If there’s one place in all of the West Bank that symbolises the Palestinian battle against Israeli settlements, it’s the city of Hebron.
There, some 700 Israeli settlers—and the soldiers that protect them—do their best to make life intolerable for Palestinians in the city centre.
Israeli plans to build a new settlement bloc—or “neighbourhood”—as it calls it, will make this worse.
Construction will double Hebron’s settler population, demolish Hebron’s old city market for new settlement buildings, and impose suffocating restrictions on those who stay.
“The Israeli government is strengthening apartheid policies in our city,” Hebron-based Palestinian activist Issa Amro told Socialist Worker.
“It will divide the Palestinian neighbourhoods. It destroys hope for peace in the future.”
Israel imposes a system of separation that cuts off large chunks of Hebron to Palestinians. Soldiers are a constant presence. They often watch on as settlers attack Palestinians.
And they question, search and arrest Palestinians—including children—on the flimsiest of pretexts.
Almost every day or night there is a raid on a Palestinian home or neighbourhood. It’s driven many to leave.
Issa has been repeatedly arrested, beaten, threatened and shot at by soldiers and settlers—and faces prison for organising non-violent protests.
“You are not safe in your house,” Issa said. “You don’t feel safe to send your children to school.”
On top of the “violent occupation” Palestinian residents “see restrictions of our movements due to checkpoints and barriers”.
“Not even ambulances can move without restrictions,” said Issa.
To move around the city centre you have to pass through at least one of 86 checkpoints or barriers.
Each comes with a lengthy and degrading inspection by Israeli soldiers who can hold up or close down checkpoints without warning.
The system has had a devastating effect on Hebron’s economy. Shuhada Street—once a busy market centre—is now a ghost town. A fifth of people in Hebron are unemployed. The new settlement will make this worse too.
“Economically it’s a really big attack,” said Issa. “It will cause shops to close, affecting future investment.”
There have already been protests in Hebron against the new settlement.
Youth Against Settlements, which Issa founded, will keep organising non-violent direct actions and supporting Palestinians to stay in their homes. Issa also asked for solidarity from abroad.
“We want British activists to increase awareness of what is happening in Palestine,” he said. “We want people in Britain to talk to their officials and politicians.
“And we want Britain to not accept any products or investments from companies in the settlements.”
‘Trump is going after our identity as Palestinians’
Issa said that what’s going on in Hebron is a very intense example of something happening all over the West Bank and East Jerusalem.
“I don’t see it as just being about Hebron,” he said. “The Israeli government nowadays is trying to make ‘facts on the ground’—to make the occupation permanent.”
“Facts on the ground” is what Israel calls the land it has robbed from Palestinians through its settlement building.
Some 700,000 Israelis live in settlements built after Israel invaded and occupied East Jerusalem and the West Bank in 1967. Most essentially act as commuter towns to Israeli cities.
Palestinians struggle to pass near them or cross into Israel.
Yet settlement residents can pass seamlessly between the two on Israeli-only motorways.
The idea is that the settlements are so much part of Israel that they and the land surrounding them have to be annexed.
They also give Israel a reason to demand military control of any future Palestinian state to ensure their security.
Donald Trump’s government officially approved of Israel’s settlements in late November. Until then they were considered illegal.
Israel’s decision to expand in Hebron followed shortly after.
“We are suffering more after Trump started his foreign policy biased to the very right wing Israeli ideology,” said Issa.
“Trump is going after our identity as Palestinians.”
Hebron’s history of repression
In 1994, Israeli settler Baruch Goldstein walked into Hebron’s Ibrahimi mosque.
As 800 Palestinians kneeled down to pray, he threw a grenade into the hall where they gathered, then opened fire with an assault rifle.
Goldstein killed 29 Palestinians. Five more were killed in riots that followed.
In the wake of the massacre, Israel closed down Hebron’s Shuhada Street for Palestinians, allowing access only to Israelis and tourists.
In 1997, Israel split Hebron into two zones. H1 is under the limited control of the Palestinian authority.
Israel’s military controls H2—the centre of Hebron. Settlers began trying to occupy the centre of Hebron after Israel invaded the West Bank in 1967.
Issa said Israel uses settlers’ claim to Hebron to “remove the Palestinian identity and the history of the city of Hebron”.
“They have even changed the names of the streets from Arabic to Hebrew,” he added.
In the past, Jews and Muslims lived together peacefully in Hebron.
That broke down after attempts to establish Israel as an exclusively Jewish state in Palestine.
For Issa, any solution has to involve Arabs and Jews living as equals.
“We don’t see any problems with Jews living in Palestine,” he said. “But we don’t want them as occupiers.”