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The 'Ghost City' of Hebron Is at the Center of West Bank Settlement Violence

For Palestinians, settlements constitute the ultimate red line, particularly in Hebron.

by Orlando Crowcroft
Apr 23 2014, 7:14pm

Photo by VICE UK

This article originally appeared on VICE UK.

It is barely 2PM when the first explosions reverberate through the narrow alleys of Hebron’s old city.

A few streets away, a gang of young Palestinianskaffiyehs tightly wound round their faces — are using slingshots to fire rocks towards a dozen heavily armed Israeli soldiers, who return fire with volleys of tear gas.

Amid it all, vendors pull down shutters or wheel away their packed fruit and vegetable carts.

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A group of Western tourists walk round the corner but then quickly retreat as a gas canister explodes yards from them. Meanwhile, a growing crowd of locals looks on, just out of reach of the fumes.

It is a Tuesday afternoon in Hebron and all of this is pretty normal. Today, it started when an Israeli settler inexplicably drove down this street in the Arab district.

Angry locals surrounded the car and IDF soldiers tooled up and moved in. Things then escalated, as they so often do here in the West Bank.

Abandoned shops in the historic center of Hebron.

Things are always bad here but at the moment relations are even worse than usual.

This is a city where 500 of the most radical Israeli settler families there are live among 250,000 Palestinians and one where, just a few days earlier, Israel’s Ministry of Defense approved the re-opening of a new settlement, in a disputed building in the middle of a Palestinian neighborhood.

The following day, an Israeli settler was killed and his family injured when a man opened fire with an assault rifle as they drove on a highway just outside the city.

For at least a week, protests have taken place in the Arab district of Hebron, known as H1, while behind the checkpoints and army positions in Israeli controlled H2, the settlers celebrate pesach, or Passover, a weeklong Jewish holiday.

The historic center of Hebron is known as "the Ghost Town" and for good reason.

It has been totally abandoned, with the doors to Arab shops welded shut by the IDF in the early days of the second intifada.

Almost 15 years on, this once thriving city center is derelict, filled with rubbish, barbed wire and military towers. Palestinians are forbidden from driving or even walking in much of it.

But this latest settlement — on Hebron’s Ein Sarah Street — could not come at a worse time for the US-sponsored peace initiative, and is unlikely to further the efforts of Secretary of State John Kerry to bring Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas any closer to compromise.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu told Likud ministers on March 30 that every deal with the Palestinians to extend peace talks would be brought to a vote in the cabinet.

Abbas meets with Obama as Palestinians vent frustration. Read more here.

For Palestinians, settlements constitute the ultimate red line, particularly in Hebron.

Makeshift barriers separate the two communities.

“This whole thing was doomed from the start. I said it, I said it from the beginning,” said Issa Amer, a coordinator at the Palestinian NGO Youth Against Settlements, sitting outside the group’s base on a hilltop overlooking the city.

“John Kerry has made the same mistake the US always does — by putting the pressure on us and not on them. We want one state or we want two states — we do not want half a state,” says Amer, as the sound of explosions boom across the valley.

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Although the talks have largely stalled, due to Israel’s failure to release a final batch of Palestinian prisoners, for Amer it is the settlements that remain the major obstacle to achieving lasting peace.

And Amer should know, his house, the house in which we now sit, backs directly onto one of them, where an armed IDF guard stands facing his backyard 24 hours a day.

A Palestinian about to throw a slingshot at the police.

As we sit and talk, we can see Israeli settlers relaxing in their garden.

Isn’t a bit a weird? I ask.

"Yeah, it is weird," he laughs, before shouting "happy holidays" in Hebrew to a group of bemused Israelis walking past his front gate. Things are not always so friendly — last weekend he was attacked in his garden, and a few weeks ago settlers came and defaced the murals painted on the back of his house.

"The soldier didn’t see it," he says. "The soldier who stands guard right there, 24 hours a day, he saw nothing."

US Secretary of State John Kerry spoke to the press after a meeting with President Mahmoud Abbas in Bethlehem on November 6.

The Palestinian Authority was given relative autonomy over most of the cities in the West Bank after the 1994 Oslo Accords, but Hebron was considered a special case.

Not only had it had been home to both Jews and Arabs for centuries, but its settlements — which began construction in the 1960s — were entrenched in the very heart of the city.

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In 1997, the city was divided, with the PA taking control of H1 and the Israelis H2.

The classification sounds simple, but of course it is not. In downtown Hebron, settlers often live in the top levels of buildings with Palestinian shops downstairs — nets have been stretched across the roof of the souk to catch rubbish thrown from the windows.

A new Israeli settlement in Hebron.

The complexities of the division are no more obvious than in Hebron’s holiest site, the Cave of the Patriarchs, believed to be the burial site of Abraham — sacred to both Muslims and Jews. The building is split down the middle with a mosque on one side and a synagogue on the other.

The tomb itself is half on one side and half on the other, with bulletproof glass separating worshipers.

A number of Israeli human rights groups — including one comprised of IDF soldiers who once served in Hebron — have condemned the treatment of Palestinians living in Israeli-controlled H2. B’Tselem, another Israeli NGO, claims that physical violence and property damage occurs almost daily.

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One family we meet in a house that borders the Israeli side of the city show us bullet holes in their water tank, caused by IDF soldiers taking pot shots at their roof.

Later, in the old city, we have to leap out of the way of a bucket of water thrown from an upstairs window onto the Palestinian shops below.

Jabari and his son.

On Ein Sarah Street, 47-year-old Bassem Jabari lives only 200 meters from Hebron’s latest settlement. For him, it makes a mockery of any talk of peace between the Palestinians and the Israelis.

“If they wanted to live as good neighbors, they would not act like this,” says Jabari, a shoemaker and father of eight who runs one of the last shops remaining open on the street.

“The Israeli government is deceiving Mahmoud Abbas, and Mahmoud Abbas is deceiving us.”

As for Amer, the settlement issue — and Hebron in particular — is feeding all of the hatred that grows among young Palestinians in the West Bank towards the occupation.

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Not all settlements in the West Bank are violent, and not all settlers are extremists, but the settlements on both sides of the separation wall are growing on a monthly basis. All this in land that, if the peace process should succeed, would be part of Palestine.

Most of those we saw throwing stones at the police downtown are under 16, if not younger, and when that generation grows up into a world of rising unemployment and diminishing prospects, it is clear who they will blame.

“It is the feeder of everything, of violence, of aggression, of everything,” says Amer.

Amer is not sure what will happen if and when the peace talks fail, and while his group is a staunch advocate of non-violent resistance, like many Palestinians he fears that the prospect of a third intifada is not beyond the realm of possibility.

And while he isn’t willing to make firm predictions about what form such a reaction would take, he is sure of one thing.

“This time it will begin in Hebron,” he says.

Follow Orlando Crowcroft on Twitter: @ocrowcroft