Middle East

Hebron

The Silent War

A veiled Palestinian woman passes an Israeli Star of David painted on a door in the center of Hebron, November 24, 1996. (Photo: Menahem Kahana/AFP-Getty Images)

"It's as if they know my one daughter is all I have in the world, so they're trying to finish her off," said Hana Abu Haykal, a Palestinian resident of Tel Rumeda, Hebron, her voice weakening for the first time in her otherwise defiant composure.

Hana's home belongs to one of only four remaining Palestinian families, in Tel Rumeda, an area inhabited by Jewish settlers in the heart of Hebron's old city. According to Hana, settlers taunt her 14-year-old daughter, Wissam, almost every day as she comes to and from school, setting their dogs on her and throwing stones.

"Once in 1997, they even managed to cut her head open." Hana says, "They also break our windows, and sometimes force their way into the house, turning everything upside down. When I complain to the [Israeli] army, they ignore me, or tell me to go to the police."

Intimidation

Hebron city is in a unique predicament; not only do Jewish settlements surround it, as with all cities in the West Bank, but they also exist inside it. Although there has been a small Jewish presence in Hebron for centuries - the city being the traditional birthplace of the biblical patriarch, Abraham -in 1929 Arab Hebronites committed a massacre of Jews, which drove the population out. After the Israeli occupation of the West Bank in 1967, a group of Jews with a deep ideological conviction regarding maintaining the city's Jewish presence, arrived in Hebron and formed the Kiryat Arba settlement, just outside the old city.

Today there are five Jewish enclaves within the old city - Tel Rumeda, Beit Hadasa, Beit Romano, Abraham Avino, and the Gutnic center, home to around 400 settlers and around 1,500-2,000 Israeli army personnel to protect them. The Palestinian population of the old city is roughly 4,800.

In the Hebron protocol agreement of 1997 between Israel and the Palestinian Authority, the city was divided into two areas - roughly 80 percent of the town, the H1 area, was put under Palestinian control, and the remaining area, H2, which includes the old city, and the settlements within it, fell under Israeli control.

For the Palestinian inhabitants of the old town, especially those whose homes have fallen within the Jewish enclaves, life is almost unbearable.

Hana describes the restrictions of her daily life. Curfew is imposed at six every evening, although it may be arbitrarily imposed at other times of the day.

"Just last Friday, I had to leave work [at a hair salon which Hana runs] early because the army imposed curfew. This keeps happening and my financial situation is becoming very difficult, I am the sole breadwinner of the family." Hana and her husband separated years ago, and she has to care for her aged mother and father, as well as her sister who does not work.

Curfew is sometimes imposed for days on end. Hana remembers in 1994 when it was imposed for 32 days non-stop. "My mother ran out of the medicine she takes regularly. We called a Red Cross ambulance to bring it to us but the soldiers would not let it enter. Neither could we go out, so we ended up waiting a further four days until we could get hold of the medicine."

Furthermore, no non-resident is allowed entry into Tel Rumeda and families there have become completely socially isolated.

"We have not had a visitor to our house for years, and can accept no invitations for weddings or parties which are in the evening, after our curfew time," says Hana. "Sometimes during curfew, the soldiers even prevent my brother, in the flat below us from visiting. All this has made us miserable."

In January 2004, the Israeli army installed six video cameras, which record the movement surrounding Hana's house 24 hours a day. The family is not even allowed to open the windows for fresh air.

Similar restrictions pertain to the Palestinian residents of Martyrs' Street, a main road in downtown Hebron, which runs from east to west and happens to connect Tel Rumeda with the neighboring Jewish settlements of Beit Hadasa and Abraham Avino.

Abdul Haleem Al Buti Jabir, a resident of Wadi Al Nasara district, east of the old town and close to the Kiryat Arba settlement, also complains regularly to Abdul Hadi Hantash of Hebron's Land Defense Committee, of settlers burning down his olive trees and tipping rubbish into his garden. When about three months ago he took the matter to the Israeli Civil Administration, army officials came to investigate, but they concluded there was not enough evidence to support his claims, despite the site of rubbish and remnants of burnt trees.

Furthermore, the Palestinians living in the old city have had to put up netting above the alleys to prevent the rubbish, stones and bags of excrement that settlers who have taken over houses there, throw down onto Palestinian passersby.

Separation

More disturbing yet are the land confiscations and house demolitions taking place, which appear to serve the purpose of connecting up the five Jewish enclaves in the old town with the larger Kiryat Arba settlement to the east, creating a settler complex, which would include the area of the Ibrahimi mosque, where both Muslims and Jews pray.

Imad Hamdan, of Hebron's Rehabilitation Committee, describes how around 1,500 dunums of Palestinian agricultural land was confiscated about three months ago from around the Kiryat Arba and Harsina settlement, east of the town, seemingly for the purpose of connecting these settlements with each other and with the settlements inside the old city.

A new settler bypass road was also built in 2003 alongside Wadi Al- Nasara leading from Kiryat Arba to the Ibrahimi mosque. Hamdan tells of the appeal to the Israeli high court he headed in 2003 when Israel announced it would have to demolish 22 historic buildings to build the road.

"We combined our appeal with an international campaign for cultural preservation. This put the Israeli government under pressure and so they only demolished two and a half houses," Hamdan says "However," he continues, "of eleven cases we have put before the high court regarding demolitions, this was the only success."

According to Hantash, a number of maps have also become available in the Israeli press, plotting the course of a future wall, which would surround the settler complex, separating it from the rest of Hebron city. "One map," he says "plots a wall which will run from the area of Bab Al Zawiya, downtown, through the neighborhoods of Al Sheikh and Beit 'Ayoun, wrapping around the Kiryat Arba and Harsina settlements too, thus encompassing a large amount of land, including the Ibrahimi mosque."

Indeed, the fence which surrounds the Kiryat Arba settlement has recently been extended, confiscating land from Wadi Al Nasara, and cutting the area off from the main road it would use to reach Hebron's old city.

"The Israeli army claims the fence is to protect the settlers from Kiryat Arba who want to pray in the Ibrahimi mosque, [after Palestinians killed 12 Israelis in the area in 2002.] "However, we all know their claims have no foundation in reality," says Hantash.

He continues, "Sharon has been a foremost proponent of the building of a separation wall inside Hebron. In exchange for the withdrawal from Gaza, he wants the annexation of West Bank settlements, including those of Hebron's old town."

Curfews and closures

In addition to the settler annexation drive, Hebron's old city has experienced prolonged closures and curfews by the Israeli army since the beginning of the Intifada in September 2000.

The old city is now like a ghost town. There is none of the bustling crowds and cacophony found in other major Palestinian markets such as those of Nablus or Jerusalem. In Hebron's market place, one sees deserted streets, closed shops, and only the occasional disaffected-looking shop owner.

"Curfews and closures have been the army's policy since the beginning of the occupation in 1967" explains Hamdan, "but since the Intifada, it has become much worse. Up until now, there have been a total of 600 days of curfew, the most recent one just last week."

Hamdan continues, "The army sometimes even announces curfew through the Ibrahimi mosque's loudspeakers, usually used for the call to prayer."

Furthermore, from 2002, the old city has also been closed off completely to cars. Walking around the old city, Ahmad Jarradat, of the Alternative Information Center, points out the concrete blocks piled up in front of every route into the old city, preventing the entry of cars.

"Around 35 entries to the old town are closed off by cement blocks," explains Jarradat. "This makes it difficult to transport large quantities of goods into the market place and means many people prefer not to shop in the old town, because they cannot use their cars to take their shopping home." According to Jarradat this means that in effect the east of Hebron's old city is separated from the west.

Jarradat explains that the army also closes shops in the old city for months at a time by military order, claiming security needs, which further deters shoppers from coming.

"So far around 200 shops have been shut by military order," says Jarradat. The shop owner receives the order on his front door and if he resists, may face imprisonment.

The effects of these closures and curfews together, has shattered the old city's economy.

Hamdan explains that, "Even when curfew is lifted, shops remain shut because many shop owners have moved their business elsewhere during previous curfew time, having no other way to supplement their incomes. In this way, the economy of the old city has been almost completely destroyed."

Ma'mun Al Natsheh, 30, who owns a shop in the old city selling household items, describes the effect of the closures on his business.

"We don't come here for business anymore," he says of himself and his neighboring shop owners, "we come to chat, drink coffee and listen to the news on the radio."

"2004 has been a disastrous year so far," he continues. "People don't shop here for fear of the settlers and because they can't bring their cars in.

You see those two," he points to the owners of a hardware shop on other side of the street, "they haven't had any proper business for four years now."

Indeed, one is staring blankly into the space in front of him, whilst the other's head has fallen onto his chest, as he dozes in the shade.

And as if this weren't enough, the army has also installed iron gates on all the entrances to Hebron city from the surrounding areas, as well along roads leading between the H1 and H2 areas of the city, which may be shut at any moment. The road leading to neighboring Halhoul, in the north has been shut almost continuously since the start of the Intifada.

Hamdan describes how this creates a feeling of insecurity amongst people. "You can never be sure when a gate will be shut, and whether or not you will be trapped in an area. It creates a big problem for the major traders, especially those exporting dairy. Their export may be held up because a gate is shut, meaning the product passes it expiration date and cannot be sold."

"The old city market used to be a wholesale market for a whole district of Hebron," continues Hamdan " but all that is over now because the closures on the city have prevented traders from the surrounding villages from entering."

Ethnic cleansing

In Jarradat's opinion, the closures, curfews, land confiscations and the separation taking place in Hebron city, represent an effort by Israeli settlers, backed by the Israeli government, to make Hebron's old city Palestinian inhabitants emigrate.

In a December 13, 2003 article written for the AIC, Jarradat says of the closures and confiscations, "the army claims these oppressive colonial measures against Hebron's defenseless Palestinian civilians are for security, but we know perfectly well [they are] to force us [the Palestinians] to leave our city center in order to enable the further expansion and consolidation of the illegal settlement project."

Indeed, the settlers appear to have had a measure of success. According to Hamdan, the number of Palestinian inhabitants of Hebron's old city has fallen from around 10,000 in 1950 to just 400 in 1996, because of the difficulty of living alongside the settlers.

However, due to the Rehabilitation Committee's putting cases of land confiscation and shop closure in front of the Israeli high court, and its renovation of neglected houses to encourage residents to return, the number of inhabitants of Hebron's old city has increased by about 3,000 since 1996.

Furthermore, Hana, when asked if she would move out of Tel Rumeda for an easier life adamantly refused. "Leave my house to the settlers? No way" she said, "no way."

If the settlers are in fact aiming to drive out Hebron's old city inhabitants, with residents as defiant as Hana, it looks like they will have a fight on their hands yet.