“Only for you,” smiled the young soldier as he unlocked the tall metal gate separating a residential alleyway from the Ibrahimi compound. Dressed in a long Indian skirt a settler girl might favor, and armed with my American accent and passport, I apparently had what it takes to break curfew in Hebron. The Palestinian woman who suggested I beckon the soldier remained concealed around the corner before retreating into her home.
On the other side, the soldier’s words were given clear demographic context. Only visiting and resident Jews filled the spacious square and boulevard leading to the Ibrahimi Mosque (which settlers call the Tomb of the Patriarchs). And only Israeli settlers are allowed to use the small path marked by a blue handwritten sign pointing to Kiryat Arba.
The creation of a new road linking the settlement of Kiryat Arba to the Ibrahimi Mosque formalizes a segregation policy that has been enforced in occupied Hebron for years. The 40,000 Palestinians who live in Hebron’s Old City have long been obliged to make way for the 400 settlers living among them, and 6,400 others in adjacent Kiryat Arba. Nearly 2,000 soldiers make sure they do.
“This has been going on since the first Intifada in the eighties,” remembers Daoud Jaber, a resident of the neighborhood between the settlement and the mosque. “Since then, settlers have been coming and going between our houses. Even in times of stability and security, we have been forbidden from using this path on Fridays, Saturdays, and Jewish holidays. It’s their road, and we can’t use it to come or go,” he says.
Although there already exists a wide paved road leading to the Ibrahimi Mosque, many settlers prefer the shortcut that winds through the Jaber neighborhood. One can hardly blame them – the walk is a breezy traipse through an open-air museum. Craggy roofs stagger up the hilltop and gaping vaults expose rooms that are de facto open courtyards. The domed houses are all constructed of large stone blocks, and some have Arabic inscriptions paved into the walls. One entrance to the area is a veritable maze of dark halls, arches, and doorways.
But since Palestinian fighters killed 12 soldiers and armed settler guards nearby on November 15, this scenic pathway has been on shaky ground. The Israeli government declared that it would expand settlement activity in Hebron, and then disclosed plans to forge a wide security road through the Jaber neighborhood.
Perched on a hillside overlooking Hebron City and the surrounding countryside, the location is clearly of strategic significance. And so on November 29, the Israeli army issued an order for the “confiscation and absolute seizure” of land in the Jaber neighborhood for “military purposes.” Twenty-two historic buildings, eight of which are inhabited, are now slated for demolition to build the new settler avenue. The destruction will directly affect approximately 110 families in the Jaber neighborhood.
A monumental loss
“If only the city of Hebron were on the World Heritage List, there would be global uproar over the demolition of these homes,” bemoans Khaldoun Bshara, coordinator of conservation at Riwaq, the Center for Architectural Conservation based in Ramallah. Work is underway to have Hebron listed as a protected city, but it’s a lengthy process, he says.
“Hebron is architecturally unique, it’s what we call a village the size of a city,” Bshara explains. “Hebron has historically focused on agriculture, not commerce, and its peasant architecture is a reflection of that. Many of the homes include stables, and the primitive stars and crescents used in design are an extension of nature. The aesthetics are authentically local; there are no European influences like those you find in Nablus,” he adds.
A large section of Hebron’s old city has already been lost – it was demolished by the Jordanian government in 1964 to accentuate the approach to the Ibrahimi mosque, says Khalid Al Qawasami of the Hebron Rehabilitation Center. The Jaber neighborhood, which stands on the other side of the Ibrahimi mosque, forms the original southern entrance to the Old City. It comprises “an intrinsic part of the historic surroundings of the Ibrahimi mosque,” and its “historic buildings are the fabric that strengthen the mosque, that provide its visual context,” writes the HRC in a statement condemning the planned demolition.
The Hebron Rehabilitation Center restored one home in the Jaber neighborhood several years ago, and has developed plans to restore others, tile the pathways, and repair and enhance the infrastructure. The center’s goal is to preserve the city’s heritage while reviving it as a living community, it states. “This area is an integral part of the architectural fabric of old Hebron and it must be preserved to protect the cultural heritage of the city,” says Al Qawasami.
The HRC has twice begun its restoration work in the Jaber neighborhood, only to be stopped both times by the Israeli army. “They don’t want anyone living in this area,” notes Daoud Jaber. “Last summer we went for days without water; there are no services here at all. Because of the constant curfews, cars can’t come here – even ambulances can’t come here – nothing. We are completely persecuted here, and no one asks after us,” he continues.
The settler graffiti says it all, comments Jaber’s neighbor, Ziad Abu Armileh. “They wrote on our neighbor’s front door, ‘Go away from here Arabs, leave!’ and it wasn’t until the foreign press came and filmed it that the army painted it over.”
Where “coexistence” failed
Umm Ayyad, a math teacher and resident of the Jaber area in Hebron, thinks that the Israeli government has long been planning this settler-only road through the heart of her neighborhood. “The recent attack on the Israeli army and settler guards only provided an excuse,” she asserts. The Palestinian ambush of armed Israelis was an opportunity to officially claim the road as their own, she says.
Bshara agrees. He believes the demolition of Jaber area homes to build the settler road is a continuation of tried and tested Israeli policies to erase Palestinian culture. “In 1948, the Israelis wiped 400 Palestinian villages off the map and dispersed 800,000 residents,” he said. “In 1967, when the Israelis occupied Jerusalem, the first thing they did was destroy the Moroccan quarter of the old city, which contained many homes from the Mamluke period, to create the huge open plaza before the Western Wall.”
“Now they are again attacking Palestinian culture by destroying historical cultural property in Hebron, repeating the strategy of 1948,” he goes on.
While some believe the home demolitions and destruction of cultural ties are setting the stage for the removal of Palestinians themselves, the polar dynamics of occupied Hebron are already placing severe pressure on residents, driving some away.
In the Jaber neighborhood, settlers with automatic rifles slung over their backs weave their way past locked homes. Settler girls laugh and skip along the path while Palestinian children are confined to rooftops and overhanging metal grid windows. Soldiers raid Palestinian homes to inspect identification cards and question the residents.
“Every day they come, every hour. First it’s the army and then the settlers, then the army again,” said Daoud Jaber. “The aim is that people get fed up and say ‘I don’t want to live here anymore.’ The people who are renting here, who don’t own their homes, leave. They say, ‘Why I am paying money for this? It would be better to pay to live in a safer place.'”
Umm Ayyad remembers innumerable cases of harassment by settlers and soldiers. “They throw rocks at us, and once a settler stole my laundry hanging out to dry,” she related, exasperated by the effrontery and exhausted by her inability to respond. Perhaps the most insulting incident she experienced was when soldiers occupied her rooftop and urinated and defecated on her tiled patio living space.
The city of Hebron is a live experiment in coexistence that has failed miserably, says Umm Ayyad, her eyebrows permanently knit in frustration, and her green eyes flashing between fear and defiance.
“This is the only city where Palestinians and Israelis are living side by side, and look what its come to,” she decries. Umm Ayyad has been living in the Al Jaber neighborhood for 11 years, and the presence of the settlers has only gotten more intrusive with time.
This last month has been perhaps the roughest of all for residents of the Jaber neighborhood. Fasting for Ramadan and preparing for the Muslim holiday or Eid, residents have been placed under daily curfew. Homeowners have been unable to appeal the demolition orders for their homes because the army prohibits them from leaving the area. “Since the shooting, the situation has become extremely difficult,” says Abu Armileh, juggling a baby on his lap and the laundry drying on the line behind him. “They treat us like we are all armed militants.”