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The Oppressive Architecture of the West Bank

A look at life inside Hebron, where Palestinians' everyday lives are hemmed in by a system of soldiers, checkpoints, barricades, and violence.

"Can you live as we do?" Sayeed asked me.

We were standing on the rooftop of his family home in Hebron, the largest city in the West Bank. The house, in the Old City, is several stories of lovely stone, its narrow rooms tucked away up spiral staircases. Less picturesque is the watchtower installed by the Israel Defense Forces on an adjoining section of roof.

The army does not permit the 25-year-old to lock his doors, and when soldiers use the watchtower during the day, they lock Sayeed's family in their rooms. His home, like many others in the area, is subject to frequent night raids in the name of security—in other words, investigation accusations of rock-throwing or other terroristic actions. (Throwing a stone at a moving vehicle is now punishable by up to 20 years in prison thanks to a new law that has been derided by its critics as racist against Palestinians.) Sayeed told me he'd been arrested many times; he lifted up his pant leg to show me scars he said came form beatings at the hands of the authorities.

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Then there are the settlers, Jews who have moved onto land in the West Bank—Palestinian land, land that Israel does not have a recognized right to. These settlers have been consistently supported by the Israeli government, despite condemnations from other nations, and despite the settlers frequently committing acts of violence against the Palestinians whose land they occupy. Some settlers are drawn by the lower tax rates and government subsidies enjoyed by those living outside of Israel's 1967 borders. But others, like many of those in Hebron, subscribe to a belief that God granted all of Eretz Israel—a geographic area including the West Bank—to the Jews.

The Israelis who have encamped in the Old City have gone so far to build atop existing structures, so that the modern architecture crushes the past. In Sayeed's case, settlers built a new wing fused onto his home. According to Sayeed, they cross over the adjoined rooftop and sometimes throw trash in his water tanks. In 2007, he claimed, they broke into one of his rooms and threw in a Molotov cocktail, an apparent attempt to drive the family from their home. Sayeed's kid brother took me down to the room, where the floor and walls were still scorched black.

On the roof I paused, considering Sayeed's question. "No," I answered, honestly.

I visited Hebron in early June, two months before yet another alleged arson attack by settlers burned alive an 18-month-old infant named Ali Dawabsheh in the West Bank village of Duma. Days later, Ali's father Saad succumbed to the burns that covered 80 percent of his body.

Following Ali's murder, Israeli politicians, like Prime Minister Benjamin Netenyahu, have scrambled to separate the extraordinary violence committed by settlers from the daily violence of the occupation. But the distinction is impossible to make. Settlers are an intrinsic, state-supported part of Israel's occupation. In their attacks, settlers serve as the occupation's shock troops. Their security serves as its excuse.

Nowhere is this more visually apparent than in Hebron's Old City.

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The Oslo Accords divides Hebron into two zones—H2, run by the Israeli military, and H1, run by the Palestinian Authority (PA). Old Hebron lies in H2, which is home to 30,000 Palestinians and approximately 500 Israeli settlers.

Old Hebron is honey-stoned and blue-doored—the sort of charming Mediterranean labyrinth that, in another universe, would be full of obnoxious tour groups. But thanks to the occupation, it's scarred by gates, concrete barriers, barbed wire, and checkpoints. A souk where gold was once sold lies empty, the doors of its many shops welded shut by the IDF, its merchandise still inside.

In Hebron, apartheid is imposed upon the architecture. Palestinians navigate a maze of barriers, fences, and settler-only roads, trapped in discursive loops that can take them kilometers out of their way. Soldiers, most of them bored Mizrahi teenagers, often leave Palestinians languishing at Hebron's checkpoints for hours. Long waits are the least of the problems created by this network of restrictions—every interaction between soldier and Palestinian civilian can lead to a beating, an arrest, or even a shooting at the hands of the army.

Of course, no such restrictions on movement apply to settlers.

The former main drag, Shuhada Street, is as silent as a corpse. Most Palestinian families have been driven out of Shuhada, either by the settlers or the army. Obscene graffiti joins the stars of David settlers have scrawled across its abandoned storefront.

Checkpoints on either end warn in misspelled Arabic that this road is pedestrian-only—for Palestinians, who can only walk until the last 600 feet. Israelis are welcome to drive.

Settlers have moved into apartments overlooking the shop-lined streets of Hebron's Old City. From their windows, they habitually throw down rocks, glass, piss, and dirty diapers at the Palestinian merchants beneath them. Merchants have hung nets to catch some of the refuse, but liquids still get through. One vendor showed me his shawls, which have been ruined by rotten eggs. Business is slow here, but shopkeepers persist, out of stubbornness, or pride, or just a desire for something to do.

Many stores are bolted shut. Others are without doors, filled with trash, hidden and closed behind barricades. A playground for Arab kids has been turned into a settlers-only parking lot. According to a 2013 report the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs, more than 1,000 Palestinian homes adjacent to settlements have been abandoned, and 512 Palestinian businesses have been closed on Israeli military orders. An additional 1,100 businesses have have shut down due to restricted access for customers and suppliers.

Israel rationalizes its policy of separating Palestinians and settlers as a way to keep the peace between the two groups. However, the policy penalizes Palestinians alone, displacing them and restricting their freedom of movement in the name of counteracting "terrorism."

"We are not the terrorists that they are calling us. We just want nobody to kill us, and to live like anyone else," Ghassan Jabari, 19, told me.

A year ago Ghassan opened a small pottery shop across from the Ibrahimi Mosque. Despite the tour buses, business is slow. Ghassan, who has no allegiance to any political faction, told me that many Israeli tour operators warn their charges against shopping with him, claiming the money goes to Hamas.

The authorities also harass him. One YouTube video from November 2014 shows soldiers stopping Ghassan at a checkpoint just outside his shop. He did not have his ID, which was inside the shop. Rather than letting his retrieve it, the soldiers detained him, shoving him and twisting his arm behind his back. Another time, Ghassan said, four soldiers entered his shop and began throwing merchandise into the street. They handcuffed and blindfolded him, took his ID, and warned him to say goodbye to his shop, only releasing him when his family paid a 1,500-shekel (almost $400) fine. According to Ghassan, the soldiers dislike him having a shop in such a viable location. But these instances were also power trips, the mundane and humiliating fabric of life under military occupation.

About 650,000 Israelis live in West Bank settlements, including 300,000 who live in East Jerusalem. According to the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs, they attacked Palestinians and their property 399 times in 2013. Hebron settlers account for a disproportionate amount of violence. In one week in February 2015, settlers in Hebron governorate committed four out of five of the assaults logged by the UN—beating a ten-year-old boy with an iron bar, cutting down 40 olive trees, uprooting 550 saplings, and beating a 55-year-old shepherd while he was grazing his sheep.

The violence might be traced to the the man behind Hebron's settlement. A believer in the divine right of Jews to rule "Greater Israel," Rabbi Moshe Levinger rented rooms at a Hebron hotel under false pretenses in 1968. He and his followers then refused to leave. The Israeli army eventually moved the squatters to the base of Kiryat Arba, overlooking Hebron, where they established a settlement. In 1979, Levinger's wife Miriam led the illegal takeover of a Shuhada Street building she renamed Beit Hadassah. It is still occupied by Levinger's followers today, and its wall bears a plaque commemorating the 1929 massacre of 69 Jews in Hebron by Arabs from surrounding villages. The plaque also claims, falsely, that no Jews are allowed to enter the Arab part of Hebron.

Over the years, Levinger has been accused multiple times of committing violence against the Palestinians he lives alongside. In 1988, angry that his car had been stoned, he randomly fired bullets into a crowded marketplace, killing a Palestinian shopkeeper, an act for which he served 92 days in jail.

In 1994, American-born settler Baruch Goldstein opened fire in Hebron's Ibrahimi Mosque, killing 29 Palestinians before survivors were able to beat him to death. Al Jazeera reported that, according to locals, the IDF killed an additional Palestinians protesting the massacre outside the mosque.

The settlers turned Goldstein's grave into a shrine. Though Palestinians were the victims, the Israeli army responded by issuing a 30-day curfew (that did not apply to settlers), partitioning the Ibrahimi Mosque, and closing Shuhada Street to Palestinian traffic. Later, during the Second Intifada, the army welded shut the doors of shops and homes.

The street remains closed today. Some families can only enter their homes by crossing over rooftops. Grates cover windows, to guard against tear gas canisters and rocks.

Under the occupation, an Arab can be arrested for carrying a knife. Israeli settlers, including teenagers, swagger around with assault rifles.

Outside Ghassan's shop, local kids slouch around, trading quips and selling the occasional Palestine flag bracelet to foreigners. One boy, a 14-year-old with a scarred face, told me about attacks by both IDF soldiers and gangs of settler teens; often, Palestinian kids are arrested on accusations of of rock-throwing. Soldiers then threaten to keep them locked up for months if they don't sign confessions. According to multiple Palestinians I spoke to in Hebron, to secure their children's release parents must pay 2,000 shekels (about $500) in fines, even though their children had never been brought before a judge.

Palestinians in the West Bank are usually tried in military court, where, according to human rights NGO B'Tselem, they are "as good as convicted"; settlers, meanwhile, are tried in civilian courts inside Israel. According to a report by human rights organization Yesh Din, only 7.4 percent of felony complaints from Palestinians against Israelis turn into indictments—and in nearly a quarter of those cases, the Israeli defendant is not convicted of any crime despite being found guilty.

I only witnessed the aftermath of one incidence of stone-throwing in Hebron. Every Friday, settlers, under heavy military escort, visit Ibrahimi Mosque (which Jews call the Cave of the Patriarchs) to pray. When I left the Old City, I saw settlers gathered, preparing to enter. Rows of identically dressed young Orthodox men stood behind Israeli soldiers, who were weighted with body armor and assault rifles. Meanwhile, Palestinians vendors manned stalls selling fruit. Kids ran back and forth. Volunteers from different violence-prevention NGOs stood around, some taking photos, others making notes, others just serving as physical barriers between the settlers and the Palestinians.

By the time I came upon the crowd, it was electric with tension. The settlers, behind their military guard, pointed at the Palestinians, shouting angrily in Hebrew. A man wearing a T-shirt bearing the logo of the faith-based organization Christian Peacemaker Team gestured me over and showed me his camera. On the viewer, he pointed to a picture of one his colleagues holding his bleeding head and being loaded into an ambulance.

In English, the man told me that the photo had been taken moments ago. As for the wound, that was courtesy of a stone hurled by a settler at his colleague's head.

Though rock-throwing is often treated as a serious crime when done by Palestinians, no settlers had been arrested. The soldiers stood idly by until, jostling the crowd aside, they cleared the settlers' path into the Old City.

The closed streets, the abandoned homes, the cut-up city—this is all for the safety of 600 settlers who live there in defiance of international law.

That moment shows how impossible it is to untangle the violence committed by settlers from the mechanisms of the state: The settler throws a rock; the army protects him. The closed streets, the abandoned homes, the cut-up city—this is all for the safety of 600 settlers who live there in defiance of international law. So it is that Sayeed's house has been taken over by both the settlers and the IDF; so it is that Ghassan's shop struggles, that Ali Dawabsheh burned to death.

The most extreme expressions of this system make headlines, but it permeates every moment of existence in the West Bank. Near the end of my stay in Hebron, I had to go to the government press office in Jerusalem's Malha neighborhood, to get the accreditation that would let me visit Gaza. A Palestinian friend offered to get me on the right bus. We walked down the Palestinian side of one of Hebron's divided streets, a downhill scramble made sharp by rocks (the Jewish side, of course, was neatly paved). In the distance hills shone green, topped by Rabbi Levinger's settlement of Kiryat Arba.

We walked farther downhill, beneath Beit Shalom, a cultural center for settlers with banners touting its warm welcome of the IDF. "We call that the terrorist house," smirked my friend.

He pointed out my bus, on the schedule at the Jewish-only bus stop. But he had stood too close. The soldiers manning a nearby checkpoint came over, shouted at us, and took his ID. We waited, sweating in the sun. They called him over to tell him he was a terrorist, waiting for his terrorist friends. Then they called me.

"What are you doing here?" one demanded.

"You took my friend's ID for no reason. Give it back," I said. "I'm a journalist."

As soon as he heard this, one solider began to justify his actions. He grinned, falsely, and told me that he treated all people equally. That he said hello to my friend every day. That he didn't start trouble. That he never wanted this. His partner snickered. The settlers laughed at us from the shade of their bus stop. I demanded my friend's ID again.

He finally handed it back. I gave it to my friend, who looked at me with the sort of pure anger that conceals a deep humiliation.

"Why did he give it to you?" he demanded. "Why did you take it?"

"I'm so sorry," I told him, not knowing what I had done wrong.

It was only later, on the luxurious, empty, Isreali-only bus back to Jerusalem that I realized the source of his shame and rage. I had been in Hebron for two days, yet as an American journalist, I could get his ID back in five minutes. I'd underscored how helpless he was in the city where he was born.

Update: An earlier version of this article referred to Israel's 1987 borders rather than its 1967 borders.

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