On Monday the group travelled to Hebron, the largest city in the West Bank. Given it’s history of conflict, it is often said that the city serves as a thermometer for the state of Israeli-Palestinian relations as a whole – “If it’s calm in Hebron, it’s calm in the West Bank”.
We had arranged to meet the Temporary International Presence in Hebron (TIPH), a neutral organisation tasked with monitoring and reporting incidents between the Palestinian civil population, the Israeli Defence Force (IDF) and the settlers in the city. First, we travelled to the headquarters of TIPH, located in an area of the city under Palestinian control referred to as H1. Once we arrived we were greeted by our guide for the day, Erik, who gave a presentation covering the city’s history, its relevance to the conflict, the current situation and the role of the organisation. TIPH is primarily tasked with observing and reporting breaches of agreements between the Palestinian Authority and Israel, as well as reporting broader violations of international humanitarian law and running projects within the local community. The organisation was originally founded in 1994, following the massacre of 27 Palestinians in a mass shooting inside the Tomb of the Patriarchs – one of the most holy sites in both Judaism and Islam. After the attack, the Israeli government launched a crackdown on extremist movements, although many more Palestinians and Israeli died in the subsequent rioting.
There are a number of Israeli settlements in Hebron, situated both on the outskirts of the city and sporadically inside its borders. The largest of these is the established community of Kiryat Arba, home to 8000 settlers and located on the edge of the city. Although these settlements have previously been a point of contention between both sides, contemporary conflicts are now generally centred around the expansion of the settlers into the Palestinian areas of the city. Throughout Palestinian neighbourhoods there are a number of buildings which have been occupied or bought by Israeli settlers. These small communities, distinguished only by the bright Israeli flags flown above the buildings, are home to around 500 settlers. For the Palestinians, every building occupied by the settlers marks another step towards their eventual exclusion from the city. For the settlers, they are not so much ‘occupying’ these building as they are ‘taking back’ what they believe the Torah dictates is rightfully theirs.
During the briefing we were presented with a map of the city that highlighted the areas controlled by the Israeli security forces and the Palestinian Authority respectively. After a quick lunch we set off for a tour of the city’s downtown area in a patrol car and two large minivans, stopping occasionally to view the fortified houses of local settlers.
As we were guided through Hebron we were struck by the sheer level of division between the settlers and the local population. The area surrounding the Jewish entrance to the Cave of the Patriarchs – officially referred to as a ‘sterilised zone’ by Israeli security forces – is off limits to Palestinians. This was by no means an exception, either. Throughout Hebron, there are various laws limiting the freedom of movement of Palestinians. For example, there are are a number of roads they cannot drive on without a permit – which is infamously difficult to acquire – whilst some roads are closed off altogether. What was once the main market, located on al-Shuhada street, now lies empty following the eviction of its residents in 1994.
The tension between the settlers and the Palestinians was perhaps most visible in the downtown markets. Here, local shop owners (with the help of TIPH) have placed protective netting over the marketplace in order to block rocks, cans, and other rubbish thrown down on them by the settlers who reside in the apartments above. Whilst such measures are useful, the nets do not protect the locals from liquids such as urine or rotten eggs. One shopkeeper stopped us as we walked through the markets – “Take pictures of these,” he told us, pointing to the nets and the guardposts on the roofs of the buildings above, “when we call the soldiers they don’t do anything – they only protect the settlers”.
An array of checkpoints placed around the city further hinder the daily lives of the local population. At one point we were stopped by an elderly Palestinian woman who explained how the soldiers at the checkpoints conduct full body searches each time she passes through to visit her family. As travel restrictions have been tightened in the past few years, her family have been unable to visit her as they lack a residence permit.
Apart from the soldiers, the streets were largely empty and abandoned. But after passing through one of the checkpoints we reached the souq in the Palestinian part of Hebron which was just as bustling and lively as the markets in Jerusalem. Fresh produce, leatherwork and pottery (a speciality in the city), were being sold and haggled, while cars and carts attempted to squeeze through the dense crowd. But as we moved closer to the settlements the streets became increasingly empty, and protective netting once again became visible overhead.
When we had the chance to speak to a pair of soldiers stationed at a checkpoint, we learnt that most stationed in the area were simply undergoing their mandatory military service. Both were twenty years old – “We’re standing here with guns and you’re standing there holding cameras, yet we’re the same age”, he told us. For soldiers, Hebron is one of the most dangerous cities to be stationed in on the West Bank. Not only are they at risk of attacks from Palestinians – whether from stabbings or gunfire – but they must also deal with the aggression of hardline settlers. Legally, they have no directives to deal with settler violence, and soldiers must often risk their own well-being when dealing with clashes between the civil population of Palestine and Israeli settlers.
The chance to visit Hebron was an invaluable opportunity for all in the Travel Group to witness first-hand the complexities of the conflict. In our meeting with TIPH we learnt of the difficulties in operating within such a tense environment; by talking to Israeli soldiers we came to realise just how alike we are, and throughout the city we witnessed the everyday struggles that Palestinians endure.
By Henrik Nyström (Political science student in Uppsala; member of UF PR team)
Find out more about the Temporary International Presence in Hebron: www.tiph.org