Hebron is an extremely depressing town. Apart from East Jerusalem, it is the only Palestinian town on the West Bank under direct Israeli occupation. The town's centre is partitioned into an Israeli zone and a zone under Palestinian Authority administration. Both of these have substantial Palestinian majorities, but the Israeli sector is blessed by the presence of a couple of hundred Israeli settlers. These settlers are heavily armed, and are in turn protected by a large contingent of Israeli troops. In their sector, they typically occupy the upper stories of buildings, and are famed for their tendency to throw rubbish down on Palestinians making their way through the streets below.
The Israeli settlers in Hebron belong to the most hard-line section of Israeli society. Their most famous scion is perhaps Baruch Goldstein, who in 1994 made his way into a mosque during prayers and massacred 29 Palestinians before being overpowered and killed. Some argued at that stage that the Israeli government should have responded by evacuating his fellow settlers and then handing the entire town over to Palestinian administration. The Israeli government however demurred, leaving the settlers in place. This was perhaps the moment when people should have realised that the Oslo process would lead nowhere.
Israel's West Bank settlers are often religious nutters who claim a divine right to live anywhere in Biblical Israel. This is true of the Hebron settlers, but they also cite another justification for their presence in the town. Before the foundation of the state of Israel, Hebron also had a Jewish presence. In the British mandate period, increasing Jewish immigration to Palestine from those committed to political Zionism led to increasing tension. In 1929 in Hebron, many of the local Palestinians turned on their Jewish fellows. Many were killed (others survived, thanks to being sheltered by Palestinian neighbours and friends). The town remained unsafe for Jews until it was conquered by Israeli troops in 1967. The Hebron settlers claim that they are recreating the Jewish community that lived there before the riots.
One ironic feature of all this is that the actual Jewish survivors of the Hebron riots are far less solidly behind the settlers than one might imagine. It seems as though many of them back then were religiously Jewish but culturally Palestinian, often actively anti-Zionist in political outlook. Many of them and their descendants have retained something of this outlook, identifying more with the Palestinians in Hebron than with the Israeli settlers. While one would think that many would relish the opportunity to return to their ancestral home, a view expressed by many is that they could not return to Hebron until a just settlement with the Palestinians has been reached.
Long shadow of 1929 Hebron massacre (BBC)
Hebron Jews' offspring divided over city's fate (Jerusalem Post)