Heart of Apartheid Darkness
By David Kattenburg
One day feels like a week in Hebron.
The quickest way to get to this beautiful but conflicted West Bank city, from Jerusalem, is from West Jerusalem’s cavernous downtown bus station. Grab a #381 bus to Kiryat Arba, one of Israel’s first illegal Jewish settlements, on Hebron’s southeastern edge, or to Beit Romano settlement, in the city’s old core. A thirty-kilometer trip costs six shekels. Less than two dollars. An absurdly cheap fare clearly subsidized by the State of Israel.
Before describing this latest trip of mine, a bit of political geography: Hebron is the West Bank’s traditional commercial capital, and its most populous, with an estimated 216,000 inhabitants.
Hebron’s prosperity began to unravel following Israel’s 1967 occupation of the West Bank, and subsequent 1994 Oslo Accords between Israel and the Palestine Liberation Organization. Under the terms of the follow-up 1997 Hebron Protocol, the city was divided into two parts: ‘H-1’ — eighty percent of the city, and home to some 160,000 Palestinians — was placed under the security and administrative jurisdiction of the Palestinian Authority. The arrangement was strictly nominal: Israeli forces enter H-1 whenever they choose, to maintain “order” and arrest Palestinians.
Hebron’s old commercial, cultural and spiritual core, ‘H-2’, was assigned to Israel. Here, today, some 800 Jewish settlers live and worship in a half dozen tidy communities and yeshivas, under the protection of up to 2000 Israeli soldiers and border police, surrounded by some 60,000 Palestinians.
Hebron’s Jewish settlers enjoy all the citizenship and national rights of any Israeli, and are free to travel to and from Israel ‘proper’ whenever they choose.
H-2 Palestinians, on the other hand, have no rights and fall under the jurisdiction of Israeli military law. Hebron’s settlers are reputedly aggressive. Their acts of violence against local Palestinians are well documented, and are rarely, if ever punished. Read more about this here and here and here.
The area where Jewish settlers live inside H-2 is a tightly sealed, oval-shaped capsule, separated from the surrounding old city and souk by a dozen fortified checkpoints and concrete-razor wire barriers. (Over a hundred manned, fortified checkpoints and temporary barriers of various sorts are scattered throughout greater Hebron).
Down the long axis of the oval runs Shuhada Street, the magnificent Ibrahimi Mosque/Cave of the Patriarchs — traditional burying place of Abraham, Sarah, Isaac, Rebecca, Jacob and Leah — at the top. The castle-like structure is a supremely holy site for both Jews and Muslims.
In the wake of the machine-gunning of 29 Palestinians by an American-Israeli physician and settler named Baruch Goldstein, in February 1994, Muslim and Jewish sections of the Mosque/Machpela were divided.
Following the Second Intifada, in the early 2000s, Shuhada Street was closed off to Palestinian foot and car traffic. Shops and homes were welded shut. Once the bustling core of Palestinian commercial and spiritual activity, Shuhada is now a ghost street — open only to Jews, internationals and Israeli soldiers. Palestinians are denied passage.
Back to my own story: I jumped off my settler bus at 10 a.m., in front of Beit Romano settlement, and headed straight for my favourite hotel — the Hebron Hotel, up Ein Sara street, in Palestinian H-1. After a couple of hours of settling in, I went for a walk, down Ein Sara to Bab Al-Zawiya market place, through Checkpoint 56 and onto Shuhada Street.
From there I headed up the steep hill called Tel Rumeida, then through another checkpoint leading back into H-1, where I had arranged to meet Palestinian activist Badee Dweik.
Dweik is the founder of Hebron’s Human Rights Defenders, who provide local residents with that most useful of of human rights tools — video cameras. To get to Badee’s home, he and his son — who came to meet me — had to squeeze past a steel gate that blocks Palestinian cars from entering H-2. H-2 residents will park their cars on the other side of this barrier, then walk to where they live. Under the terms of the 1997 Hebron Protocol, Palestinians were guaranteed free movement between H-1 and H-2. Israel does not abide by the agreement, and the international community doesn’t oblige it to.
Here’s my conversation with Badee:
After hanging out with Badee for a couple of hours, he and I stepped out onto the street and come across this:
Four Israeli soldiers were stopping cars to check permits.
This being the second day of Eid, people were hurrying this way and that, running errands and visiting family after a month of fasting. This spontaneous check was a major nuisance — and was meant to be. As explained by folks from Breaking the Silence, a group of ex-Israeli soldiers who’ve come to regret their former actions, one of the Israeli military’s principal missions in Hebron is to demonstrate to Palestinians — day in, day out — who’s in charge. Breaking into homes in the dead of night, dragging kids out of their beds, taking names and photo — ‘mapping’, in Israeli military parlance — serves to humiliate, and to drive home the oppressor-oppressed relationship.
As it happens, these four soldiers were very congenial. All in their early twenties, they were certainly told by their superiors to just go out and check cars, thereby generating a long lineup. They smiled and laughed as doing so, exchanging the occasional good word. One kid in a car even blew them a kiss!
When the soldiers were through, a group of children rushed over and engaged, following them down the street. Nothing untoward happened. The soldiers had completed their job, on an otherwise uneventful and warm day.
Listen to Badee comment on the situation. Click on the ‘Play’ button in this picture:
I bid Badee adieu and headed back to H-2, to the top of Tel Rumeida, overlooking Shuhada Street and the core of Israeli-controlled H-2. It’s my favourite place to stroll in Hebron. Less peaceful for Palestinians, routinely harassed by nearby settlers and the soldiers who protect and defend them.
Tel Rumeida is covered in squat, incredibly gnarled olive trees, some as old as two or three thousand years, locals claim. They are definitely alive, and continue to produce olives.
High above Tel Rumeida, a huge Palestinian flag flaps in the breeze. This is the headquarters of a group called Youth Against Settlements, which campaigns for the opening of Shuhada Street. It took a half dozen agile young men to get the flag up there, a YAS member explained to me. Tearing it down is apparently too difficult a job for Israeli soldiers or settlers to undertake, so it continues to flap away, very noisily, on a windy day like today.
After some good chat with several guys, a young American woman named Catherine showed up. After a bit, word was received that a young man had just been arrested, and was now being held at a nearby Israeli checkpoint. We went over to check things out.
Obeida Karam Rajabi is 17 years-old. According to Israeli soldiers, who spoke with his good friend Mohammed and calm, collected Catherine, Obeida had been seized, in Palestinian-“controlled” H-1 (where, recall, the PA is presumably in charge of security). Soldiers claimed they found an image of Obeida on his phone, carrying a weapon, and a small knife in his car. His brother (who had come to the checkpoint) said Obeida doesn’t own a weapon.
Of course, Jewish settlers are perfectly free to carry automatic weapons in public, revolvers tucked into the back of their pants, and, of course, knives in their cars.
Everyone gathered around the checkpoint where Obeida was being held. Who knows how things would have proceeded if two internationals — calm, collected Catherine, who asked lots of calm, sensible questions, and myself — had not been there.
Patiently addressed by Catherine, the soldiers loosened the ties binding Obeida’s wrists. I asked why he needed to be blindfolded. “He’s not allowed to see the inside of the post,” the soldier told me.
Catherine called a lawyer friend, who has no standing with the Israeli military system. Obeida’s family needs to contact the Red Cross, the lawyer advised.
This would be the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC). Under the 4th Geneva Convention, the ICRC is tasked with ensuring the rights of “protected people” living under military occupation. Israel abides by the FGC if and when it chooses. Thousands of Palestinians are jailed inside “Israel proper,” in flagrant violation of Article 49(1) of the FGC.
Neither the ICRC nor the State Parties to the FGC (e.g. Canada) do anything about it. Israel couldn’t be more free to violate international law.
After 45 minutes of waiting, a military van arrived and took young Obeida away. A soldier told us he’d be detained for a couple of days at nearby Kiryat Arba settlement. From there, he’d be taken elsewhere for further detention and questioning, for perhaps four or five months. Youth Against Settlements now reports that young Obeida has been released, with a 2000 shekel fine. A formal trial will take place, YAS was told … in July 2020.
At the end of a long day in Hebron — the ‘Heart of Apartheid Darkness’, to borrow a concept from Joseph Conrad — I descended from Tel Rumeida, then walked down to the far end of Shuhada Street. Directly across from the Ibrahimi Mosque, the Al-Mohtaseb family owns a tourist shop. A wealth Australian named Joseph Isaac “Diamond Joe” Gutnick dearly wants (quite literally) to purchase the shop. So says 28 year-old Mohammed al-Mohtaseb, in the course of a conversation you can listen to below.
Mohammed also speaks to me about life in occupied Hebron, the nature of the interaction between local settlers and Palestinians here in the heart of H-2, and on his experience sneaking into Jerusalem to pray at the holy sites on the Haram al-Sharif. Of the three million Palestinians living in the West Bank, some 70,000 are allowed to enter Jerusalem. Those that aren’t — like young Mohammad — find other ways. A hazardous attempt at free movement.
All images by David Kattenburg.