Thousands of people packed the city of Hevron and adjacent Kiryat Arba yesterday for the annual "Shabbat Chayei Sarah" pilgrimage.
Israeli pilgrims mingled with visitors from abroad including organized tour groups from Americans for a Safe Israel (AFSI) and other Jewish and pro-Israel groups, in a festive, picnic-like atmosphere.
However, tensions were palpable as well, only a month after Staff Sergeant Gal (Gabriel) Kobi was shot by a sniper from the Palestinian Authority- controlled sections of the city.
On Friday, as the festivities were getting under way, seven members of a self-described leftist "anti-occupation" group were arrested for holding an illegal gathering and creating a provocation, at a small demonstration opposing the presence of Jews in Hevron.
People set up tents on the grass in front of the Cave of Machpela (Tomb of the Patriarchs) - one of Judaism's holiest sites - with many visitors noting that the amount of tents far exceeded previous years. Volunteers served food and drink for the visitors.
Throughout Friday and Saturday armed soldiers stood watch on street corners. Many of the visitors and residents greeted them by saying "Shabbat Shalom," "thank you" and handing them cakes and cookies.
The Hall of Isaac inside the Cave complex, which is normally opened only to Muslims, was open to Jewish worshippers in honor of the event. People also visited the ancient Abraham Spring mikvah (ritual immersion pool), local olive trees, estimated at several thousands of years old, and the old neighborhoods where the Jewish community lived before the 1929 massacre, during which the ancient community was ethnically-cleansed by Arab mobs.
The weekly Torah reading of Chayei Sarah describes the Biblical patriarch Abraham’s purchase of the Machpelah Cave in Hevron as a burial site for his wife Sarah.
According to Jewish tradition, Abraham, Sarah, their son Yitzchak (Isaac) and his wife Rivka (Rebecca), and Yaakov (Jacob) and his wife Leah are all buried in the cave. In addition, some traditions say Adam and Eve are buried there as well. The giant fortress was built by King Herod the Great and covers and underground double-cave where the tombs are located.
The following is a small slice of the scenes and sights on the Friday afternoon as the sun started to set just before Shabbat Chayei Sarah began.
All photos by Ben Bresky.