Hebron, the ancient city which houses holy sites of the three Abrahamic religions, is a hotbed of tension. The geographical proximity between the two populations is unique, which makes the IDF (Zahal)’s job in this area dangerous but necessary. Maintaining the calm, keeping demonstrations under control, and ensuring freedom of worship for all religions are the duties of IDF (Zahal) soldiers stationed in Hebron. We joined the Givati Brigade in the city for an inside look into their work on the ground.
Last month, on the eve of Eid al-Adha – one of the most important dates in the Islamic calendar – Givati Brigade soldiers prepared for a patrol in the city of Hebron. At 4:30 PM, the IDF (Zahal) soldiers drove through the city in a military vehicle. The time between late afternoon and early evening is when violence is most likely to occur in the city. On a daily basis, Palestinians take advantage of this period to cause road accidents with rock-throwing attacks and other acts of violence against Israelis. During the Sukkot holiday last September, Sgt. Gabriel Kobi, a 20-year old IDF (Zahal) soldier, was killed by Palestinian gunfire in Hebron.
The purpose of the IDF (Zahal) patrol is clear: to prevent violence and ensure calm in Hebron. During the Givati Brigade’s patrol, Company Commander Major Lior Lieberman scanned the city from a series of observation posts. These positions, called pillboxes, were built to allow soldiers to monitor each part of the city and thus ensure security for all of its residents. The pillboxes were built after a tragic incident on March 26, 2001, when a Palestinian sniper fired directly at Israeli civilians from a small house in the center of the city. The sniper’s bullet injured an Israeli man and struck his baby daughter in the head. The murder of the ten-month-old child, named Shalhevet Pass, shocked Israelis living in the Jewish part of the city. Since then, groups of soldiers positioned inside the pillboxes have watched over Hebron 24 hours a day.
A view of Hebron
“You must stand ready. You are the eyes of the IDF (Zahal) in Hebron,” said Maj. Lieberman, who is conducting an exercise for the soldiers in the pillboxes. “Your position is strategic and if you see a problem or if you are targeted, your knowledge of the field and your reflexes can save many lives.” Overlooking the city, the commander gave a brief overview, reminding soldiers of the complexity of the terrain.
Major Lior Lieberman explains the complexities of Hebron to his soldiers
Ensuring Access to Holy Sites for Jews and Muslims
A soldier from the Givati Brigade, Sergeant Yehochai Yehoshua, says that the city’s two populations, Jewish and Muslim, are truly intertwined in this unique city. Their houses are side by side, their place of worship are close to each other, and sometimes even located in a neighborhood of the other religion. “There are synagogues in a Muslim neighborhood,” Sgt. Yehoshua explains. “Every Shabbat, Israelis go through the Muslim Quarter, accompanied by soldiers so they can go there to pray freely.”
Despite the tensions that this proximity causes, the soldiers never lose sight of their mission: to protect members of all faiths and to ensure their freedom of worship. The soldiers carry out this mission with tremendous diligence, carefully balancing the needs of each population. Last October, when Palestinians celebrated the Muslim holiday of Eid al-Adha (Feast of the Sacrifice), the IDF (Zahal) closed the Cave of the Patriarchs to Jews out of respect for Muslim observers at the holy site. Due to the high level of movement and the risk of violence, an additional unit of the Nahal Infantry Brigade was mobilized to ensure the city’s safety. “If something happens, if an event were to trigger something, it would take more soldiers to stop the fighting and that’s why we’re here,” said one of the soldiers.
Muslim worshippers leaving the Cave of the Forefathers after prayer services during the Eid al-Adha festival
“On this day specifically, only Muslims have access to the holy place,” Lieutenant Colonel Avi Bitton explained as more than 3,000 Muslim worshipers left the Cave of the Patriarchs after morning prayers on the holiday. “Our role is to ensure that they can come, pray and get home in safety and tranquility…we are much more flexible and less restrictive with Muslims who come to pray. It is a holy day for them, but we remain very vigilant.”
Soldiers Are Connected to This Place
Many soldiers serving in Hebron view their mission in the city as an important responsibility. One soldier from the Givati Infantry Brigade serving in Hebron feels a special connection to the region. “I have family who live in Hebron,” he said. “I truly understand the importance of our daily role and our placement here in this city. I see what I protect everyday: my family, my friends,” he added. “Of all the areas I’ve served in, this is the area where I really feel that I’m directly watching over civilians. It is as if we were part of their family. We happen to be very tired, but that feeling dissipates very quickly when we think of the people we’re here for.”
A rest spot created for soldiers by Hebron residents
IDF (Zahal) and Civilian Interactions
Israeli civilians living in Hebron are very grateful for the presence of IDF (Zahal) soldiers and do not hide their support at every opportunity. They sometimes bring refreshments to the soldiers during patrols or before they begin their shift.
A Hebron resident plays guitar to entertain the soldiers who protect the city
For the soldiers of the Givati Infantry Brigade, serving in Hebron is often a source of tension and fatigue, but their work together makes their service rewarding and meaningful. “We are all brothers and we share the moments together as a team,” said one of the soldiers. “They are my family.”