Under the gun in Hebron


On a recent day in Hebron, the normally crowded market streets of the Israeli-controlled old city were empty. A four-man patrol of Israeli soldiers, fanned out with guns at the ready, navigated the alleyways in silence past shuttered Arab storefronts that Israeli settlers had covered in graffiti. “Hebron is a Jewish city,” read one, below a sloppily-painted Star of David. Along Shuhada Street, the old city’s main thoroughfare, a young settler in wraparound sunglasses pushed a stroller through the unnatural quiet, past an idling military jeep. Nearby, a group of heavily-armed settlers stood guard along with soldiers outside the Ibrahimi Mosque (known to Jews as the Cave of Machpela), a site sacred to both Muslims and Jews. Inside the building’s cool stone walls, settlers set down their M-16s to read the Torah and pray.

Meanwhile, the old city’s Palestinians were under a 10-day, round-the-clock curfew, a measure frequently imposed by the authorities and designed to separate the city’s 450 settlers — who live in fortress-like settlements in the heart of the Old City, guarded by thousands of Israeli soldiers — from their 120,000 Palestinian neighbors. Under a 1997 interim peace agreement, the city was divided into areas of Palestinian (H1) and Israeli (H2) control, a move that has only exacerbated tensions.

As always in Hebron, the quiet was an illusion. According to human rights groups, Hebron district settlers have stepped up their attacks against Palestinians in recent weeks, rampaging through Arab neighborhoods, smashing windows, beating residents and breaking into homes. The roadside killing of two Palestinian men and an infant on July 19th near Ithna, west of Hebron — in which members of a Jewish vigilante group, “the Committee for Road Safety,” pumped dozens of bullets into a passing Palestinian car and then fled across the border into Israel — is just the most extreme example. In one week alone – July 12th to July 19th, – at least 41 Palestinians were injured and three killed in settler attacks in the Hebron district, according to LAW, the Palestinian Society for the Protection of Human Rights and the Environment. “The settlers came on Saturday night, like the previous three Saturdays,” said Fatin Al Bach Husseini, a 22-year old whose family lives on the second floor of an old stone house overlooking the market streets of H2. Every Saturday for the past month, she said, mobs of settlers carrying guns and ti re irons have surged through the old city. On July 14th, they attacked her home. “They throw stones and shoot into our windows. Even the small ones have guns,” she said.

The windows overlooking the street, though barred, were mostly broken out. Shards of glass, baseball-sized stones and all manner of garbage lay on the metal awning just below the windows. The family sofa, shredded by two bullets, leaked white stuffing onto the floor and the clock hung crookedly on the wall, its glass smashed out and its hands stopped at 10:26.

David Wilder, spokesman for Hebron’s settler community, disputed the charges. “Most of this is not true,” he said. “It has been turned all around. For the last 10 months we’ve been under attack.”

Asserting that the settlers are merely defending themselves against Palestinian attacks, Wilder said, “The reactions [by settlers] have been very minimal. When you’re shot at day-in and day-out, people will react. I have five bullet holes in my apartment.”

Near Al Ibrahimi Mosque, Shuhada Street winds its way up toward Tel Rumeida at the top of the hill, past an Israeli army checkpoint separating H1 and H2. Around the corner from the checkpoint, a sturdy Palestinian woman in a blue robe climbed up the side of the hill, her sandals slipping in the di rt. She was breaking curfew to visit a relative, and her eyes opened wide with fear when approached by visitors. Clutching her son’s hand tightly, she turned to flee before being reassured that the strangers were not settlers. Still, she would not talk. “My son was beaten by settlers,” she said, a nd hurried off.

The settlement of Admot Yishai, a two-story stack of mobile homes, heavily sandbagged and festooned with Israeli flags, sits near the top of Tel Rumeida. Built in the 1980s next to an archaeological site in the middle of a Palestinian neighborhood, the settlement – home to some of the most extreme settlers, such as Baruch Marzel, the head of Kach, a virulently anti-Arab group that both the Israeli and American governments have branded a terrorist organization — has never been formally recognized by the Israeli government.

Nevertheless, an IDF garrison is posted next door for protection. The soldiers and settlers have a commanding view of the city from the hilltop, and exchange fire with Palestinian gunmen in H1 on an almost nightly basis.

Rima Abu Eisheh lives across the street from the settlement, in a house whose front is almost entirely covered by red iron grating. Settlers throw rocks at the upper windows and regularly try to pry the grate loose, said the amiable 33-year old, adding that they threw pots of boiling oil through t he grate and onto the front door two weeks ago.

The family, which has lived in the house for 18 years, installed the grating in 1997. So far, it has held. “There was shooting from [Admot Yishai] last night. Well, every night, lately,” she said.

The situation is nothing new – the Christian Peacemakers Team (CPT), an observer group with offices in Hebron, has reported settler harassment of the Abu Eishehs since at least 1997 – but Abu Eisheh said it has gotten worse during the last month.

“The settlers were never friendly — they always hated us,” she said. “[But] It’s much worse now. [They] are acting out much more now.” CPT members have taken to staying the night with the neighborhood families in an effort to protect them.

Kathy Kamphoefner, a CPT member who is spending her sixth consecutive summer in Hebron, confirmed the recent escalation in settler violence. “The vast majority of violence in the area is instigated by settlers,” she said. “Every time a curfew is announced, the settlers come out.”

On July 14th, settlers broke through a door in the 10-foot fence in the Abu Eishehs’ backyard and caught her husband, Taysir Mohammed Hamed, slipping out the side door, which the family often uses to avoid the settlers. “They met him there,” she said, “and started choking and kicking him.” Taysir was injured in the neck, the head and the back

The Abu Eisheh children fared little better. On July 10th, a settler pushed Rima’s five-year old daughter down outside the front door. Her knee is still injured from the fall, Rima said, and she hit her head on the pavement. Six-year old Ashraf got the same treatment on July 14th, though he was no t seriously hurt.

“It’s like being in prison,” said Anna Ibn Hussein, Rima’s aunt.

Abu Eisheh sat on the floor as she spoke, baking wide pieces of pita bread, one at a time, on a small portable cooking pot. Behind her, three brightly-colored birds twittered away in cages. A child piloted a bike through the narrow corridors of the house.

“These kids can never play outside,” Abu Eisheh said. “It is too dangerous.”

Outside the settlement, a burly white van driven by an elderly settler rumbled up the narrow road, discharging a settler family in front of the IDF post. One man’s hands were full as he stepped out of the van – he held a child’s arm in one and an M-16 in the other.

Residents say they are helpless in the face of settler attacks. Afef Abdel Aziz Al Bach, mother of Fatin Al Bach Husseini, said the family calls the Israeli police, who have civil responsibility for the Palestinian residents of H2, when the settlers come out.

“They try to help, but they can’t do anything,” she said. “The soldiers protect the settlers.”

Indeed, residents and rights groups assert that the army tolerates – and, in some cases, cooperates with – the settlers’ actions.

“The IDF has seldom made any serious effort to stop or prevent attacks by Jewish settlers against Palestinians,” read an April 2001 report on Hebron by Human Rights Watch. “Settlers have physically attacked many Palestinian homes in the old city, often directly under the eyes of IDF soldiers present nearby, who did nothing to stop them.”

An IDF spokesman emphasized that the police have overall responsibility for the actions of Israeli citizens in the Occupied Territories, and that the army is limited in its policing functions.

“The IDF is there for military duty,” he said. “They operate under certain constraints. If soldiers are at a specific position, for example, and they see something happen, they might not be able to leave it. They’d have to call for reinforcements, maybe. [But] in principle they do react if they see scuffles.”

H1 residents say they have been attacked by settlers as well. Fares Sherif, a portly 46-year old truck driver who lives in Hebron’s Dahiyat Zeitoun neighborhood, said that settlers from Hagai, situated on a hilltop just south of his home, opened fire on his house on July 17th. Bullets ripped throu gh the newly-plastered walls and broke a number of windowpanes. One found its way into the master bedroom, lodging in the wall above the headboard.

The shooting has continued on an almost nightly basis since then, he said. A tank perches on the rise behind Sherif’s house each night, and he said that settlers cross through his backyard at will. On July 14th, as Israeli tanks moved into H1 and shelled Palestinian neighborhoods, Sherif said he w atched as a group of settlers drove across his land and down to the main road into town. Soon after, settlers stormed through the old city.

“I am afraid for the night, for the sun to go down,” Sherif said. “Everyone is sleeping under the beds now.”