Hebron, West Bank - Last week hundreds of Palestinians, Israelis and international supporters marched through the narrow alleyways of the West Bank city of Hebron to mark 19 years since the Israeli military closed Shuhada Street.
Once a vibrant commercial hub, the street was closed after 29 Palestinian worshippers were killed by an Israeli settler inside a mosque in 1994.
What used to be a bustling corridor dotted with stores and street vendors now lies vacant. Row after row of shuttered storefronts bear witness to the devastation that has come to define parts of this city. In an attempt to open the street, the Open Shuhada Street Campaign has led a series of non-violent events on the road itself.
The campaign "protests the segregationist nature of the closure of the area and of the division that has been created in Hebron", said Irene Nasser, a Palestinian activist present at the demonstration.
In 2012, 35 events took place worldwide to raise awareness about the plight of Shuhada Street. This year, marchers chanted in front of the gate sealing off Shuhada Street, hoping civil disobedience would pay off. The street links northern and southern parts of Hebron, and is a walkway leading to the al-Haram al-Ibrahimi mosque where the 1994 massacre took place.
Israeli settlers take part of Palestinian city
At first, the street was closed to Palestinian vehicles. Six years later, when the Second Intifada broke out, the street was made off-limits to Palestinian residents, even those who lived in the area.
The suffocating chokehold quickly rid the street of residents and merchants alike. According to Israeli human rights group B'Tselem, more than 400 stores were closed under Israeli military orders by December 2006, and 1,829 others were forced to close because of incessant closures and ubiquitous checkpoints. Together, these made up about 77 percent of the commercial establishments in the area. More than 1,000 homes - about 42 percent of the houses in the area - were vacated by their owners.
During last week's march, protesters gathered at the concrete barrier just outside of Shuahda Street. They were met with teargas, sound bombs, and the "skunk truck", an infamous military vehicle filled with a foul-smelling liquid chemical. Clashes ensued when young Palestinians tried to scale the barbed wire of the barrier, and many protesters were injured.
An Israeli army spokesperson said last Friday's demonstration was "a violent and illegal riot, which include[ed] approximately 350 Palestinians who hurled rocks and firebombs and rolled burning tires at security personnel. As a result, an Israeli border policeman was lightly injured and taken to a hospital for further medical treatment."
'Numerous but non-violent'
But Issa Amro, coordinator of the group Youth Against Settlements, which has led the campaign to open Shuhada Street since 2010, described the group's tactics as "numerous but non-violent". The prominent activist, who has been arrested several times by Israeli soldiers, said his group also runs movie showings, lectures, and campaigns to raise awareness about Palestinians' situation in Hebron.
Today, only Israeli settlers - 800 of whom live in the heart of Hebron among 177,000 Palestinians - and tourists are allowed on Shuhada Street. A heavy Israeli military presence ensures their safety. "Shuhada Street was the main artery of Hebron," Nasser said. "Since the closure, many Palestinians have had to leave the area, making it almost impossible to make it [a] cohesive and functioning city."
According to the Israeli army spokesperson, "the policy of protecting the Jewish community in Hebron, including the limitation on traffic on the route, was reviewed and approved by the Israeli High Court of Justice". Shuhada Street, the spokesperson said, "was used in the past to carry out terror attacks on Israeli civilians, including the murder of infant Shalhevet Pas in March of 2001, and the murder of two Israelis".
In a special report on Hebron, B'Tselem noted that settler violence against Palestinians has been rampant. "Settlers in the city have routinely abused the city's Palestinian residents, sometimes using extreme violence," the report read. "Throughout the second Intifada, settlers have committed physical assaults, including beatings, at times with clubs, stone throwing, and hurling of refuse, sand, water, chlorine, and empty bottles."
Few places in the West Bank embody the Israeli-Palestinian conflict as starkly as Hebron, known as al-Khalil in Arabic. The city is a landmark for the Abrahamic faiths: it is home to the tomb of Abraham himself, as well as his sons Isaac and Jacob, and their wives Sarah, Rebecca, Leah and Rachel. Hebron has historically been a trading hub, and today this legacy is carried on by a large merchant class.
Defined by separation
"The Israeli process of ridding the street of its Palestinian residents is ongoing."
- Issa Amro, coordinator of Youth Against Settlements
But modern-day Hebron is defined by its separation. This was formally codified in the late 1990s by the Hebron Agreement, signed during the first premiership of Benjamin Netanyahu. Because of the many Israeli settlers who live in the city and nearby settlements, an Israeli military presence was a priority for Israel's negotiators during this period. The agreement separated the city into two sections, one (known as H1) administered by the Palestinian Authority, and the other (H2) by the Israeli army.
The Hebron Agreement stipulated that Israel would allow traffic to flow into Shuhada Street in H2. But that only happened intermittently until 2000, when the street was closed indefinitely. In the aftermath of the 1994 massacre, Israeli authorities put the street on lockdown, imposing a system of separation between the Palestinians and the settlers that included walls and fences fortified by razor wire.
The Israeli army spokesperson said that the street was closed in order to prevent further casualties in the area. "It should be specified that there are alternate routes available for Palestinian use," he said. "There are four families that live along the street, and they have been granted special permits to move freely by foot in the area."
However, according to B'Tselem, the last permits given to these families expired in August 2008. When they "applied to renew the permits again, the Civil Administration said the requests would be handled after the Jewish holidays. Then the Civil Administration dragged its feet, and repeatedly postponed renewing the permits, until the communication ceased altogether."
Because of this, the remaining Palestinian families are either using side entrances or traversing roofs through open windows and balconies to get inside their houses. "The Israeli process of ridding the street of its Palestinian residents is ongoing," Amro stressed. "We are trying to hamper and expose these ongoing efforts."
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