Wednesday, 2 January 2013

Hebron: amongst the ghosts

This town, is coming like a ghost town
All the clubs have been closed down
This place, is coming like a ghost town
Bands won't play no more
too much fighting on the dance floor

The Specials ‘Ghost Town’ written by Jerry Dammers, released 1981

Palestinian children playing football at the top of Shuhada Street (Derek Oakley/EAPPI)

Navigating the large concrete blocks that strew the entrance to Shuhada street in the old city of Hebron I take a moment to read the stenciled slogans adorning them. One phrase in particular catches my attention

Fight Ghost Town

As it must for many visitors from the UK this immediately evokes the classic Specials song ‘Ghost Town’, with its haunting sound effects and evocation of urban decline and civil unrest during the Thatcher years. As I emerge from Checkpoint 55, which marks the division between H1 and H2, the two zones that the make up Hebron under the 1997 ‘Hebron Protocols’[1] I see why the nickname was chosen. Shuhada street is dead.

Formerly the commercial heart of the city, now a tiny percentage of the shops that used to line the street are open[2], the others welded shut, many of their doors marked with Stars of David painted by some of the 500+ settlers who live in five enclaves the Old City, amongst 30,000 Palestinians[3].

The closures were made around the beginning of the Second Intifada in October 2000, and were accompanied by an intensification of other restrictions imposed upon Palestinian civilians that Israel deems security measures necessary to protect the Settler population, whose presence in the area is considered illegal under international law. 

Whilst the tarmac on the road is in good repair, there is very little traffic, and all of it is cars or buses bringing settlers and soldiers in and out of the area. Palestinians are not allowed to drive on Shuhada street and after a certain point, designated by another checkpoint, they are not allowed to walk either. Just down the street, now called King David Street by the Settlers, rests the former bus station for the whole of Hebron, now an Israeli military base.

Palestinian children still study at Cordoba school, which is flanked to front and rear by Beit Hadassah and Tell Rumeida settlements, running the gauntlet of potential abuse and physical violence daily. One of the core duties of EAs in Hebron, which I joined my colleagues in during my visit, is providing protective presence to children on their way to and from the school. 

A female settler and her child walk in front of shut Palestinian shops. The signs in the windows above read  “This was taken by Israel, you are apartheid.” And “Arabs are FORBIDDEN, This is Apartheid”. Palestinians are not permitted to walk on this part of the street (Derek Oakley/EAPPI)

 The families that do remain living behind or above the abandoned shops on Shuhada street cover their windows in tight metal mesh to protect them from the regular attacks that come from the settlers. Like many of the properties in the old city, their buildings are in disrepair. Something that local NGO the Hebron Rehabilitation Committee[1] seeks to change in order to preserve the unique heritage of the city.
Palestinian residents are forbidden from entering by front entrances and must find alternate routes into their own homes. Likewise for the wider population of Hebron access to the large Muslim cemetery that sits on the street is now only achieved by a convoluted route that takes them 5 KM around Shuhada street.

As I walk the streets of Hebron with the EAPPI colleague who is hosting me, “Ghost Town” becomes more than a reference to economic or social depression and segregation but also to the violence that colors the history of the city.

Perhaps the most famous incident in the modern era is the 1929 murder of 67 Jewish residents by Arabs amidst hysteria about a planned Jewish takeover of significant areas, with 435 surviving by sheltering with other Arabs, to be later evacuated by the British forces that controlled the area at the time[2]. One of the claims of current Settlers is that they are reclaiming property stolen in the period between the last Jew leaving Hebron in 1935 and the establishment of the first new settlement in the old city in 1971.

In 1994, 29 killed and 125 wounded after Baruch Goldstein opened fire on Palestinian Muslims worshipping inside the Al Ibrahmi Mosque, the site of which also contains the Tomb of the Patriarchs, the second holiest site in Judaism, and Goldstein himself was beaten to death by survivors[3]. Many of the security measures that restrict the movement of Palestinians in place in H2 were introduced after this tragedy and then tightened in 2000.

The Second Intifada saw regular bloody clashes, shootings and bombings, memorials to the dead can be found in many neighbourhoods, including to the 10 month old baby Shalhevet Pass, murdered by a Palestinian sniper on March 26th 2001 and whose death proved a rallying point for settlers calling for more aggressive tactics by the IDF to reclaim parts of the city[4]. His parents still live in Hebron[5].

On the 12th December this year, in one of the most explosive incidents during my tenure, 16-year-old Mohammed Ziad Sulaima was shot dead at a checkpoint near Al Ibrahimi Mosque by an Israeli border guard, with the IDF claiming that he attacked soldiers brandishing what later turned out to be a toy gun. Widespread rioting erupted across Hebron and later reports have cast doubt on the official version of events[6].

During my visit, having climbed to the neighbourhood of Tel Rumeida, resting on the hill side above Shuhada street, we visited Hashim Al’Aza. He and his family have been constantly harassed by settlers attempting to force them from their land. They are unable to access the property through the front door, their crops have been uprooted and poisoned and a number of them have assaulted physically by settlers. Hashim says that his wife has twice been attacked whilst pregnant, losing the babies as a result.  Still he resists

I am not moving. One day I will open my door. It is my right

Hashim Al’Aza in his living room, Tell Rumeida (Picture: Alessandra Bajec from

I leave Hebron inundated with dates, figures and names, a litany of blood and recriminations echoing in my head along with the same old song looping on repeat. I also leave with the memories of the Cordoba school children walking home past the checkpoint carefree and smiling as kids should.

The towns and cities that the Specials were talking about in the 1980s[1] have recovered and reinvented themselves to some extent in the UK of the 21st century.  Hebron carries a heavier weight in its history and will not cease to be important to Jews or Muslims, Israelis or Palestinians, but I hope for the sake of the next generation that it can one day cease being a town ruled by the ghosts of people and crimes past used to justify more violence and repression in the present.

[2] See this story for a personal insight into this tragedy,d.d2k

[2] According to a survey done by the UN's Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) in 2007, 1 829 Palestinian shops located in Israeli controlled H2 have closed since the outbreak of the Second Intifada in 2000.


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