You know when you’re approaching the Old City of Hebron. It isn’t just the modern architecture that disappears, replaced by winding cobbled streets and court-yarded, beige-stone houses. The seemingly endless line of market stalls also comes to an abrupt halt and the Palestinians seem to evaporate. One minute busy, bustling streets and shops. The next minute it’s a ghost town. Litter and the odd stray cat are your only companions. Walk on for about 50 metres and you come to chest-high rolls of barbed wire blocking off the road. Israeli soldiers, guns cocked and ready, check your ID and query the purpose of your visit.
The Old City of Hebron, home to 30,000 Palestinians, is under Israeli control. Some 400 armed, extremist settlers have moved into the centre claiming the old Kasbah. Its beating heart is now theirs. The aim: to ‘liberate’ Hebron from the Arabs. Part of the settlement is built on top of the 700-year-old Arab market. Literally. On the ground floor are the Palestinians, on the first, second, third and fourth floors is the settlement, distinguishable by its newer, whiter stone. Some 2,000 Israeli soldiers imprison the Old City’s 30,000 Palestinians under almost 24-hour curfew. When they are let out the settlers attack them – ergo, it’s easier to keep them locked up.
Watchtowers have been erected on top of Palestinian homes. Look up. Look around. There they are, gun-barrels bearing down on you. Even one of the schools has been turned into a military base. The atmosphere feels like a fully charged electric current, ready to blow at any time.
Except for the soldiers and the odd settler, you’ll be the only person on the streets. Strain your ears and you might hear faint murmurs from inside the Palestinian homes. A toddler’s squeal may be your only evidence that anyone is home at all. Look sideways at the settlers and they snarl ‘Nazi’ at you. This while they stake their claim to Palestinian property by spray-painting Stars of David on them – a chilling mirror image of what the Nazi’s did to Jewish businesses during Kristalnacht.
‘It’s like the Ku Klux Klan moving into an African-American city,’ says Mark from the Christian Peacemaker team, a group of up to eight volunteers who live in the Israeli-controlled part of town trying to monitor, report and, if possible, intervene to calm situations.
‘People ask us why the team don’t try to do reconciliation work. But the settlers don’t want reconciliation. Their presence here is a hostile act, a very hostile takeover. Besides, the settlers hate us, and I mean hate us. They constantly threaten to kill us and the death threats are serious and menacing. They circulate rumours that we are involved with Arab terrorists.’
Many Palestinians are leaving the Old City. Unable to get to local shops and buy food, let alone make a living, they have little choice. Some have had their businesses forcibly shut for nearly eight years. Not that many locals would shop there if they were open – the settlers, living right above, throw rubbish down on them. When the Palestinians put wire meshing up for protection, they started throwing bottles of urine instead.
As they leave, so their homes become vulnerable to being absorbed into one of the five settlement blocks – all placed strategically so that, if expanded to meet each other, they would form a solid line, slicing the Old City in two and connecting the little settlements to a much larger one just outside Hebron.
Palestinian homes between the blocks are most at risk. I talked to one old lady who had all her windows smashed four times to encourage her to leave. Teachers and students at one of the primary schools are pelted with stones. Even the soldiers hate being there. Paul, a young soldier of Irish extraction, evidently bored of standing to attention in the deserted streets, pinned me down for a good hour-long chat. ‘The settlers are just racist, they cause big problems. The other day, I tried to stop one breaking into an Arab business and he smashed me in the face,’ he said. ‘I was so angry. We are risking our lives here, to protect them, and they are so ungrateful.’ That night, I heard that a Hebron soldier had been shot and killed by a Palestinian militant. It was Paul.
Hebron is where Abraham, father of Judaism and Islam, is buried, along with his sons Jacob and Isaac. Adam and Eve are rumoured to be nearby. It’s a holy place. As the birthplace of Judaism, it’s holier than Jerusalem to its fundamentalist settlers, who say they will never leave. Their messianic interpretation of Judaism is riddled with racism. ‘A Jew who kills a non-Jew is exempt from human judgment and has not violated the prohibition of murder’, says one of their spiritual leaders, Rabbi Israel Ariel. In their eyes, all of biblical Israel – which includes parts of Iraq, the Sinai, Jordan, Syria, Lebanon and Cyprus – must be reclaimed, by any means necessary.
The settlers have links to Jewish terrorist groups, including the outlawed Kahane, and are prepared to go to great lengths to achieve their aims. In May, four of the Hebron settlers were arrested on suspicion of planting a bomb in a Palestinian girls’ school in East Jerusalem. The Ibrahimi Mosque, built over Abraham’s tomb, is a microcosm of the entire conflict. It’s been sliced in two – a mosque and a synagogue – since 1994, when one of the settlers, Baruch Goldstein, massacred 29 Palestinians at prayer inside during the holy month of Ramadan. Now, to get in you pass through two metal detectors and have your body searched. It’s easy to forget you’re inside one of the most sacred places to two world religions.
The settlers – almost all born in Brooklyn, New York – also argue that they’re just claiming what used to be theirs – property belonging to Hebron’s old Jewish community. After living there peacefully for hundreds of years it was attacked by an Arab mob in 1929, during the first Arab revolt against the British. Some 69 of them were massacred and the remaining 2,000 left.
Descendants of the original Jewish community have publicly campaigned to have the current settlers removed, saying they set a dangerous precedent. If the settlers can claim Jewish property outside the borders of Israel, why can’t the Palestinians claim property inside Israel? And if the settlers can claim the right to live on land outside Israel where Jews once lived, why can’t the Palestinians claim the right to live on land inside Israel where they once lived?