Hebron: Israeli president visit overlooks violent settler control

As Israel’s president visited occupied Hebron this week, Palestinians say life has become unbearable in the city.

Israeli soldiers hold up Palestinian teenagers trying to reach their home on Hebron's al-Shuhada Street [Al Jazeera]

Hebron, Occupied West Bank –  Several busloads of left-wing Israeli activists headed to the occupied West Bank city of Hebron this week but were prevented by the Israeli army from reaching it.

They went to protest Israeli President Isaac Herzog’s lighting of a Hanukkah candle at the Ibrahimi Mosque, a move that sparked criticism as being provocative.

“It is inconceivable that the president, who is supposed to be a unifying figure, would choose of all places to light a candle in a place that has become a stronghold of oppression and violence,” said Israeli organisation Peace Now.

“We came to say no to apartheid, no to fascism, no to violating Palestinian human rights in our name,” the left-wing group said.

Hebron’s Ibrahimi Mosque, which is holy to both Muslims and Jews, was divided by the Israeli occupation after an Israeli settler, Baruch Goldstein, machine-gunned 29 Palestinians to death, and wounded more than 100 others, as they prayed in 1994.

A shrine to Goldstein was subsequently erected at Kiryat Arba – one of the most hardline settlements in Hebron and the West Bank.

While settler attacks on Palestinians and their property, with the protection and support of the Israeli military, is rife and a regular occurrence across the West Bank, the situation in Hebron’s old city is particularly volatile.

Some 700 Israelis from illegal settlements live among a Palestinian population of nearly 40,000 in the H2 area of Hebron that makes up 20 percent of the city.

Under international law, the entire West Bank is considered illegally occupied by Israel.

A statement by the Palestinian foreign ministry said Herzog’s move was one of defiance “aimed at embracing the settlement enterprise and a blatant violation of international law and international efforts to curb unilateral measures”, warning the president’s endorsement of the occupation could “ignite tensions”.

Israeli restrictions

Confrontations also broke out between Palestinians protesting the lighting of the Hanukkah candle and the Israeli army.

Hisham Sharabati, a volunteer and human rights advocate with Palestinian rights group Al-Haq, and a political activist with the Hebron Defence Committee, explained how Israeli restrictions and settler violence against Palestinians had made life almost impossible in Hebron.

“The division of the Ibrahimi Mosque, following the massacre, was considered by local Palestinians as Israel’s first step in securing control of the holy building,” Sharabati told Al Jazeera.

“The Israeli military now controls the mosque and Palestinians are banned from entering the mosque on the Jewish sabbath, Jewish holidays and during the night.

“And before they can even enter the mosque, which is a UNESCO world heritage site, they have to go through strict security measures and through a military checkpoint to get in,” he explained, adding hundreds of calls to prayer had been banned across the years to accommodate the settlers.

Hebron was once a major commercial, cultural and religious hub for Palestinians in the southern West Bank who came there to shop, conduct business and pray, before escalating political tensions left the Palestinian population paying a high price.

When the second Palestinian uprising, or Intifada, erupted in 2000, the Israeli army imposed an indefinite curfew on Hebron that lasted until 2004 after Palestinian gunmen targeted settlers and soldiers in deadly retaliatory attacks.

“It was lifted for a few hours several times a week to allow people to buy supplies, but the lifting was arbitrary,” said Hisham. “The Israeli military also closed over 500 shops while another 1,300 shops closed because of lack of business.

“The military forced those 500 shops to remain closed and Palestinians are now banned from several areas of the old city, including al-Shuhada Street, which used to be a major thoroughfare for Palestinian residents,” Hisham explained.

Hisham Sharabati is a political activist with the Hebron Defence Committee [Al Jazeera]

Residents say settlers in the heart of the old city also throw urine and acid on pedestrians in the alleys below after they erected wire mesh to prevent bottles and rubbish being thrown at Palestinians on the street.

“The authorities have blocked Palestinians from driving on 65 roads leading to the city centre, comprising 12km (7.5 miles) of roads, in the Hebron area and banned them completely from 1.5km (0.7 miles) of those roads, including al-Shuhada Street in the old city,” Hisham explained.

These restrictions have forced thousands of Palestinian residents and businessmen to leave and relocate elsewhere because they could not live and work under such conditions.

Settler violence

B’Tselem has said “over the years, systematic abuse and harassment of Palestinians by settlers has become an established part of life in Hebron”.

Last Saturday, Zidan Sharabati, a human rights activist with the Hebron Defence Committee who lives on al-Shuhada street, filmed settlers sending their dog into the stairwell of his apartment to frighten Palestinian children.

Over the years, Zidan has been regularly targeted by Israeli soldiers because of his filming of their abuses against Palestinians.

“I lost one eye when a settler threw a stone directly at my face as I looked out a window of my house and I lost my front teeth after an Israeli soldier hit me in the mouth with the butt of his gun,” he told Al Jazeera.

Zidan’s entire family also faces problems whenever they enter al-Shuhada Street, as only Israeli settlers are allowed to walk on the road and Palestinians who live there have to get special permits and pass through military checkpoints.

“They keep us waiting deliberately for long periods of time and search us every time we go through the checkpoint,” Zidan said.

Israeli rights group B’Tselem documented 21 military checkpoints for Palestinians in and around occupied Hebron as of 2019.

“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,” B’Tselem said.

“In addition, the military has issued shutdown orders to hundreds of stores and commercial establishments in the area.”

Emad Abu Shamsiyeh, another volunteer with Hebron Defence Committee, lives with his family in the Tel Rumeida neighbourhood outside the old city just below the illegal Ramat Yeshai settlement.

His family, too, has been regularly targeted by the settlers.

“They throw stones, Molotov cocktails and bottles at my house and have urinated from my roof. One of the stones they threw hit my 18-month-old grandchild,” Shamsiyeh told Al Jazeera.

B’Tselem said that “as often as not, the [abuse of Palestinians] takes the form of severe violence.”

Shamsiyah said the settlers are attempting to drive him out of his house and off his land so they can take over the area.

“This is my land and my home and we will not leave no matter how much violence they inflict on us.”

Emad Abu Shamsiyeh lives with his family in the Tel Rumeida neighbourhood outside the old city [Al Jazeera]
Source: Al Jazeera