A young Israeli soldier kicks a small rubber ball to two Palestinian boys in the West Bank city of Hebron, his machine gun slapping gently against his back as he moves. His fellow soldiers smoke and play cards nearby. Men in long flowing robes and white headscarves pass boys riding donkeys, tiny Palestinian shops loaded with film and souvenirs, and stores whose doorways are filled with bulging sacks of colored spices and grains.
Just beyond the soldiers sits an immense, foreboding buildingone of its two entrances is guarded by Palestinian soldiers, the other by Israelis. Its called the Mosque of Abraham or the Tomb of the Patriarchs, depending on whos speaking, and inside are massive stones marking the supposed burial sites of Abraham and Sarah. Concrete walls enclose the tombstones. Muslims and Jews can view them through a set of iron bars, but only from separated parts of the building. The structure was bisected in 1994 after a Jewish settler, an American, entered the building and killed 49 Palestinians preparing to celebrate the Muslim holy month of Ramadan.
The Israeli soldiers are also in Hebron, a Palestinian-controlled city of about 140,000, to guard Jewish settlers who live down the street in a compound distinctive for its brand-new buildings and the barbed wire that surrounds it. "Five hundred soldiers are here to guard 30 settler families," according to Bourke Kennedy, a member of the Christian Peacemaker Team in Hebron. The Jewish settlement is one of four in the Hebron district; roughly 6,000 Jewish settlers live in two settlements on the citys outskirts. Because of their political and symbolic importance, settlements such as these have been targetsand impetusfor Hamas and other Palestinian groups who have resisted the Israeli occupation with violence.