This weekend, thousands of Jewish settlers and their allies will descend on the Palestinian city of Hebron in a show of force that will also be seen as a warning to the government never to relinquish control of the city as part of a peace deal with the Palestinians.
The ostensible reason is that this is the Sabbath in the annual cycle of Torah readings when the story of the death of Sarah is read (Genesis, Chapter 23). Abraham, we are told, buys a field containing the Cave of Machpelah from Ephron the Hittite for 400 shekels as a family burial site. He himself is later interred there as are Isaac, Ishmael, Jacob, Rebecca and Leah. Today, a mosque stands over an earlier Herodian structure and a series of subterranean chambers. The city is considered holy to both Jews and Muslims.
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu sent a message of support ahead of the weekend, stating: "Our deep connection to Hebron, in permanent and temporary settlement, in the journeys of pilgrims and the longing of worshippers, never stopped and never ceased.
"The resumption of Jewish settlement in Hebron after the Six-Day War forged another link in the chain stretching across generations. The adherence of the sons in the 'city of the fathers' withstood the test of exile, and proof of this is the renewed and blossoming settlement in Hebron. ... I hope that the 'Hebron Shabbat,' with its thousands of participants, will deepen our connection to the city of our forefathers," Netanyahu wrote.
Netanyahu is being disingenuous at best. In peace talks currently underway between his government and the Palestinian Authority, there is no possible scenario under which the small and heavily-armed Jewish presence of 800 protected by the Israeli army in the center of a Palestinian city of 250,000 could remain.
No realistic iteration of the formula of a two-state solution based on the pre-1967 lines with land swaps allows for this. (See for instance the three detailed maps produced by the Washington Institute for Near East Policy on different possible land swaps.)
The city is divided into two sectors: H1, controlled by the Palestinian Authority and H2, roughly one fifth of the city, administered by Israel. There are frequent tensions, including the recent murder of an Israeli soldier by a sniper while he was guarding the Tomb of the Patriarchs.
Earlier this year, Palestinians were barred from using Shuhada Street, their principal commercial thoroughfare in H2. In recent years due to settler violence, half the Arab shops in H2 have gone out of business.
The Israeli human rights organization B'tselem says the presence of Israeli soldiers and police in the Hebron city center "brings with it violence, excessive and unjustified use of force, and abuse of the powers granted them by law. Violence, arbitrary house searches, seizure of houses, harassment, detaining passersby, and humiliating treatment have become part of daily reality for Palestinians and have led many of them to move to safer places."
In July 1983, when I was a Reuters correspondent based in Jerusalem, I covered an attack by gunmen on an Islamic college in Hebron in which three people were killed and 33 wounded, one in a long string of massacres over the decades in which both Arabs and Jews have been the victims.
The perpetrators of this particular attack, it later became clear, were members of a "Jewish underground" made up of settlers who plotted to blow up the mosques on the Temple Mount. Three were sentenced to life imprisonment but pardoned and released by Israel's then-President Chaim Herzog after serving only seven years. Fellow settlers hailed them on the day of their release as heroes.
This appeasement of violent extremism has been a constant thread in the attitude of successive Israeli governments to the settlers of Hebron over the years. Unfortunately, having sown the wind, one fears that Israel will reap the whirlwind when the time finally comes to confront them.
Certainly, Jewish worshippers should have the opportunity to pray at their holy sites, now and after the formation of a Palestinian state. But we should be clear that the heavily-armed zealots who have chosen to plant themselves in the center of Hebron will have to go.
By encouraging their ultranationalist delusions, Netanyahu is just making it more difficult for himself to make peace.