In the winter of 1974, the newspaper Al-Fajr published a cartoon showing the mayor of Hebron, Sheik Mohammed Ali el-Ja’abari, with a slipper stuffed in his mouth. Ja’abari, the all-powerful mayor of Hebron at the time, a friend of Defense Minister Moshe Dayan and of King Hussein of Jordan, was the one who, four years earlier, had allowed the establishment of the Jewish neighborhood in Kiryat Arba. His close relationship with the Israeli administration became a thorn in the sides of Palestinian nationalists.
The editor of Al-Fajr at the time was Yusuf (Joe) Nasser. For the sheik’s loyalists, the cartoon was the straw that broke the camel’s back. Veteran journalist Danny Rubinstein, who covered the Palestinian territories for the newspaper Davar at the time, recalled this week how, at a conference that Ja’abari attended, an elderly man stood up and called out, “Don’t worry, your Excellency – we will bring you the decapitated head of Yusuf Nasser on a tray of food.” Several days later, Yusuf Nasser disappeared from his home on Salah a-Din Street in east Jerusalem and was never seen again. Although the people suspected in the kidnapping, Ja’abari’s men, were arrested and interrogated, they were released due to lack of evidence.
Thirty-seven years later, as the Palestinians advocate in the U.N. for a state of their own, the mythical sheik's successor, his nephew Sheik Farid Khader el-Ja’abari, faces a similar test. This time, it is not an insulting cartoon at issue, but a more serious matter. The Al-Aqsa Martyrs Brigades, Fatah’s military wing, has made open threats on his life. The reason is the sheik’s firm statements against the Oslo Accords and the idea of establishing a Palestinian state, and his close ties with the settlers of Hebron and Kiryat Arba. The Al-Aqsa Martyrs Brigades has demanded that Ja’abari retract his statements. Those loyal to the sheikh, who has hundreds of armed men at his service, are seething with anger, but the 63-year-old has ordered everyone to show restraint.
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Sometimes restraint is power, and sometimes it is not. Five years ago, the Palestinian police killed Mohammed Ja’abari, 17, a member of the Ja’abari clan, by mistake. The sheik asked that the shooter be turned over to him. The Palestinian Authority demurred. That night, his people raided a building belonging to Force 17 in Hebron, torching 14 jeeps and capturing 34 Palestinian police officers. Only after Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas contacted Ja’abari and pleaded for a sulha [a formal ceremony of reconciliation] were the police officers released. The PA, which declared the young man a shahid [martyr], continues to pay a salary to his family to this day.
“A state contradicts Islam”
Ja’abari, one of the strong men in the Hebron region today, heads a clan of approximately 35,000 people. The proud descendant of an old tribal-religious line, he is known as al-Hut al-Abiad – “the white whale” – a nickname that stuck because of the white robe that he often wears. Ja’abari’s connections and influence extend far and wide: from the settlers, the Civil Administration and the IDF to officials of the Palestinian Authority, Hamas and the jihadist organizations. His opinions and worldview are hard to label. On the one hand, in recent years he has become the ally of the settlers and of the state of Israel. On the other, he is one of the most vigorous opponents of the establishment of a Palestinian state, but not for the reason that the settlers oppose it. Rather, he opposes it for the same reason that Hamas and Islamic Jihad do: Ja’abari believes that it is tantamount to treason and territorial concessions, which Islam strictly forbids.
The latest conflict between Ja’abari and the Palestinian Authority took place over statements that he made several weeks ago at the end of a meal marking the conclusion of Ramadan. The statements barely made waves at the time, perhaps because they were published in the Israeli press only on the Arutz Sheva website [a media outlet associated with the settlement movement], but in Hebron and in the Arab media, they spread like wildfire.
“A Palestinian state,” said the sheik, “has no basis to exist here. Perhaps in Jordan, but not in Israel. It has no land in reality; the Jews will not erase a single chapter from the Torah, and the Muslims will not erase a single verse from the Koran. This is holy soil, and we must not sell it or give it up in negotiations or in return for compensation. The governments of Israel made a mistake in that instead of talking with the sheikhs, they talked with the leaders from Tunis. Before Oslo, all the heads of Palestinian families met and sent a delegation led by Khaider Abu Shafi, but Israel laughed at them and met with the PLO without their knowledge. Israel did not contact the real leadership, which knows the street and the Palestinian population. All the political organizations – Hamas, Fatah and the Popular Front – are no more than 5 percent of the Palestinian people."
"Recognition of a Palestinian state violates Islam. Even if the government should evacuate all the settlements, there will not be peace ... Oslo was a catastrophe for the Palestinian side as well. If only we might have stayed in the time before Oslo. Then the situation was better economically. Today, there is more than 40 percent unemployment ... In principle, we are a conservative society. Now there is no conservatism. There is nothing at all.”
The response to these statements was not long in coming. In a flier that they issued, Al-Aqsa Martyrs Brigades accused Ja’abari of making light of the basic rights of the Palestinians, who had made many sacrifices. His statements against the Palestinian Authority and in favor of the settlers were made out to be more extreme. Al-Aqsa Martyrs Brigades demanded that Ja’abari’s relatives distance themselves from the sheik and condemn his statements. They warned that anyone who published an opposing opinion “would find the barrels of our rifles stronger than he or his response ... We declare that the man Farid Khader el-Ja’abari is under our surveillance step by step, and if he does not retract, our response will be made with guns ... We will not hesitate to take revenge upon all those who betray the Palestinian issue.”
A man of “not one inch”
Ja’abari is not to be underestimated. He is no pet Arab or pet sheik. The constant dialogue that he holds with the army and with the Jews in Hebron are motivated by a well-thought-out religious doctrine. Approximately two weeks ago, we spoke with a contact person and asked to interview him. He agreed, but after a threat from Al-Aqsa Martyrs Brigades, the interview was “temporarily postponed.”
Nevertheless, we decided to write to him both because he is a major figure in Palestinian life in Judea and Samaria and because his conflict with the PA is taking place as the PA is working at the U.N. to declare a Palestinian state, which Ja’abari sees as a disaster.
He is a man of “not one inch.” He calls Mahmoud Abbas, who “chatters about dividing the country,” a crook, and says that he has no authority. Ja’abari is not willing to give up “even a millimeter of sacred soil,” not only in Judea and Samaria, but also “in Jerusalem, in Ramle, in Lod and in Haifa.” On the other hand, Ja’abari is a man of honor and of coexistence and practicality, a firm opponent of terrorism and violence who supports dialogue and discourse as values in themselves. Regarding the Jewish presence in Hebron, he says, “It is an indisputable historical fact, and so we must find a way to live with each other.”
How can the contradiction be resolved? How can an ideology held in common with Hamas about the “wholeness of the land” and an alliance with the settlers, who wish to wrest the land from Islam’s power and make it Jewish, live side by side?
One of the sheik’s close associates, a constant visitor to his home, tries to explain. “The sheik is a man of truth and is not willing to participate in games of war and peace. The sheik’s truth is based upon the Koran, which forbids giving up Islamic land, period. One who gives up even a centimeter of it – his blood be upon his own head. Therefore, the formula of evacuating settlements is nonsense. It will solve nothing. In the same breath, the sheik also remembers the statements of the Prophet Muhammad, who said that if the enemy wished for silam (half-peace), half-peace could be made with him, a kind of hudna (temporary cease-fire), until you become stronger and can defeat him."
“The sheik says: I walk in the way of Islam and combine religion with pragmatism and humanity. He understands that Israel is a fact that cannot be changed, and says: I want to live with the people here in mutual respect. I will help them and I will protect them, and they will help me and protect me. In the end, the Messiah will come. If our Mahdi comes first, all the Jews will become Muslim. If the Messiah of the Jews comes first, we will all become Jews.”
Compromise and dialogue
The sheik has been putting his unique worldview into practice for several years. Statesmen and generals from both peoples come to see him. He spends most of his time in arbitration and mediation between Arabs and Arabs and between Jews and Arabs. In 1978, he left the country to become a successful contractor in Saudi Arabia. Two years later, his uncle, Sheik Mohammed Ja’abari, the mayor of Hebron, died, but only in 1994 did he accede to his family’s command, returning to take up the reins of the tribe.
Dialogue groups that include Rabbi Yaakov Meidan of Gush Etzion, Noam Arnon of Hebron and Malachi Levinger of Kiryat Arba have been started in his home near the Cave of the Patriarchs. When Eliakim Haetzni was wounded in a road accident, Ja’abari visited him in the hospital. And when an Arab contractor who built in Elazar tried to “sting” his customer by demanding an astronomical price, the Jewish party contacted Ja’abari, who brokered a compromise between them. Israeli Arabs also contact him, and Civil Administration and IDF officials see him as the go-to person when they have a local problem that needs solving. He is considered one of three clerics in Israel and in the territories who have the power to stop blood feuds, which are still customary in some segments of Muslim and Bedouin society.
The anarchists who operated in Hebron almost drove him out of his mind with anger. He saw them as instigators and troublemakers, and also as a danger to Islam because of their permissive ways and immodest manner of dress. The Jews of Hebron did not like the anarchists in Hebron for exactly the same reasons, and so an unusual cooperation took place that led to the placing of an Arabic-speaking Jewish modesty observer in the streets of the city.
On the Jewish New Year five years ago, Ja’abari put out a large conflagration. The Palestinian landlord on which the Hazon David tent synagogue was erected in Kiryat Arba was about to give the anarchists power of attorney to evacuate the settlers from it by force. This was supposed to take place at the height of the New Year holiday. Ja’abari scuttled the plan. His actions astonished the army, which had tried to evacuate the outpost from the privately-owned Palestinian lot dozens of times. Then came the well-publicized meeting with the settlers in the sheikh’s home, which was attended by additional Arab dignitaries and the brigade commander of Hebron. The Jewish community in Kiryat Arba gave the sheikh its own certificate of appreciation.
The sheikh’s intervention led to a solution to the water problem in the Givat Ha'Avot neighborhood in Kiryat Arba. A pipe to the neighborhood was supposed to pass through privately-owned Palestinian land. The Palestinian Authority threatened the land owner, warning him not to allow the pipe to go through his land. Once again Ja’abari intervened, and an agreement between the land owner and the Jewish community stipulated that the residents of the nearby Arab neighborhood would also benefit from the water that flowed through the pipe. Instead of everybody losing, everybody won.
One of the best-known stories in Hebron, which made a strong impression on the Arab residents and showed that the relationship between the Jews of Hebron and Ja’abari’s people had become a kind of covenant, took place several months ago.
Amir el-Ja’abari, a 16-year-old youth of the Ja’abari clan, quarreled with a youth from the Zreir family and was stabbed in the throat. The injured youth, who lost a great deal of blood, was taken to Al-Ahli Hospital in Hebron, but his condition deteriorated rapidly. His family decided to transfer him to an Israeli hospital. The Civil Administration opposed it, but the medical staff of Kiryat Arba joined in the mission. At a certain stage, a military ambulance sped after the ambulance of Kiryat Arba after it received an order from the Civil Administration to return him to the Palestinian hospital. The Kiryat Arba ambulance ignored the order, bypassed the IDF checkpoint and sped toward Soroka Hospital. When hospital officials discovered the patient’s identity, the youth was at death’s door and about to undergo cranial surgery. The hospital demanded a financial guarantee of payment. Within an hour, the sheikh transferred NIS 58,000 to Soroka Hospital. The youth underwent a difficult operation on his brain from which he never recovered. He died three days later.
What sets the Ja’abari clan apart from the rest of the Palestinians in Hebron is their tribal loyalty. The Ja’abaris have thousands of armed “representatives” in Hamas and in the PA’s security services, but their tribal loyalty takes precedence over all other loyalties, and the sheikh’s word is considered sacred.
When Ja’abari returned to Israel in 1994 and took up the reins, the Palestinian Authority entered the area as well. They were two parallel lines that had difficulty meeting. The clerk with the insignia represented the Palestinian Authority. The sheikh represented the tribal authority. After Al-Aqsa Martyrs Brigades threatened his life, the sheikh kept silence. Several days later, representatives of Al-Aqsa Martyrs Brigades came to his door, swearing that the flier was a forgery. The sheikh investigated. He did not believe them. Now, there is a tense quiet between the two sides.
What will he do if a Palestinian state ends up being established after all? His close associates say that if Israel supports it, he will resign himself to its existence, “as he resigned himself to the existence of the Palestinian Authority, all of whose power and existence," he says, "depend on Israel. If Israel does not support the PA,” the sheik tells his close associates, “the PA will not last more than two hours. It will be swept quickly from the streets.”
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