Hebron is a community important to Christians, Muslims and Jews

Occupation has turned some parts of the thriving city into a ghost town

by Kathy Melvin | Presbyterian News Service

A Hebron market owner tells visitors he wants to tell his story of deprivation and degradation in the hope they’ll return home and tell others. (Photo by Kathy Melvin)

HEBRON, West Bank — Osama (last name withheld) is a licensed Palestinian tour guide. He recently stood with one of his tour groups in the Ibrahimi mosque in Hebron with his head bowed and his expression deeply troubled as a group of Israeli Jewish tourists walked through. The last person in line was an Israeli guard carrying a machine gun. It is a traditional sign of respect for visitors of any faith to remove their shoes and for women to cover their heads. This group had done neither. “No respect,” he said quietly. “No respect.”

The 2,000-year-old mosque is built over a cave. It is believed that Abraham and Sarah, Isaac and Rebecca, and Jacob and Leah are buried there. It is a holy place for Muslims, Christians and Jews.

After the Israeli occupation of the West Bank in 1967, Jewish settlements were established in and around Hebron. Although initially started by individuals, their expansion and protection by Israeli troops has received government support. In 1969, Rabbi Moshe Levinger rented a room in a hotel in Hebron for two days to celebrate Passover. The holidays passed, and his group refused to leave. The Knesset (Israeli Parliament) approved the Kiryat Arba’ settlement in 1970. About 7,500 Jewish settlers live there now. According to international law and the fourth Geneva Convention, all Israeli settlements in the West Bank are illegal.

Once a thriving city, Hebron changed forever on February 25, 1994 when an Israeli settler and American Jew by the name of Baruch Goldstein opened fire on Muslim worshipers at the mosque, killing 29 and injuring more than 120. Surviving worshipers killed Goldstein and riots broke out around the city. In a 1997 agreement, Hebron was divided into areas of Palestinian and Israeli control; the Ibrahimi mosque was also divided and a synagogue was constructed in the other half — known to Jews as the Cave of the Patriarchs. There were once seven access points for worshipers, but today only two remain open. The once thriving Shuhada street, home to markets, shops and vendors, is now a ghost town.

The Israeli-manned and armed checkpoint to enter area H2. (Photo by Kathy Melvin)

The Hebron Protocol, signed between Israel and the Palestine Liberation Organization, divided the city into two areas: H1 and H2. H1 is home to almost 115,000 Palestinian residents and is officially controlled by the Palestinian Authority. H2, which is about 20 percent of the city, is under direct control of the Israeli military and Israeli settlers who live in the midst of about 35,000 Palestinian residents.

The movement of Palestinians is restricted in H2. They are allowed to walk in some sections of the city, but not to drive. In other sections of H2, entry is completely prohibited for Palestinians. The Israeli army has gradually closed the entrances of private Palestinian homes and businesses on Shuhada Street since 2001. Today many doors are welded shut. Palestinian residents of Shuhada Street must find alternate entrances to their homes, which can sometimes mean climbing on a roof or going through holes in neighboring houses. In addition to the closure of streets, there are now more than 17 checkpoints around the borders of H2. Palestinian residents are subject to random questioning and searches.

A view of Shuhada Street in Hebron, once a thriving market. (Photo by Kathy Melvin)

When Osama’s tour group wanted to walk down Shuhada Street, he had to tell them he could not accompany them and would meet them again on the other side.

There is a campaign to open Shuhada Street, organized in 2010 by the Youth Against Settlements (YAS), a nonviolent campaign to protest closure and separation in Hebron. The campaign calls for the implementation of international law, the guarantee of human rights and end of the Israeli occupation of the Palestinian territory.

According to YAS, in 2006, the residents of more than 1,000 Palestinian housing units, about 42 percent of the total units in the area, had left their homes. More than 1,800 Palestinian businesses, about three-quarters of the businesses in the area, had closed either by military order or from the pressure of the separation measures. Palestinian children and their teachers who attend school must pass through Israeli-manned and armed checkpoints in order to get to their buildings. They’re sometimes questioned or not allowed to pass at all. Because of the time it takes to pass checkpoints and because Palestinian ambulances are often detained, it is not unheard of for a woman to give birth at a checkpoint.

Israeli settlers throw trash and rocks into some of the Palestinian areas below. (Photo by Kathy Melvin)

Osama met his group near the Palestinian market, which was covered by wire mesh to protect the shopkeepers. One man emerged from his shop to talk to the group.

“Please, you don’t have to buy anything,” he said. “I just want to tell you our story and then I hope you will go home and tell others.” Right above the market is a large Jewish settlement. He said the wire mesh is there because settlers throw rocks, garbage and sometimes bottles of urine on the shops below.

“We only want to live in peace,” he said, “but peace is not possible when one group is the master and the other are the slaves.”

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