Life under siege in a divided city
Palestinian families driven from homes by settlers in
'cleansing' of Hebron in the West Bank
Chris McGreal in Tel Rumeida, Hebron
Friday December 9, 2005
Visitors to the Abu Aishe family in the heart of the
biblical and bitterly-disputed city of Hebron either
require an army escort to the front of the steel mesh
cage protecting the three-storey home or risk assault
by a barrage of stones, rotting food and shouts of
"Death to Arabs" from the neighbours.
Three generations of the Abu Aishe family are the last
Arabs living in their street, defiantly staying on in
the face of what international monitors have described
as the "cleansing" of parts of Hebron by messianic
Jews, with the complicity of the Israeli army, that
has driven thousands of people from their homes and
businesses. Over recent years, parts of Hebron were
all but emptied of Palestinians as their shops were
sealed and the streets closed off.
"The neighbours all left," said Reem Abu Aishe, a
mother of six children, who lives in the midst of the
small but growing settler enclave of Tel Rumeida which
some Jews claim as the original city of Abraham and
therefore the world's oldest Jewish settlement.
"They couldn't stand the threats and the constant
harassment. Their children were attacked, their
windows were smashed. Sometimes the Jews even fired
bullets into their houses. So they left and the Jews
took their houses," she said. "The settlers don't want
any Arabs in the area. They think it is their
neighbourhood. We don't dare leave the house empty.
Someone always has to stay. There is a big risk that
any time the settlers see we have left the house they
will break into it. One time they came in the back
Palestinian and Israeli communities live closer in
Hebron - sometimes in the same street - than anywhere
in the occupied territories outside Jerusalem. About
500 Jews live in the heart of the city among 130,000
Palestinians. A short walk away is the settlement of
Kiryat Arba, home to another 6,000 Israelis and the
crucible of support for the Kach organisation, which
is banned in Israel as a terrorist group.
The relationship has always been uneasy. The settlers
arrived after the 1967 Israeli occupation of the city,
proclaiming the revival of a Jewish presence driven
out by the Arab massacre of 66 Jews in 1929. For the
Palestinians, there is the more recent memory of the
slaughter of 29 Muslims at prayer in Hebron by an
ultra-nationalist Jewish doctor, Baruch Goldstein in
The city was divided in 1997 when the Palestinians
took over administration of 80% of Hebron while the
Israeli military retained authority in the central
market and old city. But the Israeli area was still
home to four times as many Palestinians as Jews,
regarded as interlopers by many settlers who set about
pushing the Palestinians from their businesses and
homes, often with the assistance of the military and
approval of Israeli officials.
In recent years, more than half of the 2,500
Palestinians who lived in Hebron's old city have been
driven out and many hundreds more have been forced out
on the edge of the settlements. Palestinians are now
barred from the main commercial road, Shuhada street,
where shops are boarded up. Elsewhere they are
permitted only to walk and not drive. The UN has
counted 101 military roadblocks and checkpoints
controlling the movement of Palestinians in central
The army says the measures are the result of a
"complex reality" created by the Palestinian intifada
and more than 30 suicide bombers from Hebron, and a
climate of anger fuelled by killings such as a
Palestinian sniper shooting a Jewish baby and a mob of
settlers murdering a 14-year-old Arab girl.
The settlers call the Palestinians leaving "a gift
from heaven". But last year Jan Kristensen, a former
lieutenant colonel in the Norwegian army who headed
the European monitoring team in Hebron, said it had
more to do with a strategy by the army and settlers to
drive Palestinians out of the old city.
"More and more people are leaving the area and it is
effectively being emptied. The settlers' activities,
which are aimed at causing the Palestinians to leave,
and the army's activities, which impose severe
restrictions, create an irreversible reality," he told
Haaretz newspaper. "The settlers go out almost every
night and attack those who live near them. They break
windows, cause damage and effectively force the
Palestinians to leave the area. In a sense, cleansing
is being carried out."
In Tel Rumeida, the Abu Aishes's immediate neighbours
all left in fear. A carpet of broken glass from
bottles thrown at the Abu Aishe home leads up to the
door. On the other side of the street live settler
families. When a new block opened earlier this year,
the army locked the Abu Aishe family, including the
71-year-old grandfather, into one room for the entire
day on the grounds they were a "terrorist risk".
"My grandfather refuses to leave," said Raja, the
16-year-old daughter. "He said he would rather die in
the house that has been his life than leave."
But staying is not easy. Raja runs a gauntlet of abuse
and violence on her way to Qurtuba girls school."They
throw stones, water and old food at us. Sometimes the
soldiers try and protect us but they are not always
Raja said she and her brothers had all been injured,
including four-year-old Walid, whose arm was
Qurtuba school has become a rallying point for the
settlers who sometimes block the entrance and have
ripped off doors. A woman standing outside tells
mothers bringing their children to the school: "Go to
Auschwitz and take all the Arabs with you." Someone
hung a sign outside: "Gas the Arabs."
David Wilder, a spokesman for the Jewish settlers in
central Hebron, denied Palestinians were being
pressured to leave. "We have not in the past, and I
don't think we will be able to in the near future,
been able to force anybody to leave. Any Arabs who
leave do so of their own free will. We haven't pushed
anybody out. Neither has the army as far as I know.
People leave because they want to leave. For whatever
reason," he said.
In recent weeks, the Israeli military has moved in new
gates between the Jewish and Palestinian
neighbourhoods, the army says, to improve the lives of
Arabs. The Palestinians are suspicious, believing it
is marking out an area for the further expansion of
Jewish settlements. The UN describes the gates as
"completing the encirclement of the Old Suq area ...
Once the centre of Hebron's commercial and cultural
life, the Old Suq is now virtually deserted."
Imad Hamdan, head of the Hebron Rehabilitation
Committee, which wants to limit the expansion of
Jewish settlements, said: "They are working to get us
out. It is a long-term goal. They are patient but that
is their goal."
Mr Wilder does not deny it, and he warns that if Ariel
Sharon tries to remove more West Bank settlements it
could provide the pretext for the Jews of Hebron to
achieve their goal. "All of those people who seem to
be in favour of these unilateral expulsions, they
should have reason to be worried because expulsion is
a two-way street and if it's permissible to expel Jews
in the name of peace then it's also permissible to
expel others in the name of peace."
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