Searching for Normal in Hebron

Israeli soldiers patrol a Palestinian open market

IT’S NOON ON A BLISTERING BRIGHT August day in the northern part of the West Bank city of Hebron. I’ve joined a crowd of some 200 Palestinians crammed into the lobby of a renovated two-story building on Ain Khairadeen Street for the grand opening of the Plaza Shopping Center. There are silver, blue and yellow balloons, a host of local dignitaries and gift bags with digital clocks for each guest. There’s a clown and a man in a brown animal suit of indeterminate species and dozens of smiling children in baseball caps and T-shirts, none of whom would look out of place at the Mall of America.

First there’s a guided tour of the Bravo Supermarket—wide aisles, spotless floors, fruit and vegetable displays, bakery and butcher counters, and plastic shopping bags in Arabic and English pledging to meet “All Your Needs.”  Then the dignitaries swing upstairs to see the Jungle—a children’s playground with rides, games and toys. Afterwards, everyone gathers in the conference room for the requisite speeches. “We all know how difficult the economic situation is, the security situation is,” the mayor of Hebron, Khaled Osaily, tells the crowd. “It’s all connected. The private sector is the only way to improve the economy.”

Osaily’s company put up the $2 million to complete this project, and his son—dressed like his father in a dark suit, white shirt and shin  silk tie—is its manager.  The supermarket will provide 100 jobs, a drop in the bucket in a city of 170,000 where unemployment exceeds 50 percent. But the mayor, in office for three months, is a pragmatist impatient for progress. “I came with a vision,” he says. “To show Palestinians there is another model of life in the world, a normal life.”

The fact that a Western-style shopping center is opening anywhere in the Israeli-occupied West Bank is unusual in a time when the Palestinian economy is mired in decline. That it’s happening in Hebron is nothing short of remarkable. For nearly four decades Hebron has been a flashpoint in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. While there are Jewish settlements alongside many Palestinian communities in the West Bank, only in Hebron do settlers live in the heart of a densely populated Arab city. They are among the most fanatical and intolerant of Israelis—some openly celebrated the massacre of 29 Palestinians in February 1994 by Baruch Goldstein, a Brooklyn-born settler. By the same token, many Palestinians here have been radicalized. Candidates for Hamas, the extremist Islamic political movement, took all of Hebron’s nine seats in the 2006 legislative elections— eight of them are currently in Israeli prisons. It’s fair to say that, in terms of the conflict, Hebron is the worst place in the West Bank.  So it was surprising to see normal life attempt to assert itself here. I’ve been traveling to Israel as a journalist for nearly 30 years. I’ve covered two intifadas and witnessed shootings, suicide bombings, profound suffering. A single headline could run above most stories from Hebron: The Conflict Rules. Whether you’re a Palestinian shopkeeper, truck driver, farmer or student, forget about having a normal life.  The conflict has other plans. Israelis have it a bit smoother, but far from normal. If you’re an Israeli, you put up with security guards, bag searches and the gnawing possibility that the person walking behind you may be about to blow both of you to kingdom come. Sooner or later, the conflict will come looking for you, screw up your day or your year or your life, kill you or someone you love. After years of writing about the remorseless power of the conflict, I longed to celebrate the power of normality. And where more challenging to begin this search than in the most conflicted place of all?

LIKE JERUSALEM AND ROME, HEBRON is built on hills. On the side of one of the hills in the heart of the city is the Cave of the Patriarchs, the reputed burial site of Abraham, Sarah and the other founders of the Jewish faith. Religious Jews consider it to be, even more than Jerusalem, the cradle of Judaism. But Muslims, who venerate the same patriarchs, claim it as well.

For many centuries, a small group of devout Jews lived peacefully alongside their Arab neighbors. Then in 1929, Arab rioters inflamed by unfounded rumors about threats to mosques slaughtered 67 Jews and forced the rest of the Jewish community to flee. After Israel’s triumph in the 1967 Six-Day War, Hebron was one of the first places in the West Bank targeted by Jewish activists for re-settlement. A group led by a little-known rabbi named Moshe Levinger posed as Swiss tourists and rented rooms for the week of Passover in 1968, in the Arab-owned Park Hotel. When the holiday ended, the settlers refused to leave. They squatted in the hotel for more than a month until Israeli officials—many of whom sympathized with the settlers’ goals, even while deploring their methods—agreed to house them within the more secure confines of Israeli military headquarters.

Twelve years later, in retaliation for the killing of a yeshiva student, settlers began moving into properties in the central marketplace that had once been owned by Jews. Eventually, they established fortress-like enclaves in two old buildings, Beit Romano and Beit Hadassah, built a new apartment complex in the old Avraham Avinu neighborhood, and set up trailers on a hill known as Tel Rumeida.

The settlers had not come here to live quiedy among their ancestors. Levinger was a spiritual founder of the Gush Emunim settler movement, and under his fiery leadership the settlers aggressively asserted Jewish domination, harassing Arabs who got in their way. “If they don’t understand,” one settler told me at the time of my first visit in August 1984, “they have just one possibility and this is to leave.”

I had come then to report for the WashingtonPos t on the new trailers filled with Jewish families that had appeared one night on Tel Rumeida. While the settlers did not have formal government approval, then-Defense Minister Moshe Arens of the right-of-center Likud party had told them he would look the other way while they set up the new enclave. Arens later praised the settler project in Hebron as “in many ways symbolic of everything that Zionism stands for and everything that Israel stands for.”

This was the way the settlers routinely expanded their domain—by grabbing land and establishing what they call “facts on the ground” with the tacit approval of at least part of the Israeli government of the day. Whether led by Likud or Labor, hawks or doves, the government seldom said no, reflecting, in part, the leverage that a small but determined interest group like the settlers can wield in Israel’s fractured political system.

After my first trip, I rarely went back to Hebron. Frankly, the place frightened me—the most rabid settlers and most extreme Palestinians trading insults, rocks and occasional gunfire.  In 1980, six setders were killed when Arabs fired into their enclave from a rooftop. In turn, settlers shot dead three Palestinian students at Hebron University in 1982. Feeling trapped in the middle, Israeli commanders often complained about the violence and arrogance of the settlers. But when pressed, the army always sided with them.

Palestinians tried to hold on. When I visited Hebron in 1993, the fruit and vegetable and chicken markets in the old souk near the center of town were still jammed with customers.
Israeli soldiers patrolled these areas cradling automatic weapons. Every now and then a violent incident shattered the uneasy calm—a Palestinian would stab a settler, settlers would
rampage through the marketplace, beating Arabs and smashing shops and soldiers would attempt to intervene. The two sides were practicing how to hate each other.

The turning point came in February 1994, when Goldstein stormed into the Ibrahimi Mosque above the Cave of the Patriarchs and opened fire. After the massacre, Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin—who himself was assassinated by a Jewish fanatic the following year—briefly considered expelling the settlers but lacked the political will, according to Uri Dromi, who headed the Government Press Office at the time. Instead, fearing Palestinian retaliation, Rabin ordered the markets shut down, evicted hundreds of shopkeepers and banned Palestinian vehicles. The army effectively established a sterile zone around the setders. “The victim was punished twice,” Taher Muhtaseb, vice president of the Hebron Chamber of Commerce, told me.

Under a 1997 agreement between Israel and the Palestinian Authority, Hebron was divided into two zones: a seven-square-mile area under Palestinian rule in which 135,000 Arabs live,
and a 1.5-square-mile area under Israeli military control where 500 settlers and some 35,000 Palestinians reside. The fine between the two zones ran right through the heart of the old city. Three years later, Hebron became a major battleground during the second Palestinian uprising. Militant groups dispatched suicide bombers from Hebron to hit civilian targets inside Israel. When Prime Minister Ariel Sharon ordered the army to retake control of the West Bank’s major cities and towns, the army laid siege for four days to the main Palestinian municipal and security headquarters in Hebron, then leveled it with explosives. Five months later, 12 Israeli soldiers and security guards were killed in an ambush while escorting worshippers from Sabbath prayers at the cave. Still, slowly but

 

 

 

 

“In a way, this is like a big prison and we’re the prisoners,” he says. “But this is my home and I won’t leave. I’ve gotten used to it.”

The silence here is in contrast to the northern part of the city, where the new Bravo Supermarket has just opened its doors. Hebron now seems like a city broken in two. One part throbs with people, vendors and noise and boasts a sleek new 10-story insurance company building and bannered ads on the main streets touting school uniforms, wedding gowns and Power Horse energy drinks. It’s easy to see why Hebronites boast of their city as the economic engine of the West Bank, responsible for generating some 30 percent of its income.

The south sector, including parts of the center and the old souk, seems like a ghost town under Israeli military control. Once makeshift army checkpoints are now fortified by concrete towers. The old bus depot and two gas stations have been dismantled. Moreover, the trailers at the top of Tel Rumeida now look permanent—there’s landscaping and a concrete playground out front. Above them on the hill is a three-story Jewish yeshiva constructed almost a decade ago and named for a rabbi who was stabbed to death in his home nearby.

Two Israeli human rights groups—Btselem and the Association for Civil Rights in Israel— reported last May that 1,014 Palestinian housing units are vacant, representing 42 percent of homes in the once-bustling area. Some 1,800 business establishments—75 percent of the total—are also shut down, and the army has established 102 roadblocks and checkpoints. The report laid the blame squarely on the settlers and the army, citing severe restrictions on Palestinian pedestrians and vehicles, military-enforced shutdowns and the failure of the authorities to enforce the law against settlers who assault Palestinians and their property. “These restrictions, prohibitions and omissions have expropriated the City Center from its Palestinian residents and destroyed it economically,” the report concludes.

Four years ago, in reply to an earlier Btselem report, the army spokesman’s office issued a four-page letter justifying its actions. Hebron, it stated, “has been a hub for terrorist activity against Israeli civilians and the IDF alike.” The letter cited “operational necessity” for the closure of shops and markets when “their opening poses a security threat.” The army “strives to protect the lives of the Israeli civilians and itself, at a minimal cost to the daily routine of the Palestinian residents.”

In reality the city center has become a dead zone. But even in the most depopulated areas, normal life has sought to assert itself. Around a corner from the old, pockmarked Municipal Inspector’s Office, on a broad dead-end street sealed off at one end by concrete blocks and a security gate, are the outlines of a soccer field and the home of the woman who oversees its fragile existence.

ZLEIKHA MUHTASEB’S FRONT door faces Shuhada Street, while the rear backs onto the old souk. That’s where she meets me one afternoon, then leads the way up a twisting flight of narrow stone steps to a small roof-top garden and the entrance to her modest living room. Speaking fluent English, she tells me that members of her family have lived here for six generations.

She’s 45, a small, trim woman with twinkling eyes and a crooked smile. Her hair is always covered with a scarf for the sake of Islamic modesty. College educated and divorced, she has many jobs: translator and advisor to the Christian Peacemaking Team, one of several outside groups that seek to observe and protect Palestinians here; owner of a small kindergarten in the old city; afternoon tutor of school children; evening manager of the youth soccer program.

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