Back before the 1991 Gulf war, Palestinians could move fairly easily between the cities and provinces of the West Bank. The trip from Ramallah, in the north, and Hebron, in the south, lasted 50 minutes at most. These days, the luckiest traveler will spend something like two hours on the road.
The trip from Ramallah to Hebron is not longer because of urban sprawl or the appearance of industrial zones between the two towns since the early 1990s. Neither is the added time a result of the marked increase in the number of Palestinian car owners, or of the suffocating traffic around the walled Old City of Jerusalem or the Palestinian Jerusalem suburb of Bayt Safafa. The trip is longer simply because the Israeli occupation authorities prevent Palestinians who hold West Bank identity cards—more than 2.8 million people—from taking the most direct and logical north-south route passing through Jerusalem and its environs. At first, Israel allowed some to make the trip with individual permits. But now all cars bearing Palestinian Authority (PA) license plates are blocked from entering “Greater Jerusalem”—the areas beyond the Green Line illegally annexed by Israel—and the permits issued by the Israeli Civil Administration are far more difficult to obtain. Permits are generally issued only to large merchants, and even then only for humanitarian reasons, as when someone needs special medical treatment or is giving birth.
The great majority of Palestinians, then, because they cannot take the direct southbound route, are forced to take the road winding along the eastern border of “Greater Jerusalem.” This road passes through the Ramallah hinterland to the northern edges of “Greater Jerusalem,” before heading east almost to the Jordan Valley and then back west to reach the outskirts of Jerusalem once again, but now from the eastern approach. But first, one is confronted with the sight of Ma’aleh Adumim, the largest settlement in the West Bank, above the road from Jericho to Jerusalem. Ma’aleh Adumim was planned as an eastern annex of “Greater Jerusalem,” and so it has become. One has to hope to pass by the settlement after 9 am, because every day between 6 and 9 am, except on the Jewish Sabbath, an Israel Defense Forces checkpoint stops all Arab cars coming or going. The reason is not “security,” but rather ease of movement for the settlers, so they can get to their places of work and study on time, without getting stuck in the morning traffic jams that Arab traffic “intentionally causes” at the intersection.
The road along the eastern boundary of East Jerusalem takes one through the villages of al-‘Izariyya, Abu Dis and Sawahra. Along side roads meandering among the houses, the holy city is sometimes visible, but at other times the landscape is blocked from view by Israel’s separation wall that crawls up and down hillsides and snakes between houses. Abu Dis is a town that is only one kilometer from the city, but has nonetheless been placed inside the new, Israeli-determined borders of the West Bank by the route of the wall. From a few spots atop the wall in Abu Dis, where one can stand, without a permit, one can see the Haram al-Sharif glinting in the distance. And that is the closest most Palestinians will get to the Dome of the Rock.
Standing in East Sawahra is “the container,” an ad hoc barrier that is so called because there the Israeli occupation authorities inspect every vehicle and person heading south to Bethlehem and Hebron or north to Ramallah, Jericho, Qalqilya, Tulkarm, Nablus and Jenin. Only in the early months of 2007 did Israel allow owners of private vehicles to pass through this checkpoint. Before then, only taxis, buses or special permit holders were allowed to cross. These special permits were granted only for travel from one part of the West Bank to another; they are not the same permits that let Palestinians enter Jerusalem or Israel. After “the container,” travelers to Hebron reach the sharply bending road called Wadi al-Nar, built in the Mandate period, and widened only slightly to accommodate the traffic of the entire West Bank, forced onto it by the occupation. Accidents on this road claim the lives of many Palestinians, especially in winter, because of the steep grade and the density of the traffic.
Hebron-bound drivers with West Bank identity cards are next compelled to navigate the towns of Bayt Sahour, Bethlehem and Bayt Jala, as well as the Aida refugee camp and villages to the east. Before the wall was built, the boundaries of the adjoining towns of Bayt Sahour, Bethlehem and Bayt Jala were impossible to distinguish. The three towns were, in essence, a single unit. Now the border between Bayt Jala and Bethlehem is easy to discern, as are the lands expropriated to build the wall that separates these towns from Jerusalem.
Leaving the Bethlehem area finally brings one back to the main road between Jerusalem and Hebron. This stretch of highway is one of the few where Israel allows Arabs and Israeli settlers to drive side by side, simply because there is no alternative road for the Arabs, and because of the sheer number of settlers throughout the vicinity of Jerusalem, Bethlehem and Hebron. There is barely a hill around here without a settlement or a military post on top.
The most significant of these settlements (with their Torah-inspired names) is Kfar Etzion, which, according to the planned route of the wall, will be joined to the municipality of Jerusalem a full 20 kilometers to the north. Not far from Kfar Etzion, on the same road, is the ‘Arroub refugee camp in the governorate of Hebron. The camp is surrounded by barbed wire with small portals for entry and exit. Israeli soldiers watch over the settlers at all times.
Before the intifada that began in the fall of 2000, there were several major approaches to Hebron, the most important of which passed through the town of Halhoul. Today, with checkpoints everywhere, the more than 500,000 residents of Hebron governorate must cram into the city through one pitiful entrance, to the east of town. This checkpoint is linked to observation towers and dozens of 24-hour surveillance cameras.
Café Handhala stands opposite the crumbling Palestine Hotel in the middle of the old city of Hebron. The owner, journalist Hisham Sharabati, insists on staying open even though he is not making money, just so that the Israeli authorities do not shut him down and take the building. I met him at the café to learn more about Hebron’s isolation from the rest of the West Bank.
At first, I could not focus on our conversation because of the incongruous scene before me. Directly opposite the café was a fortified military post, as if we were looking out over the battlements from behind enemy lines. To the right, at a distance of no more than six meters, the upper floor of a stolen house hosted another fortification. To the left of the café, behind a high wall, is the settlement of Beit Romano, which was originally the Usama bin Munqidh school. Beit Romano is not the only settlement in the old city: There is also Tel Rumeida, Beit Hadassah and Avraham Avinu. Outside the old city, but still in “H2,” the section of Hebron directly controlled by the Israeli military, is the settler enclave of Givat Ha’avot. (The larger settlements of Kiryat Arba and HarSina Hill lie to the east of “H2” and Har Manoah and Beit Haggai to the south.) In July 2007, settlers seized the Rajabi house, a fine three-story building on the Prayers Road in “H2,” as a way station for their walks to the Cave of the Patriarchs (a site also holy to Muslims as the al-Ibrahimi Mosque). The building is now ironically renamed the “House of Peace.”
Sharabati added context to the grim picture: “The city of Hebron suffers from official neglect, perhaps because it is far from the centers of decision-making in Ramallah.” He continued: “True, the main problem has been the neglect of the south by the PA, but the problem is also us here in Hebron. We have a crisis of leadership. Most of the time, the Hebron district officials who maintain formal contact with the PA only ask for redress of the troubles of individuals. There is no coordination among the town’s movers and shakers to determine our collective needs and advocate for their redress with PA decision-making bodies and donors. For example, the ninth PA cabinet would hold its weekly meeting in a different district, and in the last days of that government they held a meeting in Hebron. But the local leadership did not present the proposal projects for Hebron as one package for its citizens; instead, proposed development projects were presented as the aspirations of individuals. In comparison, Nablus presented their requests as a coherent whole, replete with feasibility studies, which put pressure on the cabinet to approve the requests.”
Sharabati concluded that unless a concerted effort, Palestinian or otherwise, is made to protect the old city, in a few years the majority of the population will be made up of Jewish settlers. He advocated launching an international campaign to highlight the suffering of Hebron’s population and the daily harassment they endure from settlers and the Israeli army. The settler-colonial project of taking over Arab houses and shops has not stopped, as evidenced by the Rajabi house, as well as the July 2007 military order closing shops.
The road to Hebron is long and arduous, not because of the proliferation of barriers, as in the northern West Bank, but because the road itself has been displaced. The plight of Hebron, like the obstacle course Palestinians face in getting there, is Israel’s racist policy of discrimination and division in microcosm.
—Translated from Arabic by Rochelle Davis and Chris Toensing