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Where silence reigns - Israel's separation policy and forced eviction of Palestinians from the center of Hebron

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Introduction

Hebron is the second largest city in the West Bank and the largest in the southern West Bank. It is the only Palestinian city with an Israeli settlement in the middle of it.(1) The Israeli settlement in Hebron is concentrated in and around the Old City, which traditionally served as the commercial center for the entire southern West Bank.

For years, Israel has severely oppressed Palestinians living in the center of the city. For example, the authorities have created a long strip of land that partitions the city into southern and northern sections and is forbidden to Palestinian vehicles. Parts of the strip are also closed to Palestinian pedestrians. The settlers, on the other hand, are allowed to move about freely in these areas. In the areas open to Palestinian movement, passersby are subject to repeated detention and humiliating inspections every step of the way. Since the massacre of Palestinian worshipers in the Tomb of the Patriarchs committed by the settler Baruch Goldstein in 1994, the Israeli military commander has ordered the closing of many Palestinian-owned shops, which provided a source of livelihood for thousands of persons. To aggravate matters, the defense establishment has knowingly and routinely permitted countless acts of settler violence against Palestinians in the city.

These restrictions, prohibitions, and omissions have expropriated the City Center from its Palestinian residents and destroyed it economically. Most of the shops in this area have been forced to close. Having no option, many families have left their homes in the City Center. Israel's ongoing restrictions and prohibitions make it impossible for Palestinians to renovate and rejuvenate the area.

This report does not deal with all of Hebron, or even with those parts of the city that Israel directly controls. The report concentrates on the City Center, the area comprising the Old City and the Qasbah, in which most of the settlement points are established, in which Israel imposes the most serious restrictions on Palestinian movement - an area that Palestinians have abandoned more than any other. What was once the vibrant heart of Hebron has become a ghost town.(2)

Palestinians have left the area primarily as a condemnable result of the "separation policy" Israel has implemented there. Oppression of the Palestinians in the City Center is part of this policy, which is openly aimed at protecting Israeli settlers in Hebron by and legally separating them, physically and legally, from the Palestinian residents. This objective is clear from the reasons the army gave for rejecting the suggestion of external Israeli security experts to protect the settlers without a physical separation them, a suggestion that was intended to enable rehabilitation of the Palestinian fabric of life in the city.(3) The army responded to the suggestion as follows:

It seems that the basis of the opinion [of the security experts}, whereby it is possible for Palestinians to live a normal life in the area alongside that of Israelis, is inconsistent with the principle of separation that underlies the security forces' plan to safeguard the space...

Would anyone think it possible to protect the Jewish residents in the area of the Jewish neighborhoods, when these neighborhoods are isolated from each other, and when there is an area in which Palestinians live a regular and routine life? How is it possible to prevent friction in the space encompassed by these neighborhoods when on their doorstep (and in most cases, even under or alongside them) Palestinian commerce is taking place?(4)

A senior official in the defense establishment described Israel's policy on the center of Hebron as "a permanent process of dispossessing Arabs to increase the Jewish territory."(5) The report describes in detail this process of dispossession.

The first chapter briefly describes the history of settlement in Hebron and control of the city over the years. The second chapter presents the findings of a survey conducted in preparation of this report that illustrates the degree to which Palestinians have left the areas adjacent to the settlements in the city. These figures include the apartments that became vacant and the shops that closed, either following an army order or as a result of Israel's policy in the city.

This policy is discussed in the following three chapters, which deal with the factors that have led to Palestinians leaving the areas near the settlements in Hebron. The factors are not all inclusive, but they provide the main explanation for Palestinians leaving the City Center.

Chapter Three discusses Israel's severe restrictions on Palestinian movement in the city, including the continuing curfew it imposed in the parts of the city under its control during the first years of the second intifada, and the closing of streets in the City Center to Palestinian pedestrians and vehicles. The chapter then discusses the large-scale closing of Palestinian businesses in areas near the settlement points, and the death blow it dealt to Hebron's commercial center in the first years of the second intifada.

Chapter Four discusses the refusal of the Israeli authorities to enforce the law against settlers who injure Palestinians and damage their property. Chapter Five deals with violence, abuse, and humiliation of Palestinians by police officers and soldiers, the seizure of Palestinian houses for operational purposes, and the searches, delays, and harassment by the security forces. Chapter Six examines Israel's policy from the perspective of international humanitarian law, international human rights law, and Israeli law. The report ends with conclusions and recommendations.

Notes:

(1) Other than East Jerusalem, which Israel annexed immediately following the occupation, in 1967.

(2) See below, "The City Center."

(3) The Association for Civil Rights in Israel attached the suggestions to its letter of 27 August 2006 to the attorney general and the defense minister.

(4) Letter of 31 January 2007 from Harel Weinberg, legal advisor for the West Bank, to Shai Nitzan, of the State Attorney's Office.

(5) Amos Harel, "Report to Sharon and Ben Eliezer recommending enforcing the law on Hebron settlers," Ha'aretz, 11 August 2002.