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Minnesota State University, Mankato
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West Bank: Measuring peace one millimeter at a time

Professor: In Palestine, peace measured by the millimeter.

By Chris Corley, Minnesota State University, Mankato history faculty member (published in The Free Press, Mankato, MN, 5/26/2011]

Chris CorleyAs I was leaving for our group’s next visit to the old city of Hebron, a university administrator pulled me aside and said, “In the United States, you measure land by acres and miles; here, we measure it in millimeters.”

Those words seemed exaggerated until I walked down Hebron’s central streets a few hours later.

Mankatoans who want to learn more about the halting movements to end the Palestinian-Israeli conflict could do worse than focus on the current situation in this city, the most populous in the West Bank.

Hebron is about a 45-minute drive south of Jerusalem, and it has a rich religious past. Muslims, Christians and Jews alike revere the city as the burial place of Abraham, Sarah, Jacob and Isaac. The tombs lie in the Ibrahimi Mosque, or the Cave of the Patriarchs, depending on one’s religious persuasion.

For centuries, a small Jewish minority coexisted with a Muslim majority, though Jews were allowed only to worship from the steps of the mosque. In 1929, the first modern wave of violence broke out when Muslims massacred 67 Jews. The British removed the Jewish community by the 1930s, though after the Israeli victory in the Six-Day War of 1967, some Jews decided to resettle the area. Since the 1970s, about 500 Jewish settlers, including many emigrants from the United States, occupy several city blocks downtown. In 1994, a Jewish settler from New York City, Baruch Goldstein, entered the mosque during Muslim morning prayers, killing 29 worshippers and wounding another 130 before he ran out of ammunition and was killed by the crowd. Bullet holes can still be seen inside the mosque.

After decades of such violence, the old fortress-like structure now has separate entrances for Jews and Muslims. Visitors must pass through two sets of security gates before attending worship. The two sides of the building come together at Abraham’s grave with windows for Muslims and Jews. Bulletproof glass divides them from one another. Outside the mosque, more than 125 separate checkpoints and other obstacles dot the city’s streets.

Following the 1994 massacre, Israel reluctantly agreed to a civilian observer mission (similar to a United Nations operation), led by Norway and including teams from Denmark, Italy, Switzerland, Sweden and Turkey. The Temporary International Presence in Hebron monitors developments in Palestinian-Jewish relations and submits periodic reports to Israel and the Palestinian Authority.

The 67 observers of TIPH have no policing authority. The observers make daily rounds armed only with brightly colored clothing and cameras. When they are not making rounds, they sleep, eat and work in a fortified compound that sits above the downtown. It is a dangerous job. Jewish settlers routinely spit at them and throw rocks. In 2002, Palestinian militants killed two TIPH observers.

Our group donned TIPH red ribbons and badges and explored the situation on foot. Accompanied by a Dane fluent in Arabic, and an Italian responsible for our security, we walked through the ancient Palestinian souk, or market. This used to be the most vibrant place in the city, but empty market stalls and streets met us much of the way. Some stalls sit directly below the settlements, and above them lay chain-link fences that protect the merchants and shoppers from rocks and other debris thrown by the settlers above. Jewish children threw dirt and pebbles at us as we walked below their homes. Guard towers staffed with Israeli military sat atop buildings at key corners. Merchants greeted us warmly, and then rushed to make new complaints to the TIPH staff.

We then moved through Israeli security to the settlement itself. Except for the armored personnel carriers and the soldiers, the streets were mostly empty. As they spotted our cameras, settlers’ cars sped past us. We passed signs, clearly designed for observers like us, that explain the settlers’ view of the world and their justification for resettling Hebron. We passed civilians in jeans and T-shirts patrolling the streets with M-16s. Some members of our group spoke to two settler girls, both with perfect American accents.

Any lasting peace between Israelis and Palestinians will have to account for settlements like this one. The Israeli government has turned a blind eye to them, and the Palestinians won’t accept them as a part of any final deal. President Obama’s peace talks in August 2010 were halted when Hamas militants in this city gunned down four settlers.

The peace process is not just a matter of exchanging a few acres of land, or of creating a secure environment for future populations. It is also about dividing people and places, one millimeter at a time. It does not leave one optimistic about any future peace.

(Chris Corley is one of 10 professors nationwide who were selected to visit Palestine for two weeks as part of the the Palestinian American Research Center’s seminar on Palestine.)

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