If you want to get some idea of the complex political geography of the Israeli occupied territories, consider taking a ride on bus no. 106 from Jerusalem’s Central Bus Station. For a fare of 16.30 NIS (about US$5) the bus will take you on an hour-long ride to the Jewish sector of the town of Hebron, about 30 km to the south of Jerusalem. You will pass the shopping malls and apartment buildings of suburban Jerusalem, then along a newly paved highway past olive groves and fields of grape vines, villages dominated by tall minarets, and hilltop settlements with modern apartment buildings in neatly planned rows. But there is a lot more to Bus 106 and its route than meets the eye.
I rode Bus 106 on a Monday morning during a recent visit to Israel. Soon after boarding the 11.45 am bus, I noticed that the view through the windows wasn’t very clear. This turned out to be a result of the fact that the bus windows were made of double-paned bulletproof glass. About half of my fellow passengers were soldiers, most of them apparently on leave and their way home but still carrying very large weapons.
My first clue that the road to Hebron is no ordinary rural highway was the large wall that appeared alongside the road shortly after we left Jerusalem. It began as a concrete barrier, about 3 meters high, separated from the main highway by a service road. Then the wall became higher, perhaps 6 meters tall, its top half slanted towards the highway. I discovered from my map that this is the section of the highway passes the predominantly Palestinian town of Bethlehem, and the wall is to protect traffic against projectiles hurled at the passing vehicles, apparently a common occurrence in this area.
I also learned from the map that this part of the road — in fact most of the road to Hebron — is an Israeli-only road, with access forbidden to Palestinians. It heads south and west of Jerusalem, past Palestinian villages and towns, but does not provide access to any of them. Indeed, at points where the new highway has cut across pre-existing local access roads, these roads have been blocked off with large concrete blocks.
This is a strange landscape indeed; in most parts of the world, rural highways have intersections or interchanges to serve local population centers, not barriers to cut them off. But this is the Israeli-occupied West Bank, and the route taken by bus no.106 provides a fairly good idea of the political geography crafted by Israel since its occupation of the area in 1967.
The highway does not bypass the Jewish settlements that have been built in the area since 1967. Our bus detoured on several occasions to stop at some of these settlements, in each case passing guard posts and checkpoints before entering. At each stop, soldiers with their rifles and women with shopping bags left the bus, heading to their homes in the settlements.
The last Jewish settlement before Hebron is Kiryat Arba; here bus no. 106 left the main highway. With a population of some 6,000 people, Kiryat Arba is almost a small town. We passed low-rise apartment buildings, several shops, a new building under construction, a synagogue, and a small park where women sat on benches watching their children at play on slides and swings.
Hebron itself is one of the largest towns in the occupied West Bank. It is a market and commercial center, and about 150,000 Palestinians and about 530 Jews live here. The town is also home to a site revered by Jews, Christians, and Muslims. It is here that the prophet Abraham, the father of all three religions, is reputed to be buried, together with his sons Isaac and Jacob and their wives.
In 1968, the year after Israel captured the West Bank in the Six Day War, a group of Jews, intent on re-establishing a Jewish presence in what they regarded as an important historic Jewish place, rented out a Hebron hotel from its Arab owners to celebrate Passover. Two days later, the leader of the group announced that they would refuse to leave. After some vacillation, the Israeli government allowed the group to establish the settlement of Kiryat Arba just outside Hebron. Twelve years later, the government allowed the establishment of several Jewish enclaves in the city, making it the only Palestinian city on the West Bank with such enclaves.
But the picture gets even more complicated. In 1997 under the Hebron Agreement, the city was divided into an area under Palestinian control (H1,) an area under Israeli security control and Palestinian civilian control (H2,) In 2001, as tensions rose during the Second Intifada, the Israeli Defence Force re-entered area H1, and in 2003 began building fortified posts in Palestinian neighborhoods overlooking Jewish areas.
Since then, the geography of Hebron has changed markedly, particularly in the H2 zone, the area in which the Jewish settlers live, and which I visited. In five years, some 25,000 Arab residents have been cleared from this zone, largely in an effort to secure access and security for the area’s new Jewish residents.
I saw plenty of evidence of this. My journey on Bus 106 through part of Hebron took me past abandoned, demolished, and half-demolished buildings, apparently former Palestinian homes and shops, now lining a corridor linking the Jewish settlers of Hebron with Kiryat Arba and the Israeli-only highway to Jerusalem.
In an article published two months before my Hebron visit, Peruvian writer Maria Vargas Llosa described the area:
[Hebron’s] centuries-old market, which was once as multi-coloured, varied and bustling as that of Jerusalem, is now empty and the doors of all the shops are sealed. Traveling around, you feel in limbo. So too when you walk through the surrounding deserted streets, with shopfronts shuttered with metal sheets and on whose roofs you glimpse military posts. The walls of this entire semi-empty neighbourhood are filled with racist inscriptions: “Death to the Arabs”.
In the Tel Rumeida neighbourhood alone, where there is a settlement of the same name, barely 50 out of 500 Arab families remain.
The extraordinary thing is that they haven’t already gone, subjected as they are to systematic and ferocious harassment by settlers, who stone them, throw rubbish and excrement at their houses, invade and destroy their homes, and attack their children when they return from school, to the absolute indifference of Israeli soldiers who witness these atrocities.
It is important to add here that the violence has not all come from one side; the Jewish settlement has been the object of repeated attacks by Palestinians as well
(For more information on the depopulation of Palestinian parts of Hebron, see the website of B’Tselem – The Israeli Information Center for Human Rights in the Occupied Territories)
The geography of transportation has changed too, at least for the area’s Palestinian residents. A map published in 2005 by the UNCHA shows that what was 15-minute journey between Hebron and a village to its east in 2000 now takes 40 minutes. This is thanks to a circuitous 7 km detour designed to keep Palestinian traffic away from Israeli settlements in Kiryat Arba and Hebron. This detour, and many others like it throughout the West Bank, are a response to increased Palestinian attacks on Israelis during and since the Second Intifada, and have profoundly changed the geography of daily life for hundreds of thousands of Palestinians.
Considering Hebron’s political, religious, and cultural geographies, it is hardly surprising that this has been a contentious and often violent place. In 1929, during the British Mandate period, Arabs killed 67 Jews in the town, and ransacked homes and synagogues. After the settlement of the Jewish community in the town in 1979, tensions have been high between the new community and its Arab neighbors, with acts of provocation and violence common on both sides. In 1994, an Israeli extremist and resident of Kiryat Arba opened fire on Muslims at prayer at the Cave of the Patriarchs, killing 29 and wounding 129 others. In another incident, 12 Israelis were killed in an ambush of worshippers on their way to the same site.
And the violence continues. A week after my visit to Hebron, an Israeli soldier shot dead a Palestinian who had allegedly attacked an army post.
As I rode back to Jerusalem, I reflected on the ease with which I, a foreigner, could travel unhindered to Hebron and back. Nobody questioned me as I boarded bus 106, and nobody asked me for identification. My fellow passengers and I traveled unhindered along roads that local Palestinians are not allowed to use. Our bus passed through the guarded entry points to Jewish settlements without being stopped, searched, or its passengers questioned. On this journey, I was assumed to be an Israeli (or at least I was assumed not to be a Palestinian) and was treated accordingly.
The contrast with my journey from Ramallah to Jerusalem was striking (see my post on this topic. At the Kalandia checkpoint, the assumption was that all passing through were Palestinians, Everybody was searched, everybody had to produce identification, and everybody was questioned.
I cannot claim, though, that I had no interaction with the Israeli soldiers assigned to protect my route from Jerusalem to Hebron. As I walked past the military guard post at the Cave of the Patriarchs with my camera, I asked the soldier on duty whether I could take a photograph of the post. He stepped out of the guard post, smiling, and offered to pose with me for a photograph.
Update: I visited Hebron again in July 2009, this time touring the Arab part of the town, in particular the area abutting the Jewish settlement. I have posted some photographs from this visit here.
Update September 13, 2013. It’s well worth taking a lot at the article ‘The Divided City‘ from the ‘Meet the Settlers’ series published by The Telegraph. It focuses on the settlers of Hebron, who not only “trade acts of violence with the Palestinians, but, according to many reports, they also attack Israeli soldiers when they take a softer line towards the Arabs, or attempt to curb settler activity.”
If you are interested in learning more about Hebron, its changing geography and its contentious history, you may wish to take a look at some of the following sources, which I have used as the main sources for the factual information I have presented here.
Hebron: One City, Two Nations (JourneyMan pictures, 1996) A good short video summary of the conflict over Hebron.
The website of the Jewish Community of Hebron, particularly interesting for its perspective of the history of the city.
This article on Hebron from the Jewish Virtual Library, another Jewish perspective on the history and significance of the town.
Closure maps of Hebron, from the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs.
Hebron: One City, Two Nations. A video (on YouTube) of an Israeli family living in Hebron (1996) From Journeyman Pictures.
The short video Aftershock contains a few scenes from an Israeli patrol in Hebron, part of a personal perspective of the occupation by a former Israeli paratrooper.
I believe that It is important for me to note — as I did in my previous post — that I have written here about some contentious issues. There are numerous different perspectives on the confict(s) between Israelis and Palestinians and on the interpretation of the history of the region. I have read the landscape in Hebron and along the route of bus 106 in a way that is no doubt very different from the way that others might read it. So if you disagree with what I have written, or if you see the situation differently, I encourage you to post a comment here.
Footnote: New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof visited Hebron about the same time that I did. It’s worth looking at the column he wrote about it, as well as his blog entry on the subject.