HEBRON, Occupied Palestinian Territories—This Palestinian city of 155,000 is held hostage by 400 Israeli settlers. Like other West Bank cities, Hebron is ringed with settlements snaking along the hilltops surrounding it. But the city also hosts ultra-Orthodox Jews living right in the middle of the city.
Once a hub of Palestinian commerce, Hebron is now practically a ghost town in places; in the city’s center, 42 percent of Palestinian homes are empty and 77 percent of businesses are closed. This is due to three factors: settler violence, curfews imposed by the Israel Defense Forces (IDF), and the division of the city between Israeli and Palestinian control.
The 1993 Oslo agreement partitioned the city into H1, under Palestinian jurisdiction, and H2, ruled by the Israeli military. In H2, where the settlements are located, many streets have been designated “sterile” by the military in order to segregate the settlers from the Palestinian population. There are varying degrees of “sterility”: Some streets are closed to Palestinian vehicles; Palestinians are not allowed to open businesses on others; and some are off-limits to even Palestinian pedestrians. Many Palestinians living here must reach their houses via rooftops and ladders from neighboring buildings.
The main street of Shou Haddah, formerly a bustling commercial district, is completely “sterile.” Shop doors are welded shut, and the only traffic is the occasional settler on foot or a soldier jogging up the steep hill with his automatic rifle. A few Palestinian families still live along Shou Haddah, and some have even received IDF permission to enter through their own front doors, but they prefer to use the back way in order to avoid settler harassment.
“It’s not just a question of 500 mad settlers,” says Yehudah Shaul, a member of Breaking the Silence, a group of Israeli soldiers speaking out about their experience enforcing the occupation. “It’s the whole system of government complicity or ignoring.”
Israeli military personnel have no legal authority to arrest settlers; that is the job of Israeli police. IDF rules of engagement forbid troops from firing on a settler, even if that settler is shooting at civilians. Soldiers must wait until the settler stops to reload and then non-lethally disarm and arrest the shooter.
From 2001 to 2003, Shaul says, the IDF imposed full curfew for 377 days and partial curfew for more than 500 days. Children couldn’t attend school and people couldn’t go to work, buy groceries or get medical care. This crackdown decimated Hebron’s economy. More than 1,400 shops have gone out of business, on top of 480 that were closed because of lack of access due to checkpoints and street closings. The narrow alleys of Hebron’s old city, which once housed a crowded marketplace, are roofed with wire mesh to protect pedestrians from the debris thrown down by settlers living in the buildings above. Garbage, bricks and large chunks of concrete are among the objects trapped overhead. Some things breach the barrier, for example filthy water and metal rods, one of which penetrated the skull of a Palestinian, causing permanent brain damage. No one was ever questioned or arrested in that case.
Shaul shows us through H2, because Hisham cannot enter the Israeli-controlled part of the city. We climb a hill to visit two Palestinian families sticking it out in H2. Issa lives in a home rented with the help of a mixed Jewish-Muslim organization called Children of Abraham. Volunteers from the Israeli Committee against House Demolitions (Palestinian workers can’t enter the area) rebuilt the house, which had been damaged by settlers and military operations. Now Issa, his neighbor Hani and Children of Abraham are creating a space on the second floor for joint Israeli-Palestinian meetings and seeking funding for a playground.
Hani wants to hold classes and nonviolence training there for children; his kids were watching action movies and coming up with ideas about revenge, he said, and he wanted to teach them something else: “If I use guns, I can kill six, ten settlers. What do I accomplish? I give them an excuse to make another settlement. Besides, I’m not a fighter; I’m a father.” Hani has given his son a video camera to document settler attacks, which has already helped exonerate a family friend who was arrested after an incident with settlers. Hani invites us into his home to show us video footage of girls leaving their Muslim school on a Saturday, only to face spitting, taunting settler girls. At the bottom of the hill, young Orthodox boys lob stones at them while soldiers stand by, lacking either the authority or the desire, apparently, to stop them.
Settlers have torched his olive grove more than once (he has also had five cars incinerated): “Anything I put in, I have an 80 percent chance of losing, but I don’t look for the lose. I look for the win.”
Photos and Text by Ellen Davidson, who was part of a delegation to the West Bank organized by the Middle East Children’s Alliance (mecaforpeace.org).