Palestinian road in Hebron blocked off by the Israeli army in order to control Palestinian movement (Photo: Julian Cole Phillips)
August 5, 2012
Blast walls, barbed wire, and four thousand soldiers separate Hebron’s 120,000 Palestinians from its 400 Jews. As in similar situations of urban segregation, the close proximity of the two communities provides individuals with myriad opportunities to superficially transgress their boundaries. Israeli security forces and foreign visitors freely pass between Jewish and Palestinian zones; local civilians trade projectiles over—and occasionally cross—the dividing line. On a recent visit to the divided city, I pondered whether or not such acts were truly transgressive, or whether they enforced the power differential that underlies Hebron’s segregation.
Israeli civilians began settle in Hebron in the 1970s by occupying vacant (and often privately owned) land and structures. The Israeli government refused to evict the settlers, and eventually legalized their presence in five areas on the southeastern outskirts of the Old City. Since that time, a few hundred Jews have resided in three complexes at the edge of the medieval town and in scattered buildings on an adjacent hillside.
In order to protect this population, Israel retained control of Hebron’s Old City and surrounding neighborhoods (about 20% of the municipality) after withdrawing from most Palestinian urban centers in the mid-1990s. During the 1990s and early 2000s, Israeli authorities expelled Palestinian residents and storeowners from ash-Shuhada Street (which runs along to the four settlements and the Haram al-Ibrahimi) and placed barriers and checkpoints between the neighborhood and the rest of Hebron.
As an American, I was able to cross the checkpoints between Israeli and Palestinian zones with ease. Conversation in English or French served as a de-facto passport (I was never asked to present any documents). The exchanges were very brief:
- "Lo Ivrit. English?"
- "You are tourist?"
- "Go ahead."
- "Lo Ivrit. English?"
- "You have a knife?"
- "Go ahead."
On the Palestinian side of the line, residents volunteered to tell their stories of the Israeli occupation. A fruit vendor named Shadhi Sadar stopped me on the street and brought me to his family home, which is adjacent to two Israeli apartment complexes on ash-Shuhada Street. In polished English, he rattled off a register of injustices that settlers had perpetrated against his relatives. Most dramatically, he told me that his young nephew suffered from impaired vision after Israeli neighbors threw acid at him from their building. (Shadhi’s brother, Abad, gave similar testimony to the International Solidarity Movement this past February. Neither I nor the ISM met with the boy, so I cannot confirm the allegation.)
On the Israeli side of the line, no civilians approached me to ask about my presence in the neighborhood or to tell their stories. Most of my contacts were with border policemen. They were very guarded in our brief chats, although they were willing to answer factual questions about the situation. A guard stationed outside the Tombs of Jesse and Ruth readily identified the surrounding houses as either Israeli or Palestinian, but gave a noncommittal answer to a follow-up question about whether or not the neighbors 'got along.’
My freedom to enter and exit both sections of segregated Hebron was extremely unusual. Palestinians require permits to access to the neighborhoods with Jewish residents; Jewish-Israeli civilians may not enter Hebron’s Palestinian areas under an agreement between Israel and the Palestinian National Authority. When I wrote a leftist Israeli friend about my experience, she commented, "you’ve probably already seen more than me… my information comes from media, despite the close distance."
During my visit, I watched a Palestinian civilian cross into the Israeli zone under very different circumstances from my own. In the middle of the afternoon, I was standing outside the entrance to the Jewish section of the Haram al-Ibrahimi, which straddles the line between Israeli and Palestinian Hebron. I heard a commotion at the adjacent entrance to the Muslim sanctuary, and turned around to see a small group of Israeli border policemen dragging a screaming young Palestinian woman through a gate between the two zones. The policemen slammed her body against the exterior wall of a nearby trailer—possibly an accident—before forcing her inside. The woman continued to scream, apparently in pain and fear, as the officers held her on the trailer’s floor with her arms behind her back.
According to a pair of foreign observers from the Christian Peacemakers Teams, the young Palestinian had pepper-sprayed a border policewoman during a routine security check at the entrance to the Haram al-Ibrahimi. It is not clear what precipitated the altercation. An Israeli spokesperson reported that the woman had planned to stab the policewoman after incapacitating her with the spray. The allegation of premeditation is questionable, however, as the area around the Haram is too heavily patrolled for an assailant to realistically expect to escape arrest.
That afternoon may have marked the Palestinian woman’s only crossing into Jewish Hebron. Her journey was both literal and figurative. She physically entered a space that is usually reserved for Israelis and foreign tourists. And, briefly, she and the policewoman swapped conventional roles. For a split second, a uniformed Israeli felt pain and fear and a Palestinian civilian watched.
Ultimately, the Palestinian woman’s passage into the Israeli zone only enforced the Hebron’s segregation. She will likely spend time in prison for assaulting a member of the Israeli security forces, while the policemen who beat her during her arrest will not suffer any legal consequences. This will perpetrate the legal double standard for Israeli and Palestinian violence that parallels the geographic divide between the two populations.
My crossing between Hebron’s two zones also reinforced the racial-ethnic basis of the city’s division. On both sides of the line, my status as a foreign visitor privileged me above many local residents. Palestinians took the time to share their stories with me under the illusion that, as an American, I would somehow amplify their voices in a way that their neighbors could not. Israeli policemen provided me with information—their deployment calendars, the names of their hometowns—that I doubt they would have shared with Palestinian passerby.
Rather than battling this segregated hierarchy, I perpetrated it. I did not tell my Palestinian acquaintances that I did not possess the political or media influence to justify the time they devoted to our conversations. Nor did I reveal to the policemen that, unlike many American tourists, I was one of their ideological opponents.
For me, this was the most disturbing aspect of the situation in Hebron: the system of segregation is inescapable. Neither a Palestinian civilian nor a leftist visitor can cross the lines without normalizing them.