Searching for Normal in Hebron

By | Oct 14, 2021
From the Archive
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, spodess 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 shiny 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 quietly 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 Washington Post 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 settlers 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 settlers. “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 line 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 surely the Israeli army suppressed the uprising, and a modicum of order was restored.

That fragile sense of order was in danger of collapse this past summer after Hamas seized control of the Gaza Strip from Fatah, the mainstream wing of the Palestine Liberation Organization, and threatened to do the same in the West Bank. Yet there was little visible tension between the two factions in Hebron. The half dozen large Palestinian clans that comprise the core of the city’s ruling elite have cooperated to tamp down internecine violence.

The other reason for the current quiet is the Israeli army, which constantly monitors militant groups and stages periodic raids for “wanted men” in both its own zone and in the larger Palestinian-ruled area. To the extent those operations help keep a lid on Hamas and prevent suicide attacks on Israel proper, local officials seem to tacitly accept them. There have been frequent reports in the Israeli press that, for the first time since 2000, Fatah and Israeli security chiefs are sharing information and seeking jointly to enforce order.

In fact, during my visit, Hebron was more stable than I’d seen it in decades. A recent headline in the Israeli daily Haaretz labeled the city, “The safest place in the territories.”

JAMAL MAllAQA’S SMALL CLOTHING, rug and jewelry shop is located in the heart of the old souk. A soft-spoken man in baggy pants and a short-sleeved shirt, Maraqa comes from a distinguished family. On one wall of the shop he proudly displays snapshots of his father, a respected mediator of local disputes. Trained as a jewelry-maker in England, Maraqa returned to Hebron in the mid 1980s to open his shop.

The old souk is a warren of alleyways and nooks dating back to the crusader era. There are vaulted ceilings and long stretches of small shops, broken by occasional courtyards with crumbling houses. But these days one of the most notable features is the chain-link netting that has been placed above the main passageways. It is there to prevent Jewish settlers in neighboring compounds from pelting market-goers with garbage. Rotting refuse piles up atop the netting.

Maraqa, whose shop is located just below the netting, says the market used to be the pride of Hebron and the entire southern half of the West Bank. But area residents long ago took their business elsewhere to avoid the prospect of confrontations with soldiers or settlers. In times of trouble, the army has shut down the business many times, imposed curfews on the area and rounded up young Palestinian men. Tourism has dried up as well. Where the shop once made $3,000 to $4,000 per month in profits, Maraqa figures he’s now down to between $500 and $1,000. Still, he’s determined to stay.

“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. Collegeeducated 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.

“All the children in Hebron are my children,” she says. “They call me auntie, sometimes mother, sometimes teacher, sometimes by my first name.”

The soccer teams started practicing in February in the afternoons on the dead-end strip below an Israeli military watchtower. Within a few days soldiers intervened. “They said, ‘You are not allowed to play here because this is Israel,”’ Muhtaseb tells me.

After an hour-long argument, Muhtaseb says, the boys asked the soldiers if they’d like to play. The senior soldier at the scene laughed. “He told me, ‘Okay, we’re going to play but on one condition: If we win, no football. If we lose, I will sign a paper that nobody will come here and ask you to stop playing.’”

The game never took place. Muhtaseb says the soldier backed down after his commander refused permission. Still, she says, the commander agreed that the children could play from 4 to 7 in the afternoon. “I said, ‘Okay, we have a deal.’ Last night we played until 9:30.”

Because she lives on Shuhada Street, Muhtaseb possesses a permit allowing her to walk in the area, but she says whenever she does she risks a confrontation with settlers. “Last Friday I was in front of my house. This girl yelled at me: ‘Go home, you’re not allowed to go here.’ I said no, I have the right, but she kept pushing me. And then a commander interfered and said she should stop. He was very strict with the settler. He said to her, ‘If you don’t leave here, I will call the police.’ For me it was a very big surprise.”

The front door of Muhtaseb’s house is sealed off with metal shutters. The windows are fitted with wire cages designed to protect them from rocks. A neighboring Palestinian family recently recorded with a cellphone a female settler who came to their front door and screamed at them: “Go into the house! Close the door! Shut your mouth!” Then the woman hissed “sharmuta” at the Palestinians, Arabic slang that translates loosely as “whore” or an obscenity for the female sex organ. “Sharmuta. You sharmuta, you and all your daughters.” The woman repeated the word 11 times, with her face up against the cage, elongating the vowels.

After the segment played on, an Israeli news website, and was rebroadcast on Israeli television, Prime Minister Ehud Olmert expressed shame. The settler, identified in news reports as Yifat Alkobi, was questioned by police on suspicion of several violent attacks against Palestinians, then released. She filed a counter-complaint against the Palestinian family, claiming they had provoked her. The case is pending.

Given all of this, I asked Muhtaseb, what are the prospects for normal life in Hebron?

“We the Palestinians are famous for adapting to new situations. And Hebronites especially are stubborn, because we adapt all the time to every situation. It will not be normal normal, but we can normalize the abnormalities.”

She fears Jewish settlers, feels constantly harassed and under siege. Yet at the same time, she occasionally talks to settler leaders and daydreams of more normal relations. “Not all of them are bad,” she says. “There is a possibility to talk to some of them.” Later on she muses, “I’m wondering if I can persuade the settlers to play soccer with us.” Z

A BLUE ISRAELI BUS PULLS UP to the curb at the other end of Shuhada Street. “You know how you can tell it’s bulletproof?” says Yossi Baumol. “The driver’s window doesn’t open.”

Three days a week during the summer Hebron’s Jews offer a bus trip from Jerusalem to the settler enclave. As their website puts it, it’s a chance to “celebrate Jewish history with those making it!” I’ve decided to tag along one morning to see what normal life is like for the people behind the Jewish revolution there.

Baumol, our guide, is executive director of the New York-based Hebron Fund, which raises money to support the settler community. He’s a chunky, balding, middle-aged man whose knitted kippah offers little protection from the harsh summer sun. We were barely on the road when he launched a stream-of-consciousness monologue that praised Jews, denigrated Arabs and detected the hand of God in the passing scenery. Now, as we walk to the top of Tel Rumeida, one of the tourists asks why the area seems so empty of people. “The Arabs have deserted the area just like blacks abandoned Watts after the riots,” Baumol replies. “They damaged themselves.”

Baumol minimizes the Goldstein massacre as “the unfortunate single act of terror by a Jew” but prefers to focus on the killings of Jews. In fact, a brochure published by the settlers includes a timeline of hostilities that details each Jewish death over the years, but the date of the massacre is marked only with the line: “Hamas plans major terror attack against Jews in Hebron.” This oblique reference reflects the rationale that Goldstein’s defenders usually offer: that his homicidal rampage in the mosque preempted an Arab terrorist attack.

Baumol turns the proceedings over to Simcha Hochbaum, a New York-born rabbi who has lived in Hebron for 12 years with his wife and five children. Hochbaum’s clothes are casual—a tan knit shirt and slacks—but his message is impassioned. He speaks in the rhythmic  cadences of a polite but emphatic yeshiva boy. “We’re walking today in the footsteps of our forefathers,” he tells the group. “Avraham Avinu at age 127 bought the Cave of the Patriarchs for 400 pieces of silver. How can you not live here? This is where our history begins. Not on Delancey Street, but here.”

Hochbaum’s presentation veers from the sacred to the mundane. One minute he’s enthralling the crowd with tales of Abraham; the next he’s boasting that the supermarket in the nearby settlement of Kiryat Arba delivers groceries here five times daily. The settlers do not lack for Ben and Jerry’s, he assures us.

He takes us into the Beit Hadassah compound. There are various small apartments clustered around a courtyard and tucked behind tall stone walls and chain-link fences topped with razor wire. Small children careen through the playground and mini-basketball court. All in all, says Hochbaum, 35 families live here. The centerpiece is a three-story building with apartments and, on the ground floor, one of the seminal parts of the Hebron legend, the Hebron Martyrs Museum, which memorializes the victims of the 1929 massacre. “Seventy-eight years ago the Jews believed that here they would be safe. The Arabs murdered us, killed us and raped us here in this very building. They came and they ransacked and desecrated the cemetery. And they’re still trying to destroy us.”

Hochbaum escorts us down Shuhada Street and through an abandoned Arab market to the apartment of the Bar Kochbas, one of two families that moved into two of the Arab shops that have been vacant for the past 13 years under Israeli army orders. When they heard the families had moved in, the Palestinian shopkeepers approached the Israeli activist group Peace Now, which filed a complaint with the Israeli Civil Administration seeking an eviction order. After months of legal arguments, the government has ordered the families to leave. “Massacres, shootings and suicide bombings—they don’t succeed in driving us out,” Hochbaum tells us, “and I can promise you the politicians won’t succeed, either.”

He leads us in prayer. “Close the mouths of those who are trying to persecute us,” he pleads to God.

Four days later, Israel will dispatch some hundreds of soldiers and police— 3,000, according to Israeli press reports—to evict the two families. Dozens of protesters will rain rocks, eggs, light bulbs and curses at the troops, and 30 people will be injured and eight arrested.

Mainstream Israelis have little sympathy for the settlers, who are viewed as crazed fanatics. But there is still latent sympathy among many Israelis for a settlement movement that invokes old-line Zionist principles and idealism. “Most Israelis feel Hebron is very much part of our narrative because the patriarchs are buried there,” says Hirsh Goodman, longtime military journalist and defense policy analyst at the Jaffee Center for Strategic Studies in Tel Aviv. “But the people who decided to settle there are not only on the fringe of Israeli society, but they’re a despised fringe because of Baruch Goldstein and what he did.”

Goodman says Israel’s military leaders would love to shut down the entire Hebron settlement but can’t get the government’s approval. Still, after the successful recent eviction of the two families from the Arab shops, there are renewed signs that the government may clamp down. When settlers occupied a three-story building on the edge of the city last March, soldiers were dispatched there as usual the first night to guard the occupants. It looked like the settlers had succeeded in establishing yet another unilateral “fact on the ground.” But the Israeli government recently announced it would support a Palestinian legal effort to have the settlers evicted. The case is pending before the Israeli high court.

Back on the tour, it’s time for lunch, and the settlers lead us to the Gutnick Center below the Cave of the Patriarchs for cold drinks and soggy pizza. At 12:40 p.m. when the muzzein starts to broadcast his prayer for the faithful from the mosque, two loudspeakers atop the center burst into Israeli folk songs, seeking to drown out the Muslim prayers.

SITTING BEHIND A VAST polished desk in his office, Khaled Osaily, the mayor, is raising his voice. It’s the week before the shopping center opening and Osaily’s waiting room is filled with young men looking for any kind of work. He tells me not to be fooled by the occasional scenes of prosperity I’m seeing. Hebron is still on the brink of economic disaster.

“I need new schools, new buildings and new roads,” he says. “We need 50 schools and 1,000 new classrooms. Seventy-five percent of the population is under 25, but there are no sports centers, no infrastructure, no stadium, no playgrounds. We started building one sports hall with $1 million; we need $3 million to finish it. It would be the first in Palestine.”

Most of all, Osaily says, he needs the Israeli authorities to cooperate. “Go to the old city. I’ve asked the Israelis to please open the blocking gates. Hebron should not be divided.”

Osaily is a political moderate who tries to dodge the Hamas-Fatah divide. Like Palestinian Prime Minister Salam Fayyed, Osaily is a modernizer who believes that a healthy dose of capitalism is the only way to win western support, get the economy off its knees and make Palestinians believe there are rewards for moderation.

“We are serious people—traders and merchants and hard workers,” Osaily tells me. ”If we had freer movement for people and goods, believe me, we would have more prosperity here.” The mayor’s latest scheme is to offer each merchant in the old souk $200 per month for six months to reopen their shops. So far, he says, 800 have accepted, although the shopkeepers themselves say the number of re-openings is much lower.

One of those who tried to reopen was Jowdat Hassouni. For 42 years he’s owned and operated a modest kitchen supplies shop in the Bab El Baladiya, the old municipal square that marks the entryway to the souk. His is one of a row of a half dozen shops that have the misfortune of sharing a back wall with one of the Jewish settler compounds. At the comer of the row is a high wall sealing off a roadway and a concrete tower, manned by a red-bereted Israeli soldier.

Hassouni’s shop has been ordered closed several times in recent years. Soldiers have never explained to him why the army considers it a security threat; terrorists presumably could blow a hole in his back wall and use it to fire upon settlers or to infiltrate the army’s sterile zone. The fact he was here long before the settler compounds were built has no meaning to the soldiers. Mayor Osaily can pay shopkeepers to open their doors, but the army can close them again.

Hassouni, who is 75, is unimpressed with the city’s $200-a-month offer. “In Arafat’s time they promised us $1,000 a month but I never saw a drop of it, and I don’t expect to see any now,” he says. Nonetheless, he started opening again. Each morning he comes to work in a suit coat and tie and an old-fashioned black-and-white headscarf. He removes the double set of padlocks, metal bars and a fitted interior lock, an elaborate ritual that takes at least 10 minutes. Soldiers have come by and ordered him to close, but he says he has demanded a written order. Hassouni’s resigned expression suggests that he knows his attempts to resist are probably futile. Still, he’s willing to try. After all, this is his business. Normal life cannot be forever denied.

Two days later, my cellphone rings. It’s Hassouni, calling to tell me that a half dozen soldiers came by his shop that morning. They brought a written decree ordering him to close for four months. They handed the paper to Hassouni, then welded shut the metal shutters of the store with an acetylene torch. The conflict rules.


Top image: Open-air market in city being patrolled by Israeli troops (2004) (Credit: Justin McIntosh, CC BY 2.0)

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