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Violence and Misery Reign Supreme in the Divided City of Hebron

Hebron, the city of the Biblical patriarchs on the West Bank, plays a major role in the violence that has been plaguing Israel and the Palestinian Territories since late last year. Israeli settlers are talking about bloody terror, the Palestinians about a suffocating occupation. Two irreconcilable narratives from a divided city.


Illustrations JULES CALIS

“A lively, cheerful and talented girl,” Penina Aronoff (73) says about her granddaughter Hallel Yaffa Ariel. “She was so gracious and she could dance marvelously, but she was also very fond of books. Hallel was an excellent student; she was even accepted into a special program for gifted children at the Hebrew University in Jerusalem, which she would have started in September. She was very mature, even though she was only thirteen. ”

Aranoff sighs; her gaze wanders off to the Ariel family home’s garden, on the outskirts of the illegal Israeli settlement of Kiryat Arba, just east of Hebron. She still can’t comprehend how Hallel was killed six days ago. On the morning of June 30, seventeen-year-old Palestinian Muhammad Tarayrah climbed over the fence of the settlement, after which he entered Hallel’s room through a window. He fatally stabbed the sleeping girl several times, before he was shot dead by the hurriedly arrived security guards.


A floor tile damaged by a bullet in the bedroom, hung with child’s drawings and school certificates, is now the only remaining trace of the murder. In the living room Hallel’s parents are sitting shiva, the Jewish seven-day mourning period, in the clothes they were wearing at the time of her death, holding back their tears. Tables display food which has been brought along by a seemingly endless stream of visitors: relatives, friends, acquaintances, but also complete strangers from across the country. The killing has deeply touched Israel.

“The Arabs raise their children with hatred,” Aranoff says. “My granddaughter went to a kindergarten where they teach children to dance. In Arab kindergartens they teach children how to kill Jews. I have heard no Arab leader condemn this murder. The mother of this terrorist even called him a martyr on television.” The glorification of death, she says, is the reason that peace is impossible. “They desire a country without Jews, and are willing to sacrifice their children for it. How can you make peace with people who raise their children to become murderers?”

Jews and Palestinians lived relatively peacefully together for centuries in Hebron, which houses the tomb where according to tradition Abraham, among others, is buried, the patriarch of both Judaism and Islam. That harmony came to a bloody end in 1929, when 67 Jewish inhabitants were massacred during a Palestinian pogrom. All Jews who survived the massacre fled the city. Fifty years later, however, a group of Jews again settled the Old City, after already having founded Kiryat Arba eleven years earlier.


A period of fragile coexistence followed, until in 1994 a Jewish doctor from Kiryat Arba fatally shot 29 Palestinians who were praying at the Tomb of the Patriarchs, before being beaten to death with a fire-extinguisher. His grave lies on the outskirts of his home town, overlooking Hebron, in a park named after the extremist rabbi Meir Kahane. It is still being visited by loyal supporters, who have placed dozens of tiny stones on the grave – a Jewish custom of respect for the dead. The inscription on his grave: “To the holy Baruch Goldstein, who gave his life for the Jewish people, the Torah and the nation of Israel.”

To avoid further bloodshed, Israel closed off parts of the Old City to Palestinians, including the main market along Shuhada Street. In 1997 the city was even divided into two zones. H1, where about 170,000 Palestinians live, comprises eighty percent of Hebron and falls under the control of the Palestinian Authority. H2, under Israeli control, contains most of the Old City and extends eastward to Kiryat Arba, which has about eight thousand inhabitants. In H2, guarded by a large military presence, some 800 Jewish settlers live among more than 30,000 Palestinians, whose every day lives are plagued by checkpoints, fences, concrete barriers and roads that are forbidden to them.

Hebron is the only Palestinian city with an Israeli settlement within its borders, which helps te explain why the city is a notorious flashpoint. Not surprisingly, Hebron and its environs also play a major role in the recent wave of violence – which has plagued Israel since late last year and has cost the lives of more than thirty Israelis and two hundred Palestinians. The Israeli army estimates that over eighty attacks have been carried out or planned in the area since October, mostly by Palestinian youths. The violence, which seemed to be declining in recent months, appears to erupt again in this divided city.

Therefore, the Israeli government decided in early July to entirely or partially close off Hebron and several surrounding villages to Palestinian traffic. These closures, accompanied by military night raids, have severely limited the freedom of movement of hundreds of thousands of Palestinians and have put a heavy strain on the area’s economy. The measure has been strongly criticized by human rights organizations and the United Nations, who speak about the collective punishment of the Palestinian population.

The closures will not help stop the violence, says Issa Amro (35), head of Youth Against Settlements (YAS), a Hebron-based human rights organization. In the garden of his house-cum-media center in the H2 neighborhood of Tel Rumeida, he overlooks the settler homes, invariably adorned with Israeli flags and guarded by soldiers. “That aseventeen-year-old boy kills a thirteen-year-old girl, is a direct result of the occupation. As long as that continues, there will be violence. That’s why Hebron is so explosive: here we come into direct contact with an illegal occupation that humiliates and oppresses us, and which makes a normal life impossible.”


YAS promotes peaceful resistance, such as documenting human rights violations, but is often thwarted by the Israeli authorities. In early November, the Israeli army took over Amro’s house for a day because of ‘security reasons’. “For 28 hours I was held at gunpoint and aggressively questioned in my own living room.” Meanwhile, his media center was being emptied. “The soldiers took everything: computers,cameras, recording devices – worth over fifteen thousand dollars. They even stole my Palestinian flag.” The army still hasn’t told him why this happened, let alone that he has received something back.

“We are doing our best to encourage the youth here to peaceful protest, but the army is doing its utmost to disseminate a culture of violence,” says Amro. “Israel does not want Palestinians to resist peacefully and to show the world how human rights are violated here. So it intimidates the people who do that. That peaceful resistance is being made impossible, is one of the reasons why young people use violence, even though we try to teach them that this is counterproductive. We want to show them that there is hope, that we can truly change something with non-violence.”

Offering hope, Amro admits, is not easy in Hebron. “We are living under apartheid – and I do not mean that I can’t enter parts of my own home town, while settlers are allowed to roam freely there. Here, there are two sets of law for two peoples.” Settlers are subject to Israeli civil law, with its various legal protections, while Palestinians are subject to military courts, which have a reversed burden of proof. “So practically no one lifts a finger against extremely violent settlers, while we Palestinians are mercilessly punished. That disparity makes young people desperate and furious.”

On apartheid Noam Arnon (61), spokesman of the Jewish Community in Hebron, can be brief: “Jews are only allowed to live in a small ghetto – we can’t enter the rest of the city. So wé indeed live under apartheid,” he says in his office in Abraham Avinu, a settler neighborhood in the Old City. The adjacent Shuhada Street appears desolate. Doors of shops and homes have been welded shut by the army; the Palestinian residents have largely left. On the street you only see soldiers on guard and a handful of settlers. Palestinians are not allowed on most of the street; many residents are required to enter their homes through back doors or roofs. Signs adorn abandoned buildings: ‘This land was stolen by Arabs following the murder of 67 Hebron Jews in 1929.’


“Jews have lived here for millennia, until they were expelled by terrorists 68 years ago. We founded this city and we are now continuing that community. We bear a message of real peace, based on coexistence between Jews and Arabs in an Israeli state, “Arnon says. “Unfortunately, the Arab youth has been misled by the idea that there will be a Palestinian state that will improve their lives, and that pursuing jihad will help bring that state closer. That idea is being instilled in them by the Palestinian Authority, which proclaims in schools that Jews are subhuman beings who should not live here. Thát is the cause of this terror.”

Arnon thinks the Palestinian anger over Israeli violence is exaggerated: “Of course there is some violence coming from the Jewish side, which we always strongly condemn, but those incidents stand in no comparison to the amount of terror that is incited by Arab leaders. They do not want Jews here; it does not matter what we do.” The movement barriers are solely the fault of the Palestinians as well, says Uri Karzen (55), director general of the Jewish Community. “These restrictions are there due to terror, something Muslims in the world today seem to have a patent on. Once Arabs accept our presence in this country, we will receive them with open arms and any restrictions will disappear.”

To compel that acceptance, Karzen thinks the Israeli government should annex the West Bank, called Judea and Samaria by settlers. “Only under Israeli sovereignty the sowing of hatred in schools and mosques can be stopped. But since the Palestinian people are now filled with hatred, which unfortunately will not just disappear, the annexation will have to be done step by step. How long that process will take and how much blood will flow because of it, that’s for the Arabs to decide. Eventually they’ll realize that they are better off in Israel than in the rest of the Middle East – just look at what is happening there.”


A stone’s throw away from the office, past a heavily guarded checkpoint, lives Abed Elrahman, a 23-year-old English teacher and one of the few remaining Palestinian residents of Shuhada Street, with his wife, sisters and mother. The call of the Jewish Community to peaceful coexistence he calls disingenuous, pointing to the metal fence that covers his house’s courtyard. Many of his neighbors have constructed similar fencing. The busy souk, which runs parallel to Shuhada Street, is even entirely fenced off from above, in order to prevent settlers from throwing down garbage, rocks and other projectiles.


Jews are welcome in Hebron, he stresses, but not if they make life impossible for the Palestinians. “In this neighborhood the occupation has lead to the closure of more than eighteen hundred shops and the vacancy of about a thousand homes. While settlers can go anywhere they wish, Palestinians may only walk as far as my house. If I want to leave my home, I have to pass through a checkpoint guarded by aggressive soldiers, who might shoot you if you get too close. Even ambulances are routinely denied access to the street, so pregnant women have had to give birth at the checkpoint. They make it unbearable for us here, in the hope that we will leave.”

Thus, many Palestinians are forced to violence, says Elrahman. “People are fed up. What would you do if you repeatedly see your mother humiliated by occupiers? People go looking for justice themselves.” The teacher, who is employed by the Palestinian Authority, denies that violence is encouraged in school. “I try to teach my pupils not to waste their lives and try to make them see there’s a better future ahead – but there are times that I do not see that future myself.” If Israel continues expanding settlements, he says, that will suffocate an already oppressed population, with all the consequences that will entail. “If you put a bottle under sufficient pressure, it will inevitably explode – you can see that happening now.”


That feeling of suffocation is clearly observable in Bani Naim, a Palestinian village with about 25,000 residents, east of Hebron. After the murder of Hallel Ariel this village, where the perpetrator Muhammad Tarayrah lived, was hermetically sealed by the army. Vehicles are not allowed in or out; access roads are guarded by soldiers or barricaded with heaps of rubble. 2,700 residents have had their travel permits revoked, with which they earned a reasonable salary in Israel. The measures are a heavy blow to the economy of Bani Naim, a for poor village according to Palestinian standards.


“I’m principially against these attacks; my heart cries every day,” says Walid Tarayrah (55), a doctor at the small local hospital. In a bare building, decorated for the occasion as a venue for mourners, he and other members of the family commemorate the death of Muhammad(17), a cousin of his late son Youssef, who was killed March 14 in Kiryat Arba, after he tried ramming Israeli soldiers with his car. The walls are decorated with Fatah flags and posters honoring Muhammad’s ‘martyrdom’. “But one must realize that Israel is the cause of this violence, because it harshly oppresses Palestinian rights.”

Israel is punishing an entire village for the actions of an individual, he says. “Nobody here knew what Muhammad had planned and nobody here agrees with his action. Nonetheless, a week ago the army closed off all access roads and limited the supply of electricity, water, food, and other goods, causing the economy to collapse.” To make matters worse, he says, many families in the village were already poor due to the lack  of employment.

Beside him, Rajeh Tarayrah (50), Muhammad’s uncle, looks on stoically. He speaks on behalf of Muhammad’s father, who sits a few seats away, and whose grief-stricken gaze doesn’t leave the floor. A few days ago, the army informed him it was going to demolish the house that he built with the earnings of more than twenty years work. “Muhammad was a friendly boy,” says Rajeh Tarayrah. “He was in his final year of school and he wanted to become an engineer, but most of the time he spent working in a pastry shop. He wanted to earn money to help pay for the education of his eight siblings. That entire family will now become homeless, because of an act of which no one had knowledge.”

Whether his nephew is worthy of martyrdom, he does not dare to say: “Only Allah can judge that.” That does not mean he approves of Muhammad’s deed. On the contrary, he wants to tell the Ariel family: “We want nothing more than a future in which Israelis and Palestinians live together peacefully. We are against what Muhammad did, but he did so because the occupation is unbearable. I therefore want to ask the family to urge the Israeli government to end our suffering, so that these attacks will forever stop. Without a land of our own there can never be real peace.”

This article was previously published in Dutch on Mindshakes