Hebron: Microcosm of the occupation

In this guest post, my EAPPI colleague, teacher and human rights activist Jane Harries, reflects on her recent visit to Hebron

‘I try to imagine what it must be like to bring up one’s children in fear and hate.’ (Photo: Jane Harries)

In the streets of H1 – the Palestinian sector of the city of Hebron – people are preparing for the Iftar meal, which breaks the Ramadan fast. Stalls are piled high with different types of bread and trays of the sticky sweets that traditionally finish off the meal. Everywhere there is life and bustle: the cries of vendors, people hurrying home with their purchases, the sound of music and taxis.  The atmosphere is busy, warm and relaxed – almost festive.

We pass into H2 – the Israeli-controlled centre of the city – into a space that has the quality of nightmares. This was once the heart of Hebron, home to a vibrant ‘suq’ (Arabic market).  Now the area is dead,  pervaded by an atmosphere of tension and fear.  This is Shuhada Street, the main street leading through the centre of the Old City to the Tomb of the Patriarchs. It’s ‘off limits’ for Palestinians – a practically deserted street lined with closed shutters, some daubed with Stars of David, and houses whose windows are protected by wire meshing, and with graffiti that says ‘Welcome to Apartheid Street’.

Some historical context is necessary before we proceed any further down Shuhada Street. Hebron is home to the traditional burial site of the biblical Patriarchs and Matriarchs, and is therefore considered the second-holiest city in Judaism after Jerusalem. The city is also, however, venerated by Muslims for its association with Abraham (known as ‘the friend of God’ – Ibrahim al Khalil in Arabic), and was traditionally viewed as one of the ‘four holy cities of Islam’. Jews have an ongoing and significant connection to this place. It was, for instance, the capital of King David before Jerusalem.  Following the Spanish Inquisition, many Sephardic Jews emigrated to Hebron, and became well-integrated with their Muslim neighbours, learning Arab and adopting Arabic dress.

Unfortunately relationships were not always smooth, particularly following the constitutional uncertainty created by the 1917 Balfour Declaration and the rise of Zionism in the 20th century. There have been atrocities on both sides.  The events most often quoted are those of 1929 and 1994.  In 1929, following a dispute over access to the Western Wall in Jerusalem, riots broke out and 67 Jews were killed, 60 injured and homes and synagogues ransacked.  An equally shocking event took place in 1994 when Baruch Goldstein, an Israeli physician and resident of Kiryat Arba settlement outside Hebron, opened fire on Muslims at prayer in the Ibrahimi Mosque, killing 29 and wounding 125.

We are reminded of the 1929 massacre by several exhibition boards pinned to buildings as we walk down Shuhada street.  What these boards don’t tell us is that the reality is more complex than the ‘official’ version.  As well as the 67 Jews who were killed in 1929, 118 Arabs lost their lives.  Some 435 Jews also survived because of the shelter and assistance offered them by their Arab neighbours, at the risk of their own lives.  It is, however, the black-and-white version of history that is displayed on the boards.  The justification for the existence of exclusively Jewish settlements in the heart of what is otherwise a Palestinian town is that Jewish people were violently expelled and are now reclaiming their homes. Five hundred settlers living in the midst of 175,000 Palestinians, and guarded by 2,000 Israeli soldiers.  The atmosphere of fear and antagonism which this situation generates can be felt everywhere.  Not just in the ugliness of the deserted streets, the concrete walls in front of the entrance to the settlements, and the presence of armed soldiers everywhere.  It pervades everything. I try to imagine what it must be like to bring up one’s children in fear and hate.

The move to re-establish a Jewish presence in the centre of Hebron took hold in the 1960s and 70s, largely planned and financed by the Movement for Greater Israel.  At Passover in 1968, a group led by Rabbi Moshe Levinger rented the Park Hotel in Hebron, and then refused to leave.  After a considerable amount of lobbying, this led to the establishment of Kiryat Arba settlement in an abandoned military base.  In 1979, a group of women settlers led by Miriam Levinger moved into the former Hadassah Hospital in the centre of Hebron, and turned this into a bridgehead for Jewish resettlement inside the town itself.  Supporters of Jewish resettlement within Hebron see their program as the reclamation of an important heritage dating back to Biblical times, which was dispersed or – it is argued – stolen by Arabs after the massacre of 1929. Settlers in Hebron make the lives of their Palestinian neighbours unbearable through harassment and violence which is virtually unchecked by the Israeli military.  The figures speak for themselves: by 2009, 1,000 Palestinian homes in H2 were lying empty, and 1,900 businesses had been forced to close – either for economic reasons or by order of the Israeli army.

The army plays an important role in defending the no-man’s land around the settlements, controlling the local population and creating an atmosphere of fear.  Avner Gvaryahu, a former Israeli soldier and now member of campaign group Breaking the Silence, tells us how his unit received orders to ‘stir up the everyday life of the Palestinians’.  This included performing mock arrests and ‘straw widows’ (taking over Palestinian homes for strategic purposes). The ultimate aim of his unit, he says, was to ‘encourage’ Palestinians to leave H2. The soldier at the checkpoint on our way into H2 seemed to be of the same mind set. He pointed his gun at everyone, aggressively telling us to move away from where we are standing near the checkpoint observing, although he refused to tell us why. This is his patch, and he is in control. And so a microcosm of the Occupation is kept in place here.

As we walk around the Old City, we get a glimpse of how beautiful this city could be.  Since the establishment of the Hebron Rehabilitation Committee in 1996, money has been donated to renovate some of the old houses.  At the same time, the Jewish settlements in the city centre are supported by funding from abroad. And so these two peoples continue to co-exist in frozen antagonism, perpetuating feelings of victimhood.  We are not aware of any talk of conciliation or cooperation in Hebron, although we know that some of the descendants of the Jews who were expelled in 1929 don’t agree with the Israeli settlement project.

We return to our flat in H1 and an invitation to join our landlord and his family for their Iftar meal.  We are generously welcomed and included in the family circle, then sit on the balcony drinking coffee and taking in the delicate scent of jasmine flowers.  A jasmine flower falls and lands in my coffee.  ‘Magic,’ says Chris.  ‘We could use a bit of that,’ I think.

Jane Harries is currently working for EAPPI in Yanoun, West Bank. She is blogging here.

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