Pernicious Promenade

Twenty-two buildings of architectural and historical value will be demolished in the old town of Hebron "for military needs," under Decree Number 61/02/T to Expropriate Property issued by the Israel Defense Forces on November 29 of this year.

Twenty-two buildings of architectural and historical value will be demolished in the old town of Hebron "for military needs," under Decree Number 61/02/T to Expropriate Property issued by the Israel Defense Forces on November 29 of this year; this is claimed in a petition submitted to the High Court of Justice yesterday on behalf of the Hebron Municipality, the Hebron Rehabilitation Committee (HRC) and residents of Hebron.

The decree applies to an area of 8.2 dunams, six to 12 meters wide and 730 meters long, about a quarter of which is in the old town. The expropriation of the land and the demolishing of the buildings were aimed, according to the attorney who filed the petition, Shlomo Lecker, for purposes of building a tourism promenade between the Jewish settlement of Kiryat Arba and the Tomb of the Patriarchs (the Ibrahim Mosque), on the worshipers' way. According to the American administration and Israeli sources close to the planning, the aim of the expropriation of the land and the building of the promenade is to create territorial contiguity between Kiryat Arba and Hebron.

The plan for the promenade - intended for use by Jewish settlers only - was prepared for the Israel Government Tourism Corporation by architect Yigal Levy. Originally, the plan consisted of two parts: an open promenade in an area that was not built up and an "alley promenade," which was supposed to have traversed the southern edge of the old town, among the ancient buildings and within the historic fabric. The plan included a recommendation to preserve and rehabilitate the ancient buildings. According to Levy, at one stage he even cooperated with an Egyptian architect in planning the preservation and reconstruction work at the Tomb of the Patriarchs. After the fierce battle that took place there on November 15, between Israel Defense Forces soldiers and Palestinians (in which four soldiers, five Border Police, three Jewish settlers and the two terrorists were killed), dealing with the plan was transferred to the hands of the IDF.

Tourism Minister Yitzhak Levy said this week on Army Radio that the army is dealing with the plan, not the Tourism Ministry.

An opinion prepared by architect Shmuel Groag of Bimkom Planners for Planning Rights, a non-profit organization, for the petition to the High Court of Justice, states that the proposed route of the promenade "severely damages cultural, historical, archaeological and architectural values, together with severe damage to the quality of life of the residents of the Jabber neighborhood who live there and those who have been forced to leave." The old town of Hebron, as stated in the opinion, is a unique historical fabric that was created over hundreds of years, layer upon layer, where there are buildings from the Mameluke period, from the 15th century to the 19th century. The place is characterized by a tangle of alleys that have created a picturesque Casbah. There are covered passageways, internal courtyards, arches, stone walls and decorated apertures.

In its structure, the old town of Hebron resembles old Acre, which was recently declared a World Heritage Site. This designation was made possible after Israel signed the World Heritage Convention and thus committed itself to world cultural assets located in its territory and in territories under its control, including Hebron. This weekend the members of the Israeli branch of Icomos, the UNESCO International Council on Monuments and Sites, will meet in Jerusalem. It is their intention to ask Culture Minister Limor Livnat, who was present at the ceremony, to declare Acre a World Heritage Site, to act to prevent the destruction of Hebron's cultural heritage.

At the world Icomos General Assembly that ended in Madrid last week, a joint Israeli-Palestinian resolution was passed that "expresses its great concern with the ongoing destruction and constant threat to cultural heritage in Israel and Palestinian territories and calls upon all parties to take positive action to respect international agreements."

According to Giora Solar, Israel's representative to the organization, the Palestinian observers formulated a resolution in far stronger language that related, among other things, to the destruction of cultural heritage sites by Israel in Nablus, but after negotiations they agreed to a much more moderate formulation. According to Solar, after the publication of the decree to expropriate the land and demolish the buildings in Hebron, "The resolution that was passed has far greater significance."

Before the Six-Day War in 1967, about 10,000 people lived in the old city of Hebron, most of them in poor conditions without water, electricity and sewage infrastructures. With the occupation of the city by the IDF and the difficult conditions that were imposed on the inhabitants of the old town, most of them left the area and it became a center of crime and drug-dealing. After the Hebron agreement in 1997, the Palestinian Authority made the rehabilitation of the old town a flagship project, and raised funds in the Arab world. Promises to finance the project were also received from European sources. In October, 1998, the rehabilitation project, which was carried out only in part, received the Aga Khan Award for Architecture - the most important architecture prize in the Muslim world.

Among the members of the jury for the award were French-Algerian philosopher Mohammad Arkoun, architects Zaha Hadid from Britain and Arata Isozaki of Japan and cultural theorist Fredric Jameson. The Hebron restoration project was one of six that won awards, out of a field of about 400 candidates. The jury concentrated on projects "related to community rebuilding, on the one hand, and to the development of vital vernacular modern styles on the other," and selected those that dealt creatively with "demographic pressure, environmental degradation, globalization, standardization, ethnic tensions, crisis of the nation state and the struggle for democracy and human rights, and the like."

The buildings slated for destruction under the IDF decree are apparently in the part of the town that has not been rehabilitated. Upon receiving the Aga Khan Award - in a royal ceremony at the Alhambra Palace in Granada - Dr. Khalid S. Qawasami, the chairman of the HRC said that "unfortunately, the Israeli administration is making the continuation of the project difficult." However, he expressed the hope that in the future the project would become a focus of attraction for tourists. "We don't see the project as something local, but as universal. The jury praised the professional level of the rehabilitation, and I hope it will receive international attention."

Regrettably, the international attention that the old town of Hebron is drawing in the meantime is connected to destruction, and not to rehabilitation.

In the restored areas it is possible to see the special character of the rehabilitation work. In the main, it is based on traditional building materials and methods, a reorganization of the system of alleys and the creation of small plazas and public spaces without deviating from the existing fabric. The majority of the area is intended for residential use, and hundreds of families have come back to live in the town. Some of the main alleys are also intended for commerce. According to Qawasmi, the place was intentionally not converted into "a neighborhood for doctors, lawyers or artists, but is intended for all strata of the population." In the restored areas new water, sewage and electrical systems have been installed. The modern intervention is hardly felt, sometimes at the price of inconvenience in the everyday lives of the residents.

The writer of these lines took the tour of Hebron four years ago, in a political atmosphere that today seems inconceivable. But even then, the everyday lives of the Palestinians in the old town were not especially comfortable. This was not because of the character of the rehabilitation project, which obligated the preservation of narrow, low openings (refrigerators could not fit through doors) and did not allow for making the roads wide enough for cars, but because of the conditions of the occupation and the endless harassment by the Jewish settlers. These things are not new, but are getting worse.