By Scott Wilson
Washington Post Foreign Service
Thursday, July 26, 2007
HEBRON, West Bank -- The barrier Israel is constructing in the largely rural West Bank is effectively separating Arab from Jew along much of its 456-mile length. But the broader project of disentangling the two peoples in the absence of a peace agreement is failing in urban areas such as Hebron, where the most radical elements of Islamic and Jewish nationalism are gaining strength.
Within Hebron, the separation is enforced not only by Israeli barriers but also by military checkpoints and curfews intended to protect the roughly 700 Jewish settlers living within the city's most historic and religiously important areas. Securing the small Jewish minority has a potent impact on the lives of the city's 150,000 Arabs, who voted last year to fill all nine of the district's parliamentary seats with candidates from the armed Islamic movement Hamas.
This city, set among prolific vineyards, was among the first destinations for Jewish settlers following the 1967 Middle East war, when the Israeli military occupied the West Bank. Fired by a four-millennia-old religious claim to Hebron, the settler enterprise here is among the most ideologically determined in the territories. Its expansionist goals clash with Palestinian secular and Islamic armed movements, whose own nationalist passions helped turn Hebron into one of the most violent venues of the Palestinian uprisings.
In recent months, the Israeli army has helped the Hebron settlers expand eastward to a hilltop home near the settlement of Kiryat Arba, a large step in their plan to connect the two areas. An international observer mission here, established after 1996 accords that left part of the city under Israeli military control and placed the other under the Palestinian Authority, reports sharply rising violence between Israeli settlers and Palestinians.
"There is no future for Arabs and Jews together in Hebron," said Noam Federman, 37, a settler from Beit Hadassah in the Israeli-controlled city center here. "And Hebron has always been a Jewish city."
Jamal Maraga's Palestinian fabrics shop sits along an alley in Hebron's casbah, lit by shafts of sunlight that filter through bricks, bottles and trash suspended in fencing laced over the walkway. The Jewish settlement of Avraham Avinu is housed in a multistory building that towers overhead.
International observers here say the settlers regularly toss debris and dirty water into the Arab market below, now largely shuttered in a city where unemployment stands at 60 percent. Asked whether Arabs and Jews can share Hebron, Maraga, his hair and beard a gray fuzz, looked up at the chain-link canopy.
"Impossible," he said.Proximity and Violence
Just before noon on a recent day, Azmi Shuyukhi, the graying leader of the Palestinian Popular Committees, a civil-resistance organization, approached an Israeli military checkpoint. Behind him trailed a small group of men and boys, who at Shuyukhi's instruction were attempting to defy the enforced division of their city that has virtually emptied its most important historic, religious and commercial areas of Palestinians.
The post bars Palestinians from entering Shuhada Street, a once-thriving commercial strip closed by the Israeli military more than a decade ago to protect the two Jewish settlements and a yeshiva along its route. The U.S. Agency for International Development spent $2 million in 1997 to renovate the street as part of an Israeli-Palestinian agreement to reopen it for Palestinians. But Israel has since refused to do so.
The order to close the road was one of several that began the separation process here in 1994 after an Israeli from Kiryat Arba, Baruch Goldstein, killed 29 Palestinians praying in the Ibrahimi Mosque just past the end of Shuhada Street. The site is sacred to Muslims and Jews, who believe Abraham, Isaac and other biblical figures are buried in grottos beneath it.
According to the Temporary International Presence in Hebron, the unarmed observer mission, there are 100 Israeli-constructed fences, gates, concrete barriers and military checkpoints within the roughly one-square-mile historic center. The area included the Jewish Quarter until 1929, when Arabs killed more than 60 Jews living there. The survivors fled.
Hemmed in and harassed, the Palestinians are fleeing today. Nearly half the homes in and around the Israeli-controlled Old City of Hebron have been vacated, the Israeli human rights group B'Tselem recently reported. The group also said that more than three-quarters of the Palestinian shops and restaurants in the casbah and adjacent commercial districts have been shuttered, many by military order.
Shuyukhi's band had failed to make it past the checkpoint for 15 consecutive weeks. But this day, the soldiers waved them into the Israeli-controlled area. After several moments of bewilderment, Shuyukhi started down the empty street -- shops closed, no cars, men and boys with Palestinian flags following behind.
As they approached Beit Hadassah, a Jewish settlement of about 30 families, army jeeps roared up. Soldiers in helmets and body armor, joined by a few Israeli police officers, ordered Shuyukhi's group to lower the Palestinian national flag they carried and turn back.
"We will not take it down," Shuyukhi shouted. "The Ibrahimi Mosque is ours, not theirs."
Suddenly, an older settler rushed from the entrance of Beit Hadassah, clutching a walkie-talkie in one hand.
"Grab the flag, grab the flag," he shouted in American-accented Hebrew.
A policeman blocked him. But the man spun from his grip and, like a determined running back, plowed toward the Palestinians.
"Go take care of the Arabs, the criminals," he shouted at the police, who led him struggling away.
Mats Lignell, a former Swedish soldier with the observer mission in Hebron, watched the scene before heading to a raised path across Shuhada Street, which his mission financed so Palestinian students could reach their Cordoba School without passing near Beit Hadassah.
The 50-yard walkway took months to complete because each night the bricks were uprooted. It opened this year.
During the three-month period ending Jan. 31, the observer group received 35 complaints of settler violence and harassment, ranging from beatings to throwing debris. Over the next three months, 71 cases were reported.
"The pattern you see is that you have settlement and then violence around it," Lignell said. "And you see this project inching forward."A Chain of Settlements
On a recent morning, a dozen toddlers zipped around Avraham Avinu's shady courtyard, where in 2001 a Palestinian sniper's bullet killed 10-month-old Shalhevet Pas. A nearby market, once the main Palestinian clearinghouse for vegetables, has been named for her by the settlers who control it.
The Jewish settlement is separated -- by a wall, razor wire and a worldview -- from Hebron's casbah and its Palestinian patrons, who have watched anxiously as the settlement project recently swelled beyond the city center under the protection of Israel's military, whose strategic goals frequently coincide with the settlers'.
"The town is divided, it is deserted, and in many ways like a prison for us," said Khaled Osaily, Hebron's appointed mayor from the secular Fatah movement. Most of the more than 1,800 closed Palestinian businesses in the Old City area shut down since the second Palestinian uprising began in the fall of 2000.
David Wilder, originally from New Jersey, is the spokesman for the Hebron settlers. He largely dismissed public relations until Goldstein opened fire. The government of Yitzhak Rabin considered evacuating the settlers but instead imposed the military curfews and closures on the Palestinians.
Wilder, who like many settlers here wears a pistol on his hip, does not agree with what he calls the Israeli military's "concept of using walls as a means of security, of building barriers and saying, 'Now you are safe.'
"The problem here is not so much that people can't make a living; it's a political one," Wilder said. "The Arabs want a presence here. If they have it, they own it, de facto. And if not, they don't."
On a hilltop less than a mile's trip along streets secured by Israeli soldiers sits a four-story house, which a group of settlers occupied the evening of March 19. Lignell and his observer team arrived less than an hour later. By then, dozens of soldiers had surrounded the home to protect its new residents.
Kiryat Arba, a settlement of about 7,000 people, sits just across a narrow valley. Wilder, 53, said the property represents a key link in the chain the settlers are trying to establish between the urban settlements of Hebron and Kiryat Arba. His daughter's family is one of 15 moving into the house.
Wilder said the settlers bought the home for $700,000, some of it donated by American supporters. But Israel's Civil Administration, the military government in the occupied territories, contends that the settlers did not arrange for the permits Israelis need to buy and move into property in the West Bank.
"These people think they can do what they want and then we will have to adopt their decision," said Shlomo Dror, spokesman for Israel's Coordinator of Activities in the Territories. "This is not the case."
As a military court considers their appeal, the settlers are renovating the building. New plaster walls partition off a series of family apartments, their doors still sawed-out holes covered by hanging blankets. Soldiers wander the airy halls.
The house overlooks the main roads leading from Kiryat Arba to the downtown settlements and the Tomb of the Patriarchs, the caves beneath the Ibrahimi Mosque. The army used to set up a temporary post at the house on the Jewish Sabbath. Now, having set up a more permanent rooftop position, the army supports the settlers' right to stay.
"This building will show us whether there is a right for a Jew to buy a house in Hebron," said Baruch Marzel, a Hebron settler who has established a 70-student yeshiva in the home. "Or will Hebron be the only place in the world a Jew is not allowed to do so?"'After All That . . .'
Mohammed al-Jabari looks out from his home, across a courtyard of grapevines and olive trees, to the army post on the roof of the settlers' new acquisition. On this day, he is waiting for a funeral, vivid evidence that separating Jews and Arabs here does not guarantee security for either.
"We don't know the people who come and go from there," said Jabari, 22, a bespectacled middle school chemistry teacher. "We try to stay inside now as much as possible."
A few hours later, in the adjacent cemetery, dozens of men gathered beneath cypresses and pines to escape the sun. Yehiya al-Jabari, a 67-year-old shepherd from Hebron and a distant relative of the teacher's, would soon be buried.
About 1 a.m. that day, Israeli soldiers had entered Yehiya al-Jabari's home looking for his 18-year-old son, Saleh. Seeing the soldiers come in, the men and women of the family accosted them. One tried to snatch a soldier's gun, Israeli military officials said, and the officer opened fire.
One shot struck Jabari's wife, Fatmeh, in the neck. The next hit Yehiya, who also dropped to the floor. An Israeli medic administered CPR to Fatmeh, reviving her, but Yehiya died in his living room.
"After all that, they said, 'Where's Saleh?' " recalled Sami al-Jabari, Yehiya's brother, who witnessed the scene.
Men and boys bore Yehiya's wooden stretcher up the hill, pausing to allow mourners to kiss his face. Some held Hamas flags, and the angry chants celebrating martyrdom carried down to the soldiers at the settlers' new home. Then, after tipping the body into the dry ground, the men wandered back down the hill into the divided city.