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An Exclusive Corner of Hebron

Dominique Nabokov
Palestinians outside the Mosque of Abraham, which covers the Tomb of the Patriarchs, Hebron, 1976

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.

Mike King

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 loudly from the Gutnick Center, an event hall that welcomes Jewish visitors from around the world and especially the United States, offering both refreshments and tours, its website reassuring any nervous customers that “all buses are bullet-proof.” Minutes later, those melodies of old Ashkenazi Europe were joined by the traditional muezzin, singing the Muslim call to prayer. The two tunes continued, at full volume, filling the ancient square with dueling, discordant noise. This is Hebron’s so-called loudspeaker war.

Any visit usually begins at the Tomb of the Patriarchs, the magnetic core of Hebron’s religious power. Judaism deems the site, recorded in the Bible as the Cave of Machpela, purchased by Abraham, as second in sacred value only to the Temple Mount, that part of ancient Jerusalem on which the First and Second Temples were built. Inside are caskets said to contain the remains of Jacob, Isaac, and Abraham himself, revered as a forefather by the three ancient monotheistic faiths.

As the Jews of Hebron remind visitors, including the busload of African Christians that pulls in, for seven hundred years Jews were barred by the city’s Mameluke, Ottoman, British, and Jordanian rulers from entering this holy site; they were allowed to ascend only the first seven steps toward it. In 1967, when Hebron and the rest of the West Bank were conquered by Israel in the Six-Day War, Jews could at last walk the eighth step, and the fifty-odd more, and enter.

Today, there are separate entrances to the tomb for Jews and for Muslims. But what is more striking is the road approaching the site: it is divided according to nationality, with three quarters of the thoroughfare available to Israelis, and the narrow remainder set aside for Palestinians. Concrete blocks separate the two parts. The Israelis are given the greater portion because they are allowed to drive down this road, a right denied to Palestinians.

On Israeli military maps, this shows up as a green road, which means that no Palestinian cars are allowed. Blue is for those streets where no Palestinian cars are allowed and no Palestinian shops are permitted to open. Then there are roads that are more restricted still: on those, no Palestinian is allowed to set foot. The Israel Defense Forces refer to such a road as a tzir sterili, literally a sterile road.

Most of the H2 Palestinians unlucky enough to have their homes on a tzir sterili have had their front doors sealed shut. To leave, they have to use a back door, which often means climbing out onto the roof and down via a series of ladders: inconvenient for those who are young and fit, difficult if not impossible for those who are old or infirm. Later I will see an elderly man, a bag of cement resting on his shoulder, walking with a boy I take to be his grandson. When he reaches a-Shuhada Street, once the main artery through central Hebron and a “sterile road” since 2000, he turns off and begins to ascend a steep series of rough-hewn steps, necessary in order to walk around rather than on the street. This will lead him through a series of unpaved, dusty paths, a longer, indirect alternative route to a-Shuhada Street. This is so neither his feet nor those of the little boy will touch the forbidden road—ensuring it remains sterili.

The street is lined with what used to be shops, now permanently closed behind green metal shutters. They are all covered by graffiti. In a short walk I see “Arabs out!” and “Death to the Arabs” as well as the less familiar “You have Arabs, you have mice,” which has been painted over but is still legible. So too is “Arabs to the crematorium,” close to the Muslim cemetery. (One notorious message, daubed in English but covered over a few years ago, read “Arabs to the gas chambers.”) The clenched fist symbol of the Kach party of the late Rabbi Meir Kahane, the founder of the Jewish Defense League once ostracized as a fascist, appears in several places. But the most recurrent image is also the most shocking. It is the Star of David. Utterly familiar to Jewish eyes, it nevertheless is a shock to see that symbol—associated with Judaism itself and with the long history of Jewish suffering—used as a crude declaration of dominance, used, in fact, as an insult.

We walk down the center of the road. There is no need to use the sidewalk because the place is empty, like an abandoned film set. My guide, Yehuda Shaul, a kippa-wearing, black-bearded Orthodox Jewish Israeli—who will later mutter the traditional bracha, or blessing, before taking a bite of a sandwich—is intimately familiar with Hebron, having served two extended tours of army duty in the city, spanning the second intifada, first as a regular soldier in 2001–2002 and then again as a commander and company sergeant in 2003. Indeed, he was on patrol when IDF engineers sealed up those front doors, welding them shut, in 2001.

He recalls too the instructions he had not to touch the settlers, who were subject to Israeli law and therefore under the jurisdiction of the Israeli police rather than the army, even though he could see that they were engaged in a campaign of harassment of the local population, throwing stones, cutting water pipes, or severing electricity cables. A soldier has testified to the Breaking the Silence organization—founded by IDF reservists determined to alert their fellow Israelis and Jews around the world to the everyday reality of military occupation—that a sign hung on the briefing wall of his unit, spelling out their mission: “To disrupt the routine of the inhabitants of the neighborhood,” whether through house searches, physical checks, or sudden, surprise checkpoints established in apparently arbitrary locations.

Shaul is not in uniform today but is here as part of his work with Breaking the Silence. He is armed with “before” photographs of central Hebron, dating from 1999, that show a fruit market bustling with people, with produce, and with life. The “after” shot is right in front of me: the very same place, now desolate and silent. What used to be here has been relocated to H1, some of it, at any rate. The teeming marketplace I saw on the other side of the crossing point is in fact part of Bab a-Zawiya, once just a neighborhood of Hebron, now its substitute downtown. Some of those traders in Bab a-Zawiya used to live and work in what is now H2. They once owned shops. They now sell their wares on tables.

Nor is this a mere impression. A study by the Israeli human rights group B’Tselem shows that 1,014 housing units—apartments or houses—have been abandoned by their occupants, some 42 percent of the total in this core part of Hebron. One estimate suggests that this amounts to eight or nine thousand people who found that life under such restrictions was no longer viable or bearable. Eventually, I see one of the rare people who have held on, remaining inside H2. An Arab woman is hanging laundry on her balcony on a-Shuhada Street. She is caged on all sides by a mesh of metal wire, including above her head. This is not because of any law or regulation; she has put herself in what looks like a small chicken coop for her own protection, to avoid the stones that would otherwise be thrown at her by settlers.

The roof of the cage is, indeed, weighed down with stones. B’Tselem, which has given cameras to some of the Palestinians of Hebron, has posted several videos showing settlers, including young children, throwing stones at the Arabs in their midst—unrestrained by the Israeli soldiers standing close by. One particularly disturbing film shows a female settler repeatedly hissing the word sharmuta, or whore, at her female Arab neighbor.

Close by is the chicken market, now behind tall concrete slabs. Next comes the old bus station, now in service as an IDF base that doubles as the home of six settler families who have moved in. And then, around the corner, behind a rusting gate, is a scrapyard, filled with junk, weeds, and coils of barbed wire. Shaul produces a photograph that reveals that this dumping ground used to be Hebron’s jewelry market. (A few individual jewelers now ply their trade in Palestinian-controlled H1, but the market itself has not been reconstituted.) On the other side of the street is a yeshiva.

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