Life under siege in a divided city
Visitors to the Abu Aishe family in the heart of the biblical and bitterly-disputed city of Hebron either require an army escort to the front of the steel mesh cage protecting the three-storey home or risk assault by a barrage of stones, rotting food and shouts of “Death to Arabs” from the neighbours.
Three generations of the Abu Aishe family are the last Arabs living in their street, defiantly staying on in the face of what international monitors have described as the “cleansing” of parts of Hebron by messianic Jews, with the complicity of the Israeli army, that has driven thousands of people from their homes and businesses. Over recent years, parts of Hebron were all but emptied of Palestinians as their shops were sealed and the streets closed off.
“The neighbours all left,” said Reem Abu Aishe, a mother of six children, who lives in the midst of the small but growing settler enclave of Tel Rumeida which some Jews claim as the original city of Abraham and therefore the world’s oldest Jewish settlement.
“They couldn’t stand the threats and the constant harassment.
Their children were attacked, their windows were smashed.
Sometimes the Jews even fired bullets into their houses. So they left and the Jews took their houses,” she said.
“The settlers don’t want any Arabs in the area. They think it is their neighbourhood. We don’t dare leave the house empty. Someone always has to stay. There is a big risk that any time the settlers see we have left the house they will break into it. One time they came in the back door.”
Palestinian and Israeli communities live closer in Hebron—sometimes in the same street—than anywhere in the occupied territories outside Jerusalem. About 500 Jews live in the heart of the city among 130 000 Palestinians. A short walk away is the settlement of Kiryat Arba, home to another 6 000 Israelis and the crucible of support for the Kach organisation, which is banned in Israel as a terrorist group.
The relationship has always been uneasy. The settlers arrived after the 1967 Israeli occupation of the city, proclaiming the revival of a Jewish presence driven out by the Arab massacre of 66 Jews in 1929. For the Palestinians, there is the more recent memory of the slaughter of 29 Muslims at prayer in Hebron by an ultra-nationalist Jewish doctor, Baruch Goldstein in 1994.
The city was divided in 1997 when the Palestinians took over administration of 80% of Hebron while the Israeli military retained authority in the central market and old city. But the Israeli area was still home to four times as many Palestinians as Jews, regarded as interlopers by many settlers who set about pushing the Palestinians from their businesses and homes, often with the assistance of the military and approval of Israeli officials.
In recent years, more than half of the 2 500 Palestinians who lived in Hebron’s old city have been driven out and many hundreds more have been forced out on the edge of the settlements. Palestinians are now barred from the main commercial road, Shuhada street, where shops are boarded up. Elsewhere they are permitted only to walk and not drive. The United Nations has counted 101 military roadblocks and checkpoints controlling the movement of Palestinians in central Hebron.
The army says the measures are the result of a “complex reality” created by the Palestinian intifada and more than 30 suicide bombers from Hebron, and a climate of anger fuelled by killings such as a Palestinian sniper shooting a Jewish baby and a mob of settlers murdering a 14-year-old Arab girl.
The settlers call the Palestinians leaving “a gift from heaven”. But last year Jan Kristensen, a former lieutenant colonel in the Norwegian army who headed the European monitoring team in Hebron, said it had more to do with a strategy by the army and settlers to drive Palestinians out of the old city.
“More and more people are leaving the area and it is effectively being emptied. The settlers’ activities, which are aimed at causing the Palestinians to leave, and the army’s activities, which impose severe restrictions, create an irreversible reality,” he told Ha’aretz newspaper. “The settlers go out almost every night and attack those who live near them. They break windows, cause damage and effectively force the Palestinians to leave the area. In a sense, cleansing is being carried out.”
In Tel Rumeida, the Abu Aishes’s immediate neighbours all left in fear. A carpet of broken glass from bottles thrown at the Abu Aishe home leads up to the door. On the other side of the street live settler families. When a new block opened earlier this year, the army locked the Abu Aishe family, including the 71-year-old grandfather, into one room for the entire day on the grounds they were a “terrorist risk”.
“My grandfather refuses to leave,” said Raja, the 16-year-old daughter. “He said he would rather die in the house that has been his life than leave.”
But staying is not easy. Raja runs a gauntlet of abuse and violence on her way to Qurtuba girls school.“They throw stones, water and old food at us. Sometimes the soldiers try and protect us but they are not always there.”
Raja said she and her brothers had all been injured, including four-year-old Walid, whose arm was fractured.
Qurtuba school has become a rallying point for the settlers who sometimes block the entrance and have ripped off doors. A woman standing outside tells mothers bringing their children to the school: “Go to Auschwitz and take all the Arabs with you.” Someone hung a sign outside: “Gas the Arabs.”
David Wilder, a spokesperson for the Jewish settlers in central Hebron, denied Palestinians were being pressured to leave. “We have not in the past, and I don’t think we will be able to in the near future, been able to force anybody to leave. Any Arabs who leave do so of their own free will. We haven’t pushed anybody out. Neither has the army as far as I know. People leave because they want to leave. For whatever reason,” he said.
In recent weeks, the Israeli military has moved in new gates between the Jewish and Palestinian neighbourhoods, the army says, to improve the lives of Arabs. The Palestinians are suspicious, believing it is marking out an area for the further expansion of Jewish settlements. The UN describes the gates as “completing the encirclement of the Old Suq area ... Once the centre of Hebron’s commercial and cultural life, the Old Suq is now virtually deserted.”
Imad Hamdan, head of the Hebron Rehabilitation Committee, which wants to limit the expansion of Jewish settlements, said: “They are working to get us out. It is a long-term goal. They are patient but that is their goal.”
Wilder does not deny it, and he warns that if Ariel Sharon tries to remove more West Bank settlements it could provide the pretext for the Jews of Hebron to achieve their goal. “All of those people who seem to be in favour of these unilateral expulsions, they should have reason to be worried because expulsion is a two-way street and if it’s permissible to expel Jews in the name of peace then it’s also permissible to expel others in the name of peace.” - Guardian Unlimited Â