By Aaron Lakoff
Hebron, Palestine - February 4, 2005
--To view the photos which accompany this report visit http://gallery.cmaq.net/album32
"Visit Hebron". So exclaims the front of a settler bus parked just outside Hebron's old city. It's a welcoming invitation to a place wrought with conflict.
Hebron is a city with many faces, some intended and some not. Even how the name Hebron is said details where one is coming from. In Hebrew, the city is known as "Hevron," and in Arabic, it's called "Al Khalil." One thing that cannot be disputed is that this ancient city is of great importance to people of many faiths. But still, it remains a hard place to come and visit.
Walking around Hebron's old city, one cannot help but be reminded of the old city of Jerusalem, the other great holy city just an hour's drive to the north. Unfortunately though for Hebron's old city residents, the jovial feeling of Jerusalem cannot be found here. In fact, Hebron's old city is downright depressing to most.
There was once a vibrant Palestinian community that lived, shopped, and conducted business on these old cobblestone pathways. Nowadays, you're lucky if you can find one or two shops open in one stretch. The shopkeepers keep to themselves, and seem to pass the days playing games, drinking coffee, and meeting friends rather than having to serve customers. Most of the businesses, namely the fruit and vegetable stands, that were here just five years ago have now relocated to the outskirts of the old city.
This exodus was no mistake. Soon after the war of 1967, when Israel conquered Palestine, work was started to establish settlements in the West Bank. Many of the settlements found their way into Hebron because it was a site of religious significance to the Jews as well. Not only are there settlements such as Kiryat Arba, which lies just outside the city, but now there are settlement blocks in the form of apartment buildings, such as Beit Hadassah or Tel Rumeida, which sit just opposite Palestinian neighborhoods and the old city.
These settlement blocks and their residents have rendered life miserable for local Palestinians, and that misery hits you with force in Hebron. Everywhere in the old city, racist graffiti is scrawled vulgarly on the walls in Hebrew. The graffiti slogans range from the provocative statements such as "The people of Israel live!," to the more threatening "Death to the Arabs!" The settlers tend to rampage through the old city during Jewish holidays, and spray-paint walls as if to tell the Palestinians that one day this will all be theirs. The graffiti just stays up on the walls. Perhaps the locals don't bother with it because since the settlers aren't going anywhere, they'll just come back and do it again. Perhaps they've just gotten used to it, and avoid it with saddened eyes.
The most shocking of all these wall paintings are the omnipresent stars of David. They conjure up images of Nazis demarcating Jewish homes in the fascist era of Germany. Now Hebron's settlers have reclaimed them as their own hate imagery.
One day, it's possible that all the Palestinians might flee Hebron's old city, and no one in Israel would shed a tear over this. In fact, since 1967, this has been a focused policy of the Israeli state – to reclaim sites of Jewish significance in Palestine by creating "facts on the ground." Beit Hadassah, mentioned before, is one of those grim facts. Up until 1980 this building was inhabited by Palestinians. That year, it was taken over by extremist settlers who expelled its inhabitants, and not long after turned into an official settlement by the Israeli state. The blue and white Israeli flag now flies above it, as if to taunt those passing below.
At this point, it might be worth mentioning that settlements are illegal under international law. The Geneva Convention stipulates that no occupying power shall transfer segments of its population into the occupied territory. But these accusations seem to fall on deaf ears. Hebron's Israeli settlers are here, and they're not going anywhere any time soon. The Israeli government provides them with weapons in order to assure so, and the settlers promenade around town with these weapons in order to prove so.
Palestinians in Hebron describe the local settlements as a cancer, and can you blame them? Like a cancer, the settlements bring with them so many horrible side effects. The occupation and settlers have meant an intense military presence in Hebron- one that has especially worsened since the outbreak of the second Intifada. Numerous army checkpoints can be found littered throughout the city, impeding the movement and everyday life of the Palestinians here, while easing it for the Israelis. One stark example of this is the metal detector and checkpoint that Muslims have to pass through to visit the holy Al- Ibrahimi mosque, while Jews who want to visit the adjoining synagogue can simply waltz around the back, or take Worshipers' Way – a road in Hebron for Jews only. Palestinian men and boys are frequently stopped at checkpoints for periods of 15-60 minutes, usually for no reason other than to inconvenience or punish them. I have been in Hebron for four days now. At checkpoints, I have already seen Palestinian boys being choked by soldiers, and men being bound and blindfolded because they were suspected of stealing a car (which turned out later to be untrue). Some of the checkpoints can be found no more than 100 meters away from each other, and often Palestinians will get stopped at one, and then another. This city is a human rights disaster.
So when we think "visit Hebron," an important question comes to mind – why? If the Israeli settlers like living here, they sure are hiding it well, because they willingly live behind razor wire and hard-core military outposts outside of buildings which they squatted and stole. And for the local Palestinians, Hebron means checkpoints, closures, curfew, and constant harassment by religious extremists. Unfortunately this city is no tourist hot-spot, but perhaps it would be beneficial if it were. Then maybe people could come to Hebron and see just how bad life under occupation can be.