HEBRON, West Bank -- At the Tomb of the Patriarchs, Jews pray in a small, cramped sanctuary whose walls are adorned with the graceful script of Arabic calligraphy. On the other side of a partition in the same shrine, Muslims pray in a mosque atop the cave believed by worshipers of both faiths to be the burial place of Abraham.
Like this holy place, Hebron is a city divided by faith and nationality. Other than Jerusalem, this city -- where Jews say their history began -- is the most disputed territory on the road to peace. Other than Jerusalem, no other city within Israel and the West Bank and the Gaza Strip has a history as significant to the religions that govern its people.
And no other city has as much potential to thwart a peace process already in trouble.
The violent clashes of two weeks ago have forced Israel and its Palestinian partners back to the negotiating table to try to salvage their peace. The issues involving Hebron -- a city of 150,000 Palestinians and 400 Jewish settlers -- are before them.
Israel has already agreed to withdraw most of its troops from Hebron, to carry out a promise to turn over control of eight West Bank cities to the Palestinians. But after a series of terrorist attacks killed dozens of Israelis last spring, the government of former Prime Minister Shimon Peres twice postponed the pullout and left the matter for his successor.
Benjamin Netanyahu, elected with the help of the religious settler movement, has wanted changes in the Hebron pact to ensure the safety of Hebron's Jewish settlers and the 6,000 others who live in the nearby settlement of Kiryat Arba. The settlers hold an ideological attachment to this city in the hills. And so do Arabs.
It begins at the beginning, with the father of the Jews -- Abraham, whom Arabs also consider to be their ancestral patriarch.
While traveling from ancient Bethel, Abraham bought a field in which there was a cave. Tradition holds that Abraham, Isaac, Jacob and their wives are buried in the Tomb of the Patriarchs, now in the center of Hebron. Later, King David for a time had his royal court here. In the time of King Herod, a monumental shrine was built over the cave.
Later still, the Romans conquered the city and plundered it. During the Byzantine era, a church was added to the shrine. After Arab armies conquered the land in the 7th century, they converted the church into a mosque; Hebron would become one of the sacred cities of Islam.
The Crusaders took the city in 1100, and once again the shrine -- as well as a nearby synagogue -- became a church and monastery. Other conquerors would follow. In 1266 the Mameluks, the newest rulers of the area, banned Jews from the interior of the shrine, restricting them to praying on a stairway leading to the sanctuary. The ban remained in effect until the 20th century.
At the start of the 20th century, 1,500 Jews lived in Hebron. In August 1929, Arab rioters nearly destroyed the Jewish community. The British, the rulers of Palestine, offered little help. Some Arabs rescued their Jewish neighbors, but by the end of the violence 67 Jews were dead and 60 others injured.
When Israel was established in 1948, Hebron and the rest of the West Bank came under Jordan's control. Jews were able to return to Hebron only after Israel's victory in the 1967 Six-Day War, with Israel's capture of the territory.
In 1968, religious Jews forced their way into the shrine, then in use as a mosque. The Israeli government declared the area a Jewish place of worship. It posted separate prayer times for Jews and Muslims.
A movement to resettle Jews in the city and the nearby countryside began in earnest. A fundamentalist rabbi, Moshe Levinger, led the drive. In 1971, the settlement of Kiryat Arba took shape on the hillsides above the city. Four years later, Levinger's wife and others staged a sit-in to reclaim a building in the center of Hebron that had been owned by Jews until 1929. The government acceded to their demands, despite protests from the Arab population.
The Jewish settlers' push into Hebron set the stage for violent confrontations. The murder of a Jewish yeshiva student in the Arab marketplace provoked Jewish attacks on Arabs. In 1980, an Arab ambush killed six Jews. In retaliation, a Jewish underground planted car bombs that badly injured the mayors of Hebron and other West Bank cities.
Confrontations continued through 1987-1993, the years of the Palestinian uprising. The Jewish settlement in the city expanded, and Israeli army roadblocks and guard posts expanded with it. At the same time, the city became fertile ground for the militant Islamic group Hamas.
Storefronts and buildings within the Arab sector began to bear the mark of the increasing tensions -- in the form of Stars of David and anti-Arab slogans. Israeli security concerns led to closure of the Arab produce market, adjacent to the rebuilt Jewish community.