Amal, Taura, Tahrir, or Hope,
Revolution, and Liberation. Dressed like ordinary college girls they were
- they would not stick out at Yale or Tel Aviv University. Their books and
CDs are the same ones I saw this morning on my son's shelf. But their smiles,
their wonderful happy smiles and high spirits, are quite out of the ordinary,
considering their circumstances.
Fifty years ago their parents were expelled from their ancestral home in
the South for they weren't Jews, and the sisters were born into a family
of refugees in Halil. They were born one after another, to make up for the
many years of their father's jail term. He was with them but a short while,
as his heart gave up when a settler flung a gas grenade into his sitting
room. The youngest sister, Amal, is at high school, while Tahrir is already
a sophomore at university, studying architecture, the fine art of dressing
thoughts in stone and building homes. Their own home, a modest, three-bedroom
stone house with wide windows, set deep in the vineyards of the valley, is
The messengers of doom stood outside staring at the ruins of the neighboring
house, at its flat roof broken at the centre, and at a grey-haired woman
with bright blue eyes who was searching in the vestiges of what was her home
"Yalla, ufi kvar", screeched a tall Jewish girl, Barbra-or-something,
at the old woman. "Get lost!"
An accompanying army officer was ready to oblige. He repeated the order in
Arabic, and, while the woman climbed up from the crater, told Barbra-or-something
about what the old woman had told him: "Her new leg", he said. "Five thousand
shekels' worth. Over one thousand dollars, bought just a month ago. She used
it for her better occasions, and yesterday, when we demolished her home,
she had on her older limb".
"No, she lost her leg as a child in 1948, when the Old city of Jerusalem
was shelled", the officer answered the unheard question of a tall, imposing
man in an elegant grey suit and a small, head-covering kippa. Meanwhile,
two bulldozers pulled away the remainder of the old lady's home, neatly grabbed
the remains of the vineyard and crushed its purple-red leaves into the mud.
At this time of the year, purple-red covers the hills in Halil Country. It
is the land of vine, separated by Bethlehem to the north from the land of
olive. It is the land of broad terraces, reddish-dry soil, abundant sheep,
rare springs, strong faith, and of vine. Though a few hundred years ago the
local folk gave up their Orthodox Christian religion and embraced Islam,
they still press wine in the millennia-old stone wine presses. In the autumn,
the women of Halil sell their heavy, yellow, sweet grapes, still covered
by field dust, at Damascus Gate, wearing their long black dresses with exquisite
embroidery. When my wife gave birth to our first son, I presented her with
just such a black and purple-red dress sewn over many weeks in a village
Much as I like the vine land and the people of Halil, it is not a place one
visits gladly. As in a Greek tragedy, dreadful doom befalls the city. The
sea monster consumed the virgins of Jaffa in the story of Perseus, the Doom
of Halil slowly eats up the city and its folk. Day after day, a house is
confiscated, a shop torched, a man killed. Now, Halil is the semi-digested
object fishermen used to find in the stomachs of decked sharks. It still
preserves some features of the ancient, proud city of men, but it is half-eaten.
If you ever visited a beautiful, terminally-ill young girl, you know the
In normal times, Halil country would be much admired, for it is very much
the Land of the Bible: its people's life-style has not changed much. They
are the same shepherds and wine-growers, and the names of their villages
are replete with memory. The great Palestinian brigand Daud, later King David,
charged protection-money in Maan; the prophet Amos grew up in Tukua; Gad
is buried in Halhul. Halil was called Hebron, later St Abraham, later Halil,
or the Beloved, for it is a stock epithet of Abraham, the great culture hero
of the Middle East. That is the original Judea of kings and prophets: Judean
but (despite some similarity of sound) not Jewish, even quite unconnected
to the Jews of old, who never ventured into this arid province so far south.
The Jewish historian Josephus Flavius did not know of those places; the Jewish
books, Talmud and Mishna, hardly mentioned Hebron and Bethlehem. The Jews
called the land, 'Idumea', and its Judean folk, 'Idumeans'. (In similar vein,
the Jews called the land of Israel 'Samaria', and its Israelites 'Samaritans',
as they wanted to privatize the heritage of the Bible.) The native Judeans,
the people of Halil, did not care: they still worked the same fields and
worshipped at the same shrines as did their ancestors, the heroes of the
Most of all, they cherish their Ibrahimiye Mosque, commemorating the Beloved
of God, Ibrahim (or Abraham), the spiritual pathfinder for mankind. This
massive edifice of rusticated stones was built in the uncharted past. The
Crusaders erected a beautiful basilica on the old foundations, and the benevolent
rulers of Cairo and Damascus, Istanbul and Baghdad adorned its walls with
Islamic verses. The Mosque of Halil exudes holiness and grace as the font
of spirit that broke out in the Judean Hills. Yes, that is uniqueness of
the Holy Land: while the Almighty gave oil to our neighbors, He gave the
Halilis bottomless deposits of divine spirit. While oil runs out, the more
spirit is given away, the more of it remains. Probably that is why the enemy
made it so hard to get there.
The Old city of Halil is a dense swarm of medieval houses around the Ibrahimiye
Mosque. The closely built houses leave but few entrances into the maze. These
have been blocked by iron gates and barbed wire, leaving just two openings
for access. The openings are controlled by massive checkpoints. The soldiers
checked our documents again, searched us and let us into the city of the
Beloved-turned-into-the-worst-jail in the Gulag archipelago of Palestine.
My Virgil in this descent to Hell was an unusual man, Jerry Levin from Alabama.
An ex-CNN bureau Chief in Lebanon, he spent almost a year in Hezbollah captivity,
and since then, he has lived in the Old City of Halil with a small team of
Christian Peacemakers. CPT people bring food to the besieged, try to protect
the city's folk and suffer the abuses and violence of the settlers and the
military. Born a Jew, he embraced Christ and cast his lot with the downtrodden
of the Earth.
"Do not make too much of my Lebanese prison", he warned me with a wry smile.
"Every man here can tell you of much longer and harsher jail terms".
Children's eyes watched us from behind iron bars. The streets were empty:
for many months, the natives have not been allowed to tread the paved footpaths
of their city. Eternal curfew was imposed here years ago. The shops were
broken into and torched by looting settlers; the walls bear graffiti in cursive
Hebrew script: 'Kill the Goyim; it is good for the Jews', 'Kahane was right',
'Bless your soul, Dr Goldstein'.
We knocked on the iron door of a house and heard sounds of heavy locks being
removed. The door opened a crack to let us in. We climbed up the narrow staircase
to the roof. The grandiose edifice of the Mosque rises high just two hundred
yards away, but the inhabitants rarely venture out that far. Narrow planks
connect the roofs of the city and allow the besieged Halilis to visit their
neighbors. Their children, like birds, run from roof to roof on planks,
or stare through bars at the street below. The streets were privatized by
the settlers, so they can walk there in complete peace, undisturbed by Gentile
presence. Regularly, the settlers break doors down and attack the citizens,
throw their bedding and chairs through windows and beat them up. That is
why their doors are barred by heavy wooden beams and locks. They can't even
go out and buy food: it has to be brought in by European and American volunteers.
Many escape this unbearable life, leave their homes, vineyards and properties
behind and go into exile. In this half-eaten city, only the strongest remain.
Once, my American friend Michael asked me whether the Palestinians are engaged
in non-violent struggle. In Halil, every day, every hour, every minute of
a Palestinian's life is a non-violent struggle for existence. T'is pity it
is not very successful. Apparently, the monsters need a Perseus to do the
We walked out into the open. A settler called to us, peering into the dusk
under the arches above the narrow lane:
A soldier on the corner calmed him: "They aren't Arabs. They are internationals".
"They are even worse", said the settler, an elderly East European Jew. And
he called out in his heavy, accented English: "Go away! You are not wanted
"Neither are you", we responded, and came out to the Mosque. It was surrounded
by three chains of soldiers, mainly recent imports from Ethiopia and Ukraine.
We were checked once and once again, asked where from and why, walked through
metal-finders and thought-controllers, soldiers' watchful eyes upon us, full
of habitual tireless hate, to the huge cenotaph of Abraham. And yet, I was
swept by the aura of holiness coming out of the place, as if my spirit were
uplifted on the great tsunami wave. High. Very high. I do not know whether
a holy place is holy due to the holy man buried there, or, other way around,
they bury holy men in holy places, but certainly it was a holy site.
As I turned around, I saw the settlers who had privatized the spiritual spring.
They wore white prayer shawls with black stripes on their shoulders. They
"That is an Arab!" said one.
"No, he is a German".
"No, he is an Arab with an Israeli passport; that is why he looks so arrogant",
said the first.
"You Arab?" asked the second.
"Sure", said I.
"Get out of here, you vermin!" they shouted.
Actually, the settlers do not care much for the Tomb of the Beloved. They
have another grave to worship, that of the mass murderer from Brooklyn, Dr
Goldstein. He achieved glory in the Purim of 1994. Purim is the only merry
feast of the Jewish calendar, the anniversary of a jolly good massacre committed
by their ancestors in Persia some twenty-four hundred years ago, when 75,000
men, women and children, were massacred by the avenging Jews.
In the Purim of 1994, Dr Baruch Goldstein came into the Mosque with two machine
guns and a lot of spare clips. The watchful soldiers would not let us bring
in a nail-file, but they did not stop him. He entered the prayer hall, called
'Merry Purim!' and opened fire. He slaughtered some thirty unarmed worshippers,
until the survivors succeeded in killing the rampaging beast. When they carried
their wounded and dead out of the mosque, the soldiers opened fire and killed
an additional twenty worshippers, calling out 'Merry Purim!' When the news
of the massacre reached the Knesset, the Israeli Parliament, Hanan Porat,
a leader of the Jewish Nationalist Religious Party, blessed the parliamentarians
with "Merry Purim".
Dr Goldstein was buried with much respect and love; his grave became a place
of mass pilgrimage for the settlers and their admirers from Israel, America
and all over the world. Young, plump Jewish maidens come there, lay flowers
and light candles on his tomb. Young Jewish soldiers put their American-made
M-16 rifles on his tombstone and ask for the holy man's assistance and guidance.
Young couples exchange vows, old men say Kaddish for his soul.
After the murder, there were voices in Israel calling to remove the settlers
from Halil. But the Israeli government used it to punish the victims: half
of the Mosque was taken over by the Jews; local worshippers were banned from
venerating the Tomb of Abraham the Beloved of God; the entrances of the Old
City were sealed; dozens of Palestinian homes were confiscated and erased;
the main street of the city was forbidden for Palestinian traffic. There
is but little difference in outcome: whether a Jew kills or is killed, the
Jewish state always uses it as a pretext to steal more land and punish Palestinians.
Still, on Fridays the settlers would go to the Tomb of Abraham, whom they
venerate as Christians and Muslims do, but for a different reason. While
for us, Abraham is the spiritual father, a man who found the way to commune
with God and showed it to mankind; they claim him for a biological ancestor
and justification for the privatization of the holy place. (Adams, the American
of Mark Twain's short story would beat them by claiming direct descent from
Adam.) If they could claim George Washington was a Jew, they would surely
privatize the White House. (On second thoughts, they have done that anyway.)
This perverse reading sits deep in the Jewish psyche, and Natalie, a nice
Israeli journalist who accompanied us, asked me:
"Do local Arabs consider Abraham their ancestor as well?"
"The entire world considers him our spiritual ancestor", I tried to explain
to her the non-biological, spiritual and universal faith of Abraham. I reminded
her that Abraham rejected his father, Muhammad rejected his tribe, and Christ
rejected his brothers' call and said that his brothers-in-spirit are more
important than his brothers-in-flesh, but my words could not make a dent
on the vision she was imbued with.
On Fridays, the settlers rule supreme in the city. The army imposes especially
heavy curfew and does not let a single goy out of his house to blacken the
path of a Jew. The soldiers shoot at kids who dare to play outside. The city
can't breathe until the last Jew disappears into the barbed-wire fenced,
for-Jews-only compound. Halil is a good place to learn of the real Jewish
intentions about how the world is to be run - much better than reading their
hypocritical, saccharine-sweet editorials.
But last Friday was different. After the heavy guard accompanied the settlers
into their compound and was on the way to barracks, they came under guerrilla
fire. The guerrilla fighters did not want to copy the Jewish mass murderer;
they let the worshippers pass in peace to their homes, and only after that
did they opened fire. A Perseus dropped by to visit the monster.
Israeli soldiers are brainwashed to believe in their racial superiority,
in the superiority of their weapons, in the protection of their Supreme Commander
Most High, in the natives' meekness. They were sure the spirit of Halilis
was irredeemably crushed. Arrogant and reckless, they rushed into hot pursuit.
The fighters retreated into a lane between vineyards, and as the enemy soldiers
entered there, they sprung their deadly trap.
The Jihad fighters used the old ruse of weak against strong, first described
by Roman historians, later made into a play, The Horatians and the Curiatians,
by the great German playwright Bertolt Brecht. The two warring Roman clans
of Horatians and Curiatians met on the battlefield. The weaker Horatians
feigned flight, and when their heavily-armed enemies followed them and spread
sparse along the route, they turned back and killed their pursuers, one after
The result was nothing short of a miracle: three Jihad warriors with their
carbines killed twelve heavily armed Jews, among them the chief tormentor
of Halil, Colonel Gauleiter of the city, the Hebron Division Commander. The
fighters could not escape: when they made their noble decision to attack
only soldiers and let the settlers pass in peace, they sealed their own fate.
Still, they proved their spirit is strong, as strong as foundations of their
Often one hears that the Palestinians should act in this or other way. They
should not kill the enemy if the enemy takes off his military uniform and
goes for a holiday. They should be choosy with their targets, as otherwise
it is 'counter-productive'. The Halil ambush proved this to be but pious
nonsense. The attack on the soldiers was the fairest one ever launched against
the oppressor. And yet, the US President described it 'a heinous crime';
the UN Secretary General called it 'a horrible, bloody deed' and the misled
Pope referred to a 'massacre of worshippers'. Even the Israeli Chief of Staff
laughed at this description and refused to call it a 'massacre'. Our soldiers
died in the battle, he said. But anyway, he ordered the demolition of homes
in the ambush lane.
Thus, it does not matter what the Palestinians do, whether they kill Israeli
children or fight Israeli soldiers, or even if they are being killed by settlers,
they are found guilty anyway, for they did not surrender to the Jews. Those
who surrendered without fight won't forgive them. But the Palestinians of
Halil, these most abused people on earth, know the truth. And that is why
broad, happy smiles stayed on the innocent faces of the three sisters, Hope,
Revolution and Liberation.
The nice Israeli journalist Natalie felt she had to balance her story to
make it acceptable to her editors.
"But what would you say about terrorist acts in Tel Aviv against Israeli
civilians?" she demanded from the girls whose home was to be demolished.
I wonder what my grandfather in the ghetto of Stanislawow would have answered
to the question of a German journalist about his feelings for the German
victims of Allied air raids. He would probably have answered as the Canadian
Jewish columnist Mordecai Richler did: "I'm glad Dresden was bombed for no
useful military purpose" .
We stood near the place of the ambush on the broad veranda of the three sisters.
Probably our looks betrayed our feelings, for the group of settlers and their
entourage turned on us. A settler, a sleek Jew, told us:
"You should be on our side", he said. "You are Jews, aren't you? It is us
or them. Listen to the voice of your blood; support your people against their
"Was it necessary to demolish the houses of innocent people just because
somebody shot at your soldiers in the vicinity?" asked Jerry.
The imposing, tall man in the grey suit looked at us sternly.
"How do you dare to speak of houses, when human life was extinguished here?"
He was an American from New York, a Rabbi Wise.
"Would you demolish a house in New York if one of your people were killed
next to it?" asked I.
"Oh yes, we should!" said Rabbi Wise, and a carnivorous, predatory smile
disclosed his feelings. He would. He would erase Harlem if a Black were
to kill a Jew. For the Rabbis Wise of this world, the life and property of
a goy is of no consideration, just a wasps' nest to be removed. In Halil,
or Khevron, as they call it, they enact their dreams free of limitations.
In this city of nasty settlers and brutal soldiers, there was no man as vile
as this Rabbi Wise. The settlers turned life of local people into hell, and
the soldiers protected them, but they did his will, and he brought them billions
of dollars taken from the Americans, and covered for them in corridors of
the Congress. I felt great pity for the Americans, the industrious and generous
folk, sold down the river by their politicians and turned into slaves of
"You are Jews, aren't you,?" insisted the sleek settler.
"If you are, we certainly are not", I replied.
I felt it was impossible to remain a Jew in Halil. Indeed, the Jews who feel
that demonstrating against their government's policies is not enough, are
now doing the unthinkable with greater ease. Thus, Neta Golan, the wonderful
Israeli girl who stayed with besieged Palestinian villagers in Kufr Harith,
chose the faith of Mercy. In the most unexpected way, the vicious Zionist
[anti-]Christian cultists' dream of the Jews coming to Christ on the ruins
of Palestine may yet come true, as ever more Jews who face real, victorious
Judaism in the inferno of Hebron turn away in disgust. The cultists were
right but for the wrong reason: the gathering of Jews in the Holy Land will
bring the good people to light, as they will see this total darkness undisguised
and reject it.
That is why the Intifada is so important: it could be the beginning of universal
world-wide Intifada. It should not stop at the borders of the Holy Land.
I know this thought is foreign to Palestinians. They fight for their villages
and towns, for their equality and freedom to live and worship at their shrines.
For them, if the settlers were to lose their privilege, the problem will
be over. But for Rabbi Wise and his ilk, their slavery and possession of
Palestine is the necessary worldly proof of their achievement, and they won't
let it off lightly. It all comes back to the morality play: Hope of Halil
is but a sister of Liberation of Discourse and of the World Intifada.