This city was once alive.
The main street must have looked something like this.
Now, however, it looks like a ghost street, where cars pass only occasionally and no shops are open. Second-floor balconies betray that people actually live in these houses.
After certain political events (to be explained later), all shops of Palestinians were forced to close. Later, even doors of Palestinian houses were sealed.
The city is split into two: H1 and H2 areas, the first controlled by the Palestinian authority and the second – officially a Jewish settlement. About 13,000 Palestinians live in Hebron, along with 600 settlers, 300 of whom are students at a religious college (yeshiva). The settlers have full rights, they live in modern houses, get help from the army and have a right to carry guns (it looks pretty scary…). Meanwhile the Arab residents of H2 cannot use most of the city’s infrastructure. Residents of the street above have to get out of their houses using rooftops, and they are not allowed to use the main street. There are some areas, too, were Israelis are not allowed.
The city is guarded by soldiers, who are everywhere in the centre; these days civilian police also shows up. The army and the settlers expect the remaining Arabs to move to H1, which is, or at least looks like a normal Arab town.
H2, on the other hand, looks like a ghost. Settler children have all the space to play, yet it doesn’t seem to be so much fun to play in dead streets – at least for now.
Meanwhile, according to our guide, Israeli journalist, writer and activist Yuval Ben-Ami, who also wrote a blog post explaining the situation in Hebron, tells us that Palestinian children in H1 are, predictably, not so unbounded in their use of city space. Sometimes, he told us, girls are harassed on their way from school. The girls can only use these stairs.
Some foreign NGO workers tried to escort the girls to school and back, but they also experienced aggression. After the story became known internationally, a couple of policemen observe the stairs. Stories of radical settler violence reached the “Guardian”.
The nearly uninhabited spaces are fully open to all kinds of creative expression – more creative than in Tel Aviv if you ask me.
Yet the city feels creepy, as serene as it feels these days under this strict control. “No, we don’t think it’s normal,” – explains Chaim, a middle-aged settler who volunteered to show us around when he heard that we, three other Europeans and myself, are listening to Yuval’s “leftist version” of the city’s history. “It used to be common to live side-by-side. What we as settlers want is that Arabs understand that we are here to live. We have come here and are here to stay. Not to die, not to fight – to live.” He says he wants the borders and control removed, he thinks it should be the most natural thing to go to H1 for shopping (Israeli citizens are not allowed into H1). However, he regrets that, according to him, any relaxation of rules leads to escalation violence.
How did all this come about, you may ask? The 20th century history of Hebron is a history of violence. The local museum tells the story of how during the British rule of the territory, following incitement from Jerusalem, a mob rampaged through the town in 1929, killing and wounding people. The British police, although it was responsible for ensuring public order, did not interfere. Different sources may give you different explanations as to where the violent Arab inhabitants came from, the city itself or areas around. In total, 67 Jewish residents were killed and about the same number wounded. After a British officer shot one single shot from his gun, the crowd immediately dispersed. Seemingly, nobody aimed to find and punish the inciters, rather, the Jewish community was evacuated from Hebron.
As the West Bank fell under Israeli control in 1967, new Jewish settlers started moving in. The place itself has a religious value, and, unfortunately, this has attracted some of the most fanatic settlers, who were, as Yuval tells us, indiscriminately attacking and humiliating Arab inhabitants, hoping to push them out of the city to ‘vacate’ it. As Chaim tells us, “We moved in to rejuvenate the city,” I ask him if he has any family connections to the original Jewish community. He starts telling a story of how his family moved in one-by-one in late 80s-early 90s. Apparently, the “we” stands for Jewish Israelis in general. Yet the settlers who moved in feel that they are the descendants of those who were forced to leave following the pogrom in 1929.
Yuval adds that during the second Intifada the Arab population was increasingly radicalised, and extreme movements found a fertile soil in the population living in such a hopeless situation. Both the Jewish and the Arab community in Hebron are known to be very conservative, too. The indigenous inhabitants, the settlers, the army, occasional NGOs working in the area are all entangled in this vicious circle. Vicious balance (as of now) is more sustainable than virtuous balance.
As everywhere, there is a plurality of views among all actors. Some settlers feel that all they need is a right to safely stay here, and if it means staying with other people, so be it. Others, some of whom are rather recent immigrants to Israel, are religious-nationalist zealots who want to possess this land at any cost. The most extreme case was Baruch Goldstein, originally from the US, who opened fire at unarmed Muslims praying at a mosque in 1993. Some of his supporters still consider him a hero. It was after this accident that, fearing retaliation, the army forced all Palestinian business to close and the city became a ghost. Arguably, as in 1929, the victim has to leave in order not to ‘tempt’ the offender anymore.
Back to the argument, some Arabs were also radicalised and feel they have a right to collectively ‘punish’ settlers, while others want to be left alone and live their lives. Last but not least, some soldiers come here with the idea to protect the interests of settlers no matter what, while others are more sensitive to the situation. Here Yuval is playing a rather rebellious song to the latter. He borrowed the guitar from the soldiers as we saw them killing time with the guitar on an empty street.
However, as the situation intensifies, the nuances are always downplayed and everyone is forced to take one side or another. People in H1 seem much more relaxed. As we leave our Israeli guide behind to step into the area only allowed to locals and tourists, we are greeted with many smiles. “Hello, welcome!” people shout as we, the only three uncovered women and a blond guy, pass by. Prices are unbelievably low (about 3-5 times lower than in Tel Aviv), and locals are generous to give us bonuses.
Locals are interested where we come from and want to know our names. They are not a bit surprised to see us here. The fact is, even if you only want to visit what is believed to be the grave of Abraham or research on graffiti in public spaces, or just put a tick that you have been to the West Bank, Hebron is the city where politics will never leave you.