“In the future I hope to see many more Jews living here in Hebron, and that forces like Hamas will become weaker and Israel will extend its sovereignty not only this city but also across the West Bank. I’m not sure this will happen tomorrow, but in the meantime we will stay here and resist.” Prophetic words in early January from Yishai Fleisher, spokesman for the Jewish settlements in Hebron, destined to become a reality through the peace plan announced in the same month by US president, Donald Trump.
The long-awaited US Deal of the Century to resolve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict sounds like it was written by the Hebron settler’s spokesman. Sure enough, the plan includes among its many points the demilitarisation of Hamas, and the transition of settlements and part of the West Bank under control of the Jewish State. A nightmare for the Palestinians already forced, according to the deputy mayor of Hebron, to live in a situation of extreme hardship among soldiers, checkpoints, expropriation of homes and businesses, with the fear of attacks by settlers, and arbitrary arrests.
Hebron, or al-Khalil in Arabic, is a city like no other. Since 1997 it has been divided into two sectors: H1, controlled by the Palestinian National Authority (PNA) and H2, under Israeli military control and with 800 Jewish settlers living there, protected by about 200 soldiers. Night and day, the military guard the 20 checkpoints scattered across the city centre, hindering Palestinian everyday life. They are unable to walk along streets defined as “sterile” and are forced to go by foot on others, rather than use their own transport. This is always done at the cost of often humiliating checks by Israeli soldiers, convinced they are there to guarantee peace for both Jews and Palestinians in a city where coexistence between the two communities does not seem possible. At least not since 25 February, 1994, when the extremist Jew Baruch Goldstein entered the Cave of the Patriarchs – where Abraham, Isaac and Jacob and their wives, Sarah, Rebecca and Leah, are said to be buried – and, wearing a military uniform, opened fire on Muslims gathered in prayer, killing 29 and injuring over one hundred. Goldstein in turn died at the sacred site, beaten by worshippers who survived the massacre, becoming a symbol of evil for Palestinians and a hero for more extremist Jews.
Since that day, Hebron has never been the same. Palestinians residing in the H2 zone have seen their world become more and more contained while gradually expanding for the settlers, albeit within the military borders of the very same area and in full violation of international laws. At least that is how it was until November 2019, when the US administration changed its position towards Israeli settlements, no longer considering them illegal and giving Netanyahu’s government the opportunity to announce a new colonial project in the heart of Hebron. Besides, international laws have never been much of a problem for the expansionist plans of the Jewish state, as Yishai Fleisher recalls, “There are two projects for building new homes: we hope that doing so will increase the number of Jews living in Hebron.” Wearing his kippah, the spokesman for the Hebron settlements speaks with the conviction of someone certain they are right and that they are fulfilling a task assigned to them by a power higher even than the state they answer to. “Our heritage was born in these lands, we have lived here for 3,000 years, despite many trying to send us away, and we will continue to do so. Our presence here is a victory against terrorism.”
The last statement is directed back to its accuser by the deputy mayor of Hebron. Sitting in a black chair, with the Palestinian flag and a portrait of Yasser Arafat behind him, Yousef al Jabari uses harsh words to describe the situation that Hebron’s Palestinian inhabitants endure. “The world is talking about terrorism, but if anyone wants to understand what terrorism really is, they should come here and see how the settlers behave towards us, how they attack people on a daily basis to force them to leave.” However, it seems the worst is yet to come. “In the past two months, settlers have been inspecting the old market and have launched marketing videos to encourage Jews to support their building projects,” continues the deputy mayor. “Their goal is to take the old city in its entirety, but we will oppose it through legal channels.” Since 2017, the historic center of Hebron has been a World Heritage Site so any architectural modification is prohibited, but this is not an issue for Israeli expansionist plans: “International laws mean nothing to them. We want peace, but Israel clearly doesn’t see it that way.”
Meanwhile, life in the city goes on, albeit at a different tempo depending on the area you are located in. Beyond the final H2 zone checkpoint, a completely different Hebron opens up: the sidewalks are full of people walking among fruit and vegetable stalls, shop stands are selling sweets, clothes, shoes and jewellery in a riot of colours, in a lively, carefree atmosphere. H2 feels the complete opposite. Noise from the few cars in the streets echoes between empty buildings, momentarily breaking the veil of silence and tension covering everything, forever keeping you in suspense and waiting for something terrible to happen. The construction of new settlements in the historic center and the content of the US Peace Plan seems to make it no longer a question of if, but when, risking an uprising by the Palestinian population, even reaching a new intifada, as some whisper in the streets of the old city.