Friday’s Fact: Newly approved Jewish settlements further endanger the ancient city of Hebron
For the first time since 2002, Israel’s civil administration has approved the construction of 31 new housing units in the Jewish settlement “Bet Romano” inside the Old City of Hebron, according to an Al Jazeera report. This falls within the scope of larger plans to construct 3,829 new housing units throughout the occupied West Bank, making it a total of 6,500 units so far this year, according to the said article. This decision approved by an Israeli panel includes the subsequent authorization of existing settlement outposts. Although this is just one more bill funding the Jewish settler movement in the West Bank, Hebron is symptomatic of the Israeli occupation as it lowers the living conditions of thousands of Palestinians for the sake of raising those of a few.
Hebron, the largest Palestinian city in the West Bank, always has been of special interest for many in the Middle East. This originates from its religious significance to the three Abrahamic religions. Christians, Jews and Muslims revere the place where Abraham is believed to be buried, that is called Haram Al-Ibrahimi in Arabic and Tomb of the Patriarchs in Hebrew. This stirred tensions between believers throughout the decades, climaxing in the massacre of 1994 when the American-Israeli Baruch Goldstein opened fire on Muslims during Morning Prayer inside the Al-Ibrahimi mosque, causing the death of 29 people. The attack during prayer was not only horrific in nature, but it was also used by Israel as an excuse to wall off a part of the mosque exclusively for Jewish worshipers and increase its control over the Old City. As a result, it had a long-lasting effect on the shape and identity of the city of Hebron and its people.
Among other factors, the massacre forced negotiations between Israel and the Palestinian Liberation Organization (PLO) and to sign the “Protocol Concerning the Redeployment in Hebron” in 1997. In this agreement, the two negotiating parties agreed on dividing the city into two sectors, H1, which falls under the police and administrative control of the Palestinian Authority, and H2, which falls under the full security and administrative control of Israel. Though technically merely presenting about 20 per cent of the area, the Israeli-controlled H2 sector includes the Old City of Hebron and therefore also the Haram Al-Ibrahimi. The division was meant to integrate four settlement compounds in the area – among them Bet Romano – which makes H2 home to a few hundred Israeli settlers and up to 40,000 Palestinians. Palestinians residing in neighbourhoods close to settlement compounds are affected by a series of strict restrictions on access and movement, imposed by the Israeli military in order to protect the Jewish settlers. The Israeli NGO B’tselem published a testimony of one Palestinian resident of the Old City in 2015 explaining that due to the restrictions, his family can only leave the house for work, school or urgent matters. Today, those restrictions consist of about 100 physical obstacles, including 18 permanently-staffed checkpoints and 14 partially-staffed ones separating the neighbourhoods, according to a 2017 report of the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA). Restrictions are as far-reaching as voiding several streets of all Palestinian movement; other streets are restricted to pedestrians only, while all Palestinian vehicles and businesses are banned. This separation policy in the center of Hebron has earned the city the status of a “Ghost Town”, as the Israeli NGOs B’tselem and Breaking The Silence refer to it.
In addition to the harsh restrictions, the Palestinian residents in Hebron face what OCHA describes as “systematic harassment by Israeli settlers” throughout daily life. Issa Amro, an activist for Youth Against Settlements, commented on the further expansion of settlements in Hebron in an interview with Al Jazeera, “this will make life even more unbearable for Palestinians living in the Old City, who are already suffering from checkpoints, closures and repeated attacks from Jewish settlers and the Israeli army.”
Hebron is indeed a unique case among Palestinian cities. It seems to reveal and magnify the segregation between Israelis and Palestinians and the impacts of settlements in the Occupied West Bank at its ugliest. As the city remains segregated, it will remain a hotbed for constant clashes and violence. This situation seems to be favored by Israel as it attempts to rid the city of its Palestinian inhabitants, in order to clear it for a few hundred Israeli settlers.