Two weeks ago, Israel’s Civil Administration in the West Bank demanded that Palestinians residing in several neighborhoods of Hebron’s Old City be registered under a special category: “permanent residents.” This was accompanied by an Israel Defense Forces order declaring these neighborhoods a closed military area, to which Palestinians will be denied entry unless they can prove they live there.
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Anyone who didn’t voluntarily register last week with soldiers at the checkpoints suffered a nighttime raid on his house, during which soldiers and Civil Administration officials forced all residents of the household to register their status. Gradually, even those who initially refused to register were forced to do so.
“They even measured the size of the rooms in the apartment,” one resident told Haaretz last Wednesday. “Recording names and measuring the size of rooms – that’s very frightening.”
That person was telling about his fresh experience at the end of a demonstration in which participants demanded that Israel hand over the bodies of Palestinians that Israeli soldiers have killed recently to their families. The rally was sponsored by the Fatah party, which is why only a few hundred Hebron residents attended.
These days in that city, as elsewhere in the West Bank, there is little response to calls by political organizations to go out and demonstrate against the occupation. The Committee of National and Islamic Forces calls for a protest at a certain place and time in Ramallah, for example, and the demonstrators show up at a different place at a different hour, or even on a different day.
“In Hebron today," one resident explains, "only demonstrations called by the large clans bring out the masses." And in Hebron today, all the political slogans have been shunted aside in favor of demands for the return of the bodies.
As usual, local activists tried to hide their political weakness with sloganeering. “Cut off the head of the settler!” someone shouted over the loudspeaker at Wednesday's demonstration. Or, “Everyone knows the truth: We don’t want to see the settlers.” Afterward, a Fatah representative shouted “Death to Israel!” from the dais in Ibn Rushd Square, but only a few people joined in and chanted the slogan.
A group of female demonstrators called for vengeance and invited the rival Palestinian organization – Hamas – to carry it out. Three of the women drew attention with their matching clothing: All were dressed in black, their faces covered by black-and-white keffiyehs. Salespeople and shoppers on Ein Sarah Street glanced at the protesters, but didn’t join them.
When the demonstration ended, a group of teens went to the Israeli checkpoint in the Bab al-Zawiya neighborhood, threw stones at it and then fled the soldiers’ tear gas and bullets. No one had sent the boys there. In fact, no one today has the political power to prevent such youngsters from throwing stones or endangering their lives – just like no one stopped a boy who looked to be about 8 years old from standing the day before not far from another checkpoint (Abu al-Rish, which separates the Old City from the rest of Hebron), and amusing himself by using a slingshot to shoot a stone at an unseen target. The stench from the so-called skunk spray used there by the IDF a day or two earlier didn’t drive the boy and his comrades away.
Hebron residents say that 36 demonstrations and clashes erupted near IDF checkpoints around the Old City in October. During these incidents, 89 Palestinians were wounded by live fire, 82 by sponge-tipped bullets and 159 by tear gas.
The registration of Old City residents, the declaration of its neighborhoods as a closed military area and the forced closure of Palestinian shops in downtown Hebron are among the steps the army has taken to contain the recent escalation in violence since concluding that Hebron is the epicenter of this escalation. But the Palestinians don’t see these steps as measures that will calm down the situation.
On the contrary, such steps merely bolster their conclusion that Israel is exploiting the situation to execute yet another phase of a plan to empty central Hebron of Palestinians and to inject it with new clusters of settlements and settlers. It’s impossible to understand the situation in Hebron without taking into account the constant fear that Israel intends to expel all Palestinians from the Old City.
But what currently overshadows even the fear of expulsion from the Old City is fear of the soldiers. Women say they’ve stopped crossing checkpoints with any kind of bag, lest the soldiers suspect them of carrying knives and execute them.
At the Border Police checkpoint in the Al-Salaymeh neighborhood, a woman hesitated for several minutes on Monday of last week before passing with her two daughters through the metal detector, which meant going right by a policeman who sat in the guard post with his rifle at the ready. Only the presence of a journalist and a camera at the site persuaded her to pass through.
About 40 girls who must travel from Palestinian-controlled sections of Hebron to their high school in its Old City were absent from class last week. More than ever, they and their parents are afraid of the settlers and the soldiers, who aim their rifles at them and examine the backpack of every pupil, even if he or she is only 6 or 10.
Twenty-three residents of the Hebron area who either committed attacks against Israelis or allegedly tried to do so up until November 4 have been killed by the security forces. Of these, 10 were killed at checkpoints in or around the Old City; one high-school student was killed at a checkpoint in the Wadi al-Ghrous neighborhood.
Everyone in Hebron says that not one of those killed was affiliated with any political organization. If they indeed tried to stab someone, they didn’t do so in the name of any organization.
Every Hebron resident is familiar with pictures of the bodies of the dead, lying in pools of their own blood, while Israelis in both civilian clothing and uniforms stand alongside, photographing them with their smartphones and even sometimes smiling. Residents of the Old City say every time a Palestinian is killed, Israelis come to the scene and celebrate the killing.
On Tuesday last week, the IDF shut down the Al-Huriya Media Network, which is considered pro-Fatah, and destroyed or confiscated equipment worth about $350,000, claiming it incites to violence. But in Hebron, many people know Hebrew, and they surf Israeli websites and translate the anti-Arab slogans Israelis write there for the benefit of those who don’t know the language. They don’t need Al-Huriya to become enraged.
Even those Hebronites who believe that at least some of the slain Palestinians did try to stab Israelis are convinced that the soldiers executed them when they could have made do with wounding and arresting them – exactly as an IDF inquiry found with regard to the soldiers who killed Hadeel al-Hashlamoun on September 22. Many others are convinced that the reports of stabbings are lies; they think Israeli soldiers have become hysterical, fearing even the slightest movement, and therefore shoot to kill without cause.
Some locals go even further, claiming that the killing of people passing through checkpoints near settler compounds is part of a plan to expel Palestinians from the Old City. Then along came the registration of the Old City’s “permanent residents,” and the ban on other Palestinians entering certain Old City neighborhoods, and confirmed their worst fears.
At checkpoints along Shuhada Street between the Ibrahimi Mosque, aka the Tomb of the Patriarchs, and the settler compound of Tel Rumeida – an area where Palestinian cars, and in one section, even Palestinian pedestrians, are banned – soldiers are now checking whether the names of Palestinians seeking to go through are on the new list they have received. If so, they are allowed to pass. If not, they are ordered to turn back.
Issa Amro, director of the Youth Against Settlements movement, said a Civil Administration officer told residents that the next step would be to give all the registered permanent residents special passes allowing them to enter and leave their homes and neighborhoods. But the new registry move means that relatives, friends, plumbers or doctors who don’t live there won’t be able to get in.
The feelings of isolation will grow. Elderly people who are dependent on their children’s help may be forced to abandon their homes. Young people who want a bit of normalcy in their lives may prefer to move to the other side of the city.
So far, the registration has been conducted on Shuhada Street and in Tel Rumeida. Another neighborhood east of the Tomb of the Patriarchs – Al-Salaymeh – was encircled last Friday by concrete barriers that force residents to enter and leave through a Border Police checkpoint.
The spokesman’s office of the IDF’s Coordinator of Government Activities in the Territories didn’t reply to Haaretz’s queries as to whether the registration process would be expanded to other neighborhoods, or why the size of rooms in the apartments was being measured. Its response said merely that, “In light of the series of terrorist incidents in the city of Hebron, security officials recently imposed movement restrictions in this area, as part of which entry to Tel Rumeida is permitted only to residents of the neighborhood and in humanitarian cases.
"In order to minimize harm to the lifestyle of those living in the area to which this order applies, their personal information was passed on to the forces manning the checkpoints to allow the residents free access to their homes. The Civil Administration will continue to enable the existence of a normal fabric of life for all residents of the sector, making allowances for the necessary security measures that were taken in light of the situation.”
But in Hebron, and especially its Old City, there has been no “normal fabric of life” for almost 20 years. Some 18 military checkpoints manned by soldiers, along with about 100 additional barriers (concrete walls) erected in the middle of streets and between houses, have severed the heart of the city from adjacent neighborhoods and the rest of the city. Markets once teeming with life have become desolate.
The B'Tselem human rights group estimates that about 75 percent of the 1,830 businesses in central Hebron have been closed to date because of movement restrictions and the isolation from the rest of the city. More than 1,000 apartments (about 40 percent of the total) have been abandoned for the same reason, and because of the constant harassment of the Palestinians residents by settlers, under the aegis of the army and police.
Local schoolchildren need permanent escorts because they’re afraid of the settlers and their families. Severing streets in the heart of Hebron in the middle completely disrupts the flow of traffic, necessitating long, meandering detours through the hilly city – merely in order to proceed a few dozen meters.
Dr. Hashem al-Azzeh, 54, a resident of Tel Rumeida, lived three minutes away from Hebron’s hospital. On October 21, Azzeh, who had undergone a catheterization two months earlier, felt ill. His family said he suffered from the tear gas the IDF had used to disperse a demonstration in Bab al-Zawiya.
Ambulances cannot enter the neighborhood without coordination with the IDF, a process that takes about 40 minutes. So Azzeh's relatives and neighbors carried him to the checkpoint at the bottom of the street, where they were delayed for about 10 minutes before being allowed to approach the ambulance awaiting them on the other side. But when he reached the hospital, he was pronounced dead.
Due to fear of the settlers and soldiers – even in “normal” times – people have gotten used to avoiding the Old City if they don’t need to go there. Yet even in the neighborhoods surrounding its ghost towns, the fabric of life is not normal.
On the road leading from the settlement of Kiryat Arba to the Old City, Palestinians are forbidden to travel by car (aside from a few people with special permits). The direct road leading to the Wadi al-Ghrous neighborhood, which passes by a Border Police base, is closed to vehicular traffic. The neighborhood itself is imprisoned between the settler compound of Givat Harsina, Kiryat Arba and a Border Police barracks.
In summer, the residents are dependent on water tankers, which can’t enter the neighborhood’s narrow streets. It takes about a month to coordinate with the army to obtain permission for the tanker trucks to enter via the blocked road. Residents are forbidden to build any new structures along the road or to add extra stories to their houses, and live in conditions of miserable overcrowding.
The 1997 agreement on the IDF’s redeployment in Hebron left 20 percent of the city under Israeli security control. This means the Palestinian police aren’t allowed to operate in about a fifth of the city’s territory. Over the last 19 years, this fifth has become a refuge for criminals who are fleeing the Palestinian police, but whose arrest isn’t high priority for the Israeli police.
This same agreement prevents Palestinian law-enforcement agencies from intervening in domestic violence cases or quarrels between neighbors, which sometimes develop into frightening exchanges of gunfire.
The Palestinian Authority is aware of how its position has been weakened by the absence of a normal fabric of life. On Tuesday of last week, Prime Minister Rami Hamdallah’s government held its weekly meeting in Hebron and promised to offer more support to the city, and especially residents of the Old City. The Hebron municipality made the same promise, saying it had allocated $1 million for them.
On the day of the cabinet meeting, the Palestinian security services were deployed throughout the city. One young Palestinian policeman, who was on leave and didn’t know about the meeting, gave the other passengers in his taxi his opinion of his employer: “Clearly, someone important has come to the city. The last thing that interests the PA is the security of the people.”