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Thousands of Palestinians attended the funerals on Wednesday of three men killed the previous day by the Israeli army in the West Bank city of Hebron. The Israelis claim the three belonged to a new terrorist group linked to al-Qa’eda. They describe the men as jihadi salafists who aim to bring sharia law to the West Bank. If this is true it makes perfect sense that they should come from Hebron, a city with a long history of violence between Israelis and Palestinians. Today, perhaps more than anywhere, it illustrates the hardship and injustices being heaped on Palestinian civilians under the Israeli occupation.
Eighty-three per cent of Hebron’s residents are Palestinians, but the city has been split in two. One part is known as H1; it is exclusively Palestinian and is known as and is administered by the Palestinian Authority. The second is H2, and while the vast majority of inhabitants are Palestinian, it is under Israeli control.
Hebron’s city centre is in H2. Once the commercial hub of the southern part of the West Bank, it has become a ghost town, its shops and markets desolate and shuttered. Crowds of shoppers once thronged the streets but now sparrows nest in the eves of buildings and stray dogs roam. Half of the 30,000 Palestinians who once lived in the city centre have moved away, the rest cling on, living in homes above the empty shops or behind locked gates and barriers in the Palestinian kasbah just north of this area.
I was taken to Hebron today by a member of Breaking the Silence, a group of ex-Israeli soldiers formed to tell the truth of what is happening in the Occupied Palestinian Territories. Breaking the Silence is supported by the charity Christian Aid, which has arranged a visit to the West Bank for journalists on Christian papers including The Tablet. One of the group’s members, Abihai Stollar, explained that centre of Hebron has become a ghost town so that 700 Jewish settlers who have made their homes there can be protected.
The settlements, created by Zionist extremists, were initially opposed by the Israeli Government but the settlers have been tenacious and, through a series of compromises, eventually got what they wanted. Since 2000, barriers have gone up to keep Palestinians away from the settlements; the main road going through the city centre was barred to Palestinians and as the final death knell, the army ordered all the shops in the commercial centre to close. Today, 700 Israeli soldiers are posted in Hebron, one for every settler. According to Mr Stollar, they are instructed not to intervene if settlers attack Palestinians – he claims that stone-throwing by settler children on Palestinian girls passing by their homes en route to and from school is a regular occurrence.
Jews have lived in Hebron since biblical times. The city contains the Cave of the Patriarchs, reputedly the final resting place of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. For both Jews and Muslims, Hebron has a religious significance second only to Jerusalem. The city has a history of violence between Palestinian militants and Zionists going back to 1929, when 67 members of the Jewish community were massacred. There have been many horrors since perpetrated by both sides. If the Israelis are right about a new al-Qa’eda group taking root in Hebron, it is a sorry tradition that is continuing.