Hebron’s architecture of occupation

Screens catch debris thrown by overhead Jewish settlers in Hebron’s Old City streets. (Sarah Lazare)

The word “revenge” is scrawled in Hebrew on a Palestinian school in Hebron in the occupied West Bank. The windows are covered with screens and the play yard obstructed with more screens tipped with barbed wire, to obstruct the stones regularly pelted down by Jewish settlers. The space between the school and the neighboring building is blocked off with large wooden slabs, to ensure that Palestinian school children do not encroach into settler territory. Nearby checkpoints and cameras placed on rooftops serve as constant reminders that these kids’ every movement is monitored and contained.

This schoolyard scene, on an empty weekend day, illustrates the separation and containment that has become written into the architecture of Hebron. In this city where 1,500 Israeli soldiers are stationed on any given day, the 170,000 Palestinians living here are kept under constant watch, their movements restricted while their safety is under constant threat. The Jewish settlers who have been moving in since the late 1970s, now numbering 800, are known for repeatedly attacking Palestinians while Israeli soldiers sit idly by.

Walking into Hebron feels like a nightmare. Shuhada Street, one of the main roads, is traveled only by settlers on foot or in speeding cars, soldiers and police, and packs of fighting dogs. Palestinians living on this street have to climb into their houses from the rear, either cutting across neighbors’ rooftops, carving holes in their walls, or, like one little girl we watched, scaling a rope to the second story. Their front doors have been welded shut or barricaded with rusty metal, like the countless shops in Hebron, closed by military order. Streets are sealed off with concrete and bales of ribbon wire.

“Security is the magic word here,” says Hisham Sharabati, a journalist who has been living in Hebron for most of his life, gesturing towards an Israeli military checkpoint at the entrance of the Ibrahimi Mosque, in the middle of the Old City. “Israel uses that word in any way it likes, so that it can justify denying Palestinian human rights.”

In 1994, a US-born settler named Baruch Goldstein opened fire in the mosque at Abraham’s tomb, a site sacred to Muslims, Jews and Christians. We saw the torn marble and bullet holes in the arch that points towards Mecca. Twenty-nine Palestinians were killed while praying. The response? Palestinians were placed under 30 days of curfew, the fruit and vegetable market was shut down, and the “system of separation” developed. Since then, Palestinians living in Hebron have been controlled by the military and attacked by settlers — a “security” structure that many say was intended to push out Palestinians to make way for settlers.

The city was carved up into the H1 Area — controlled by the Palestinian Authority, and the H2 Area, controlled by the Israeli military. Within the H2 area, Jewish and Palestinian quarters were cordoned off by a matrix of roads, many of them off-limits to Palestinian use. Vibrant marketplaces and city centers were shut down, some of them slowly taken over by Jewish settlers, others turned into ghost towns guarded by military checkpoints. Israeli soldiers now patrol every street in the H2 area, in a tactic that serves as a constant reminder of the Israeli military presence.

Jewish settlers claim that they have rights to the land, invoking a bloody massacre in 1929 that left 67 Jews dead. There are varying accounts of this tragedy: Mikhael Manekin from Breaking the Silence, a group of former Israeli soldiers who now speak out about what they witnessed and acts they perpetrated, told us that many of the murderers had come in from surrounding villages. He claims that several Palestinian locals risked their lives to defend the Jews, and some of them were granted certificates of appreciation by Jewish organizations for doing so. Today, settlers have used the 1929 massacre to justify pushing Palestinian Hebron residents out of their homes, with a sign placed in the middle of a settlement that reads, “These Arabs are living on stolen land.”

What happened in 1929 is horrible, but it does not justify mass displacement and systemic degradation of a people. The massacre is being used to target Arabs and perpetuate racism in a way that has not been directed towards European populations guilty of massacring Jews on a far larger scale. The painful landscape of Hebron is an example of how trauma can beget trauma: a population of Jews, traumatized by a history of violence and discrimination, has turned around and traumatized another people, and in doing so, is doing untold damage to their own community. Settlers here occupy a city that has become a hotbed of religious/ethnic tension and blatant racial discrimination. This is not good for anyone who grows up in such an environment, whether Israeli or Palestinian.

Hisham Sharabati, the journalist, guided us through the city all morning; in the afternoon, we met with Mikhael, who as an Israeli, could take us into the areas Hisham is prohibited from entering although he’s lived in Hebron his whole life. Mikhael explained that there are two or three soldiers per settler, a ratio clearly intended to control the large Palestinian population. Rather than correlate the military presence to the amount of settlers; the logic is based in military containment and control of the “enemy,” under the guise of protection. Mikhael served as an officer in Hebron, and now is one of the Breaking the Silence members who leads tours there for Israelis and internationals.

The settlements within Hebron are illegal under international humanitarian law. The official city maps, which are the documents used by Israeli courts, are wildly inaccurate. They claim that ghost streets, long sealed off by concrete and metal, are functioning thoroughfares and marketplaces. Walking through the streets of Hebron, one finds a city carved up by the violent military presence and constant threat of settler violence.

Some roads have a concrete barrier running along the edge, leaving a few feet for Palestinians to walk along while two wide lanes are reserved for settlers. The souks, Old City markets, have wire screens or makeshift netting overhead: insufficient protection for attacks from settlers living on the floors above. The wire screens are heavy with trash, bricks, giant concrete chunks, and exploded plastic bags that contained human waste when they burst onto the people and racks of goods below. Hisham told us one young man was in a coma after a sharpened metal rod came through the screen and penetrated his skull. Now, when one looks up, one can see piles of objects that got caught in the screen: crowbars, bricks, stones, chairs. While walking through a market, we saw a settler woman throw sand from her third story apartment down at a crowded market where Palestinians were shopping. It fell on a Palestinian woman’s head, as well as on one of our delegation members, Eddie, who because of being Mexican-American has often been perceived to be Arab on this trip.

An older man who lives at the edge of Shuhada Street explains that he has to apply for permits if his children or grandchildren want to visit his home. He is not allowed any other visitors, like every Palestinian who remains in their home in H2. On the other hand, settler children take field trips on his street. We watched a group of elementary school-aged settler children walk down Shuhada, accompanied by a few adults including with some with assault rifles strung over their shoulders.

Standing on a rooftop overlooking the Old City, we could see concrete and stone buildings, punctuated by military bases in the center of the city, and on opposing hills. These military installations have either expelled or built on the rooftops of those living in top floor apartments. Many of the rooftops held water tanks, important storage for a neighborhood whose water is diverted to the nearby settlements and sold back at higher prices to Palestinians.

In the hills south of Mount Hebron, settlers attack Palestinians going to graze their sheep. A friend told us about a village that was expelled in 2000, and until a few weeks ago, was living in caves near their lands. An Israeli court actually ruled that they could go back to their village, and on Friday settlers attacked their flocks and killed a lamb. When Israeli solidarity activists called the police, who came hours later, the police accused the elderly Palestinians of having killed their own animal to frame the settlers. Olive harvest accompaniment is prioritized not only because the olive trees sustain many people, but also because legal loopholes are used to take away Palestinians’ land if they aren’t able to reach it for a certain period of time. It is reminiscent of the eminent domain laws used to steal residents’ land in the lower Ninth Ward of New Orleans: if displaced New Orleanians weren’t able to return to the city to cut their grass regularly, the city would claim their plot — often an overgrown lot with only the foundations left where the house was blown away by the hurricane’s wall of water.

Solidarity activists escort children to school to protect them against stone-throwing settlers, and walk with herders to their grazing lands. Settler children throw stones at Palestinian children on their way to school — children under 14 cannot be held responsible, Mikhael told us, so they are careful about who throws the stones. One school finally had to change its hours and days so that the children would not be walking to school when settler children were home to attack them — they’re the only Palestinian school not open on Saturdays, and the kids have no recess so they can leave early enough to get home safely. “The Palestinians are the ones who take the burden of the separation policy into their lives,” Hisham said.

Palestinian residents of Hebron have been organizing to revitalize their communities and challenge military occupation and settler violence. The Hebron Rehabilitation Committee fixes up battered neighborhoods to encourage people to come home, planting gardens and repainting dilapidated storefronts. Youth Against Settlements has organized creative direct actions: a recent protest involved setting up mock checkpoints next to Israeli ones, getting arrested after five minutes but still drawing attention to the conditions they live in.

Hebron is situated in the center of global power struggles and alliances situated around Israel. This city is the logical conclusion of a religious/ethnic state — a city where military occupation is woven into the fabric of daily life and residents are forced to build screen fortresses to protect themselves from stones and bricks. From the shut-down city centers, with welded doors and security cameras pointing towards the emptiness, to the settlement military bases that sit in the center of town, this is the reality of the current state of Israel. This is what we, as US citizens are supporting, when our government sends military aid so that Israel can buy tanks and weapons to patrol these streets.

Sarah Lazare works to help build GI resistance against the ongoing wars in Iraq and Afghanistan as a collective member of Courage to Resist, and organizes for economic and social justice in her community. She is also a freelance writer.

Clare Bayard organizes with the War Resisters League and Catalyst Project to connect struggles against US wars at home and abroad, including the US-supported Israeli occupation.