Once the commercial hub of the southern West Bank, Hebron city center became the site of several settlements that Israel established in the midst of the local Palestinian population. For years, the Palestinians living in that area have been subjected to extreme restrictions imposed by the military. As a result, huge numbers of residents moved out and hundreds of businesses were shut down, leaving the area in economic ruin.
The extreme restrictions on Palestinian movement together with violence by settlers and security forces have made life intolerable for Palestinians, leading to a mass exodus and the economic ruin of the downtown area.
Owing to the presence of settlers in Hebron, the military did not withdraw from the city as part of the Interim Agreement (Oslo II Accord). In 1997, Israel and the PLO signed the Hebron Agreement (The Protocol Concerning the Redeployment in Hebron) which addressed the redeployment of Israeli forces in the city. Under the agreement, Hebron was divided into two areas: H1 and H2. Responsibility for security and civilian matters in Area H1 – where most of the Palestinian residents of Hebron live (approx. 115,000 at the time, now approx. 166,000) – was formally handed over to the Palestinian Authority as was done in all other West Bank cities. As for Area H2, Israel retained responsibility for security matters there, while the PA received authority only for civilian matters relating to local Palestinian residents. Some 35,000 Palestinians and 500 settlers were living in H2 at the time, and Hebron’s Old City was designated a part of H2.
About 34,000 Palestinians and 700 settlers now live in H2. Of the Palestinian residents, some 7,000 live in areas near settlers’ homes or near streets in use by the settlers. The burden of the security measures Israeli authorities adopt for the benefit of the settlements and settlers is borne entirely by the local Palestinian population. Israeli authorities impose a regime intentionally and openly based on the “principle of separation”, the result of which is legal and physical segregation between the Israeli settlers and the Palestinian residents.
Palestinians living in the area are subjected to extreme restrictions on their movement by car or on foot – including the closure of main streets – while settlers are free to go where they wish. In addition, the military has issued shutdown orders to hundreds of stores and commercial establishments in the area.
The military has established 21 permanent staffed checkpoints in Hebron. Palestinians who need to go through any of these checkpoints must endure lengthy, humiliating inspections. While ten of the checkpoints operate around the clock, access via the other checkpoints is blocked at night. Often, the military closes a checkpoint with no prior notice, citing security needs. Residents then have no choice but to take detours, some of them barely passable, to reach their destinations – even if they are simply trying to get home.
In some parts of H2, the military imposes especially stringent restrictions. For example, to access the neighborhood of Tel Rumeidah, Palestinians must go through barricaded checkpoints; prior to this - from October 2015 through December 2018 - only Tel Rumeidah residents were allowed into the neighborhood, leaving them entirely isolated. Another example is the neighborhood of a-Salaimeh. The military split it in two by building a fence that runs down the middle of the neighborhood. There is a gate in the fence but soldiers open it only at certain hours, and the matter is left solely to their discretion. When the gate is closed, residents have to take a long detour to get home.
Moreover, the considerable presence of Israeli soldiers and police in the city center and their constant contact with Palestinian residents engender violent conduct and cynical abuse of the power entrusted to them. Palestinians in H2 routinely endure violence, nightly military excursion into their homes, harassment, delays at checkpoints and various forms of degrading treatment.
Violent conduct by settlers has also become routine in the area. Over the years, systematic abuse and harassment of Palestinians by settlers has become an established part of life in Hebron. As often as not, the abuse takes the form of severe violence. Documented instances include physical assault, stone-throwing, vandalism of shops and doors, theft, verbal abuse, attempts to run Palestinians over and several cases of gunfire. In one such case, a 12-year-old Palestinian girl was shot and killed.
Soldiers are to be found on every street corner wherever there are Israeli settlements. Nevertheless, they rarely intervene when settlers attack Palestinians. Even after the fact, the Israel Police hardly ever investigate settler assaults against Palestinians or their property – in spite of the many security cameras crisscrossing the city – and very seldom take action against the perpetrators. This is tantamount to the police backing the settlers’ acts of violence.
The restrictions and unremitting harassment that Palestinians suffer in Area H2 – which result entirely from Israel’s decision to allow settlers to live there – prevent them from leading a normal routine and make life in the area unbearable. Israeli authorities thereby promote an ongoing transfer, driving Palestinians out of Hebron’s city center.
Passageway between the wholesale market and the Casbah, 1990s by Na’if Hashalmon/al-Watan Center and 2007 by Keren Manor/ActiveStills
A-Sahala area, near the Camel Market in the 1990s by Na’if Hashalmon/al-Watan Center and in 2007 by Keren Manor/Activestills