The first thing you notice when you drive into Hebron is the lack of cars. Since 1997 this second-largest Palestinian city in the West Bank, the only one with an Israeli settlement in its midst, has been formally divided. Within the Israeli section, which takes up much of the historic downtown, Palestinians are not allowed to drive, so they walk or use donkey carts. When people are ill or injured, they are carried to the hospital. It is not surprising, therefore, that many of the 30,000 Palestinians who once lived here have moved out. According to a 2007 report from Israeli human rights organizations, more than 1,000 Palestinian housing units in the area have been left vacant, and more than 75 percent of the businesses in the central district have closed. A handful of shops remain open; a cluster or two of children play in the street. But that’s it. The streets are buried under the heaviness of an ominous quiet. Periodically, buses rumble past bringing settlers to and from the adjoining settlement, Kiryat Arba, and Israel proper. In the absence of routine urban noise, their engines sound like gunshots.
I went to Israel and the West Bank with a group of American journalists on a trip sponsored by the New America Foundation. We were led through the streets of Hebron by Mikhael Manekin, a former Israel Defense Forces soldier who patrolled the city during the second intifada. He now runs an organization called Breaking the Silence, which collects testimony about IDF human rights abuses from Israeli soldiers. I had heard of Hebron, of course, but it was lodged vaguely in my mind as one of those foreign places where awful things happen. To see it in person is to understand viscerally that the status quo in the West Bank cannot hold. To see it is to understand just what occupation requires.
Because of the Cave of the Patriarchs—where Abraham is said to have buried his wife and was later laid to rest—Hebron is a very holy site for Jews and Muslims. Hebron’s long history has been one of occupation and coexistence, punctuated by periods of slaughter. Romans, Crusaders and Ottomans have all ruled the city, sometimes denying access to the holy sites to disfavored groups. In 1929 Arab rioters killed sixty-seven of the small number of Jewish residents of the city (several hundred were saved by their Arab neighbors, who hid them in their homes), and the last Jewish resident left the city in 1948. In 1968, just a year after Israel occupied Hebron, Rabbi Moshe Levinger, a spiritual founder of the settler movement, traveled with a few students to the city for Passover. Once there, they refused to leave, extracting a concession from the Labor government at the time to settle them in the adjacent army base of Kiryat Arba, which today is a settlement of 7,200.
In 1979 ten women and forty children from Kiryat Arba sneaked into the abandoned Jewish hospital in downtown Hebron under cover of night and also refused to leave. Over the next fifteen years, they were joined by hundreds of other settlers—men, women and children—drawn from the most zealous, who came to inhabit the surrounding buildings.
Over the past three decades, violence has been a mainstay. In 1980 Palestinians killed six yeshiva students in the city center. In 1988 Levinger shot and killed a Palestinian store owner, pleaded guilty to negligent homicide and served thirteen weeks in prison. In 1994 Baruch Goldstein, from Kiryat Arba, entered the mosque at the Cave of the Patriarchs and murdered twenty-nine Muslim worshipers before he was overcome and killed. The IDF imposed near total curfews on area Palestinians.