Going south on Rt. 60 from Jerusalem on one of the 29 settler highways in the West Bank, the summer heat is overwhelming. In the distance, you can see the terraced hillsides stacked in the landscape to catch rainfall as it has for centuries. You can see pine trees planted in nature reserves to deter Palestinian encroachment on the land. Flanking either side of the road, you can’t help but notice the settlement expansion – new trailers literally trace the hilltops all along the route to Hebron.
Passing the Israeli military bases, you can see the showcase of physical infrastructure required to maintain the Occupation: the military jeeps, the Kalashnikovs, the barbed wire, the checkpoints, the tanks, and the various units of young soldiers.
Hebron is over 3,700 years old. It is one of the oldest Palestinian cities, and considered the second holiest Jewish city after Jerusalem. The Bible mentions Hebron in connection with Abraham. It hosts the Cave of the Machpelah, also known as the Tomb of the Patriarchs/Matriarchs, is enclosed by the Mosque of Ibrahim, also known as the Avraham Avinu Synagogue. It is the traditional burial ground of the ancestors of Abraham and Sarah, Itzak and Rebecca, and Jacob and Leah. According to Jewish tradition, the Cave was built by Herod, King of Judea during the Second Temple Period some 2,000 years ago.
Tensions run deep – during the 1929 riots, Arabs massacred 67 Jews in Hebron in early days of conflict during the British Mandate. In 1980, 6 Jews were killed in Beit Hadassah building in Hebron, and today, the site serves as a flourishing yeshiva for over 250 students. More recent violence in Hebron centered around dividing up the Cave in 1994 for Jews and Muslims. Baruch Goldstein (an American Jewish physician who immigrated to Israel) opened fire and killed 29 Palestinians in prayer at the Mosque, before being lynched to death by an angry Arab mob. During the Jewish festival of Purim it is not uncommon to find militant Jews dressed up as Goldstein with fake beards, doctors coats and army uniforms, toting guns. There is a marble plaque in the nearby Jewish settlement of Kiryat Arba which reads, “To the holy Baruch Goldstein, who gave his life for the Jewish people, the Torah and the nation of Israel.” Many other Jews and Palestinians have died in terror, state-terror, or settler violence.
In 1997, Prime Minister Netanyahu signed the “Hebron Accord” with the Palestinian Authority. Israel imposed a closure on Hebron in 1998 after the murder of a Jewish settler.
As we drive into town, we are cursed at by the yeshiva students for driving on Shabbat. We are near the Old City of Hebron which now has a Jewish settler presence of just over 500, smack in the center of a city of 120,000 Palestinian Arabs. What used to be a bustling Arab market, is today a series of boarded up shops and barbed wire encased residential quarters for some 10 Jewish families, spraypainted with the Star of David, a clenched fist, and the words, “Death to the Arabs.” Nearby, is the Jewish settlement of Kiryat Arba which has a population of over 6,000. There are clusters of Israeli soldiers on every street corner of Al Shuhadah Street for a 5km periphery around Hebron’s Old City and the holy burial grounds, the Cave. Since 1984, a mere 7 families live at Admot Yishai settlement in Hebron (Tel Rumeida), where there is an army presence of some 12 soldiers per settler, and expansion plans include building an archeological park, to redeem Jewish property.
Welcome to Hebron, the frontline in the Israeli/Palestinian conflict.
As we enter the home of Idress Z., who before the Intifada was the local butcher by day and security guard by night, we notice the black and white picture of him with a cigarette in his hand taken over thirty years ago when he spent some years in Germany. He tells us that he’s smoked Farid cigarettes for 37 years and that his family has called Palestine home for over 1,000 years.
On the wall is a Certificate of Appreciation from the US Agency for International Development for managing the security work on Al Shuhadah Street “for his contribution to the Middle East Peace Process and for his dedicated performance under usually difficult circumstances.” Next to it, is another framed certificate – Idress Z.’s family was involved with saving Jewish lives during the 1929 riots and the names are listed.
As he sits in his living room with his family gathered around him, a week before his daughter’s wedding, he tells our group of Israeli human rights advocates, “I have an obligation to raise my children without hatred – to be good people and not to hate Jews, Muslims or Christians. I want them to be able to shake hands with the soldiers. But they treat us like animals. What are we supposed to do?”
Just a few weeks earlier, the military stormed his house at 7am and moved all the kids into 1 room and threatened to kill him, accusing him of being involved with Hamas. The soldiers told him they would make him famous and put his name on Al Jazeera. His son-in-law was killed, an apolitical person caught in crossfire, and his picture was hanging on a wall in their home. The soldiers shredded the picture in front of the family.
Later that evening on the family rooftop, we are being watched by soldiers atop the adjacent house and are warned not to go to the edge of the roof for fear of being shot at by the security forces across the street near the Old City. Being in the Palestinian part of the city inherently means exposing yourself to differential treatment. Z. would sleep on this rooftop in a small corner sheltered in jute plastic when it was summer and too hot inside his home. He showed us stones that littered his rooftop, and the plastic tarp above where he used to sleep. Settlers from Tel Rumeida up the hill throw stones to harass the Palestinian neighbors, with the hopes of clearing more families out of Hebron. Reportedly some 30% of the Palestinian population has left, since the outset of the Intifada.
Z. shares with us a story of how when he wants to buy a kilo of tomatoes, he is not allowed to walk across the street to the Market because it is closed to Palestinians. Instead he has to take two sheruts and pay 16 shekels to go 7km around the main artery of Hebron, Al Shuhada street, to a vegetable market. He says, “This is how Jews were treated in Europe.”
Curfew and closure are constant. Palestinians are literally prohibited from crossing the street into the Old City.
Over coffee with cardamom, he shares his experiences with us. A few years ago, when he found a three-year old Jewish boy, lost and despairing outside his butcher shop, Z. took him to his parents place and was greeted by the child’s mother: she then slammed the door in his face. Other incidents involve being harassed by an angry mob and having his teeth knocked out into his hand.
He pulls a black suitcase off the shelf and shows us the evidence, photographs and newspaper clippings in Arabic, some in Hebrew, even some in English verifying his stories. He was tear gased inside his own home resulting in his infant daugher spending three years in and out of hospital getting treated for severe burns all over her body after she fell into a pot of boiling food running away from tear gas. His house was entered by the IDF, and his kitchen was burned down.
Not surprisingly, he has a hard time accepting why he can only open his store near the Old City for 2 hours every 15 days, why his children are not allowed to go out and play because of closure and Jewish children are on their bikes and playing in the streets.
That evening, his 11-year old son is crying, curled up on the couch and quivering in fear. He’s been hit in the head with a bottle by three young Jewish kids from across the street. We have to sneak the boy and his family out during curfew, through a dark corridor between houses and through a cemetary, before meeting a family member with a small bus, to take them to the hospital for X-rays. He stops along the way and throws up for the second time. His father apologizes to us, and says, “He is really afraid.”
We wait at Z.’s neighbour’s house until they return from the hospital. It is riddled with bulletholes inside and out. Z.’s neighbor has lost his job as a carpenter four years ago because of the Intifada, and now catches birds and puts them in cages to sell them for 40 shekels or what his customers can afford. His wife and their relatives sleep with four people in one room. Over nargileh and mint tea, they share their frustration with the situation. The economy in Hebron is suffering and everybody feels they, like the birds, are living in a cage.
The next morning as Mr. Z. opens his briefcase to show us some of his personal possessions and the newspaper articles about Hebron, military officers knock on the door asking for our identifications. The authorities are wondering what we’re doing in Hebron.
Later, we walk toward Ruth’s Tomb, discovered in Hebron within the past few years. There is a line-up of elderly Arabs and a bunch of kids stuck at the checkpoint waiting to be allowed through in order to walk across the street. The IDF soldiers are calling the Shabbak to see if they can get permission to let them through.
Today they are allowed through after waiting for a half hour in the early afternoon heat – if they had been denied, they would have been doing the dreaded 7km walk to get home. This is the Old City which is now sealed for Palestinians. We see members of the predominately Scandinavian Temporary International Presence in Hebron – human rights observers who are not allowed to make their human rights reports on Hebron public.
We walk to Ruth’s Tomb. Soldiers gather at the entrance. The narrow corridors leading to the gravesite are made of corrugated tin and barbed wire. The gravesite is empty of civilians, and grossly neglected.
Our fact finding delegation led by the human rights organization Bustan is here to understand some of the concerns in Hebron and to see the situation firsthand, and meet with members of the local community to understand what can be done by Jews, Arabs and internationals to make the situation better.
The military presence is palpable. The soldiers who make it to Hebron are some of the best trained in the IDF. It is a complicated place to be. On one of the security posts where the soldiers stand, somebody has written poetry from a French Jewish writer. Everybody has their own way of dealing with the madness of the conflict.
Speaking to a Jewish settler outsider her home with many of her ten children and their friends sitting on the steps for a discussion with our group. She comments, “This is a Jewish state and Jewish land. An Arab can stay here if they put up a sign that says this place is for the people of Israel. This is the Jewish homeland. Jews have the right to rule here.” She continues, “they can go to any of the other 22 Arab lands, and leave us alone.”
We are escorted through Kiryat Arba, harassed by a Russian immigrant upon leaving and are asked who we stayed with multiple times.
On the way back to Jerusalem, we are stopped three times by IDF forces and asked what we are doing in Hebron. The drive back is still less than an hour, but the line-up back into Hebron for Palestinians is snaking around and looks as though it will take at least three hours to get into this City of Hell.