Bisected by a Jews-only Road, a Palestinian Neighborhood in Hebron Is Dying

The heavily-armed elite IDF soldiers tasked with ensuring that Aref Jaber doesn't expand his house bravely leap into action when faced with any security threat, be it a child or a camera crew. The house has been declared a closed military zone, they say.

Aref Jaber speaks to Israeli soldiers outside his home in Hebron.
Alex Levac

Here’s the mission of Israel Defense Forces combat soldiers, moral to the bone and fearless – young men from an elite unit who are serving in Hebron: They stand on the road, all day and all night, watching over the house of Aref Jaber. As part of their operational mission, they prevent outsiders from entering the apartment building and block every attempt by anyone, including the tenants and local residents and even children, to go up to the roof.

Why? The soldiers only know that Jaber has been prohibited to continue building his home, though they have no idea why. They claim that they have a “general’s order” in their pocket, which declares that the two-story building is a “closed military zone,” but that they are not allowed to show it to anyone. The order is secret.

On Monday, for example, two young, likable, smiling, very affable soldiers were standing there, former kibbutzniks, one from Yehiam and the other, the sergeant, from Ma’aleh Hahamisha. The sun beat down on them. They wore khaki-colored cloth caps, were armed from head to toe, carried heavy communications equipment on their back and were ready to execute their daring mission to the best of their ability. Occasionally they offered a candy or a snack bar to children on the street.

Suddenly they tensed up. A boy was observed climbing up the stairs to the roof. It was Jaber’s 12-year-old son, Amir. The two soldiers took resolute action, not hesitating for an instant. They crossed the street and warned Jaber with extraordinary politeness to get the boy off the roof, otherwise they would call in more troops and his son would be arrested. The father gave the command and the son came down.

Shortly afterward, another security threat loomed, bearing an equal threat of disaster: a Palestinian television crew tried to enter the structure and infiltrate straight through to the yard in order to interview the owner against the backdrop of the wall of the building. The force deployed for action. Again the two cordial soldiers crossed the road and again politely warned the owner and the TV crew. The reporter asked to see the order. The soldiers replied that they had it but were not allowed to show it to him. Classified information.

This whole nutty scene was played out because a settler from the Tel Rumeida area nearby had called in the army’s Civil Administration authorities, who then forbid construction of the additional floor. It’s the occupation at its most ludicrous.

An IDF soldier guarding the Jewish settlement in Hebron.
Reuters

We are in Hebron’s Jaber neighborhood, where the homes are scattered on both sides of the main street that runs from the town of Kiryat Arba to the Tomb of the Patriarchs and the Jewish settlement in Hebron. The settlers call the street “Zion Road,” but it runs through a Palestinian neighborhood. It’s a Jews-only thoroughfare in this non-apartheid district. No Palestinian vehicle is allowed to enter. All traffic, all transportation and supplies, all access to homes and stores is either by foot or with the aid of donkeys and mules. Palestinian ambulances can enter only following prior coordination. Four months ago, a woman gave birth in the street, because the arrangements for the ambulance went on for too long.

In these conditions, in which the only vehicles that pass through this Palestinian quarter are those of the Jewish settlers and the IDF, the neighborhood is slowly dying, just as the settlers wish: It was their brutality that brought about the street’s closure in the first place.

This may be the only street in the world where the people who live on either side of it are not allowed to travel on it. Some of the apartments have been abandoned, as have most of the stores, of course. It’s a ghost quarter, but even so, less ghostly than down the hill, in the Old City and the Casbah, where the settlers rule absolutely. In this dying neighborhood, whoever can leave gets out.

Aref Jaber hasn’t left. He, together with his wife and their six children, lives on the second floor of a building that belongs to his family. His brothers and their families inhabit the other apartments in the stone-covered structure – 22 people, all told. We are sitting with Jaber outside his home, on the street, as per military order, with piles of construction materials around us that were brought in by mule-drawn carts. Now, however, he’s not permitted to use the materials.

Jaber is an official in the Palestinian Authority, a social activist in the neighborhood and also a volunteer in the Israeli human rights organization B’Tselem. He appeared as a witness in the trial of Elor Azaria, the soldier who shot to death the wounded and incapacitated Palestinian in Hebron last March: Jaber was the one who photographed the handshake between Azaria and the ultranationalist Hebron resident Baruch Marzel after the shooting.

Two weeks ago, he organized a nonviolent demonstration of locals to call for the road that bisects their neighborhood to be opened to Palestinian vehicles. In response, he got a phone call from the Kiryat Arba police informing him that his permit to enter Israel had been revoked. He plays us a recording of the conversation with the policeman.

“We are not only living under occupation, we are living under the most extreme conditions,” Jaber says, referring to the Hebron settlers, who make the lives of the neighborhood residents hell.

“The soldiers,” he adds, “are usually nice. They come from Tel Aviv and sometimes they say they are sorry for what they are doing but that they have no choice because the settlers rule here. Baruch Marzel and Ofer Ohana, and Haim and Bentzi, too – I know them all. The settlers want to expel us from here, and say so: Hebron belongs to the Jews only.”

Down the road a bit is a far larger building. This is “Beit Hashalom” (house of peace) or “Beit Hameriva” (house of contention) – the Palestinian structure that settlers acquired by various means – an acquisition whose legitimacy was, naturally, affirmed by an Israeli court after years of litigation. Wrapped in Israeli flags from the ground to the roof, the building seems to be at least partially empty. It’s guarded by soldiers on the street, and a yellow iron barrier prevents entry by Palestinians.

A year ago, Jaber obtained a permit from the Hebron Municipality to add another floor to his building. His two sons had grown up and he wanted to build apartments for them ahead of their marriages. In July he submitted a request to the Civil Administration to bring in a few truckloads of construction materials. No one bothered to reply. He bought in about 10 tons of cement, 20 tons of sand, 30 tons of gravel and 15 tons of stone facing – at a total cost of some 50,000 shekels ($13,250) – all transported via carts hitched to donkeys and mules. He started work on the third floor, aided by his sons and neighbors in August.

The first four days of construction went by without incident. On the fifth day, a settler named Haim from Tel Rumeida showed up. Jaber doesn’t know his surname, but he has a photograph of him in his cell phone. Jaber was ordered to stop building and remove the construction materials from the site. The Israelis threatened to bring in a bulldozer and demolish the whole building.

A worker pushes a creaky cart carrying a huge mattress up the steep street. Another worker lugs a cupboard from the nearby carpentry shop. A settler’s car whizzes by.

Jaber applied to the Palestinian coordination headquarters and requested a building permit from Israel. He appended his documents of ownership and the permit from the Hebron Municipality. The Palestinian side told him that as far as they knew he could continue building without any problem. His lawyer agreed. On August 28 he resumed construction. Haim from Tel Rumedia arrived that very day, followed a few minutes later by the Civil Administration, of course. They left after a time.

Last Thursday, Jaber brought in iron rods. He started to cast the roof the following day. Haim showed up with another settler, and in their wake – surprise, surprise – IDF troops, the Civil Administration and the police. They informed Jaber that his house had been declared a closed military zone. Entry was henceforth permitted only to the occupants; access to the roof was denied equally to all.

The IDF Spokesperson’s Unit gave this response this week, in a reply to a query from Haaretz: “In certain areas of the city of Hebron, a permit is needed from the security forces for building additional floors, as per the Hebron agreement of 1997, for obvious security reasons. In the building in question, construction was done in violation of that directive. In the name of maintaining security, an order was recently issued that forbids non-permissible construction activities on the site of the building, with the goal of preventing the entrance of laborers for continuation of the work there, after the owner ignored the clarifications that he received. It should be noted that the owner and his family are permitted to enter the building freely. The security authorities will continue to maintain constant contact with the relevant Palestinian elements.”

The protector of Israel neither slumbers nor sleeps. Since last Friday, soldiers have been posted on the street every day, from early morning until 10 P.M. At night the house is abandoned to its fate. That too may change soon under a military order. This week, when the two kibbutzniks from the 50th Battalion threatened to arrest Jaber’s son Amir for going up to the roof, his father told them in his broken Hebrew, “This is little boy, this his house.” The soldiers tried to explain, “Military order.” One of them said to me afterward, “I don’t know if this is sababa [cool] or not, but those are the orders.”