The Myths and Facts of One Palestinian Town's Jewish Origins

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Locals gather in Yatta. Everyone points out the tree to which his grandfather tied his camel and the cave in which his ancestors lived.Credit: Eduardo Soteras Jalil

Are the members of the Makhamra hamula (extended family) of Jewish origin? It’s not the first time that Israelis are asking inhabitants of Yatta that question. It was the first village that Israel linked to the electricity and water infrastructure after the 1967 occupation, it was said, because of the presumed Jewish origin. Thanks to that it was also the first village on the West Bank declared a town by Israel, in 1971.

Last week the question was asked in connection with the murder of four Israelis in the Sarona entertainment complex in Tel Aviv by two members of the same Yatta hamula. Abu Khalil, the local historian, smiled tiredly and waved his hand dismissively. Makhamra, in the plural, comes from the name Mkhaymer. Because of the similarity to the name Khaybar (an oasis in Saudi Arabia where the Jewish tribes lived) people concluded that Mkhaymer is a distortion.

But the early ancestor Mkhaymer was born about 300 years ago in Yatta, to a father named Awwad and a mother who was the daughter of Rashad al-Hush. It’s true that in 1927 Yitzhak Ben Zvi visited Yatta and met with several of the village elders, and that they told him that there’s a family whose founding father many generations ago was Jewish, and that’s the Makhamra family. There’s no proof of that, says Abu Khalil, but from then on they started writing about a lost Jewish family in Yatta.

Awwad’s father was bald and tough, he continued. They said he killed an entire family in Yatta. They said that his heart was coarse. Here, with an apologetic smile, Abu Khalil added: “Excuse me, but here we say of Jews that their heart is coarse. Maybe that’s also a reason why the family was said to be of Jewish origin.”

We were introduced by a B’Tselem researcher, Nasser Nawaja from [the Palestinian village] Susya, the same Susya community that Israel has already expelled once and destroyed their village three times, and is ready to continue to demolish, as it did this Sunday to three structures.

2012 | Yatta Village, near Hebron. Palestinian youths scavenge for scrap at a landfill, in the hope of selling it for a small profit. They are wearing Israeli police shirts found in the trash.Credit: Nir Kafri

Nasser Rabia, a director in Yatta’s municipality, didn’t get into the question of the historical reliability of the claim and its opposite. He only said drily that the village of Dura was declared a town even before Yatta, in 1968, and that the infrastructure is not in great condition.

We won’t get into the discussion as to which genealogical theory is correct, due to the meager means at our disposal. And anyway, I wanted to write about my frustration after an entire day in the area (and there are such days every day). The space allocated to a journalistic report cannot contain everything that was collected and should be reported and told. The news sifts out what doesn’t serve it. And what does the news care that every Palestinian who speaks to an Israeli journalist leaves a deposit with her. A deposit of trust, of expectation that their self-evident humanity will also reach the Israeli reader.

And every Palestinian who speaks to an Israeli journalist assumes that at least all the deeds of the Israeli army will be spelled out in full and with complete accuracy – because otherwise it’s impossible to understand what it means to live under Israeli violence day after day, year after year. (Question: And if the Israelis did read all the details, from the beginning, would they have understood, and therefore opposed, their military domination of another people? Answer: No. It’s not a question of information and knowledge, but of self-interest and profit. Question: So why write? Answer: Because what else do I know to do?)

And that’s how we went from one house broken into by soldiers with cocked rifles, to the next one. The sights and the stories are similar, it’s impossible to tell about every house. One grandmother, in the Jabour house, said tactfully: “It’s not the worst thing, I know, for the Syrians it’s harder.” But the terror is still evident in the wide-open eyes of her toddler granddaughters.

The Beit Fajjar junction (Gush Etzion) was blocked that Monday morning: A settler demonstration or marathon. So I drove by instinct (I had forgotten the map at home) on narrow country roads. Once USAID, the United States government assistance program, urged the Palestinian Authority to post signs on the sides of the roads, with the names of the villages. Not in Area C, God forbid. Only in enclaves A and B. The project, which was announced at the time with great fanfare, apparently didn’t reach the Hebron area. I drove inside the villages and didn’t know their names. I identified the town of Sa’ir by the family names on the shop signs. Shalalda, for example.

Luckily, people were standing at the shop entrances and directing the drivers, who didn’t seem familiar with the road. “Here ya uncle you have to go down a narrow alley, here ya haja you turn east, before going south.” It’s so Palestinian. Who needs signs?

In Yatta itself, on the ring road that gradually turns into a marketplace, an off-road vehicle attached itself to my little car. I remembered that we were in Ramadan and that the drivers, deprived of smoking since the morning, are more irritable and dangerous than usual. I moved to the right so they would pass. But the two in the car stopped and said: “We’re journalists like you. We only wanted to make sure that you didn’t get lost.”

Moi? Get lost? Afterwards I saw them on their return from one of the houses in which IDF soldiers had left behind frightened toddlers. We waved like old acquaintances.

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