Today, I travelled to Hebron, which, with 160,000 inhabitants, is one of the largest city in the West Bank. What makes Hebron unusual is the presence of 5 settlements and 500 Israeli settlers in the middle of the city center. Israeli army presence here is massive, and Palestinians are unable to cross through settler-occupied areas to reach other parts of town. This has consistently caused violence clashes between settlers and Palestinians, and israeli soldiers are occasionally sent in to evict Israeli settlers who are deemed under Israeli law to be illegally squatting in Palestinian homes and buildings.
Hebron has a rich religious history, which is linked to its recent violent history. In Islamic tradition, Adam and Eve lived here after being exiled form the Garden of Eden, while the presence of the Tomb of the Patriarchs - the collective tomb of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, along with their wives - makes it sacred to Jews, Christians, and Muslims alike. Although instead of promoting like-minded links between the major monotheistic religions, this has made Hebron a flashpoint for religious violence, most famously culminating in the Baruch Goldstein massacre.
In 1994, during Ramadan, Dr. Baruch Goldstein, an American-Israeli settler from Kiryat Arba in Hebron, opened fire on Palestinians praying in the Haram al-Ibrahimi Mosque, killing 29 men and boys in the back and wounding 150-200 others. After this incident, tensions between the Palestinians and the settlers grew, and the
city was divided into H1 (80% of the municipality of Hebron, under Palesti
nian control) and H2 (20%, which is under Israeli control). The 40,000 Palestinians living in H2 face daily harassment from the Israeli army and settlers. The open-air markets have been covered with netting, to catch the detritus and rubbish that the settlers throw down from the upper floors (see photo to the right). International human rights organizations keep 'observer' groups in town Voluntary teams (such as the Christian Peacemakers Team, who I interviewed) escort Palestinian children to school to protect them from settlers throwing rocks and verbally harassing them. Palestinian violence against settlers, too, has sometimes flared up.
When I was walking through the semi-abandoned market, there were Israeli soldiers on every rooftop, following my every move. I would often turn a corner and be face-to-face with 5 or 6 soldiers in full combat gear with the guns facing me. Unlike all of the other Palestinian markets that I have visited - Jenin, Nablus, Ramallah, Bethlehem, East Jerusalem - children were conspicuously absent from the city streets. At one point when I looked up through the netting and wires and eclipsed the blue sky above, I saw some children poking the heads outside of a window covered with bars. I waved at them, and they laughed and waved at me. In another area of the Old City, where I was told the poultry market once used to be bustling with commerce,
there were four young boys tending to cages filled with pigeons. They saw my camera, rushed over, and asked for an impromptu photo shoot. I obliged, as they became giddy each time they were able to see themselves reflected in the digital photo.
In H2, I saw anti-Palestinian graffiti, such as "Gas the Arabs" written on the doors of a Palestinian home. The morning of my visit, a settler drove to the entrance of the Arroub refugee camp and shot two Palestinian teenagers, accusing them of throwing stones. As
I write this, the boys in critical condition in the hospital (see the news story here). To quote a 2004 report by The Alternative Information Centre's Occupation in Hebron, "Israel's settlement policy, which supports the presence of radical Jewish fundamentalists with a strong anti-Arab ideology in the middle of a Palestinian city, is the proximate reason for the high level of violence in Hebron."