HEBRON: “THINK OF THE POOR SHOPKEEPERS” (Thursday 9 February)
If one is fortunate enough to be permitted to transit East Jerusalem, it is not too far from Ramallah to Hebron. The main road is used by settlers and it is therefore well-engineered and modern. One uses the Bethlehem by-pass that scoops out a section of Beit Jala before going through a tunnel.
The road also features the one part of the Wall that I saw that was not brutalist concrete, but finished with stone cladding and had trees planted alongside it. Civil engineering is ingeniously employed to separate people and even to stop them seeing each other in the Jerusalem area, but further south around Hebron things become more explicit.
Entering Palestinian authority Area A is illegal for Israeli citizens. While there are reasonable grounds for concern about personal security of Israelis, and the authorities might choose to advise against such travel, this is not what this is about. After all, settlers establishing illegal outposts in Palestinian territory gain military protection rather than being picked up and sent home. Israeli peace activists who travel to Palestinian areas to speak to people, or to protest about conditions, have been hauled up in court after their safe return to Israel. As with much else, the travel ban seems to be deliberately intended to keep people apart and prevent them from seeing each other as human beings with interests in common.
The Mayor of Hebron, Khaled Osaily, had a benevolent, avuncular manner and spoke with enthusiasm and charisma. What was perhaps most interesting about his remarks was how much he was thinking about normal local government matters, just like any other mayor of a medium-sized city on the planet. He was proud of Hebron’s achievements in e-government and the nearly paperless service at the municipality’s one-stop-shop, and of the sophisticated GIS mapping system and electronic water management scheme for Hebron. A technician showed us how the system works, including how pipes can be shut off; I thought for a moment that somewhere in Hebron, a person’s shower would suddenly run dry and they would never know that the cause was a visiting group of Brits at City Hall, but there is a 90-second failsafe on the mechanism. Hebron attracts large-scale aid funding because of its record at delivering projects within time and budget and making good use of them, and in the increasingly audited world of aid that makes it an attractive project for further aid projects.
Osaily has developed two huge prestige projects in Hebron as well – an indoor sports arena and a new (opening March 2012) Korea-Palestine centre. The South Korean government has funded a large modern conference centre with facilities for music, IT training and education, plus a school. While the school is in obvious use, the arena and the conference centre are in pristine condition, with little sign of being used.
I hope that a year from now they will be a bit rougher at the edges from intensive use by Hebronites and international visitors. Osaily was one of many Palestinians we met who would be much happier in a normal society, where he could get on with his American-style civic boosterism and local government modernisation, rather than in an international conflict zone, having to worry that the Israeli air force will at some point choose to bomb his conference centre to bits.
Osaily is probably the only mayor in the world who is physically prevented from visiting part of his own city. Despite his efforts at selling Palestinian Hebron as a go-ahead area for economic development and entrepreneurship, and its huge potential as a place for tourism and pilgrimage, it is best known as a rancid sink of religious extremism. It centres around the tomb of the patriarchs, the Ibrahimi mosque (temple of Abraham). A small group of a few hundred extremist settlers (compared to around 200,000 Hebron Palestinians) has occupied several blocks of the Old City, and in a notorious incident in 1994 a settler, Baruch Goldstein, entered the Ibrahimi mosque with automatic weapons and massacred 29 people. Some of the settlers still revere the memory of Goldstein, although the Israeli government tries to deter such obscene remembrance. But it is blatant that the interests of a few hundred people come first, every time, to the interests of the tens of thousands who try to make a living in the city.
The Ibrahimi mosque itself is not surprisingly under heavy security, but even here there is injustice in the architecture. Muslims and Christians, both locals and pilgrims, have the smaller part of the building while the small settler community has much the larger section (and is apparently demanding even more). The building has been rigidly divided since the Goldstein massacre with no access from one part to another. At the tomb of Abraham, patriarch of Jews, Christians and Muslims, each side has a window at which to pray or think, but there is a cloudy bulletproof glass screen standing between the windows, leaving one with a distorted image of an anonymous black-clad orthodox settler (or a shadowy, depersonalised Muslim if one looks at it the other way) on the other side. Metaphors do not come much crasser than this.
After the massacre, the Israeli authorities shut down a part of the Old City – previously a flourishing trading area and through route – to ‘sterilise’ the boundary between Palestinian and Jewish areas. The vegetable market was shut down and is still derelict, eighteen years later.
The sunken alleys of the Old City and its markets are eerily quiet.
On the edge of the settlement a Palestinian pottery and a souvenir shop bravely keep trading despite harassment from settlers and the army. I witnessed three unsavoury incidents in my short spell at this raw wound of a frontier – a settler trying to intimidate a Palestinian shopkeeper (in fairness, the Israeli police handled the situation responsibly), an Israeli soldier harassing the shopkeeper a bit later, and another Israeli soldier racially abusing our Palestinian guide (“you Arabs are donkeys, not people”). It is of course pointless for Palestinians to complain about such things.
This was another moment on the tour when I started channelling Margaret Thatcher. Her famous response to the 1981 riots “but think of the poor shopkeepers” has some resonance. Hebron Old City was full of people who had tried to make their livelihood by trading and selling, small entrepreneurs and family businesses, who had been put out of business by the overbearing hand of the military and the state of a country that is not their own. The violent reputation of Hebron, and the efforts the Israelis put into deterring people from going there, combine to strangle those businesses that do remain trading around the mosque.
It is a waste of Israeli resources to keep up the settlement at Hebron. In any peace agreement Hebron will inevitably be under full Palestinian control, and the arrogant, boorish (there is netting above the Arab market streets because settlers throw things at people as they go about their business) and violent behaviour of the settlers does no credit to Israel.
The Old Town is a place of rare beauty, but it is scarred with barbed wire and military outposts. Osaily wants to see it on the UNESCO World Heritage list, and so do I, but it is difficult given the lack of a proper sovereign government in the area and the damage the occupation is doing to the place.
It is tempting to despair about Hebron. There was much else that was horrible about the situation here which I have not described – go and see for yourself if you get the chance (and if you are allowed). It should be the industrial powerhouse of Palestine (it does surprisingly well under the circumstances) and its honey-coloured stone Old City should be thronged with visitors. The Old City should also – and here I perhaps am getting a bit idealistic – be a mixed community. Jews lived in peace in Hebron for many years, before inefficient pre-nationalist Ottoman tolerance deteriorated into competing nationalisms in the 1920s. There was a vicious pogrom here in 1929, and after that and the 1994 murders – and a continuing cacophony of violence and provocation – it is hard to see how we might get from here to there. But I hope that one day the hate and despair will pass, and that Hebron will be a post-nationalist city in which Palestinians, and Jews who remain safely here under Palestinian government, happily scuff up the floors of Mayor Osaily’s indoor arena.