Apartheid in Hebron

by: Andrew Meyer

I have heard the comparison for years, that South Africans who lived under apartheid have traveled to Palestine and reported that what they have seen there is comparable — or possibly worse — than what they experienced in South Africa. It wasn’t until I traveled to Hebron (or Al-Khalil) that, for the first time in my life, I saw with my own eyes examples of the policies they are talking about.

Our guide for the day was Palestinian journalist Hisham Sharabati, whose family has lived in Hebron for generations. He told us the history of Hebron, focusing on the modern day pilgrimage of ultra-orthodox Jewish settlers to the West Bank’s largest city. At present time there are around 500 settlers living in Hebron. Between 1,500 and 2,000 Israeli Defense Forces (IDF) soldiers are present on a daily basis to secure the safety of the settlers. Regardless of the fact that these settlers (and the government of Israel by association) are violating international law with their presence, the IDF often acts as a buffer for the settlers to commit violent assaults and other crimes against the Palestinian inhabitants of the city.

In the Old Quarter, over 1,400 Palestinian owned shops have been forced to close by the IDF for “security” purposes. Many of these shops have even had their doors welded shut. This left me wondering what would happen to the shops once the illegal settlers were forced to leave. It didn’t take long to dawn on me that removal of the settlers in Hebron is not part of Israel’s long term vision for the area.

Throughout the city we observed metal gates that were installed over the windows of Palestinian homes. Hisham explained that the gates were in place to fend off stones which are thrown by settlers in an attempt to break the windows on the apartments. Similarly, Palestinian shop keepers in the Old Quarter have installed a chain link fence above their shops, running the length of the walkway. Resting now on the chain link is a variety of objects which have been thrown from the settlers living in the higher stories above the shops, in an attempt to hit those walking below. Objects that have been thrown include stones, bricks, bottles of urine, knives, and even acid. These actions are rarely addressed by the IDF presence.

As we walked around the city, Hisham pointed out a long chain of standard concrete barriers, splitting a road down the middle. He assured us that we must walk on the right side of the barrier because, as we had a Palestinian tour guide, were only allowed to walk on that side. The other side was reserved for the settlers.

As we returned from our tour of the lower region, and once again reached the concrete barriers, I noticed an IDF checkpoint at the top of the slight incline. Just beyond the checkpoint, perhaps 25 feet away, was a series of Palestinian owned shops. Hisham turned to us and said “I’ll have to ask permission,” and proceeded to question the soldier as to whether or not we were allowed to pass and visit the shops.

Perhaps the most obvious case of an apartheid-like system was during our visit to the Ibrahimi Mosque at the Cave of the Patriarchs, to which entry is also controlled by an IDF checkpoint. In order to enter you must submit to a bag search, show your passport, and walk through a metal detector. Including those on the delegation and Hisham, there were twelve of us visiting the mosque that day. Eleven of us had a U.S. passport, one had a Palestinian passport. One person had their passport held by the Israelis for the duration of our visit in order to run a background check. I’ll let you guess which one of us it was.

Of course these are just a few examples of Israeli poicy that garner comparison to apartheid. The “separation barrier” (read: apartheid wall) enclosing the West Bank, the inequality of rights for Arab citizens of Israel, and the construction of Jewish-only roads and highways are a few more.

Without reverting to a lengthy, academic conversation about the comparison to apartheid, I will just say this — anyone who asserts that Israel is not practicing policies of apartheid should be immediately required to spend just one day in Hebron.