The residents of Hebron are the butt of many jokes in Palestinian popular culture. They have a name for being stubborn and often slow on the uptake. The image of the recalcitrant halili has also entered Israeli military thinking as the Israel Defense Forces seeks to confront what is being seen as the last main redoubt of the latest round of Israeli-Palestinian violence.
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“That’s Hebron,” says one soldier in the Yehuda regional brigade – “slow to set alight and slow to burn out.”
As Jerusalem and parts of the West Bank have been slowly calming down in recent weeks, the number of stabbings and ramming attacks against Israeli civilians and security personnel in Hebron has risen. So has the number of Hebron residents involved in attacks elsewhere, including the 19-year-old who stabbed three people in Rishon Letzion on Monday.
The statistics also point to a disproportionate involvement of Hebronites in the recent unrest. Thirty of the 70 Palestinians killed, whether while carrying out attacks or during violent demonstrations, were from the Hebron region, as were 40 percent of the more than 500 arrests by security forces in the West Bank over the past two months.
Not that Hebron needs an intifada to spark confrontations. Like East Jerusalem, due to the presence of settlers living in small Jewish enclaves within the Palestinian city, the points of friction are countless. Unlike other Palestinian towns where Israeli forces only enter infrequently, much of Hebron and the environs are under constant Israeli supervision, and during a tense period like now, that means “flooding the sector” with soldiers.
Outside the city it means a temporary roadblock at nearly every intersection and within Hebron, in the Israeli zone of security, soldiers in couples at every other street corner: one to frisk passing Palestinian men and teenagers, the other covering them with a rifle.
“We can deal with armed ambushes and attacks,” says one battalion commander in the sector, “but with 480 of my soldiers spread out like this, the concern is that one moment of inattention can mean a knife.”
And the other concern is what the IDF nowadays calls “normative events,” i.e. harassment and violent abuse of Palestinians. Four soldiers from the Kfir Brigade were arrested last week for allegedly beating Palestinian detainees. While commanders claim to have zero-tolerance for such incidents, they explain that with the amount of close contact their soldiers have now with Palestinians, at makeshift checkpoints, bodily searching them for knives and other weapons, such events are almost inevitable.
The drastic rise in the number of Palestinians killed in the West Bank over the last two months and reports by human rights organizations on open-fire procedures illustrate a stark and brutal picture. Israeli officers in the field claim the opposite. Under engagement rules which allow soldiers to open fire in any situation they deem to be life-threatening, the casualties could have been much higher, considering the volume of rioting in recent weeks. They insist that their men acted with restraint, preferring instead to use cameras to identify ringleaders and then carry out arrests, which are now at their highest rate in the West Bank at any point.
It is an impossible argument however, since the military is insisting on making it, detached from any political connection. What is intriguing is that at the field level, IDF commanders seem to be arguing for an opposite approach to that being demanded by right-wing politicians, including some government ministers, of treating every stone-thrower as a potential murderer and shooting to kill.
The phrase that keeps on being mentioned in conversations with officers is rikmat hayim “fabric of life” – the army’s description for its attempt to allow Palestinian civilian life to go as near normal as possible. To outsiders, life under military occupation looks everything but normal. For the IDF, which has been the occupying force for 47 years, this means trying to preserve the situation that has existed in the West Bank in calmer periods. That’s why the military prefers to continue allowing 120,000 Palestinian men (nearly half with permits, the rest illegally) to cross over to Israel daily to work. Along with foreign aid, their pay is the main financial revenue of the West Bank and the IDF continues to believe it serves as an incentive against further escalation.
The number of violent incidents, even in the Hebron sector where the Palestinian Authority is weakest and Hamas still has considerable clout, has been going down over the past few days. But as predictions of an end to the violence are carefully being made, the army here is aware it’s skating on thin ice.
For now, only a handful are using the relatively easy route through the gaps in the separation fence to cross over, and instead of looking for a job, carry out attacks against Israelis. There are still a lot of arms cached in the villages around Hebron. On Monday a search yielded in Yatta an IDF-issue M-16 along with a dozen magazines. These weapons haven’t yet been used in recent weeks, principally because the local chieftains are wary to open a full-blooded conflict with the IDF and are keeping their powder dry for the day the struggle to succeed Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas breaks into the open. But calculations on the Palestinian side could change.
And the settlers of the Hebron region, who range from the hardliners living around the Tomb of the Patriarchs to quiet agricultural communities south of the city, could also provide the next spark. So far their demands of the government to respond to Palestinian violence by building another Jewish neighborhood that will link Hebron and Kiryat Arba have been stonewalled. Security officials have reported a dip in “price tag” attacks on Palestinian civilians, but the olive harvest is now in swing. Many of the small groves that have been owned and tended by Palestinian families for generations are behind settlement fences, and soldiers daily accompany them to the picking to prevent violent confrontations. So far it’s proceeding peacefully, but as one of the sector’s commanders drove through a village where teenagers were walking home from school he said: “things are quiet right now but it could blow up any second.”
Hebron could be the place where the third intifada went to die or to come back from with vengeance.