“You are going to Hebron?” a Palestinian colleague remarked. “Oh, that’s a special place.” Thirty-two miles south of Jerusalem, Hebron is the largest Palestinian city in the Israeli-occupied West Bank, with some 215,000 inhabitants. The gritty, largely working-class town puts out anywhere from 33 to 40 percent of Palestine’s gross domestic product, depending on the estimate. The large mosque in Hebron’s old city houses the tombs of Abraham and his family, making the site holy to the adherents of all three monotheistic religions. But the above comment was not meant in an economic or a spiritual sense.
What makes Hebron special is the religious-nationalist militancy of the Israeli settler projects in the city and its environs—along with the ferocity of the accompanying violence. In the province as a whole, the settlement pattern is the same as elsewhere in the West Bank—the inward creep of colonization forces the occupied population into ever smaller and denser enclaves. The southern Hebron hills are a recurrent flashpoint, as settlers and Israeli army bulldozers repeatedly try to push Palestinian shepherd families out of their villages.
But Hebron’s real distinctiveness lies in what is called H2, the portion of the city that remains under Israeli military control by the terms of a 1997 agreement between Israel and the Palestinian Authority (PA). In H2, which encompasses the old city and the Ibrahimi Mosque/Tomb of the Patriarchs, about 800 settlers, guarded by 1,500 Israeli soldiers, live in the midst of 40,000 Palestinians. Most Palestinian Hebronites live in H1, the part of the city under nominal PA control. The Israeli army stages regular raids on houses in H1—one soldier told writer Ben Ehrenreich that his superiors do not want the Palestinians to lose “the feeling of being chased.” [1. Ben Ehrenreich, “How Israel Is Inciting Palestinian Violence,” Politico, June 14, 2016.] The Palestinian residents of H2 are subject to even worse treatment: daily harassment, invasive surveillance, regular curfews and frequent settler attacks.
A small community of Jews lived among Muslims and Christians in Hebron for hundreds of years prior to the beginning of Zionist immigration and the resulting conflict over Palestine in the late nineteenth century. In 1929, amid tensions over rights to the Temple Mount/Noble Sanctuary in Jerusalem, Palestinians killed 66 Jews in Hebron. [2. Hillel Cohen, Year Zero of the Arab-Israeli Conflict: 1929 (trans. Haim Watzman) (Waltham, MA: Brandeis University Press, 2015), p. 122. Other sources variously put the number at 63, 64 or 67.] (Nine Palestinians also died in the fighting, and Palestinians sheltered more than 400 other Jews from massacre.) The British-run police force evacuated the surviving Jews to Jerusalem, and there would be no Jewish presence in Hebron again until after the 1967 war.
Settlers established Kiryat Arba, to the east of Hebron’s old city, in 1968. The Israeli daily Haaretz disclosed in July that the Israeli government of the time discussed how to support Kiryat Arba, despite being aware that the construction violated international law. [3. Yotam Berger, “Secret 1970 Document Confirms First West Bank Settlements Built on a Lie,” Haaretz, July 28, 2016.] The first settlement in the old city appeared in April 1979, when Jewish women and children were placed in the abandoned Beit Hadassah hospital under cover of night. The government of Menachem Begin was not enthusiastic about the outpost in the middle of a major Palestinian town, but soldiers took up positions to defend it. In the ensuing decade, more settlers moved from Kiryat Arba into the city center, founding Beit Romano, Tel Rumeida and Avraham Avinu, with the government’s tacit blessing as well as the army’s protection. A fifth city center settlement, called Beit Ha-Shalom by the settlers, was started in 2014 with the approval of the Israeli defense minister after the Israeli Supreme Court ruled that the settlers’ use of a front man to purchase the four-story building from its Palestinian owners was legal. [4. Michael Schaeffer Omer-Man, “A New Settlement Is Born in Hebron,” +972, April 13, 2014. On the legal battle, see Haaretz, November 3, 2013.]
As the settlers in the Hebron area tend to come from the religious-nationalist side of the Zionist spectrum, they believe that God granted all of biblical Israel to the Jewish people. They are heavily armed. Moreover, they openly express sympathy with the teachings of Meir Kahane, the US-born founder of the militant Jewish Defense League and the Kach party in Israel, which was barred from elections owing to its anti-Arab racism. The most infamous men rumored to be residents of Kiryat Arba are the League’s Keith Fuchs and Andy Green, two fugitives wanted in connection with the 1985 bombing death of Alex Odeh, a regional director for the American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee, in Santa Ana, California. Another Kiryat Arba settler, Robert Manning, was extradited to the United States and convicted in 1994 on charges of killing a secretary in Los Angeles with a mail bomb in 1980. He is also a suspect in the Odeh assassination. [5. Jewish Telegraphic Agency, February 10, 1994.]
During Ramadan of 1994, less than six months after Yitzhak Rabin and Yasser Arafat shook hands on the White House lawn to seal the deal of mutual recognition between Israel and the Palestine Liberation Organization, Baruch Goldstein, a settler from New York, burst into the Ibrahimi Mosque with an M-16 and murdered 29 Palestinians while wounding another 125. Survivors of the mass shooting beat Goldstein, a Kahane follower, to death. Settlers built a shrine to Goldstein in what they call Meir Kahane Memorial Park. The Israeli government destroyed it. The settlers rebuilt it, and today it remains a pilgrimage site for those traveling to Kiryat Arba.
In the aftermath of the Goldstein massacre, the Israeli government accelerated the pace of colonization of Palestinian land even as the “peace process” commenced by Rabin and Arafat got underway. Predictably, Hebron was a frequent site of clashes between settlers and Palestinians. Israel rebuffed the PA’s call to disarm the Hebron settlers and instead sent more soldiers to the city. The army closed down streets, hurting Palestinian businesses. The army also imposed multiple curfews on the city—but not on the settlers, who seized the opportunity to take over more houses. The Ibrahimi Mosque was partitioned with thick bulletproof glass into Muslim and Jewish spaces of worship. Eventually, the accord was signed that divided the city as a whole into H1 and H2.
The agreement did not bring peaceful coexistence, however. After the outbreak of the second intifada in 2000, Hebron was a focal point of Palestinian resistance. Israel cracked down hard with round-the-clock curfews in H2 and closure of the gold and fruit markets in the old city. Abandoned, the area has become known as Ghost Town. In 2007, the Israeli human rights organization B’Tselem reported that 1,014 Palestinian homes in the old city (41.9 percent of housing in the area) had been vacated and 1,829 businesses (76.6 percent of area shops) shuttered. [6. B’Tselem, Ghost Town: Israel’s Separation Policy and Forced Eviction of Palestinians from the Center of Hebron (Jerusalem, May 2007).]
“You Wanna See How the Arabs Live…”
It does not take long for a visitor to understand why the atmosphere in Hebron is uniquely toxic. In the parking lot around the corner from the Ibrahimi Mosque complex, it is sunny and eerily quiet at midday in May. One vacant-looking building is draped in Israeli flags.
The Kiryat Arba settlers have set up a shop across from a long-closed restaurant. A message in Hebrew—“Respect the Sabbath”—is plastered over the restaurant’s hand-painted Arabic sign. Two or three Palestinian stalls are also selling souvenirs. The shopkeepers hawk their wares more aggressively than their counterparts in Jerusalem or Bethlehem, as few tourists tread this path any longer.
On the other side of a checkpoint turnstile, the old city’s market is likewise mostly empty. Kids emerge curious about the rare visitors; the shopkeepers themselves look almost surprised. Poster-size photos of Goldstein’s 29 victims hang on the walls. In a “peace park,” two people chat on a bench. Down an alley, the shopkeepers have strung chicken wire to shield themselves from rocks or garbage tossed down by the settlers living above. A sack of excrement sits atop one cage. Turning left, barbed wire is everywhere in the walled-off gold market. The fenced balconies above belong to settlers.
One vendor lives in a building looking out upon a playground for settler children. He cannot leave his house unattended, he says, for fear that settlers will firebomb it. They once tried such an attack while he was home, terrifying his family. Another time, settlers threw a bag of snakes through his window. He plays a video saved on his smartphone showing the incidents in question. In the stunned silence, settler kids on the playground dribble a basketball, unseen but clearly heard.
The alley empties into a square devoid of traffic. The walls bear telling graffiti—“Fight Ghost Town.” There are army command posts on two of the four sides of the square. A soldier takes a drag on his cigarette as he rests on his M-16.
Ahead one can see the main commercial zone of H1. It is bustling. But first, after a left onto al-Shuhada Street, visitors must pass on foot through a massive, menacing checkpoint and walk by the settlement of Beit Hadassah. The checkpoint has been here for more than 20 years—it once consisted of twin cinder blocks—and is newly fortified. The current design renders invisible whatever might happen inside.
Pedestrians enter the checkpoint one by one. A green light alerts the next person in line to step forward into a cage. The green light shines again. Through a door is an empty room where two Israeli soldiers sit behind a small window. “Go!” they yell, at least at bearers of US passports. Then there is another disorienting, solitary cage, a turnstile and another stretch of closed-off street next to Beit Hadassah. Palestinian residents of H2—the only Palestinians permitted in the area—traverse the checkpoint on their way to H1. None of them look up as they exit.
The scene gets stranger after the checkpoint: One settler in running clothes is doing hill repeats. Another woman wearing a uniform with the name of the settlement is waiting. She starts filming the Western visitors with her smartphone. “What’s wrong? My camera does not hurt more than yours.” She draws closer. “My family lived here until 1929 when the Arabs massacred them.” Another woman shouts in an unmistakable Brooklyn accent, “What do you want? Why are you here? If you wanna see how the Arabs live, go to Syria.”
Here there are schools, a soccer pitch and omnipresent Israeli flags. The graffiti shows the Jewish temple rebuilt in Jerusalem. Neither the al-Aqsa mosque nor the Dome of the Rock is depicted, though these structures now stand on the presumptive site. Above the image is a quote from the Passover Haggadah, “Build the Temple quickly and in our time.” Bumper stickers demand the release of Meir Ettinger, a grandson of Meir Kahane who was jailed in connection with a firebombing that killed an 18-month old Palestinian baby named ‘Ali Dawabsha. Haaretz describes Ettinger as the “number-one Jewish suspect of terrorism” in the eyes of the Shinbet, Israel’s internal security service. On June 1, he was let go after ten months in administrative detention. Other signs refer to the settlement’s land as “stolen by Arabs” in 1929. The driver of a passing Subaru shouts out the window, “This is Jewish property.” Palestinians are forbidden to drive in H2.
If visitors to Hebron are few, there is plenty of documentation of what happens here. Christian Peacemaker Teams, an ecumenical group based in Chicago, keeps a team in Hebron that, among other activities, accompanies Palestinian children to school. The children often encounter settler harassment. Breaking the Silence, an Israeli organization of anti-occupation ex-soldiers, conducts regular tours of the city as well as the southern Hebron hills. Most soldiers despise being posted to Hebron, but many of them recognize that soldiers and settlers are partners in the project of colonization. As Breaking the Silence has commented about the West Bank in general,
The security forces do not see the settlers as civilians subject to law enforcement but as a powerful body that shares common goals. Even when the wishes of the settlers and the military are at odds, they still ultimately consider each other as partners in a shared struggle and settle their conflict through compromise. As a consequence, the security forces usually acquiesce in the settlers’ goals, if only partially. Thus, settler violence against Palestinians is not treated as an infraction of the law. It is instead one more way in which Israel exercises control in the Territories. [7. Breaking the Silence, Our Harsh Logic: Israeli Soldiers’ Testimonies from the Occupied Territories, 2000-2010 (Picador, 2012), p. 5.]
Another organization, the Temporary International Presence in Hebron (TIPH), files daily reports on the situation in the city. Established by the 1997 accord, TIPH has a staff of Danish, Italian, Norwegian, Swedish, Swiss and Turkish observers who carry out two or three shifts per day. Once, there were as many as 180 people on staff; today, there are 64. All have diplomatic immunity. The civilian observers patrol H1 and H2 by car and on foot. Their mandate from Israel and the PA is clear: They are to watch but not to interfere. TIPH organizes tours for outside delegations, though the Israeli government complains when it considers the number excessive. The organization also engages in community relations like the underused “peace park.” Settlers and Palestinians alike disdain TIPH as ineffective.
The cornerstone of TIPH’s mission is to write down what it sees. There are incident reports, monthly reviews and quarterly assessments. The documentation is distributed to the Israeli government, the PA and the governments of the six countries that supply the observers. According to one staffer interviewed in May, TIPH monitors have authored over 20,000 reports since 1997. The reports are not classified but they are confidential: No one but Israel, the PA and the TIPH member governments can read them.
If the reports are not public, what good are they? TIPH personnel shrug—perhaps governments have more latitude to share private information. The member states are afraid that publicizing the reports will anger “the parties to the conflict,” a term implicitly understood to mean Israel. One joke is that the documents are locked in a vault in Oslo. In any case, the settlers and soldiers behave noticeably better when TIPH personnel are around, giving some respite to the besieged Palestinians.
In 2016, Hebron has been on heightened alert. According to TIPH, Israeli security forces killed nearly 30 Palestinian Hebronites between October 2015 and the succeeding spring, part of an increase in such incidents across the West Bank. If one accounts for other killings near settlements in the Hebron governorate, the figure ticks upward.
The routine killings in Hebron usually do not make the news outside of Palestine. A pair that did attract international media attention occurred on March 24, after two Palestinians reportedly attempted to stab soldiers at a checkpoint next to the volatile Tel Rumeida settlement. One soldier was “lightly wounded,” according to the army. The two Palestinians, ‘Abd al-Fattah al-Sharif and Ramzi al-Qasrawi, both 21, were shot dead.
The same day, B’Tselem published a video, shot by Hebron resident ‘Imad Abu Shamsiyya, that shows Sharif lying flat on the ground, incapacitated by a gunshot wound in the stomach. An ambulance is parked nearby and paramedics are visible in the frame. The notorious settler Baruch Marzel is also on the scene, shaking hands with soldiers. Abruptly, the Israeli army medic Elor Azaria cocks his rifle and fires at Sharif’s head. [8. The video is posted here.] No one reacts. Azaria is on trial for manslaughter in the execution—he claims he sensed a “clear and present danger”—sparking a firestorm in Israel. A poll conducted in late March found that 57 percent of respondents did not want the soldier indicted in the shooting. [9. Dahlia Scheindlin, “Israeli Public Opinion Solidly Backs Hebron Soldier,” +972, March 28, 2016.] Later, it was revealed that Qasrawi was also executed at the same intersection. The videographer Abu Shamsiyya has received death threats and is fighting a legal battle as settlers have filed a formal complaint.
The quotidian crisis of Hebron, like that in other West Bank locales, seeps into Israel as well. On June 8, two Palestinians, Khalid and Muhammad Muhamra opened fire on a crowded restaurant in central Tel Aviv’s upscale Sarona market. The gunmen, cousins from Yatta, a town five miles south of Hebron, killed four Israelis and wounded 13 others. Israeli academic Michael Feige, whose research concerns the settlers, was among the dead.
In retaliation, Israel issued demolition orders for the houses of the two perpetrators. The army closed off Yatta, emplacing huge cement blocks to block anyone from entering or exiting the town of 65,000. Lastly, Israeli authorities froze travel permits for 83,000 Palestinians from the vicinity, preventing them from visiting family or praying at Jerusalem’s holy sites during Ramadan. As journalists investigated the Muhamras’ background, it emerged that Khalid had watched the army raze his family home in 2003, when he was in third grade.
Such collective punishment might occur anywhere in the occupied West Bank. But in Hebron and its environs, these measures seem to have a special bite, perhaps because of the non-stop acrimony in the city or perhaps because here the settler-colonial project at the heart of the occupation is hyper-visible. As one international living in Hebron said, “You can only learn hate here.”