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Hebron, from jewel to ghost town

Riding on an Israeli bus through the Palestinian city of Hebron, al-Khalil in Arabic, the polarized atmosphere is already noticeable. Palestinian boys shout and spit at the bus, which is loaded with Jewish settlers and soldiers on their way to the settlements in and around Hebron.

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Picture: IQNA
Shuhada Street,
closed to
Palestinians

The bus connects Jerusalem with Hebron and surrounding settlements with names like Neve Daniel and Kiryat Arba. At the end of the route, near the Jewish settlement of Beit Romano in Hebron’s Old Centre, the city appears to be dominated by checkpoints and barbed wire. Indeed, Israeli soldiers are closely watching visitors from watchtowers. The old buildings of Shuhada (Martyrs) Street, once thriving with business, used to house Palestinian shops. Now they are closed and the street is empty, offering a dreary sight. Settlers of the Avraham Avinu settlement occupy its dilapidated buildings. “CAUTION – THIS WAS TAKEN BY ISRAEL” a notice on a balcony reads. As if settlers want to express their right to do so – indeed it has been supported by Israel.

A smaller notice reminds us that the building used to house a Palestinian eye clinic. A concrete wall with Hebrew graffiti blocks the street on the corner. The settlement is hidden behind it. Palestinians are not allowed to walk here.

Jewish settlers occupied parts of Hebron soon after Israel had conquered the West Bank in 1967. While a small community of religious Jews had lived in the city for centuries, these settlers now took possession of a number of buildings in the Old City of Hebron. Their determination to return was prompted by the Palestinian riots in 1929 in which 64 Jews were killed.

Israeli authorities did not take action against the settlers’ provocation. Like all Jewish settlements in the West Bank, the settlements in Hebron are illegal under international law. Their presence has since led to increased tension between the majority Palestinian population (around 40,000) and the much smaller group of Jewish settlers.

After the American-born Jew Baruch Goldstein had killed dozens of Palestinians inside the Ibrahimi Mosque in 1994, the Israeli authorities placed severe restrictions on Palestinians in the area: busy markets were shut down, streets were turned into ‘security zones’ and Palestinians were barred from certain streets bordering the settlements. Since 1997, Hebron has been divided into two parts: H1, which is controlled by the Palestinian Authority (80 percent of the city); and the rest, H2, which is under Israeli control. Since the Second Intifada in the autumn of 2000, many Palestinian-owned shops in H2 were forced to close due to even harsher restrictions imposed by the Israeli military, among which a continuous curfew. The stated aim of all restrictions: to ensure the security of the settlers.

The scope of the measures taken to protect the settlers, currently around 800, is indeed astonishing. Approximately 1,500 Israeli soldiers are manning checkpoints, watchtowers and rooftops, guarding the four urban settlements. The commercial, cultural and social heart of Hebron has since been turned into a ghost town.

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Picture: IQNA
Notice on
an occupied
house

Notice on an occupied house

This is the place where I will meet Mohammed, who, together with his family, runs a souvenir shop opposite the Ibrahimi Mosque.

The relative discomfort a first-time visitor like me feels when walking here is dwarfed by the daily checks, harassments and violence the Palestinian residents of the Old City have to face. During a tour of the Old City, I am shocked by what Mohammed tells me about the hardships facing them. When Mohammed wants to pray in the Ibrahimi Mosque, he first has to pass an Israeli checkpoint, one of the many obstacles Palestinians have to cross daily when accessing basic services.

A large security gate separates the area around the Mosque from the Old Souq. Many shops are closed – and it is not even Friday –and there are hardly any tourists. Many shopkeepers have closed their businesses as a result of daily harassments from settlers living above the shops in the settlement of Avraham Avinu.

Mohammed tells me that settlers often throw garbage and pour alcohol down the street, and even let their kids urinate on pedestrians below. Nets and chicken wire have been applied to protect Palestinians from such harassments from above.

The remaining shopkeepers struggle to keep their business running. An application for building a small hotel next to the souq has been turned down by the Israeli military. The reason: a threat to the security of the settlers.

Many have left the Old City as a result of the countless restrictions, harassments and violence. More than 75 percent of the commercial establishments have closed their doors, according to Btselem. What is more, over 40 percent of housing units in the area have been abandoned. Residents and shopkeepers moved to another part of the city.

During weekly tours by settlers through the Old Souq, hostilities with the Palestinian shopkeepers are a frequent occurrence. In the settlement of Tel Rumeida for example, where settlers and Palestinians share a street, residents face daily harassments and violence. Mohammed confirms reports that Israeli soldiers refrain from protecting Palestinians from violence inflicted by settlers.

While Mohammed is struggling to survive with his shop, he is determined to stay in the Old City. Although Hebron does not get many visitors, Mohammed notes that tourism in the city has been getting better in recent years and particularly since the end of the Second Intifada. In addition, Mohammed gives regular tours of the city to visitors wishing to get an impression of what life means in a divided city.

 


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