Army, settlers have turned Hebron into a ghost town, report charges

B'Tselem study blames "'separation policy' that Israel is applying in Hebron" for abandonment of city by Palestinian residents.

IDF patrol Hebron298AP (photo credit: AP [file])
IDF patrol Hebron298AP
(photo credit: AP [file])
Government policy in the Israeli-controlled area of Hebron has forced thousands of Palestinian residents to abandon their homes and businesses and turned the area into a ghost town, the human rights groups B'Tselem and the Association for Civil Rights in Israel charged in a 70-page report released early Monday morning. "The abandonment of the area by the Palestinians is primarily the 'foul' results of the 'separation policy' that Israel is applying there," the report charged. "The repressive measures imposed on the Palestinians in downtown Hebron are part of that policy. We are talking about an official and declared plan by the State of Israel to protect the Hebron settlers through physical and legal segregation between them and the Palestinians." Hebron was divided de facto in 1997, according to an agreement which created H1, under complete Palestinian control, and H2, which is under Israeli security control. At the time, according to B'Tselem and ACRI, there were roughly 115,000 Palestinians living in H1 and 35,000 in H2. The old town, the commercial center and the vegetable and meat wholesale markets were all located in H2. It also included several Jewish enclaves including Beit Hadassah, Beit Romano and the yeshiva of Shavei Hebron, the Avraham Avinu complex and the Tel Rumeida settlement. The total number of Jews living in H2 amounted to about 400 permanent residents and 300-400 yeshiva students. The first severe measures against the Palestinians were taken in February 1994, after Baruch Goldstein massacred 29 Muslim worshippers in the Cave of the Patriarchs. Many stores along Shuhada St., the city's main commercial street, and the wholesale market were closed. According to the report, this, and the strict division of prayer areas in the cave itself, marked the beginning of the separation policy. Since then, large parts of H2 have been declared off-limits to Palestinian pedestrians and motorists, and many shops and markets have been permanently closed by army order. The dramatic turning point in the policy came with the outbreak of the intifada in September 2000. In the context of the report, B'Tselem and ACRI researchers made a survey of all the Palestinian residential apartment buildings in H2 and found that at least 1,014 housing units, or 41.9 percent of all the units in the area, were abandoned. Of those that were empty, 659 (65%) had been abandoned since the beginning of the intifada. As for commerce, the report found that 1,829 businesses, amounting to 76.6% of all the businesses in H2 were shut, including 1,141 (62.4%) shops which were vacated after September 2000. Of these, almost half were closed by army writ. The researchers found several reasons for the emptying out of H2. During the intifada, the army imposed severe curfews on the Palestinian population. During the first three years, full curfew was imposed for a total of 377 days, including 182 continuous days. The curfew led to economic destruction, loss of jobs, poor nutrition, psychological damage and severe blows to the educational, health and welfare systems. Consequently, many Palestinians left H2. The army also imposed severe restrictions on freedom of movement for Palestinians, often illegally. For example, for six years, soldiers barred Palestinians from walking on Shuhada St., between Beit Hadassah and the Avraham Avinu complex, even though the army admitted that it had not issued such an order. Even after the army made this admission, it continued to prohibit Palestinians from walking on the street. The four remaining families living on the empty street were prohibited for several years from leaving their buildings from the front door and had to climb up to the roof and down the other side in order to leave their homes. The army orders to close stores, the inability of Palestinians to drive or walk on the streets upon which the stores were located and the heavy curfews of the intifada's early years destroyed the area's commercial life which had not only served all of Hebron but the hinterland around it. According to the report, the army often carried out elements of these restrictive policies at the bidding of the Hebron settlers. "In this context," the report stated, "there developed over the years a phenomenon of systematic persecution, often with extreme violence, on the part of the settlers towards the Palestinians. The Hebron settlers have declared more than once that they are seeking to expand the settlement to other parts of the city and it appears that this is what lies behind the violence. The settlers hope to make the life of the Palestinians in downtown Hebron so miserable and impossible that they will leave." In response, the Hebron Jewish community issued a multi-page rebuttal in which it refuted much of the information presented in the B'Tselem report. In particular, it noted that the report made no mention of the long-standing Jewish presence in the city that dates back to the Biblical book of Genesis, which details how Abraham purchased the land on which the Cave of the Patriarchs stands. The B'Tselem report also did not mention the 1929 massacre in which Arabs killed 67 of Hebron's Jewish inhabitants, an event which forced the remainder of the community to flee, according to the Hebron Jewish community. When the Jews returned after the Six-Day war, they moved into "the same houses and plots where Jews had dwelled until the 1929 massacre," said the Jewish community's report. It added that the "reestablishment of the Jewish Quarter is backed by government resolutions, the first of which was adopted by [former prime minister Menachem] Begin's government." The presence of the Jews in the ancient biblical city is also protected by the Hebron Agreement which was signed by former Palestinian Authority chairman Yasser Arafat, according to the Hebron Jewish community. The response also said it was misleading for the B'Tselem report to speak of the area where the Jews now live as the "center of the city" when the true city center is in the area of under the control of the PA, which it said was flourishing. When it comes to problems that exist as a result of the separation of Jews and Palestinians in Hebron, the Jewish community argued, they were the ones who were restricted since they could not circulate in 97% of the city, nor could they visit all the holy places. The travel ban imposed upon the Palestinians exists in only 3% of the "municipal area," according to the Hebron Jewish community. It added that the ban was put in place to protect Hebron's Jews from terror attacks by Palestinians. According to the Jewish community, while "Arab children are afraid to step outside lest they be arrested by Israeli soldiers, Jewish children are afraid to step outside lest they be wounded or killed by terrorists' bullets. While Arab mothers are afraid that Israeli soldiers may enter their homes to conduct searches, Jewish mothers are afraid that Arab terrorists will enter their homes to slaughter their families. This is the real balance sheet of human suffering in Hebron," the Hebron Jewish community said. The IDF did not provide a response by press time.