Our tour is led by “Breaking the Silence” (Shovrim Shtika), a small group of soldiers who, since the year 2004, have confronted the Israeli public with exhibits showing the army’s actions, including their own, against innocent civilians in Hebron and the rest of the Occupied Territories (www.breakingthesilence.org.il). Our guide is one of these soldiers: Mikhael Manekin. He served in Hebron in 2002, as well as in Jenin, Nablus and Ramallah.
As Israelis we are permitted to walk on Shuhada. Palestinians, who had shops here and still have homes, have been kept off the street for years. All its shops have been closed since 2003. Recently the fact came to light that no written order was ever given to shut Shuhada to Palestinians. Because it was shut nonetheless, a January order opened it to them. Openness lasted a week. Then the army again kept them off – an action which, according to Manekin, would not hold up in court.
(Walking, we encounter another graffito in Hebrew: “God is King—Death to Those Who Betray the King.” It is a curse against Israel’s government for disengaging from Gaza.)
From the army’s point of view, the difficulty with Shuhada Street lies in its proximity to Jewish settlement-neighborhoods: Hadassah House (Beit Hadassah), Romano House and Avraham Avinu. If both Palestinians and Jews were permitted in Shuhada – as before the start of the second Intifada in September 2000 – the violence would be even greater than it is. By the logic of “keeping the peace” during Occupation, Palestinians are excluded.
Avraham Avinu is the largest of the settlement-neighborhoods, with about 100 people living in new homes. The funds come from the Israeli government and American donors, among them evangelical Christians. It includes a synagogue that the Jordanians used as a dump until 1967 and a former mosque which now boasts an animal petting-corner for the settler kids.
Most Palestinians who lived in Avraham Avinu don’t live here anymore. They received no compensation because, it is claimed, “they left of their own accord.”
All entrances and exits except one are blocked by the army, whose job is to keep Palestinians and Jews in their respective areas. The few remaining Arab families must have army permits to live here. Since September 2000, Israel considers itself to be at war with the Palestinians, so complaints tend to go unheeded.
We return to Shuhada Street, eerily empty. The stretch we’re now on features red tile sidewalks and quaint street lamps, part of a renovation funded by the international community and USAid in 1997. These vestiges of past optimism contrast with the metal mesh “cages” that enclose the balconies of four houses where Palestinians continue to live. They can’t leave their homes through the front because the doors are bolted from outside. They have to use windows at the backs of their apartments and go from roof to roof.
The second largest city in the West Bank (population ca. 150,000), Hebron is the southernmost of the Palestinian cities built on the water divide of the central mountain range. It is the only one containing Israeli settlements. Its chief claim to fame, for the last two millennia, has been a magnificent structure built by Herod the Great to honor the putative tombs of Abraham and Sarah, Isaac and Rebecca, Jacob and Leah. After the Arab conquest of 640 CE, the building was adapted as a mosque, called the Ibrahimi.
At the end of the 16th century Jews moved into Hebron, where they lived in relative harmony with their Palestinian neighbors until, in the 1920’s, the Zionist movement began to loom as a threat to future Arab sovereignty. This perception formed the underlying motive for the atrocity of 1929. Jordan took the city during the 1948 war. In 1967 Israel conquered it. A year later came the Jewish settlers, who foiled government attempts to remove them by appealing to the fact that Jews had lived here and been massacred. As a compromise, the Labor government founded a new settlement called Kiryat Arba east of the city near the Patriarchs’ Tomb. Within the larger context, this proximity was a recipe for disaster: armed Jews from the settlement – in Palestinian eyes, representatives of the Occupation – went regularly to worship at the Tomb, where parts of the mosque had been converted into two synagogues.
In 1979 a group of women and children sneaked into a former Jewish property on Shuhada Street called Hadassah House. The government of Menahem Begin did not dare remove them. One Sabbath eve in 1980, when a group of Jewish men made their regular festive procession from the Patriarchs’ Tomb to Hadassah, Palestinians attacked and killed six of them. Begin then allowed the husbands to join the women and children at Hadassah House, thus establishing the first Jewish settlement in a Palestinian city. Others followed.
February 1994. In an attempt (arguably successful) to derail the recent Oslo Accords, Dr. Baruch Goldstein descended from Kiryat Arba to the Patriarchs’ Tomb during Muslim Ramadan prayers. He murdered 29 worshippers and wounded another 120 before being killed by the survivors. The ensuing shock provided Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin with a justification for extracting the troublesome settlements from the heart of the city (there was even a plan to this effect), but he got cold feet, putting the Palestinians under curfew instead. Goldstein’s grave in Kiryat Arba has since been a focus of settler pilgrimage.
In accordance with Oslo, Israel was supposed to withdraw from the Palestinian cities. Because of the settlements within it, Hebron posed a problem. The attempted solution was the 1997 Wye Agreement, which divided the city. Area H-1 (10 sq. kms.), under the Palestinian Authority, then contained about 120,000 people. Area H-2 (4.3 sq. kms.) included the old city center, with the Patriarchs’ Tomb and the former commercial areas along Shuhada Street. It was placed under Israel’s security forces, although the PA had civilian jurisdiction over the almost 35,000 Palestinians then living there. The 500 or so Jewish settlers in H-2 had (and still have) access to 10% of the area.
Since the outbreak of the Intifada in September 2000, the pressures on the Palestinians of H-2, exerted by both the settlers and the army, have led to a massive exodus. B’tselem tried to check the numbers in 2003. (See the report noted above.) Of 169 Palestinian families on the three streets near the settlements, 73 had left by that year. Another gauge is school enrollment. The Cordova school, opposite the settlement of Beit Romano, had 500 pupils before the Intifada. In 2003, when B’tselem checked, it had 130. According to Mikhael Manekin, it has 80 today. The school’s principal tries to schedule their departure for a time when the Jewish children are still in class.
The settler actions, which include organized stone-throwing by their children as well as the hurling of garbage, buckets of urine and a great deal of spitting, are part of a strategy to motivate a Palestinian departure (transfer), so that Hebron’s old city (and ultimately the whole) will be free for Jewish settlement. As the above figures indicate, this strategy is working.
Willy-nilly, the army does its part. It imposes frequent curfews on the Palestinians, making any kind of normal life impossible. When there are clashes, the two sides are separated and a “sterile” area is created at Palestinian expense. The army protects the settlers, but it has no authority to protect Palestinians from them. Both soldiers and police can arrest Palestinians, but only the police can arrest a settler. As in the remainder of the West Bank, two sets of laws apply. Martial law is imposed on the Palestinians, Israeli law on the settlers.
We have reached a point on Shuhada Street where H-2 meets H-1. From the latter comes the hum of a living city. New buildings are going up, including a mosque and a mall. Remaining in H-2, we walk up Tarpat Road (the Hebrew name means 1929) to visit a Palestinian home belonging to Hassem Abu Azza. He tells us he’ll talk to anyone who opposes violence. He works in H-2 at UNRWA. Abu Azza then screens two films from a CD. One was taken inside a Palestinian home belonging to the Taysir family. It shows a crowd of unruly young Jews breaking into the home on a Sabbath, many shouting “Revenge!” They tear down the gate and burst through the doors. The second film shows a group of Palestinian schoolchildren from Cordova School being harassed by young Jews.
While his wife serves tea, Abu Azza remarks that in every society there are good and bad; we all have to teach our children what is right. Leaving, we walk through the family’s garden, which has an old olive tree, a pomegranate tree, an almond tree and a broken stone wall. Above is Tel Rumeida, site of biblical Hebron. Today it features a cluster of trailers – another Israeli settlement.