Hebron - the city of bitter Israeli-Palestinian conflict

May 7th, 2008 - 9:26 am ICT by admin  

By Ofira Koopmans
Hebron (West Bank), May 7 (DPA) If any place symbolises the bitter, hostile relations between Israelis and Palestinians, it is Hebron. Sixty years after the founding of Israel and the rise of its ongoing conflict with the Palestinians, Hebron is a microcosm - in its most malevolent form - of the dispute between the sides.

In fact, the conflict in the ancient Biblical city, south of Jerusalem, dates back much further. And in recent years, the situation in Hebron has become particularly nasty.

Peaceful coexistence is a far cry, although it did occur in some sections of the city’s centuries-old shared Jewish and Muslim history.

The largest city in the West Bank, Hebron is the only one with a Jewish settlers’ enclave, right in its historic centre. In total 90 Jewish families live in the city among half a million Palestinians.

When the current Palestinian Intifada (uprising) erupted almost eight years ago amid a deadlock in the peace process, Palestinian militants began shooting attacks against the settlers, firing from Palestinian neighbourhoods on surrounding hills and also attacking Israelis on the main Shuhada (”Martyrs”) street.

To protect the settlers within their enclave, the Israeli army has imposed severe restrictions on the movement of the Palestinians who also live there.

Palestinians are not allowed to walk on a section of some 300 metres on Shuhada Street, so that the settlers can move about safely between their main buildings. Several surrounding streets are closed to Palestinian cars and accessible to them by foot only.

Checkpoints every few hundred metres enforce the entry ban, manned by soldiers whose number is almost equal to the number of settlers they protect.

The restrictions in the area - known as H1 under a 1997 agreement that divided the city into an Israeli - and a Palestinian - controlled part called H2 - have had the desired effect and stopped the deadly shootings at the settlers in Shuhada street.

But they did so at a heavy price. While the few hundred settlers are now able to go about their lives normally, the lives of thousands of Palestinians have been turned upside down.

Before the 2000 Intifada a bustling market area that attracted shoppers from around the southern West Bank, Hebron’s historic nucleus has long become a ghost town.

More than 1,800 shops all along the main street into the city have shut down. Over 40 percent of the houses in the area also stand empty, abandoned by their inhabitants for Palestinian-controlled H2.

“Most of the shops closed because it’s just not financially worth it to open them,” explains Michael Manekin, a former Israeli soldier who served in Hebron.

Now a pro-peace activist, he leads tours around the area to raise awareness of the difficult conditions of Palestinians living there. Hashem el-Azzah, 45 and a father of two, still lives in Israeli-controlled H1.

He tells of, and shows video footage of frequent harassment by the settlers, whose youth curse, push and throw stones at pupils of a nearby Palestinian school. The young settlers have also ransacked his home and that of his neighbours a number of times, he adds.

Sometimes, the harassment comes in revenge for a Palestinian militant attack, sometimes it is unprovoked, says Manekin.

Before the Intifada, el-Azzah used to sell ceramics imported from Italy. Now, as almost every single Palestinian in H1, he is out of work.

“If we want to buy something, we have to go to H1, pass the checkpoint, do our shopping, pass the checkpoint again. The soldiers have to check everything, all the groceries,” says el-Azzah.

Ideologically, Hebron’s settlers are seen as the most radical in the West Bank.

But David Wilder, a member of the settler community, defiantly defends his presence in Hebron as well as the harsh restrictions on movement in the town.

“None of this would have happened if they hadn’t shot at us,” he says.

Hebron’s ancient Jewish community was driven out of the town in 1929 in a riot by local Arabs, who went door to door for three days killing 67 Jews and injuring dozens.

The Jewish community returned after the 1967 war in which Israel captured the West Bank from Jordan. However, it has not been allowed to expand since then.

Wilder complains this is the reason the community is small now and rejects critics who argue “you’re so small, how can you justify your existence here?”

In a memorial room in his building, photographs of some of the injured Jews with chopped off arms or fingers bear chilling witness to what has become known to Israelis as the 1929 Hebron Massacre.

But Hebron was also the site of a massacre against Palestinians, which equally sent shockwaves throughout the world.

In February 1994, Baruch Goldstein, a radical Jew from the nearby settlement of Kiryat Arba, burst into the mosque section of the Tomb of the Patriarchs, the 1st-century-BC building which houses the graves of the Biblical forefathers Abraham, Isaac and Jacob and is holy to Jews, Muslims and Christians.

He shot dead 29 Muslims during prayers and injured more than 100 others, before being beaten to death by furious survivors.

In Hebron, mutual hatred seems stronger and reconciliation further than anywhere.

“There isn’t going to be a peace agreement by the end of the year. It won’t happen,” says Wilder.

“We have no plans of leaving,” he adds.

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