Hebron / Al-Khalil is the second largest city in the West Bank and the largest in the southern West Bank, located 32 kilometers south of Jerusalem.
The city of Hebron has an estimated total population of 200,000 inhabitants.
Approximately 40,000 Palestinians live in the Old City. Around 400-850 Israeli settlers reside in the core of the city; an additional 8,000 settlers reside in the Kiryat Arba settlement, on the outskirts of Hebron.
Hebron is a sacred site for all three Abrahamic faiths (Islam, Christianity and Judaism) due to the belief that the biblical prophet Abraham and his wife Sarah are buried together with Isaac, Rebecca, Jacob and Leah in the place where the Ibrahimi Mosque (Tomb of the patriarchs) is built. The Old City of Hebron grew around this important monument.
Due to its religious significance, Hebron became a stronghold for the religious extremists within the settler movement, including Gush Emunim (‘Bloc of the Faithful’) and semi-underground organisations such as Kach and Kahane Chai (‘Kahane Lives’), which played a major role in initiating and developing the settlements in Hebron. After the massacre in the Ibrahimi Mosque, they were designated terrorist organisations .
Hebron is the only Palestinian city with Israeli settlements in the middle of it. They are built in and around the Old City, which traditionally served as the commercial center for the entire southern West Bank.
Hebron’s fundamentalist settlers, influenced by the thought of Rabbi Avraham Yitzhak Kook, are characterised by their extreme ideologies and literal interpretation of religious texts. They are united in their belief that the Land of Israel is “the spatial center of holiness in the world” and that Hebron and the rest of the West Bank is considered Jewish by divine right.
For this reason they agreed that the sanctity of the land must prevent the receding of the territory conquered during the 1967 war. They fully believe in the importance of their role to colonize and live in the occupied land. They are united in their objective of restoring the Jewish life and expanding the Jewish community in Hebron.
Nowadays the most radical settlers live in Hebron’s Old City illegally, contributing to the transformation of the Old city into ghost town.
The settlemets are considered illegal in according to the Article 49 of the Fourth Geneva Convention. It states that, “The Occupying Power shall not deport or transfer parts of its own civilian population in the territory it occupies.”
The Israeli settlements in Hebron were originally initiated by individuals, and not by the government of Israel. Yet, the development and expansion of them were carried out over the years with the approval, support, cooperation, and even encouragement of various Israeli governments.
Israel provides a wide range of financial benefits, essentially welfare, to the settlements. These incentives have encouraged many Israelis to move from within the ‘Green Line’ to the OPT.
The settlers themselves are clear in their vision for the future of the city: they want to turn Hebron into a Jewish city.
Their goal is to expand the Jewish community in the city through political lobbying and by creating ‘facts on the ground’, often through illegal and violent actions aimed at the expulsion of Hebron’s Palestinian population.
Israel is the sole power capable of implementing and supporting the settlements in Hebron. Without the state’s political, financial and military support, Hebron’s settlements could not have been established or maintained.
Israel’s colonisation of the OPT, like any other colonial enterprise, is principally about resources, strategic control, and land. The settlements are part of a strategy to keep the Israeli control and exploit the locals’ natural resources.
Settlements are used to establish physical and demographic ‘facts on the ground’ in order to fortify Israel’s claim over large areas of the Occupied Palestinian Territories.
Over the years, Israel has established a network of control in the OPT which is composed of settlements, infrastructural system of roads, settler ‘bypass roads’ (which Palestinians are forbidden to use), military bases and checkpoints. Those elements divide the OPT into small, disconnected entities. The fragmentation and the dismemberment of the Palestinian territories has severely prevented commercial activity and made Palestinian daily life extremely difficult, including access to health and educational infrastructure.
Alessandro Petti describes the fragmentation of the West Bank territory through two different spatial forms: the archipelago and the enclave. The first is the landscape of interconnected Israeli settlements, the space of flux, while the second is represented by Palestinian cities and villages, whose main feature is their increasing disconnection and fragmentation.
Israel’s policy of isolating Hebron’s settlements and encouraging them is also based on the same “principle of separation and fragmentation”. This includes physical and legal segregation between Palestinians and Israeli settlers.
In 1994, immediately after the massacre that took place in the Tomb of the Patriarchs, Israel imposed a curfew on Palestinian residents in Hebron. Since then, Israel has restricted the movement of Hebron’s Palestinian population in the proximity of the settlements. A section of Al-Shuhada Street was closed to Palestinian vehicles claiming that the restriction was needed for security reasons.
The restrictions on Palestinian movement were enforced by a large number of staffed checkpoints and physical roadblocks. Most of the shops in this area have been forced to close.
These restrictions and prohibitions have expropriated the City Center from its Palestinian residents and destroyed its economy. Having no other option, many families have left the city center.
According to the Hebron Protocol, signed by the Palestine Liberation Organisation and the Government of Israel in 1997, the city of Hebron was divided into two sections, known as H1 and H2. Area H1 is under Palestinian civil and security control, comprising 80% of the city. Area H2 is under Israeli military/security control and Palestinian civil control, comprising 20% of the city, including the whole Old City of Hebron.
In the autumn of 2000, with the outbreak of the second intifada, Israel increased the severity of the restrictions and imposed a long curfew on H2 area. Residents were forced to stay in their homes day and night for weeks and months, except for a few hours once or twice a week to enable them to supply their provisions. The curfew was never imposed on the Jewish settlers of Hebron.
As a result of this long period of prohibitions on movement, and prohibitions on opening shops and businesses, thousands of residents lost their source of income. Commercial activities in this area died, which was a major cause for why residents moved out of the area. This dramatic situation is called by several urbanists “urbicide”: the killing of the city and the killing of the social and economic life in the city.
Now-a-days a network of barriers create a continuous strip of land in the H2 area, along which Palestinian vehicles are completely forbidden. This strip, which stretches from the Kiryat Arba settlement in the east to the Jewish cemetery in the west, is separated from the rest of the city, as the army controls and restricts entry of Palestinians to it. The middle of the strip contains many sections of road closed for Palestinian pedestrians. The most important is called Al-Shuhada Street, which is closed to Palestinian vehicular and pedestrian traffic between the Beit Hadassah and Avraham Avinu settlement points. The settlers, on the other hand, are allowed to move about freely in these areas.
According to a report from Israeli human rights organization B’Tselem, a policy of “separation” has guided the operations of the Israeli military (IDF) in the area. The Israeli security forces believe that the physical separation of the two ethno-national communities is necessary on both security and operational grounds: this is in order to prevent friction, guarantee the security interests of IDF personnel and Jews living in the Old City, and to ensure military operational efficiency.
The result is the creation of “protective spaces” using the elements of the occupation, such as checkpoints and physical roadblocks. These are placed to separate the city of Hebron from the area occupied by Jewish settlers adopting a strategy of “sterilization”. The “sterile” area is usually the zone located around the settlement’s compounds, from which Palestinian pedestrians are forbidden.
Due to this complex and eerily encrouching policy of occupation, Hebron is turning into two different cities. Area H1 and H2 are increasingly two different towns, divided by physical elements and difference in social classes. The mass departure of the residents that could financially afford to leave the area has transformed the Old city in an almost-empty neighborhood, heavily controlled by the Israeli army and today mainly inhabited by the lowest socio-economic classes of Hebronite society.
The H2 area is additionally fragmented through a “strategy of separation”, including the presence of physical elements such as closures, barriers, settlements and legal strategies of discrimination between Palestinian and Israeli settlers based on national-ethnic criteria.
Palestinians are subject to a system of military law Israel enforces in the West Bank as opposed to Israeli settlers, who are tried under Israeli penal law in courts inside Israel.
Using these measures, Israel have expropriated the City Center from its Palestinian residents and destroyed it economically. This schemed strategy based on prohibitions, omissions, restrictions and fear has exasperated the lives of Palestinian residents, making it impossible for them to continue to live and work in the area.
The H2 area would have already become a Jewish-only area if not for the perseverance of local families resisting the settlements by living inside the occupied zone. Thanks to their presence, these Palestinian families have prevented the settlers from occupying the whole area, they are the main symbol of nonviolent resistence. By continuing to live in their houses, take care of their olives trees and walk in the streets inside the H2 area, they give hope that one day this land will be returned to the local owners. Their resistance keeps the hope alive that Palestinians will one day come back to their homes, the merchants will reopen their shops and Al-Shuhada street will once again turn back into one of the most lively and vivid commercial streets not only in the city of Hebron, but all of The West Bank.