Tuesday, June 05, 2007
Hebron's settler movement
Every Saturday evening at around 5 p.m., Israeli soldiers lead the way in an unusual tour of Hebron’s Old City.
Just before the sun sets, Jewish settlers walk the winding alleyways, visiting sites in the Old City of Hebron -- areas that are normally the preserve of the city’s Palestinian residents.
The streets are largely empty. Most of the shops have closed for the day. But from behind barred windows and cracked open doorways, Palestinian neighbors watch with hostile stares.
Hebron has become a flashpoint in the controversial movement by Jewish settlers to inhabit the territory occupied by Israel in the 1967 war.
Hebron's first settlers attempted just months after the war's end. Under the leadership of Rabbi Moshe Levinger, a small group of families arranged to spend the Passover holiday at the Park Hotel in Hebron owned by Palestinian Yusra al-Qawasmi.
At first they were happy to have paying guests, recalls the Yusra, now a 70-year old grandmother.
"After a week, they brought in some desks. They said they wanted to have a school here." She says gesturing to the empty rooms of the now shuttered Park Hotel. "We told them: We accept you here as visitors. This is not your house. There will be no school. We didn’t understand what a settlement was. We didn’t understand that they were coming to occupy the place."
The settlers were forced to leave and transferred to a nearby military compound that eventually became the settlement of Kiryat Arba, next to Hebron. But the door had been opened.
A few days after the Park Hotel incident, a group of settlers under cover of night slipped into Beit Hadassah - an abandoned hospital in heart of Hebron’s Old City. Despite protests from the Israeli government and military, the settlers were not removed. They have lived there ever since.
For those who settled in Hebron, like Noam Arnon, the 1967 war was more than a military victory: It was a divine act.
"This is the minute when the people of Israel, the residents of the state of Israel first really met with their history, really met the homeland and met the opportunity to reunite with their history and faith."
Muslims and Jews have lived together in Hebron for centuries. The claim to Hebron for both communities is the Tomb of Abraham -- patriarch of both Judaism and Islam. It is now divided for both faiths into a mosque and synagogue. But neither community is happy.
"What the Arabs say is the Jews penetrated to this country and this is a colonialist settlement," says Noam Arnon. "What the Jewish people say is: No, sir! We have the right for this country because our fore fathers were here thousands of years ago and this is our land this is our country this is our city this is the place of our history."
Today, hundreds of Israeli soldiers are here to safeguard the settlers, effectively separating them from the Palestinians. Hebron’s Old City has paid a high price.
Under Israeli control, according to human rights group B'Tselem, 42 percent of the houses have been emptied out. Seventy seven percent of the business shut down. Twenty seven percent of those closed under military orders.
Khaled al-Qawasmi, Yusra’s son, heads the Palestinian council to restore Hebron's old city. He says Israel's policy of separation is forcing Palestinians out in favor of the settlers' claims.
"They have to be checked when they go to their homes, when the come back, when they go to school," He says as residents behind him wait at a military checkpoint. "They are not pushing them out. They are making it harder for them to live in the area."
Streets leading to settler neighborhoods are barred to Palestinian traffic. Only residents with special permits are allowed through. Palestinian homes adjoining settler areas have been taken over by the military. The result: A tense and eerie calm. Settlers say it is the only way to guarantee security.
"The army decided to protect this small Jewish community," explains Noam Arnon. "So that the stores in the street would not bring thousands of people and among them some terrorists can hide."
Harrassment on both sides is routine. Qawasmi shows us where Jewish settlers live above as Palestinians shop below. A metal netting has been stretched across the marketplace but it sags in places, weighed down by garbage and rotting food.
"We put metal nets to protect the Palestinians on the street from the thing the settlers are throwing on them." Khaled gestures down the street: "Trash, sometimes stones, sometimes dirty water, juice and eggs."
Ironically, the Hebrew name for the city "Hebron" and the Arabic name for the town "Al-Khalil" share the same linguistic root: The word for friend.
But Hebron’s streets are anything but friendly. As we followed the Jewish tour group through the empty alleyways, a small rock came whizzing down from above.
It made a terrific smacking noise as it hit the cheek of Ramzi, a young Palestinian boy who had eagerly offered to carry our camera gear. He looked up surprised holding his jaw where a large red welt was beginning to bloom.
The soldiers bristled and pointed to a young Palestinian family peering out from the bars of their home. But nobody claimed responsibility.
"This is my house!" the father shouted down to the soldiers, holding his son in his arms. "You can’t come in here."
The soldiers looked at each other and decided to ignore the incident, ushering the tour group forward. A few girls in the crowd with American accents giggled as they watched Ramzi stare up at his Palestinian neighbors, perplexed.
-- From Atika Shubert, CNN International Correspondent
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