Dispatches / Opinion / War

Dispatches: Ground Zero of the Hebron Occupation

By Andrew Beale

The "cage house" in Hebron. A Palestinian family built a barrier around the home to protect it from settler attacks. — Photo by Philipp Lausberg

The “cage house” in Hebron. A Palestinian family built a barrier around the home to protect it from settler attacks. — Photo by Philipp Lausberg

— The main market center in Hebron is closed to Palestinians. Israeli soldiers maintain a constant presence in the area to ensure that no Palestinians enter the Israeli-only sections of the city.

I first visited Hebron several months ago on a tour led by Breaking the Silence, a group of ex-Israeli soldiers who served in Palestine. My guide’s name was Nadav Bigelman, and he had been part of the occupation force.

Hebron—called Al-Khalil in Arabic—is unique, the only Palestinian city on the West Bank with Israeli settlements directly inside it. The Israeli government encourages citizens to move to settlements with extensive subsidies, making it cheap for Israelis to live in Hebron or nearby Kiryat Arba.

The situation is the result of a complex history in the area, covered in this thorough timeline produced by the Israeli organization Peace Now. In short, Israeli settlers entered the Palestinian village of Hebron shortly after the West Bank came under Israeli control following 1967′s Six-Day War.

The settlers and Palestinian residents maintained an uneasy peace for decades, broken when settler Baruch Goldstein massacred 29 Palestinians inside the Tomb of the Patriarchs mosque. Goldstein himself was killed by Palestinians as he carried out the massacre. Protests and riots followed, resulting in the deaths of 26 more Palestinians and nine Israelis.

Closed Palestinian businesses in and around Hebron's Old City. — Photo by Philipp Lausberg.

Closed Palestinian businesses in and around Hebron’s Old City. — Photo by Philipp Lausberg.

In the nearby settlement of Kiryat Arba, a tomb and shrine were created for Goldstein. Although the shrine was demolished by the Israeli government in 1999, the inscription on the grave remains, reading in part “Here lies the saint, Dr. Baruch Kappel Goldstein. … His hands are innocent, and his heart is pure. He was killed as a martyr of God.”

After the riots, the city was divided into the Israeli H-1 area and the Palestinian H-2 area, but after further violence, the Israeli military gained control of H-2, as well. The city center, a vital market serving all of the West Bank, was completely closed to Palestinians, resulting in hundreds of closed Palestinian shops and hundreds of vacated homes.

Training Soldiers

Tour guide Bigelman told us that most of what he did in Hebron had the explicit aim of, as his superior officers called it, “making our presence felt.” This meant carrying out orders with no purpose other than reminding Palestinians in Hebron that the Israeli Army was in control.

The soldiers walked the streets in the early hours of the morning and threw glow sticks onto porches and through open windows of Palestinian homes, Bigelman said. When the residents awoke and discovered the glow sticks, he said, they wondered if their homes were marked for some kind of attack.

But the two main tactics used by the soldiers to “make their presence felt” were far more aggressive, he said: mapping homes and mock arrests.

Homes were mapped systematically in a radius of several blocks in Palestinian areas bordering the settlement areas, Bigelman said. This involved entering the homes without warning while the residents were sleeping and searching everything. The soldiers would also draw maps and take pictures of the home interiors, ostensibly so there would be no surprises during a combat invasion.

Graffiti in Hebron calls for the opening of Shuhada Street, a major market street closed to Palestinians by Israeli occupation forces. — Photo by Philipp Lausberg

Graffiti in Hebron calls for the opening of Shuhada Street, a major market street closed to Palestinians by Israeli occupation forces. — Photo by Philipp Lausberg

Bigelman’s job was to take photographs. He said he held onto these photos for months, waiting for an officer to come collect the valuable security information they contained. It was only when they returned to the same homes and took more photos that he realized “mapping” wasn’t the goal, and no one cared about the information he collected. They were entering homes just to make their presence felt.

As we walked down Shuhada Street, bordering the Muslim cemetery, patrols of Israeli soldiers passed by about every 15 minutes. Some of the soldiers, apparently aware that we were part of a “leftist” group, pointed machine guns at us as they passed.

Mock arrests, Bigelman said, were also carried out for the same ends. The soldiers would pick someone at random, a person they knew was not guilty of any crime, and arrest them. They were “mock arrests” only in that they weren’t arresting criminals—but they were very real in the sense that the person (usually a minor) was really arrested, he added, and often detained for weeks.

Besides making their presence felt, the arrests served as practice for the soldiers. “So we’re training soldiers on a civilian population,” Bigelman said.

Soldiers in Hebron, Bigelman told us, are restricted to arresting Palestinians, and are never allowed to arrest Israeli settlers, no matter how violent they become. He said this presents a serious problem for the soldiers, as they have no practical recourse during frequent incidents of settler violence.

A Street Divided

On Shuhada Street, we encountered a settler-run tour group. Bigelman advised us to ignore them as they shouted at us. The leader of the group exchanged some words with Bigelman, and we walked off.

“He was telling his group I’m a war criminal,” Bigelman told us. “Isn’t that nice? I was here to protect him, and now I’m a war criminal.”

As incredible as Bigelman’s stories are, they are backed up by dozens of additional testimonies collected by Breaking the Silence from soldiers that served in Hebron. B’Tselem has also extensively documented similar stories of human-rights abuses in Hebron.

A wall down the middle of a street near Hebron's Old City divided the path used by Palestinians from the path used by Israelis. — Photo by Philipp Lausberg

A wall down the middle of a street near Hebron’s Old City divided the path used by Palestinians from the path used by Israelis. — Photo by Philipp Lausberg

From this first trip to Hebron, an image was seared into my mind that I will never forget. A few hundred feet from the entrance to the Tomb of the Patriarchs, there was a street open to both Palestinians and Israelis. But it was divided into two. A short wall, several feet high, ran down the length of it. Palestinians were allowed to walk on one side, Israelis on the other. The Israeli side was much larger because Israelis were permitted to have cars on the street, and Palestinians were not.

It was divided in two based on ethnic groupings, guarded by heavily armed soldiers from one ethnic group with the explicit mission of oppressing the other. (The wall has since been removed.)

The Old City

I returned to Hebron a couple months later with a friend of mine from Germany, Philipp Lausberg. We met a doctor from Hebron in a cafe and began talking to him about the occupation. When he heard we wanted to visit the Old City, he eagerly offered to accompany us. We went by his house to pick up his ID documents, which he would need to cross the checkpoints to enter the Tomb of the Patriarchs. His younger brother came, too.

In the Old City, we ran into a guy I knew from Ramallah, where I live in the West Bank. It turned out he is also from Hebron. He was accompanied by an American friend of his, and the six of us headed toward the Tomb of the Patriarchs.

A chickenwire roof in the Old City installed to protect pedestrians from refuse thrown by settlers. — Photo by Philipp Lausberg

A chickenwire roof in the Old City installed to protect pedestrians from refuse thrown by settlers. — Photo by Philipp Lausberg

Along the way, Philipp and the doctor pointed out ceilings constructed from chicken wire over the markets of the Old City. The chicken wire supported a canopy of garbage thick enough to block out the sun. Settlers living in the Old City throw trash out of their windows at the Palestinians walking below.

Before we reached the checkpoints, we were invited into two homes by Palestinians living next to settlers. Both families led us up to their rooftops to show us bullet holes in the water tanks. They said the tanks had been shot at by settlers hoping to make living there impossible. From each of the rooftops, we saw Israeli soldiers and guard towers stationed on the roofs of empty buildings.

At the end of the Old City, we passed through the three checkpoints leading to the Tomb of the Patriarchs. At the final checkpoint, soldiers asked to see everyone’s documents. My German friend and I were allowed to pass unmolested, but the three Palestinian members of our group, as well as the other American (who had an Arabic name) were subjected to searches and background checks conducted via radio.

Return Our Property

The Tomb of the Patriarchs is said to be the tomb of Abraham and his son Isaac, sacred figures in Christianity, Judaism and Islam. Though the site is a mosque, armed Israeli soldiers are frequently stationed inside.

After leaving the tomb, we wandered out to Shuhada Street, led by my friend from Ramallah. It is forbidden for Palestinians to enter Shuhada Street, but the soldiers showed no interest in stopping us, so we walked on.

We came upon a building with signs hanging off of it in Hebrew and English. “THIS LAND WAS STOLEN BY ARABS,” the sign read. “WE DEMAND JUSTICE! RETURN OUR PROPERTY TO US!”

Again, I was shocked that anyone could think this acceptable. Here we were on a street where Palestinians were forced from their homes, a street now occupied exclusively by Israeli settlers, with no Palestinian “Arabs” allowed to set foot on the street at all.

My friend began to grow anxious and suggested we return. I said I thought this was a good idea, knowing that if one of the frequent Israeli patrols happened by, the three Palestinians in our group would be in danger of arrest. As we walked off, the doctor and his brother lagged behind. His brother stopped in front of one particular home, its doors welded shut, taking photo after photo. After the rest of us were safely back in an area open to Palestinians, the doctor and his brother lingered in front of the house.

Finally, they caught up with us. Now out of danger, the doctor had a huge smile on his face. “I can’t tell you how happy it makes me to be here,” he said, and pointed back at the house his brother had been photographing. “That house was my grandfather’s. I haven’t seen that house in 15 years.”

*****

Andrew Beale is a freelance journalist and University of New Mexico graduate. He lives in Ramallah, Palestine.

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