21 Years After Goldstein Massacre, Once-thriving Hebron Is a Mere Memory

February 25 marks the 21 years since Dr. Baruch Goldstein entered the Tomb of the Patriarchs and gunned down 29 Muslims kneeling in prayer at the Ibrahimi mosque. What happened to the city since that day?

Amira Hass

Despite her many aches, Zahira Dandees – she has no idea how old she really is – smiles at us. Her face lights up, because so few people visit her in her home on Hebron’s main street, Shuhada.

“They’re afraid to come,” she says. In any case, it’s complicated. Some 120 roadblocks and 18 manned checkpoints cut off the streets, and Palestinians are forbidden to drive cars in the entire Israeli-controlled area and forbidden to walk on most of this main street.

AFP

February 25 marks the 21st anniversary of the Goldstein massacre in Hebron, when Dr. Baruch Goldstein entered the Tomb of the Patriarchs and gunned down and murdered 29 Muslims kneeling in prayer at the Ibrahimi mosque. This is a chance to examine the routine established since then.

About a month ago, on January 19, Israel Defense Forces soldiers welded shut the entrance to the small apartment which Dandees had moved into when she was married dozens of years ago. Her late husband had a carpentry workshop under the apartment, which was set alongside a barbershop and a row of other workshops and small businesses. All of them are shut today.

Dandees recalls how the road was always full of people; neighbors visiting each other, voices, colors, activity, cars stopping outside the door. Beit Hadassah, a settlers’ compound – protected, fortified and surrounded by military outposts – is situated about 100 meters from her home.

The preparations for the welding were attended by several kippa-wearing Israelis, who smiled and took a lot of photographs. Dandees had long since moved out of the tiny apartment with her husband and children, to a larger one across the road, but the small one above the workshop gets the sun. This is where her washing machine is, where she hangs out the laundry to dry on the roof. She sits on the roof every day, to catch a bit of sun and warmth. Once one of her sons lived here, too, but he “fled,” she says, because of all the restrictions, and the settlers’ harassment of the children. Most of the neighbors also fled.

Why did they weld the door shut? “They told me someone threw stones,” explained Dandees, “but I didn’t throw stones.” She doesn’t think they showed her a military order to weld the door shut.

The IDF spokesman did not answer Haaretz’s query about whether the door had been welded shut by order, who signed the order, and until when it was valid. He said instead, “The street has been closed for 20 years by a commander's order. After two firebombs were thrown on Shuhada Street, several openings were found between the structures [shops – AH], which enabled Palestinians to enter the Jewish community, bypassing the checkpoint – contrary to the military order. One of the firebombs caught fire in a building, forcing IDF troops to break into the sealed structure and put out the fire. On January 19, 2015, on the basis of the existing order, IDF soldiers sealed the structure, which is not inhabited by families.”

The spokesman did not explain how the firebomb got into the sealed structure.

Easier for settlers to work

Social activists from the Youth Against Settlements group in Hebron confirmed that a fire had broken out in a sealed Palestinian store – the one closest to Beit Hadassah. The fire broke out because someone – the activists say an Israeli – had illicitly tried to connect to the power grid.

To put out the flames, the store door was opened and the activists found that large openings had been made in the walls, connecting the stores to each other. These were the kind of holes IDF soldiers had made in West Bank refugee camp homes back in 2002, to facilitate their advancement.

The activists are certain this is how the people who made the holes plan to take over the closed stores and turn them into another Jewish settlement compound, for housing, businesses or leisure. They say the welding makes it easier for the settlers to continue their work.

The IDF spokesman did not respond to these allegations, but said, “The IDF will continue to enforce law and order in Judea and Samaria.”

Though she lives on that small part of Shuhada where the IDF allows Palestinians to walk through, Zahira Dandees does not stay in the emptied street by choice. “If I had another apartment, if I had money, I’d leave this place,” she says.

The Abu Aisha family in Hebron’s Tel Rumeida neighborhood, however, remains at home by choice and determination. To their east lies a small military camp. Opposite them is a settlement, whose residents live in trailers and a large house. Israelis have offered them a large amount of money to move out several times, and each time they refused. They make sure one adult is always in the house.

“If we all leave, even for a few hours, the settlers will take over,” a family member says. The IDF’s laws forbid them from receiving any Palestinian guests. This is why the women and children received us with such warm smiles here, too.

Neighbors aren’t permitted to visit the Abu Aisha family, either – not even the brides’ families. A soldier posted on the street corner checks the identity card of anyone who isn’t Israeli or Jewish. The Abu Aisha sons are tall and look older than their age: By a special arrangement with the Palestinian Interior Ministry, they received identity cards early, at age 15, so the soldiers wouldn’t suspect them of being strangers and prevent them from returning home. After 10 years of submitting requests to the Civil Administration, the family was finally permitted to bring laborers to make some repairs in the house.

Known as the Cage House, their home is covered from the front and sides with iron mesh. “That’s from Arafat’s time [1996],” says Rima Abu Aisha. “He heard settlers were throwing stones at the house and made sure we got the money to put up the mesh. Before that, we couldn’t put furniture on the balcony, all the window panes were broken, the floor was covered with rocks. We couldn’t sit here like we do now,” she says.

But Israelis kept attacking them – either throwing stones, breaking into the house through another door or shooting at them (and killing their songbirds). About six years ago, they installed closed-circuit TV cameras, with the help of B’Tselem. Unknown people once smashed the camera and the family installed a new one (they also have two smaller video cameras). Thanks to the three cameras, the attacks became less frequent.

The family used to have a small copper and iron factory from before 1967. Buyers from Tel Aviv used to come and order copper utensils, says Taysir Abu Aisha. Then the army ordered the family to shut down the factory. The father and son opened two clothes stores outside the encaged and emptied city center, to make a living.

The Abi Aisha residence and adjacent settlers' houses are on the top of a hill. This is a common sight: Israeli cars drive, masterly, on the steep rise, while a couple of elderly, panting Palestinians struggle on foot up the road.

Until three months ago, adults were still allowed to ride a donkey and pass through the Shuhada checkpoint to the other side of the universe – Hebron under Palestinian rule. But then the army closed the checkpoint for three weeks, after two fire bombs had been thrown at it. When it reopened, donkeys were no longer allowed to pass through. Now, people must carry gas tanks and food products in a wheelbarrow or on their back.

Youth Against Settlements is planning a campaign for reopening Shuhada Street. Rima Abu Aisha smiles. “Inshallah, good luck to them. But I don’t believe anything will change for the better,” she says.

Amira Hass tweets at @Hass_Haaretz.