If you exclude Jerusalem, Hebron has the largest population of any Palestinian city in the West Bank. It is, along with Nablus, a commercial center, and what serves today as its thronging market square brims with life and trade, noise and fumes. There are stores selling groceries and electronics, as well as sidewalk stalls consisting of simple tables laid out with fruit and vegetables, toys, trinkets, and children’s clothes. Those are concentrated especially by the bus station, with its yellow public buses, and by the ranks of taxis and private minibuses, many of them heading north to Bethlehem. Palestinian police, in Palestinian uniforms, direct the traffic. If you walked no further, you would assume that Hebron, home to an estimated 175,000 Palestinians, is a thriving Arab city.
Until, that is, you got close to the crossing point that marks the de facto border between the Palestinian-controlled 80 percent of the city, known as H1, and the Israeli-controlled remainder, known as H2. Not everyone can cross. Since the start of the second intifada, Israeli citizens have been forbidden by their own government from entering H1, just as they are barred from entering the wider Palestinian-controlled Area A of the West Bank. The ruling is based on security grounds, Israel concluding that visible Israelis, especially settlers, would likely be attacked and the Israel Defense Forces insisting that it can guarantee the security of Israeli citizens only in those areas it controls.
For those who are permitted, however, crossing the line that separates H1 from H2 is to cross into another realm entirely. For H2, which consists of a substantial eastern chunk of the city, combined with what looks on the map like a wide, stubby finger jabbing westward, includes the historic heart of Hebron. This strip, the finger on the map, might account for no more than 3 percent of the total geographic area of Hebron, but it is here that you find the sites that have made it a place revered by both Muslims and Jews, indeed ranked by Jews alongside Jerusalem, Tiberias, and Safed as one of Judaism’s four holy cities. It is here too that you find an eerie, emptied ghost town whose once-thriving markets stand shuttered and deserted, its Palestinian population subject to a policy of separation and restriction that makes the city the place where Israel’s forty-four-year occupation of the West Bank shows its harshest face.
You can hear the battle for supremacy between the approximately 30,000 Arabs and eight hundred Jewish settlers who live in Israeli-controlled H2 even before you see it. On the crisp, bright morning I visited, there was Hassidic-style klezmer music playing…
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