The ghosts of Hebron

Núria Vilà                        Hebron (West Bank)

Report published at GARA newspaper.

In the alleys of the old town of Hebron it is difficult to see a single person. While once the city was the commercial center of the southern West Bank, currently only remain empty streets, barriers that cut communications to the heart of the city, barred windows, shops closed, and those that remain open have sellers without buyers. “Our situation is very bad; Please help us buying something”, exclaimed young boys chasing Palestinian international activists and journalists who have come to know the situation firsthand. Tourists, there remains no trace, and locals just move inside the city when it is strictly necessary.

In Hebron are given a singular fact: the center of the city is the only one on the West Bank has implemented an Israeli settlement in the middle. It is for this reason that the violence between Palestinians and Israelis, who live face to face, has been constant in recent years. Looking up a network of iron observed that protects pedestrians who walk down the garbage throwing settlers who inhabit the houses above. Years pass, trash accumulates and alleys increasingly fewer people are walking. Since the beginning of the conflict, the Israeli authorities have closed more than 1,800 Palestinians businesses and have forced some 13,000 Palestinians to leave their homes in the center of Hebron, according to the organization Youth Against Settlements-, thus earning the nickname of ‘ghost town’.

Hebron activist Issa Amro, founder and director of the Palestinian organization, denounced the “double standards” that implements the Israeli army in Hebron. “The Palestinians are under Israeli military law, while settlers are subject to civil law. The Israeli army is pro-settlers, are part of the job. They work together to make life harder for Palestinians to force them to leave and thus strengthen the settlement project in the center of the city”, stresses Amro, with a vision that is shared by most activists from Hebron.

Hebron microcosm of occupation

Recent history of Palestinian Hebron recalls two fundamental events that have led to the current impasse: the entry of Israeli settlers in the city in 1979 -and until 1984, when they established four settlements- and the attack on the mosque of Ibrahim.

The result of the entry of settlers led a policy of separation and restriction of movement of Palestinians, which led to many Palestinian families to leave the old town and, consequently, the economy collapsed. Currently about 850 Israeli citizens live in the city, often armed and protected by some 2,000 Israeli soldiers, according to data from the Palestinian organization Al-Haq.

The memory of the massacre in the Ibrahimi Mosque

A decade after the Israeli entry to the city, in 1994 an attack by a US-born Israeli citizen, Baruch Goldstein, killed 29 Palestinians praying in the Ibrahimi Mosque, also known as Tomb Patriarchs -that is considered a place of worship for both Judaism and Islam- during Friday praying of Ramadan. The attack on the mosque, known as ‘Goldstein massacre’ is an event long remembered in the memory of the Palestinians as they marked a significant turning point in the history of the city. After the attack, “instead of implementing measures to protect Palestinians in the area, the Israeli government and army decided to convert half the mosque and a synagogue closed Shuhada Street to Palestinians,” says Amro.

Shuhada, who formerly was the vital center of the old town, saw that in the wake of the Goldstein massacre “more than 500 shops in this street were closed by the Israeli army and the rest were also forced to close because entrance on the area was blocked”. Now, only those who live inside the street have the right to cross the checkpoint and access. This, for Amro, “effectively created a ghost town.”

Later, in 1997, the city was divided into two zones under the Hebron Protocol, which led to the creation of the areas H1 –under Palestinian control- and H2 -controlled directly by Israel. “In H2, the Palestinians cannot use vehicles and are subject to bag identifications and identity cards on daily basis and are harassed by settlers, religiously and ideologically motivated to inhabit this land occupied”, explains the website of Youth Against Settlements.

According to the Israeli organization B’Tselem, since 1994 more than 1,000 Palestinian homes in the H2 -the 40% of the houses in this area- have been abandoned. In total, the Israeli NGO Breaking the Silence estimated that some 18,000 Palestinians resist in this area, which registers an unemployment rate of 70% of the population, one of the highest in the West Bank.