Israeli-Imposed Apartheid Almost Complete in West Bank City of Hebron

Jane Adas
Washington Report on Middle East Affairs

[Trash, that is, seen from below. On a street near the Abraham Mosque, occupation apartheid takes on unusually sharp visual clarity in the form of Israeli settlements comprising the the upper echelon of houses and Palestinian shops, the lower. This means the settlers can, and do, throw their trash out their windows onto the Palestinians. The torn chain-link fence halving the street manages to keep out the somewhat solid trash like bottles and bags, but not urine, dishwater, and other ugly precipitations such as egg yolks…(Work Abroad)]

Separation ("apartheid" in Afrikaans; "us here, them there," according to the late Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin) is almost complete in the southern West Bank city of Hebron. The Hebron Protocol of 1997 divided the city into two parts: 80 percent of the city, designated H1, is theoretically under the administration of the Palestinian Authority; H2, which includes the Old City and the Tomb of the Patriarchs, is under Israeli military control. Life for Palestinians in H1, except for occasional Israeli incursions and the fact that every plane heard overhead is military, is almost normal. Israeli settlers stay clear of the area and the uniformed men in the streets are Palestinian security forces.

H2, the eastern fifth of the city, is a different matter. A few hundred Israeli settlers and yeshiva students, guarded by more than a thousand Israeli soldiers, live here in four scattered colonies. For their security and convenience, roads that connect the colonies to each other and to the larger illegal settlements of Kiryat Arba and Givat Harsina east of the city are off-limits to Palestinians, whether by car or on foot. This includes Shuhada Street, the main road running through the center of Hebron, rebuilt in 1997 as a USAID project ostensibly to benefit both communities. The Israeli military has welded shut the doors of Palestinian homes and shops along the street, meaning that the only way residents, including schoolchildren, can leave and return to their homes is out a back door, then over rooftops and up and down ladders. - For Palestinians living there, the Old City itself is a ghetto.

The Israeli military has blocked off most exits and controls those that remain open. The checkpoint at the gate leading from the Old City to the Ibrahimi Mosque/Tomb of the Patriarchs just opposite comprises a pair of electronic turnstiles, turned off and on at will by the soldiers on guard, with a metal detector between them. The soldiers sometimes play games—allowing people through the first turnstile but not the second, trapping them between the two. Every morning children must pass through this gauntlet on their way to school. Armed soldiers on the other side then conduct random searches of gaily colored school backpacks often decorated with Disney motifs. One morning the electricity was out and nobody could pass through. Soon a crowd of more than a hundred people, mostly schoolgirls, had amassed. Perhaps fearing "a situation," soldiers unlocked a nearby gate. Everyone exited—for once, with no metal detector or bag searches.

Another checkpoint stands where the road leading down from the Ibrahimi Mosque meets Shuhada Street. Palestinians walking down this road may not turn left and may not cross the street to reach the few Palestinian shops that remain open, but must turn right. There, for a brief way, Shuhada Street is divided by Jersey barriers: the broad central section for illegal Israeli settlers, the narrow lane at the side for Palestinians, who must then turn left rather than proceed along the forbidden street.

The Israeli border police refer to the barrier beyond which Palestinians may not pass as "Checkpoint Abed," named for an ebullient shopkeeper who sells glass, embroidery and pottery. Because Palestinians cannot reach his shop and Jewish settlers shun it, Abed's only customers are international tour groups who come after visiting the mosque. Business is not booming. Directly across the street, the Jewish Gutnick tourist center plays extremely loud music over multiple outdoor speakers any time of day or night. Mr. Gutnick, a wealthy Australian Jew, offered Abed millions of dollars for the shop and home that have been in the Hebronite's family for generations. Abed refused. Israeli border police joke that he is "majnun" (crazy), but Palestinians know Abed is "sumud" (steadfast).

Soldiers' Sadistic "Games"

Sometimes soldiers' games are more heartless. Dec. 7, the Muslim New Year, was a school holiday. That afternoon, at the edge of the Old City farthest from the Ibrahimi Mosque, Israeli soldiers took a 15-year-old boy named Ahmad from his home and into the military compound near the Beit Romano yeshiva. The soldiers told his mother that they had taken Ahmad to the police station near the mosque. With two younger sons, both sobbing, she made her way through the crowded lanes of the Old City. The police station is a short distance to the left of Abed checkpoint, but Ahmad's mother, being Palestinian, had to go the long way round. When she finally got to the station, police told her Ahmad was still with the soldiers. As she went back via the Palestinian detour, soldiers brought Ahmad to the police station. When she made her way back to the station, police told her Ahmad would be released shortly.

Half an hour later she learned that Ahmad had been taken out the back way to the Kiryat Arba police station. Upon arriving there, police told her they had transferred Ahmad to the Ofer military compound near Ramallah. The next morning the family received a call to go to Ofer, an expensive and time-consuming trip, to pick up their son. But when they arrived, there was no record of Ahmad being there, so the parents returned to Hebron. Soon after they left, soldiers released Ahmad and two other juveniles without charges and dropped them off at a checkpoint near Ramallah. The perpetrators of Israel's "security system" had gratuitously traumatized Ahmad, his younger brothers, and perhaps the whole family.

Within Hebron's Old City is mostly Palestinian territory. Once or twice a day squads of Israeli soldiers rather comically march through, nervously pointing their guns up each of the many byways. On Saturdays groups of Israelis—preceded and followed by soldiers, with others on rooftops—brave the alien territory on Shabbat heritage tours. At one point, however, the main walkway is adjacent to the Avraham Avino colony, where Jewish settlers live on the upper floors immediately opposite Palestinian homes. To protect pedestrians below from garbage thrown at them by settlers, the municipality has stretched wire mesh over the walkway to catch the debris. Still, there is friction. On Nov. 26, Fatima's youngest son was sitting in the window of his home. A settler across the way told the boy to go away, and then hosed water into the room with such force that it broke the window. When Fatima came to see what had happened, the settler exposed himself to her.

Palestinians living just outside Hebron are even more vulnerable to settlers. Abdel Karim lives near an illegal settlement outpost. When his 22-year-old son, Samer, saw Jewish settlers attacking the family car, he began videotaping them and telephoned the police. When the Israeli police arrived, they arrested Samer, although the video proved that Samer had not reacted to the settlers. Samer spent three months in jail and was released upon payment of 5,000 shekels' "bail," which the family partly raised by selling the badly damaged car for scrap metal. Abdel Karim described such arrest and "bail" as "a kind of business for Israel."

Families inside and outside Hebron benefit from what is surely the world's longest continuously operating soup kitchen. The Hospice Abrahamic, begun under the Caliphs more than 900 years ago, is associated with the generosity of Abraham, from whom is derived Hebron's Arabic name of Ibrahim al-Khalil (Abraham the friend, as chosen by God). Throughout its long history, the soup kitchen has been supported by whatever government is in control—these days it's the Waqf (Ministry of Religious Affairs)—but the food has always been donated by individuals in fulfillment of zakat, the Islamic obligation to help the needy. For centuries the hospice was adjacent to the mosque, but as that area is no longer accessible to Palestinians, it has moved inside the Old City. Twice a week, and every day during Ramadan, the soup kitchen provides a full meal with meat; the other five days it serves a traditional soup made of cracked wheat called Abraham's soup.

Such assistance has probably never been more needed than now. Nearly 2,000 shops in Hebron have been forced to close, either by order of the Israeli army or for economic reasons. Since the first intifada, the number of beneficiaries of the soup kitchen has doubled 12 times. On soup days representatives from 300 to 400 families come with buckets to collect their portions. The number rises to more than 3,000 during Ramadan. To learn more about this venerable institution, contact the Hebron Waqf Department at haramibrahimi


Jane Adas is a free-lance writer based in the New York City metropolitan area. She recently returned from a month in Hebron with Christian Peacemaker Teams.



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