When Our Freedom Means Their Captivity

In the wake of further settlement expansion, British university students are finding it harder to defend Israel to their peers.

Hannah Weisfeld
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Palestinian protesters confront an Israeli soldier during clashes at a demonstration against the closure of Shuhada street to Palestinians, Hebron, February 21, 2014. Credit: Reuters
Hannah Weisfeld

Several years ago, ahead of a meeting with the Israeli ambassador to the U.K., I asked a group of students what they would like to ask him. They had one question: “As Zionists we want to present Israel’s case to the wider British student population. Tell us how we can explain ongoing settlement expansion and at the same time convince students that the government of Israel is serious about peace?”

Luckily for these students, British universities are on holiday this week, because they would otherwise find themselves struggling to defend the creation of a fifth settlement inside Hebron.

Just before Pesach in April 1968, a group of Israelis gained permission to enter the city to celebrate the festival and never left. And so began the settlement enterprise. Forty six years later, this time with the permission of the Defense Minister, Moshe Ya’alon, the settlement of Hebron is once again multiplying during the festival of Passover.

But how ironic that as these five Jewish communities in Hebron sit down to recount our own long walk to freedom, the people within whose midst they live, will not be able to walk down a central portion of the main thoroughfare of the city, Shuhada Street, the road that used to be the epicenter of a thriving local Hebron economy.

Instead Palestinians who still dwell on that street will climb over rooftops to leave their houses because their front doors have been welded shut (in 2006 the Association for Civil Rights in Israel raised this issue with the legal advisor for Judea and Samaria, who replied that the army had prohibited Palestinians from walking along the street for six years “by mistake”).

Some 75 percent of Palestinian businesses in the old city of Hebron are no longer in operation, closed due to restrictions that have been placed on them since 1994 when, in the wake of the massacre by Baruch Goldstein, the city was put on lockdown, which intensified with the second intifada.

Large areas of the former city center are ‘sterile’ of Palestinians (an Israel Defense Forces description) and any Palestinian who can leave this part of the city has left by now, with 42 percent of houses vacant.

After a lengthy court battle over the House of Contention, the new Hebron settlement, the courts ruled that despite some documents being forged by settlers, the purchase of the house could be completed. Like all purchases and building by Israelis in the West Bank, it then had to be approved by Defense Minister, Moshe Ya’alon.

The new settlement will likely result in new security restrictions that will be put in place to ensure the safety of the settlers. The killing of an Israeli near Hebron, in a drive-by shooting on Passover night, will be cited as the type of incident that compels the army to protect settlers.

So there will be even less freedom of movement for the local Palestinian population, and like many other Palestinians in the city, those living nearby will no doubt suffer at the hands of the settlers. The bullying from the local settler community is well documented; everything from feces and urine being thrown into the market, to calling Palestinian women whores.

When Yachad, the British Jewish pro-Israel pro-peace movement began taking tours to Hebron, we were criticized for paying too much attention to the city because it gives the “wrong impression” about the impact of Israeli presence in the West Bank, which is perceived to be less extreme elsewhere. But the system of rule in Hebron is just a condensed version of the system of rule over the entire West Bank.

Special security zones around settlements into which Palestinians cannot enter, expropriation of land for the use of building settlements (for example, the recent retroactive legalization of a new settlement area built on private Palestinian land in Gush Etzion), not to mention parts of a settler population that can act with near impunity when it comes to the treatment of local Palestinians, are commonplace realities in the West Bank.

The only difference is that in Hebron what takes place is fully visible to the naked eye. The city exposes that which can easily go unnoticed in the rest of the West Bank.

By the time those students return to university, a new settlement in Hebron will be old news. No doubt they’ll be grateful for the reprieve from yet again having to decide whether to defend or explain to fellow students that which so many of them believe is indefensible. One can only assume that the question they might ask the Ambassador this week would be, “Please ask Minister Ya’alon, are you serious?”

Because here’s the thing: Ya’alon could have decided that establishing a controversial new settlement in a city that is under the spotlight, while in the midst of trying to salvage peace talks was a bad idea, and forbidden the settlers to enter the house. But he chose not to. So instead, during Pesach, our festival of freedom, the new occupiers will claim their latest victory against the Palestinians of Hebron, proving once again, that it is really they who call the shots.

The writer is a founder and the director of Yachad, the pro-Israel pro-peace movement in the U.K.