Hebron: The Street

A few months ago walking along Al-Shuhada street in Hebron on a Saturday morning, it was the Mizrahi Jew among us who was asked to stand against the wall and be patted down by security forces. It didn’t take long to be asked for our ID. Not far from there, a lineup of Palestinians was standing by a makeshift checkpoint across the road from the Old City waiting for approval from the Shin Bet security forces to authorize their right to walk across the street. They were eventually allowed through, but on other days they would have had to wait over an hour and pay the serveece driver more money than they have. In the Occupied Territories, one gets used to the military presence, but here, it’s as if their fingers are on the triggers of their Kalashnikovs.

They may not call it Apartheid, but it sure looks a lot like it.

Here, people talk about the "the land of our people," divine right and promised lands rather than peace or international law. It is the language that reigns here.

It’s a simulated reality – as if one is walking on a film set. It lacks authenticity, the kind of boisterous street life that should come naturally to a community and a city where life is normal.

In 2002 the Israeli army fenced off Al-Shuhada Street, not even allowing Palestinian children the right to cross the street to go to school. Gates were set up on the eastern exits to the city. All access to the Old City was left to two checkpoints, creating a barrier from East to West.

There are now plans to seize Palestinian rooftops and set up a new regulatory and permitting regime for residents of the Old City. The planned Wall through Hebron will connect with the Eastern Wall and will begin contruction in 2005.

The Christian Peacemaker Team, part of the official Temporary International Presence in Hebron, which has monitored the situation in Area H-2 since 1995 and have had some of their team on the receiving end of beatings while escorting Palestinians students to school concluded in a report, "Through the combined weight of Israeli settler violence, curfews, checkpoints and walling in the Old City, the two parts of Hebron are now almost completely separate…they [the Israeli government and settlers] want all of the Old City to be ‘the Jewish City of Hebron.’"

The extended periods of curfew have decimated the economy resulting in 2,500 small businesses closing down in the Old City and the adjacent economic zone. Over 5,000 workers lost their jobs, thousands left Hebron and unemployment now stands at 70%.

4,000 Israeli soldiers are required to protect the 500 settlers in the four Israeli settlements in Hebron’s Old City. The nearby settlement of Kiryat Arba has 7,200 residents. The Arab population is now approximately 120,000.

The written history of Hebron can be traced back to 1720 BCE when it is believed that Abraham purchased the Cave of the Patriarchs as burial place for his wife Sarah. It is also believed that the Biblical patriarchs and matriarchs are buried at this site. Hebron served as David’s first capital. It was primarily inhabited by Muslim Arabs following the arrival of Islam, although it has always had a Jewish presence throughout its history including the arrival of Jews from Spain in 1492. The Arabs and the Jews lived in coexistence in Hebron for centuries, sharing the Arabic language and local customs.

In the 1920’s following waves of Jewish immigration after the First and Second Aliyahs, rumours reached Hebron that Jews were killing Arabs. This growing incitement led to the Hebron massacre where 67 Jews were killed and the Jewish community was driven from Hebron. In 1931, a small group returned but was transferred out by the British in 1936.

In 1968, following the 1967 Israeli Occupation of the West Bank and Gaza Strip, a group of thirty Israeli Jews pretending to be tourists celebrated Passover at the Park Hotel in downtown Hebron under the guidance of fundamentalist Rabbi Moshe Levinger with the hopes of re-establishing a Jewish presence. Then Defense Minister Moshe Dayan ordered their evacuation, but they resettled on a military base which became the first post-Occupation Israeli settlement of Kiryat Arba. Dayan later described his approval of the settlement as the greatest mistake in his career. Only one member of the previous Jewish community supported the establishment of the new fundamentalist settlement which was distinct from the original Jewish presence in the City.

Hebron became a stronghold for extremists in the settler movement due to its religious significance. Gush Emunim (‘Bloc of the Faithful’) and semi-underground organizations such as Kach and Kahane Chai (‘Kahane Lives’) played a major role in building settlements in Hebron including building support for Israeli government subsidies. The leaders of these movements were heavily influenced by Rabbi Avraham Yitzhak Kook, the founder of Yeshiva Merkaz ha-Rav where many of the leaders of the original settlement lobby were educated and developed their support for ‘Eretz Yisrael’ – a Greater Israel incorporating Judea and Samaria, the present West Bank. While settlements in general are a controversial topic amongst Israelis and Palestinians, the radicalism of Hebron’s settlers further escalated the tensions. The settlement lobby became affiliated with the Israeli right including the National Religious Party and Likud.

In 1983, individuals affiliated with Gush Emunim carried out an attack against an Islamic college in Hebron, had attempted the assassinations of three West Bank mayors and had detailed plans to blow up the Dome of the Rock on Jerusalem’s Temple Mount complex.

Rabbi Moshe Levinger, who initiated the first settlement in Hebron once said, "This town will become yet again a Jewish city. Tens of thousands of Jews will be living there within the next ten to twenty years."

In 1994, Dr. Baruch Goldstein, a former Brooklyn doctor and Kach member, killed 29 Palestinian Muslims in the Ibrahimi Mosque and injured 125 others. Although there was no evidence that Kach was involved in the attack, both they and Kahane Chai were designated as terrorist organizations and had their offices closed.

In 1995, Yitzhak Rabin made overtures to dismantle the settlements in Hebron as part of a final status agreement before being assassinated. In 1996, new Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu signed the Hebron Protocol with Yasser Arafat which divided the city into Palestinian controlled H-1 and H-2, which included the Old City under Israeli control.

Israel, even since the Oslo Accords, have applied four different methods of land seizure in the Occupied Territories according to the Alternative Information Center report, "Occupation in Hebron,": the seizure of land for military needs, the designation of land as ‘state land,’ the designation of land as ‘absentee property,’ and expropriation of land for ‘public needs.’ Since 1993, Israel allocated $200,000 for the construction of additional floors in the settlement of Beit Romano and $3,000,000 in September 1998 in Tel Rumeida to accomodate 75 illegal settlers, all in violation of international law.

Since the Israeli Occupation in 1967, Israel has followed the Fourth Geneva Convention and has regularly invoked clauses for ‘security needs’ including the imposition of curfews and home demolitions.

Hebron has been under curfew for over 320 days since the recent outbreak of violence in 2000. Even the World Bank has cited these kinds of movement restrictions as one of the main contributing factors to the economic situation in Hebron. 74 homes in Hebron were demolished between September 2000 and April 2003 for ‘security needs.’

What is perhaps most revealing is the settlers preferential status before the law. Palestinians living in the Occupied Territories live under a system of military law which is far stricter than the Israeli penal code which applies to settlers. This has resulted in disproportionate sentences between settlers and Palestinians. As well, there are legitimate concerns on the part of Palestinians that the military is there to protect the interests of settlers first and foremost. From the Palestinian vantage point, it is as if they get fear instead of justice.

In 2002, extremists in Islamic Jihad killed nine Israeli soldiers in Kiryat Arba. Ariel Sharon, known as the father of the settlements, responded with a plan to build a wall and to reduce the Palestinians in the Israeli controlled section of Hebron from 45,000 to 2,000. A recent suicide bombing in Beer Sheva was carried out by a Hebron resident. Any Palestinian response, especially one of violence by the extremists is met with a hardline Israeli response which makes the situation worse.

What to do – suffer the daily humiliations of checkpoints, of harassment, of not being allowed to walk across the street, of having your freedom taken away and then to endure the responses of the military when one of your own resorts to violence.

This is the Palestinian dilemma.

Desperate, helpless, unable to act. This kind of collective punishment is dehumanizing for those who want a just peace.

Al-Shuhadah Street has the kind of story, the pathos, the metaphor and the collective damage that this conflict metes out in its daily humiliations. It’s the story that needs to solved.

There won’t be peace between the Israelis and the Palestinians until there is peace in places like Hebron.