Hebron (al Khalil), 30 km. south of Jerusalem, is the West Bank’s largest city with a population of some 200,000 Palestinians. As I recount in Israeli and Palestinian Voices: A Dialogue with Both Sides, it is also home to approximately 500 Orthodox Jewish settlers, many of whom are from Brooklyn, New York. They are protected by some 2000 Israeli soldiers, 140 border police and anywhere from between 30 to 50 police officers.
The city contains one of the most important sites to Jews and Muslims alike. It is home to the Tomb of the Patriarchs, also known as the Ibrahimi Mosque, where, according to biblical tradition, Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, and their wives, Leah, Rebecca and Sarah are believed to be buried.
Israel’s current restrictions on the Old City of Hebron date back to 1994 when the Israeli-American doctor Baruch Goldstein massacred 29 Muslims and wounded 150 while they were praying in the Ibrahimi Mosque during Ramadan. Following the massacre, then Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, during his first term as Israel’s Prime Minister, divided the city into H1 under Palestinian control and H2 under full Israeli control with the caveat that the Israeli Army could enter H1 at any time to arrest Palestinians.
In keeping with Israel’s policy of “blaming the victim,” Palestinians living in H2 were placed under curfew for weeks following the massacre while armed settlers were allowed to roam the empty streets freely. Some 512 Palestinian businesses in H2, roughly 75 percent of all commercial establishments, were closed and welded shut under the pretext of offering security to the settlers living in the busy commercial artery. An additional 1000 businesses were closed under “restricted access policies.”These brazen acts pushed more than 77 percent of the Palestinians living in the Old City into poverty. Hebron’s main Shuhada Street was also closed to Palestinian vehicles and pedestrians and the Ibrahimi Mosque was partitioned into Muslim and Jewish areas.
In total, there are over 120 obstacles to Palestinian movement designed to segregate “restricted areas” (settlements and anywhere settlers walk) from the rest of the city, including 18 permanent manned military checkpoints whose job it is to harass Palestinians and that includes children on their way to school who routinely suffer the indignation of having their book bag contents strewn over the road and trampled on before being allowed to retrieve them and continue on to school. Christian Peace Maker Team members often accompany children to school in an effort to provide some sense of security in an otherwise hostile environment.
Any street in downtown Hebron that leads anywhere near an Israeli settlement is off limits to Palestinian foot traffic. (Palestinians are forbidden to drive cars anywhere in H2). Access restrictions imposed by the Israeli authorities in H2 (the 20% of Hebron under Israeli control) are compounded by systematic harassment by Israeli settlers which has resulted in the displacement of thousands of Palestinians and the deterioration of living conditions including a lack of basic services, delivery of water restricted to a few hours weekly, no sanitation facility, and no access to emergency health services without a permit, to name but a few.
The Israeli authorities justify the restrictions imposed on the Palestinian population as the only way to protect the Israeli settlers and allow them to lead normal lives even though the settlements in the heart of Hebron, as are all other Israeli settlements, illegal under international law.
In the market place in the old city, Palestinians have been forced to install overhead metal screens to protect their alleyways from rocks, garbage, urine, and often times feces, thrown on them by the Israeli settlers living above the market place in homes they have confiscated from Palestinian families. The screens do not protect visitors, however, from the vile verbal abuses shouted down at them by the settlers.
On a very recent visit, our group was followed by Israeli soldiers whose job it was to harass us. At one point our guide was stopped and threatened with arrest because he was walking on the side of the street reserved for Israeli settler-use only.
There are serious gaps in the enforcement of the rule of law on Israeli settlers involved in violence and intimidation against Palestinians. Incidents include acts of vandalism, burning homes and in one instance causing the death of a small child, physical attacks, verbal abuse and stone throwing at children on their way to school.
Today, some twenty two years later, the extremist settlers of Hebron remain firmly entrenched with the full support of the Israeli government and its military.
Other stories on the daily lives of Palestinians living under almost 50 years of Israeli military occupation can be found in my book Israeli and Palestinian Voices: A Dialogue with Both Sides, now in its third edition.
The book is available for purchase here: