Irreconcilable Hebron

Yardena Schwartz

It was about 7 PM on May 2, 1980, when Tayseer Abu Sneineh set out from a cave hideout on the outskirts of Hebron with three other Palestinian militants. Like his comrades, Abu Sneineh, a twenty-eight-year-old math teacher, was a member of Yasser Arafat’s Fatah group, the leading faction of the Palestine Liberation Organization. The PLO guerrillas received their instructions from Abu Jihad, one of Arafat’s top aides. They would carry out what was then the deadliest terrorist attack ever perpetrated in the West Bank, which had been occupied by Israel since the conclusion of the 1967 war.

Armed with assault rifles, hand grenades, and improvised explosive devices, they took their positions at a building across from the historic Beit Hadassah complex. The building had housed a Jewish-run medical clinic that served the Arabs and Jews of Hebron until the massacre of 1929, when sixty-seven Jewish men, women, and children were murdered in a pogrom carried out by their Arab neighbors. On August 24, 1929, a mob armed with swords, clubs, and daggers went from house to house in Hebron, slaughtering, raping, hanging, and, in some cases, castrating and burning their Jewish victims alive. Those who survived were forced to leave the city, effectively exiling Hebron’s ancient Jewish community.

The massacre in Hebron was one of the worst pogroms ever perpetrated outside of Europe before the Holocaust, and it was instigated by the Grand Mufti of Jerusalem, Haj Amin al-Husseini, who later allied himself and his people with Germany’s Nazi regime. The riots were driven by rumors that Jews were trying to take over the Al-Aqsa Mosque. Some fifteen miles to the north in Jerusalem, the mosque sits atop the ruins of ancient Jewish temples, a site known as the Temple Mount.

That Friday night in May of 1980, Abu Sneineh’s eyes were fixed on a group of some fifty religious Jews making their way toward Beit Hadassah to visit the women and children who had been squatting in the complex for a little over a year. The women had moved into the long since abandoned building in order to pressure the Israeli government to allow Jews to return to Hebron, where there had been a nearly four millennia-long history of Jewish presence, before their violent expulsion in 1929.