In Hebron, even one of the mosques is divided, one side for Jews and one side for Muslims. There are separate entrances for each and both are guarded by Israeli soldiers and framed by metal detectors. It has been that way since 1994, when a Jewish doctor from New York by the name of Baruch Goldstein entered the mosque during Morning Prayer and opened fire, killing 29 worshipping Muslims and wounding 125.
As I sat outside the entrance to the Muslim side of the mosque, watching people enter for prayer, an old man with a kaffiyeh on his head struck up a conversation with me. I asked him where he was going. He replied that he was on his way to pray as he did five times a day. "You know, it’s really terrible. We have to go past the Israeli soldiers and through the metal detectors every time we want to pray. The soldiers harass us, question us. They never want to let us enter without any problems."
I watched for a while as people entered and exited the mosque through the metal detectors. Men, women, and children, all obliged to walk past the barrels of Israeli M16’s if they want to practice their religion. On the way in, everyone has to show their ID cards, empty their pockets, and walk through the metal detector. I saw soldiers questioning many of the men, holding them up for what seemed like excessive amounts of time.
Right before I walked away, I witnessed a woman leaving the mosque with five children trailing behind her. The smallest child, a little boy about four years old, was lagging. An Israeli soldier sitting in a chair towered above him. The boy looked at the soldier with wide eyes and the soldier smiled. Then he lunged, sending the boy running and screaming. I will never forget the child’s expression of terror, nor will I forget the smirk on the soldier’s face or the laughter of his comrades.
Just as the mosque is divided so is the city of Hebron itself—one side Israeli, one side Palestinian. The division is a result of the Oslo process and a particular agreement called the Hebron Protocols. In accordance with the agreement, the city was divided in 1997 into two sections. The section called H1 is home to about 80,000 Palestinians and is classified as an A Area, which means that it is supposed to be under the control of the Palestinian Authority. The section called H2 is home to approximately 35,000 Palestinians and 400 Israeli settlers and is classified as a B Area, which means that it is ostensibly under Palestinian civil authority and Israeli military control.
Hebron is known among Jews to be the oldest Jewish city in the world. According to the book of Genesis, after much wandering, Abraham settled with his followers in Hebron. He purchased a piece of land there to bury his wife Sarah. It is believed that along with Sarah, Abraham as well as Isaac, Jacob, Rebecca and Leah are buried there. Their burial site is known as the Tomb of the Patriarchs and is holy to both Jews and Muslims, which is one of the reasons why there is so much contention surrounding the mosque and the town itself.
The division, however, is relatively recent. Before the early 1900’s, the small Jewish community of Hebron lived in relative peace with Hebron’s Arab majority. In fact, many Sephardic Jews settled in Hebron after the Spanish Inquisition precisely because it was safe. In a small office in Hebron, I spoke with a Palestinian named Majdi, who recounted Hebron’s history to me. He said that Hebron was a model for how Jews and Arabs can coexist. This coexistence was not always perfect—there were conflicts—but it was not until the early 1900’s that this coexistence faltered. The breakdown happened while Hebron was under British control. The British, fearing an alliance for independence between moderate Arabs and Jews, employed divide and conquer tactics to create major animosity between the two groups.
There were many conflicts, but the massacre of 1929 is the one that everyone in Hebron, Arab and Jew, speaks about. In 1929, 69 Jews were killed by Arabs, in spite of the fact that many Arabs hid their Jewish neighbors to protect them from the onslaught. Shortly after that, the Jews were evacuated by the British. They returned briefly for the period between 1931 and 1936, but were again evacuated. In 1948, Jordan gained control of Hebron, and it was forbidden for Jews to travel there even to pray. It was not until 1968, after the West Bank was occupied by Israel, that the Jewish community was once again established in Hebron.
This time the Jews returned not as wandering tribesmen, not as refugees seeking asylum from Europe, and not as pioneers under the protection of the British. This time they came as Israelis and they brought with them all the power relations that characterize the State of Israel. Meaning that in Hebron, just as in Israel and the territories it occupies, Israelis have rights and Palestinians do not. Just a quick stroll around Hebron, and it’s very clear. The rights of the Palestinians in Hebron are totally sacrificed for the perceived security of the Jewish settlers living there.
It is in Hebron’s H2 area where this is most apparent because this is the area where Hebron’s Israeli settlers live, and it is the area that is under continuous occupation by the Israeli army. The permanent military occupation of H2 is not subtle. There are armed Israeli soldiers everywhere, patrolling, standing at checkpoints, and looking down from rooftops and guard towers. There are believed to be about 2,000 Israeli soldiers in Hebron, stationed there to protect the 400 settlers who live in H2. It is under the scrutiny of these soldiers that Palestinian pedestrians in H2 must walk as they try to go about their daily routines.
The Jews in Hebron are fond of saying that Hebron is a Jewish city with an Arab majority, and just in case the Palestinian majority tries to forget who controls their city, there is plenty to remind them. Most striking are the Stars of David spray-painted on door after door of Palestinian shops and homes. Some of the stars are accompanied with the words "revenge," and "kill all the Arabs," scrawled in Hebrew. From behind these closed doors comes the hushed sound of adults talking, children playing, and babies crying; but these doors are always shut to the streets now, a silent reminder of the way that Palestinian life has been shut down in Hebron. There is no longer a market in the old city as there used to be. No open storefronts. No visiting and socializing on the streets. Instead, just closed doors bearing the marks of the Israelis who closed them.
It is no wonder that the streets in H2 are mostly deserted, in contrast to the usual hustle and bustle of most Palestinian cities. People are afraid to walk around because journeys outside involve walking past armed Israelis and through desolate streets littered with debris. There is loose barbed wire everywhere, curling up to nick a skirt, or tear at a child’s skin. There is shattered glass and broken metal lying around. Roadblocks, guarded by soldiers, dictate where Palestinians are able to go and how far they must walk around in order to reach destinations that used to be much closer in travel time than they are now. Men and women on their way to work or to run errands, children going to and from school or friends’ houses, families going to pray, all must tread under the suspicious and terrifying gaze of the Israeli soldiers. The soldiers, though, are not the only armed Israelis in Hebron. There are also settlers walking the streets with Uzis and assault rifles.
The settlers in Hebron have a reputation throughout the West Bank and Israel as being some of the most extreme in their hatred of Palestinians. After my first trip to Hebron, I spoke with many Israelis about the injustices I saw there. Soldiers who had been posted there had stories of frustration with having to risk their lives for settlers who insisted on living in the middle of a Palestinian city, and who often went out of their way to create hostility with their neighbors. An Israeli man I spoke with by the name of Ari said he felt that the settlers in Hebron were a burden on Israel. "Not only do we to send our children to protect them, but we have to try to explain them to the rest of the world, which is difficult." But protect them and explain them they do because the rights of Israeli Jews, no matter how extreme or crazy those Jews seem to the rest of the Israeli population, always supercede the rights of Palestinians.
While in Hebron, I spent time with a Palestinian youth named Khalil. He and I sat over tea in a small coffee shop facing the Mosque. The shop was the only Palestinian place of business open on the whole street. Khalil told me that the area used to be busy, with lots of shops and many tourists. Now, however, instead of tourists, there is an Israeli checkpoint just feet from the coffee shop. Khalil and I talked as we watched the sporadic traffic go in and out of the checkpoint. It did not take me long to realize that all of the vehicles moving through the checkpoint had the yellow Israeli license plates, none of them had Palestinian plates. I asked Khalil for an explanation, and he ruefully informed me that it was not permitted for Palestinians to drive cars in H2, only Israelis have that right.
The other thing I noticed was that Israeli ambulances were allowed unhindered and rapid movement through the checkpoint. This was surprising to me only after my observations of the treatment of Palestinian ambulances in the occupied territories. Ambulances in the Palestinian territories are almost never allowed freedom of movement, even when there is an obvious emergency. It is common for ambulances to be held up for hours at checkpoints, for ambulance crews and patients to be questioned, searched, and harassed; and there are several documented cases of ambulances being shot at by the Israeli army. When I brought up what I had observed about the treatment of Palestinian ambulances and EMT’s to Reema, a Palestinian Red Crescent Society employee, she confirmed that in Hebron it was no different. In order to enter H2, Palestinian ambulances often travel great distances out of the way to avoid checkpoints because at checkpoints they are often held up for hours.
During my conversation with Khalil, I realized just how deep the injustice in Hebron is. Hebronites must endure all the same hardships of Israeli military occupation as their counterparts in Ramallah, Nablus and the remainder of the West Bank. They are denied their political and human rights, and they are surrounded by settlements, checkpoints, and the Israeli military. They are subjected to the brutal oppression of the occupation characterized by killings, detentions, and general misery. Hebron’s significant distinction from the other Palestinian population centers in the West Bank is that Israeli settlers actually live within the city limits.
This means that the H2 side of Hebron is always under intense occupation; the army does not retreat even in times of calm. It also means that any perceived threat to the settlers’ security is met with the harshest lockdown and elimination of the threat. In a city where 400 Jews have decided to forcibly live among a large Palestinian population, it seems that everything the Palestinians do is perceived as a threat to settlers’ security. For "security" reasons, Palestinians cannot drive cars. For "security" reasons, Palestinian ambulances must be stopped and harassed. For "security" reasons, H2 has endured over 180 days of curfew in the last two years. For "security" reasons, most places of business are not allowed or are fearful to open. For "security" reasons men, women, and children must live in constant fear in their own city.
It is striking to walk through the old market, which lies in H2, and emerge from there into H1, which is the part of the city under Palestinian control. In the old market, everything is closed down and there is an eerie atmosphere of desolation, fear, and anger. Above the narrow passageways, Palestinians have put up wire netting to protect themselves from the trash that the settlers are fond of throwing down on Palestinian pedestrians. There are only a few people out and about and only a few shops open for business.
There is an immediate difference upon entering H1. There are crowds of people shopping, sellers yelling in the street, and a lot of traffic. In H1, Israeli soldiers are not stationed on every corner, though Palestinians in H1 are still frequently shot by Israeli snipers firing from H2. One of the worst places in H1 is a traffic rotary, dubbed by locals as the "circle of death" because so many civilians have been killed there by random Israeli sniper fire. Life in H1 is as difficult as life everywhere in the West Bank, though compared to the constant and direct repression of Palestinian civilians in H2, Palestinians in H1 have a little bit of breathing room. There is still some semblance of daily life, though it is dramatically constrained by the checkpoints and roadblocks, the political assassinations, and the recurrent invasions.
Majdi said that after the 1994 massacre in the mosque, the mosque was closed for several months. When it reopened, it had been divided as it is today. Though there is a Muslim side and a Jewish side, access to both sides is controlled by the Israeli military. The situation of the mosque in Hebron is just like the situation in the whole of Hebron. Though there is an Israeli side and a Palestinian side, Israel really controls both. Due to the latest Israeli offensive in which the Israeli army has reoccupied seven of the eight designated A Areas in the West Bank, all of Hebron is now under direct Israeli occupation. As Majdi jokingly put it in a recent phone conversation, "Hebron has been reunited. We used to have H1 and H2; now we are just one big H."
Jessica Azulay welcomes responses at email@example.com