Saturday, November 28, 2020

The view from Settlement Hill

By Ruairi Henchy - February 10, 2015
Section: [Main News]

Kiryat Arba. Photo by Ruairi Henchy.

The settlement of Kiryat Arba on the outskirts of Hebron grabbed headlines in Israel and further afield with the controversial visit of Israeli president Reuven Rivlin. Rivlin’s visit to Hebron and Kiryat Arba came just days after the Israeli government announced the construction of 450 new settlement units in the West Bank, including 102 units in Kiryat Arba. Rivlin was the first Israeli president to visit the small group of Israeli settlements in inner city Hebron since 1998. This visit and the new construction announcement represent a strong show of support from the Israeli government for the ongoing colonization of the area.

Hebron is a Palestinian city of around 160,000 people within the West Bank and nominally under the control of the Palestinian Authority. Part of the city center around Shuhada Street, however, has been colonized by approximately 600 Israeli settlers, with around 4,000 Israeli soldiers stationed there to maintain Israeli sovereignty over the area. This is one of the most notorious settlements in the entire West Bank, with frequent violent confrontations between armed settlers, Israeli soldiers and the local Palestinian population. Kiryat Arba, founded in 1971 on a hill overlooking Hebron, is a settlement of about 7,500 inhabitants.

President Rivlin visited Hebron on Monday February 2 to open the new Hebron Heritage Museum, but he also spent a few hours in nearby Kiryat Arba. The Hebron Fund describes the museum as “a multi-million dollar heritage museum highlighting the Jewish peoples’ eternal connection to the holy city in the Avraham Avinu (Abraham our Patriarch) building, located in the middle of the Jewish neighborhood of Hebron. The museum commemorates the victims of the 1929 massacre, in which 67 Jews were killed in an Arab terror attack.” 

The visit saw demonstrators from Israel proper arrive to Hebron as well, in protest at the president’s visit. The group held signs decrying the visit as granting legitimacy to the settlements, which are illegal under international law. Settlements like in Hebron and Kiryat Arba deep within the West Bank are widely considered as rendering a future Palestinian state impossible.  Many Israelis view these settlements as ruining the possibility of a two state solution and a lasting peace settlement with the Palestinians.

Malachi Levinger, the mayor of Kiryat Arba, said the visit was a big boost for the community. “This area of Kiryat Arba and Hevron was the first capital of Israel before Jerusalem. We call it the 'City of the Fathers’ because the three patriarchs Abraham, Isaac and Jacob lived here,” he said during an interview with the Palestine Monitor. 

“Reuven Rivlin understands and appreciates the connection between this place and the land of Israel. That is why he has always supported our community, as a member of the Knesset and now as President,” argued Levinger.

Mayor Levinger explained that life is not easy in Kiryat Arba, and that the community faces many challenges. “Even the fact that we are sitting here brings ideological challenges when you look out the window around us and you see some of the Arab neighbourhoods nearby,” he explained, beckoning towards some of the Palestinian houses on the other side of the barbed wire fences surrounding the settlement. 

“Most of these challenges are not from the perspective of safety, however. In fact, 95% of the residents here say they feel safe. The biggest challenges come from cuts to funding and public services. That’s why we’re trying to attract more people here so that we can raise more taxes for the municipality,” said the settlement’s mayor, who went on to detail plans for the settlement’s expansion. He explained the need to improve the quality of life for the settlements inhabitants and stressed the importance of attracting more settlers to Kiryat Arba by building more houses and facilities, but he bemoaned the opposition to their construction efforts from “leftists” within Israel proper.

The prospect that the local Palestinian population might be opposed to more of their land being appropriated doesn’t factor in for Mayor Levinger. “In fact, we don’t see many objections from Arabs. Maybe they don’t feel threatened or they don’t have the time,” he suggests. “Most of the objections come from the [Israeli] left. So the announcement by the government of the new housing units is a positive step, but we remain cautious that some groups in Israel will continue to resist our efforts. This is like a small war we have to fight here,” he quipped.

The Palestine Monitor also spoke with Eli Hirschhorn, the assistant to the mayor, about the status of Kiryat Arba as an illegal settlement under international law. “Everything we do here is legal under Israeli law. If you want to talk about whether Israel is breaking international law, this is another debate,” he said.

The Palestinians living in Hebron have rather different views on the settlements and the challenges they face in their daily lives. The Palestine Monitor spoke on the phone to Hashem Azzeh, a resident of Tel Rumeida near Shuhada Street in Hebron. Hashem explained that Tel Rumeida is next to the settlement of Ramat Yishai in the H2 area of Hebron. H1 is the portion of the city nominally under the control of the Palestinian Authority and, H2 is the roughly 20% of the city controlled by Israel.

“In H2 you have about 600 settlers, 45,000 Palestinians and 4,000 soldiers”, he said. Despite the fact that they are living under Israeli jurisdiction, the Christian and Muslim Palestinians in H2 do not have Israeli citizenship and are not afforded the same protection under the law as the Jewish settlers. “Every day the children here are attacked by the settlers on their way to school and nothing happens, every day there are human rights violations against us”, he claimed.

“Life is extremely difficult for the Palestinians in Hebron. In this area, around Shuhada Street, 1,830 shops have been closed down since 1994. There are electronic checkpoints everywhere – ambulances are not allowed to enter. It’s impossible.” he exclaimed. 

Hashem explained that in the last few days the restrictions and the harassment have become even more intense as the Israelis have deployed their elite Golani brigade troops in the city “These people in the Golani brigade they are very extreme, very extreme. Yesterday the soldiers kept me at the checkpoint for one hour checking me and checking me again, then eventually they said OK go to your house and they followed me home.”

Hashem says that the daily restrictions on his life from the Israeli checkpoint system cost him his job as an administrative worker with the UN. “I was working in an UNRWA clinic in Hebron, but with all the regulations it became too hard and eventually I lost my job. Even though I was working for the United Nations and my job was in Hebron, I could still be delayed for any length of time at the checkpoints around my home.”

The visit of the Israeli President to his neighbourhood this week hasn’t left him with much cause for cheer either. “Oh it was so crazy. They closed absolutely everything for it, and we couldn’t go out of the house,” he said. Apart from the extra security, the symbolism and significance of the visit in close succession with the new settlement announcement was not lost on Hashem.

“This is not a coincidence. This means that they want to continue what they have been doing here and to carry out what Netanyahu spoke about when he went to Paris,” he says in reference to Prime Minister Netanyahu’s call on French Jews to emigrate to Israel in the wake of the Charlie Hebdo attacks. “They want to continue bringing the Zionists from France and from everywhere to settle in the West Bank and I think they see Hebron as one of the solutions for them.” Hashem said. 

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