Among the Settlers in the Holy Land

An Orthodox Jewish-led tour of Hebron reveals the erasure of an identity

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Among the Settlers in the Holy Land
Illustration by Joanna Andreasson/Newlines

Midway through a two-week trip to Palestine in February 2011, I joined about 100 Orthodox Jewish tourists for a weekly tour of the Palestinian-controlled section of Hebron, a city 30 kilometers (19 miles) south of Jerusalem. To the approximately 86 Orthodox families living in central Hebron back then, the tours were an opportunity to assert a historic claim to one of the most religiously significant cities in the region and recruit particularly observant members of the Jewish diaspora to put down roots in one of the most violently contested settlement outposts that Israel has established since 1967. For the 120,000 Palestinian residents of Hebron, the ritual was yet another demonstration of Israeli military might and a weekly reminder of who was really in charge in the West Bank territories that were meant to be part of a future Palestinian state.

When we first got off the minibus in the center of the area known as H1 — the 80% of Hebron that has officially been under the administration of the Palestinian National Authority since 1967 — and began winding our way through the dark, stone alleys of the city’s souk (market), I felt like I could have been in any other Arab city. The cool, musty, labyrinthine lanes were lined with vendors selling spices; off-brand kids’ clothes; thick, patterned fleece blankets; flimsy mattresses; and a surprising abundance of pink and red Valentine’s Day junk that said “I love You” — in English. A chorus of sellers shouted out the prices of various goods at no one in particular. Radio and television blared from almost every store. Wizened men chatted conspiratorially over coffee and cigarettes, some absentmindedly fingering prayer beads.

As we approached the first Israeli military checkpoint, the crowds began to thin out and the market grew quiet. Above us, fencing strewn with detritus covered the alleys that were lined with rows of shuttered stalls, many of which had hand-drawn Jewish stars scrawled on them. A Palestinian boy, who looked 14 and had appointed himself our tour guide, told me the net above us was donated by the Israeli peace group B’Tselem to protect the Palestinian shopkeepers from waste — both human and artificial — thrown by settlers.

Behind a chain-link fence ringed with barbed wire, a group of Orthodox boys, who appeared to be the same age as my guide, were playing basketball on the roof of a former hospital, Beit Hadassah, in what was once the center of the old city. The hospital was annexed by a group of Israelis from the Kiryat Arba settlement on the outskirts of Hebron in the 1980s. In 1994, a messianic resident of that settlement killed 29 Palestinians kneeling in prayer in front of the burial site of Abraham and his descendants, which is known as the Tomb of the Patriarchs in Judaism and the Ibrahimi Mosque in Islam. Since 1997, the city and the tomb have been divided, with Jews restricted to the southwestern side and Muslims to the northeastern portion.

Our guide led us up a narrow staircase to an apartment in a seemingly abandoned building that overlooked the militarized boundary between H1 and H2, where Mohammad Sader lived with his wife and nine-month-old son. All the apartment windows facing the Israeli-controlled section of Hebron were boarded up, and the apartment was dark. Embroidered key chains, pouches, and keffiyeh (Arab headdress) were displayed for sale. A framed photograph of Saddam Hussein hung above the doorway. I quickly learned that his image is not uncommon in Palestinian shops or households; some still remember him not as a genocidal dictator but as a champion of their cause.

In halting but well-rehearsed English, Sader began chronicling the myriad ways the Israeli occupation of Hebron has terrorized his family and the city’s other Palestinian residents. His power supply is connected to the school’s, he explained, and is cut almost every day by the settlers. He boarded up the windows after settlers threw acid and chlorine at his wife and she was hospitalized, he said. Sader recounted all this in the matter-of-fact, rote manner of someone working in a job they are not particularly inspired by. When we said our goodbyes, he gave me a beaded Palestinian flag bracelet and an English-language documentary about the history of the conflict in Hebron and asked me if I’d like to buy any of the handmade items on the wall, all sewn personally by his wife. I paid him $10 for a woven pouch that says: “Women Can Do Anything.”

My tour guide dropped me at the barricades outside the Tel Rumeida neighborhood, which used to be the commercial heart of Hebron but is now home to a dwindling population of Palestinians who live under the direct control of the Israeli military and about 1,000 hardcore Israeli settlers who have slowly annexed properties that they claim were unfairly appropriated from their Jewish owners by the British Mandate government during World War I.

B’Tselem has called this segment of Hebron a “ghost town,” which is exactly what it looked like the day I visited in February 2011. A contingent of armed Israeli soldiers camped out on the roofs of nearby buildings behind coils of barbed wire, with their machine guns poking through tiny holes in the protective fence toward a few lone Palestinian vendors selling souvenirs in front of the Ibrahimi Mosque to tourists who would never come.

We walked through Shuhada Street, which used to be the main commercial thoroughfare of Hebron and is now the boundary of the Israel Defense Forces’ (IDF) so-called sterile zone, beyond which no Palestinians can pass without Israeli permission. Aside from a few young Orthodox students roaming aimlessly and three veiled women carrying groceries into their homes, Shuhada Street was lined with shuttered storefronts that looked like they had been abandoned in a rush by tenants who expected to return. Faded Arabic signs still hung outside some shops alongside spray-painted Jewish stars and Hebrew writing. The sound of competing muezzin echoed through the empty streets.

The first sign of life after Shuhada Street was an armed guard stationed on the roof of a school for settlers. A mural of an Orthodox student waving a machine gun in victory against the backdrop of the Old City was painted on a wall of the school’s courtyard. Below the mural were signs in English and Hebrew that read: “THESE BUILDINGS WERE CONSTRUCTED ON LAND PURCHASED BY THE HEBRON JEWISH COMMUNITY IN 1807. THIS LAND WAS STOLEN BY ARABS FOLLOWING THE MURDER OF 67 HEBRON JEWS IN 1929. WE DEMAND JUSTICE! RETURN OUR PROPERTY TO US.”

As we got closer to the Israeli section, similar posters lined the deserted streets. “The 1929 Riots: Arab Marauders slaughter Jews. The Community uprooted and destroyed,” read a caption underneath the word “Destruction.” And below the words, “Liberation, Return, Rebuilding,” another caption read, “1967: Liberation of Hebron and reestablishment of the Jewish community. The children have returned to their own border.”

But evidence of a competing narrative was equally present in the faded Arabic script written on the doors, signs, and discarded merchandise that lined the streets of Tel Rumeida.

We joined what looked like hundreds of Orthodox Jews from Eastern Europe and the U.S. outside a checkpoint guarded by three Israeli troops at the end of a street that used to be called Dr. Mahmoud Tamimi, according to its sign, which was also lined by the carcasses of hastily evacuated businesses with names like “Al Mamoun Pharmacy” and “Rest Coffee Otomatec” hanging askance. I asked the Brooklyn-born rabbi leading this English-speaking tour if we could join, and he reluctantly agreed. “We allow people like you to come on these.”

Before I crossed back into the Palestinian section — this time with six heavily armed IDF escorts — the rabbi gave a short history of the city beginning with what he called the destruction of “Upper Hevron”— as it is pronounced in Hebrew — in the 13th century and ending with the evacuation of the Jewish community by the British from Hebron in 1929, when 69 Jews were murdered by Palestinians. “This is the zoo,” he warned. “We don’t touch the animals. We don’t throw things. We don’t tap on windows.”

“Before Oslo we all used to shop here. ‘Salaam alaikum,’” the rabbi said, waving his hand to no one in particular. “But now peace has come and there is nothing that bothers them more than settlers who walk around like they own the place.”

And boy did we walk through the souk like we owned the place! Whenever the rabbi stopped to point out evidence that supported the historic Jewish claim to the city — he pointed out a menorah-like shape carved into the wall of a building and said it was evidence of Jewish cosmology, and a star etched into another building was a Kabbalah star — the IDF troops formed a circle around us and aimed their guns outwards. We were also trailed by a trio of international observers in white vests who were appointed after the second Intifada to monitor violence between Palestinians and the Jewish settlers in Hebron.

Yet another group of men in red and blue uniforms with cameras followed us. A few of the Americans I had met in Ramallah warned me that the latter group were there to keep tabs on activists and journalists who attended the tours. The rabbi said the men were part of an Israeli-funded NGO whose work was equivalent to the United Nations.

Palestinians darted into their houses as we passed or looked down as they hurriedly walked by. I smiled at a toddler standing in the doorway of a building with a shrewd seven-year-old boy who looked way too old for his age. The toddler started to run toward me, and the older boy held him back. The toddler tried again once his friend’s arm relaxed, but before he reached me a soldier guarding the rear of our group pivoted swiftly and pointed the gun straight at the toddler’s face until we moved on to the next stop on our tour.

“Hevron was a ghetto when we got here,” the rabbi told us while we stopped outside an olive factory that closed in 1990. “There was no Palestine until 1920. This was greater Palestine. … The older ones in Hevron were Kurdish. The fact is that 120,000 of the people here weren’t here 150 years ago. They were citizens of Jordan. The Ottoman Empire purposefully didn’t put a lot of resources into this city. King Hussein once bragged that the entire population of Hebron was controlled by 20 police officers. They came because of the municipal services we built,” he said.

The rabbi described one café we passed as a “hangout for disgusting-looking people who lead degenerate lives,” and said it was owned by a former Fatah member, referring to the Palestinian party and former guerrilla movement founded by Yasser Arafat.

As I was furiously taking notes, one of the Jewish attendees of the tour whispered at me: “You’re one of those leftists working for an NGO. You’re here to collect evidence of all the terrible things we do.”

“Everyone tells me I should see both sides of the story, so that’s what I’m trying to do,” I replied.

“You think they are telling the truth? You think there are two sides to this? You think the men who killed allies during World War II were innocent? You think Nazi Germans were innocent?”

Because so much of the tourism in Israel is routed through the modern, gleaming, Israeli-controlled streets of West Jerusalem, and I had stayed at the swank American Colony Hotel in East Jerusalem during my first trip to Palestinian territories, I decided to base myself in the Al-Bireh neighborhood of Ramallah and followed an occupation tourism itinerary that I cobbled together with the help of some young American and European expats I had met. They lived in Ramallah and worked in East Jerusalem because they viewed crossing the checkpoint with Palestinians everyday as an act of solidarity. During my first week in the West Bank, I traveled to villages that were supposed to be within the agreed-upon boundaries of a future Palestinian state but instead had been bisected by security walls and settlements that separated people from their families and jobs. The residents of at least half a dozen of the villages that have been most hurt by the construction of Israel’s wall gathered on the Palestinian side of the border every week in protest, along with young leftist Israeli allies from Tel Aviv and foreigners whose collective gaze was the only protection Palestinians had from the heavily armed IDF.

I joined one of these protests in the village of Billin, which had an atmosphere that was both violent and festive. We gathered in a room on Billin’s main street, and a girl in a white tank top and pants, who appeared to be in her 20s, warned us that those who got close to the wall would definitely be exposed to tear gas or covered in a smelly water known as skunk spray and could also be hit by rubber bullets depending on how violent things got. The level of violence was different each week, she explained.

I hung back with a group of women and children who waved flags and sang almost cheerfully. A group of apparently fearless young boys in their teens and 20s ran toward the wall and began throwing stones over it at the IDF troops stationed on the other side. The troops lobbed tear gas canisters and grenades back. I watched the unarmed Palestinian boys rush the soldiers, undeterred by the plumes of smoke wafting into the sky.

On a tour organized by a nonprofit tour group, the Israeli Committee Against Housing Demolition (ICAHD), I saw similar acts of resistance in Sheikh Jarrah, Silwan, and the other Palestinian neighborhoods of East Jerusalem that have battled the steady Israeli takeover.

As we wound our way through the manicured, carefully planned streets of West Jerusalem to Jabel Mukaber, a historically Palestinian neighborhood of East Jerusalem, our guide told us about the complicated legal, administrative, and military measures that Israel has enacted since it unilaterally annexed East Jerusalem to its territory, in contravention of international law, in 1967.

As Israel’s goal of maintaining a solid 70-30 demographic balance of Jewish to Palestinian residents of Jerusalem began to slip away in the 1970s, Israel began accelerating its settlement drive from the neighborhoods that Jewish residents had been expelled from in 1948, into the traditionally Palestinian quarters of East Jerusalem in the 1980s.

In East Jerusalem, as in parts of the West Bank, a restrictive planning regime applied by Israel makes it virtually impossible for Palestinians to obtain building permits, impeding the development of adequate housing, infrastructure, and livelihoods, according to the U.N. Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs.

While 35% of East Jerusalem has been allocated for Israeli settlements, according to the U.N., only 13% of East Jerusalem is zoned for Palestinian construction, and most of this area has already been built up.

“Demolitions, forced evictions, and the discriminatory and restrictive planning regime are elements of a coercive environment created by a range of Israeli practices and policies that pressures many Palestinians throughout the West Bank, including East Jerusalem, to leave certain areas and generates a risk of forcible transfer, which is a grave breach of the Fourth Geneva Convention,” a recent OCHA update said.

Though the government provides the legal and bureaucratic scaffolding for this effort, it is largely funded by members of the Jewish diaspora, like Irving Moskowitz, a recently deceased Jewish Bingo tycoon from Florida who funneled his money into religious nonprofits that bought property in contested areas of East Jerusalem and funded the construction of modern settlements like Maale Adumim.

We were greeted by a mockup for one of Moskowitz’s future projects at the base of a dirt hill in Jabel Mukaber, a traditionally Palestinian neighborhood of East Jerusalem that was cut in half after the 1967 war, with half of the families becoming citizens of Jerusalem and the other half registering with the Palestinian Authority.

The gleaming new residential and commercial complex depicted in the billboard showed people walking on sidewalks and through shopping malls. A map showed the proximity of historic East Jerusalem. But aside from a couple of modern family homes with Israeli settlers at the base of the hill and a sidewalk alongside that abruptly stops when you get to the Palestinian area up the hill, the rest of this neighborhood was a stark departure from the modern perks of West Jerusalem depicted in the advertisement. The Palestinian homes farther up the hill lacked sewage systems or paved roads and were littered with trash.

Our tour ended in Sheikh Jarrah, the East Jerusalem neighborhood that has long been a flashpoint of Israel’s battle for demographic dominance and ownership of the plot that was envisioned as the heart of the future Palestinian capital in East Jerusalem. In 1985, Moskowitz bought for $1 million Sheikh Jarrah’s iconic Shepherd Hotel that had been the headquarters of the famous Palestinian Nationalist Haj Amin al-Husseini during the British Mandate and announced plans to build 200 units of settler housing on the site. Though Moskowitz’s development plans have been consistently condemned by the U.S. and British governments and scaled down slightly since, in 2011 the hotel was finally demolished to make way for a 122-unit residential structure for Jewish residents of Sheikh Jarrah.

At the center of the dispute over Sheikh Jarrah are several properties that were given to Palestinian families who had fled their homes when Israel was created in 1948, an event that is known in the Arab world as the Nakba, or catastrophe. In 1956, 28 of these Palestinian families were resettled in Sheikh Jarrah, which was then under the administrative control of Jordan. Under an agreement Jordan reached with the U.N. Relief and Works Agency, or UNRWA, which is responsible for Palestinian Refugees, Jordan was supposed to finance the construction of housing units that would be rented to the displaced Palestinian families for three years, after which these families would become owners of the property. In exchange for the title deeds to their new homes in Sheikh Jarrah, the 28 Palestinian families agreed to forfeit their refugee status and consequently their right of return to the properties they were ejected from in 1948.

When the Six-Day War broke out more than a decade later in 1967, Jordan had yet to give the Palestinian residents of Sheikh Jarrah the documentation needed to prove their ownership of the homes. In 1972, two Jewish settler groups filed suits in the Israeli Supreme Court claiming ownership of the land based on deeds dating back to the Ottoman Empire. The court upheld the settlers’ claims in the 1990s, triggering a wave of evictions, home demolitions, and settlement construction in Sheikh Jarrah that continued over the next two decades.

Israel rarely allows Palestinians to build new homes in East Jerusalem and usually only grants permission for an extension. Alternatively, illegal construction in Palestinian neighborhoods is also exploited as a bargaining chip by Israeli officials to deny the provision of municipal services, the ICAHD guide told us.

Another common scenario is that a group of young Orthodox men, usually funded by U.S. based Jewish nonprofit groups, will buy one-fifth of a jointly owned Palestinian house from a family member in financial straits and use that as a legal basis to move in and make the Palestinian families’ lives miserable. The settlers throw stones, play loud music, and put cameras outside peoples’ homes and tape residents constantly.

The ICAHD tour ended at the home of one such Palestinian family in Sheikh Jarrah. The family patriarch told me that the family built an additional unit on their property for their adult son to live in but that it was taken over by 12 Israeli settlers between the ages of 14 and 18 because it was illegal. If a Palestinian family is constructing an illegal addition to their home, Israel often waits for the full project to be completed before fining the family for a construction violation and then charging them for the demolition and rubble removal. He said his grandson has been hospitalized three times because he was bitten by his neighbor’s attack dogs.

“I’m losing hope lately because they have taken everything around us,” one of the family members told me.

I asked if he ever spoke to the boys that lived so close by. “I can’t talk to them. They are the enemy. They are basically orphaned gangsters. They spit when they see me.”

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