In a region with no shortage of tensions, the city of Hebron exceeds anywhere else in the intensity of its conflicts. It is the site of the most ideologically extremist Israeli settlers, dubbed the ‘ultra-Zionists.’ They believe that Biblical Israel in its entirety – including the West Bank and Gaza Strip – have been promised to the Jewish people by God, and that therefore no one else has any right to be there. As God’s chosen people, they have the right to expel any one else, who are seen only as encroachers.
This belief has had devastating consequences. The Israeli settlement in Hebron is probably the most deeply embedded of any in the West Bank. The settlers have deliberately positioned themselves in the heart of the Old City, forcing out Arab residents either by direct violence or by making it so uncomfortable for them to live there that they have no choice but to leave. Those few Palestinians who have stayed face daily verbal abuse, physical attacks and sometimes even gunfire. The burial place of Abraham – holy to both Jews and Muslims – has been physically divided even since an extremist settler opened fire on Palestinians praying there in 1994, killing 29 people.
I returned to Hebron on 27th July, 2011. It was my first time there since my previous trip to the West Bank in 2008, and I remembered it as the place which encapsulated and epitomised the conflict at its worst. I thought that I was going back more prepared for what I was to see, but I came away just as horrified.
I spoke to one Palestinian man, ‘Abid, whose home has been almost surrounded by the settlement. Three of his children are in hospital with physical and psychological damage – a result of what is euphemistically known as ‘the situation’ – while he himself is waiting to travel to Jordan for surgery to remove a bullet lodged in his chest. Elsewhere in Hebron’s Old City, one is faced with abandoned Palestinian shops, many of which have had their doors forcibly welded shut by settlers.
To get to the Mosque of Abraham – itself the very reason for Hebron’s sacredness to both Jews and Muslims - one must go through a security checkpoint manned by Israeli soldiers. Fair enough, some might argue, given the tensions – but why an Israeli checkpoint in land which is legally Palestinian; and why is it always Arabs and never Jews who are refused entry inside? While I sailed through security, safe in my white skin and protected by my British passport, my local Palestinian guide was forced to stay on the other side, and then to sit in the blistering heat and wait for the soldiers to choose when to return his identity card.
It is the actions of the Israeli army (IDF) more than anything else which make the situation in Hebron so horrifying. They not only tolerate, but actively facilitate the settlers’ stranglehold on the city, despite the fact that their ideology cannot reasonably be called anything other than religious extremism. In doing so, they make the Hebron ‘situation’ not the domain of a minority of crazed extremists, but rather a fully-integrated and legitimised policy of the Israeli state. The army’s involvement implicates the whole of Israel and places Hebron at the heart of the conflict.
I saw this exemplified in the final part of my second visit to Hebron. After leaving the Mosque, I walked along a street divided into a (large paved) section for Jews and a (narrow uneven) section for Arabs. As I climbed a hill towards the Palestinian community centre I was due to visit, I spotted settlers patrolling the area armed with guns. When I reached the community centre – walking through a door with the words GET OUT ARABS scrawled on it in graffiti – I thought I had found some temporary peace as I sat down for tea with the courageous people who volunteer there (both Palestinian and Israeli, with some of the latter having braved rejection from friends and relatives to break the taboo of helping the ‘other side’). It quickly became clear that this was not to be. Not only were settlers shouting abuse, but the IDF were also manning the centre, at one point marching inside and upstairs with no explanation. For the first time since I have been in Palestine, I really felt that I might be in danger. I left the centre with both a feeling of relief and a mounting sense of guilt. For me, Hebron is a place for just a day’s visit, a place from which I can easily escape when it gets too much. Unlike its Palestinian residents, I am not chained to the oppression and suffocation which characterises daily life there.
Hebron is the place where the excuses end. Those who are so keen and so quick to justify Israel’s excesses are silenced by its ‘situation.’ Even the usually failsafe cry of ‘security’ does not work as a rationalisation in a place where Israeli settlers can shoot at Palestinian homes without fear of retribution, let alone punishment.
As I sat on the hill overlooking the beautiful olive trees and the ugly graffiti, I thought of all the hours which pro-Palestinian activists in the West spend putting forward their case. If they were to take everyone they know to spend one day in Hebron, this would no longer be necessary. To those who ask “why do you support Palestine?”, Hebron is the answer.
Anne is currently studying for a Dual MA-MSc at Columbia University and the London School of Economics, specialising in the modern history of the Middle East. She is in the process of completing her thesis on the role of the UN in the Palestinian refugee camps after 1967.
Anne has spent two summers in the West Bank, her main area of interest. She has volunteered as an English teacher in Aida and Dheisheh refugee camps, as well as at Bethlehem University. In her home city of London, she is involved with the charity Unipal, which sends British volunteers to work in Palestinian refugee camps every summer.
In the past, Anne has also volunteered as an English teacher in Niger, working with the local NGO Mouvement Nigérien pour la Défense et la Promotion des Droits de l’Homme et les Peuples (MNDHP).
She graduated from Oxford University in 2009 with a BA(Hons) in Modern History.