Hebron, occupied West Bank – Muslims are being denied access to Hebron’s Ibrahimi Mosque for six days over September to make way for Israeli settlers celebrating the Jewish holidays of Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish New Year, and Yom Kippur.
The restricted access, which began last week, will continue on Wednesday, along with September 29 and 30, said Munther Abul-Feelat, the head of the mosque. Only Jews are being allowed to enter the mosque on those dates, with the Israeli army claiming it is for the settlers’ security.
Simultaneously, extra “security precautions” are being taken by the army as Jewish tourists flood the Israeli-occupied southern West Bank city.
These measures are placing more restrictions on Palestinians and increasing friction between the minority Jewish settlers and the majority Palestinian residents in the Old City, raising fears of violence.
For Palestinians in Hebron, the Jewish holidays mean Israeli soldiers occupying rooftops and homes, more restrictions on movement, children unable to reach their schools, further economic decline, violence and fear.
Israel’s bloody crackdown on Palestinian worshippers in Jerusalem’s Al-Aqsa Mosque has also been raging this month due to similar restrictions.
Israeli rights group B’tselem says Israel’s law-enforcement authorities and security forces have made the Palestinian population suffer in the process of protecting Israeli settlements in Hebron.
According to a report by the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs: “The IDF [Israeli army’s] security measures to protect Hebron’s settlements from Palestinian attacks, together with violent settler activity, have led to a critical humanitarian and economic situation for the Palestinian population, once the centre of Hebron’s commercial and cultural life.”
Issa Amro from the Hebron-based Palestinian organisation, Youth Against Settlements, said that during the Jewish holidays, the situation in the Old City gets particularly grim for Palestinian residents.
“Most people associate holidays with a time of joy,” Amro told Al Jazeera. “But for Palestinians in Hebron, the Jewish holidays mean Israeli soldiers occupying rooftops and homes, more restrictions on movement, children unable to reach their schools, further economic decline, violence and fear.
“The soldiers stop young men regularly to check their IDs – but when they’ve been held for several hours in the sun or rain, and the young men complain, they get beaten up,” Amro added.
Hebron’s Old City today is largely a ghost town. Over the years, thousands of Palestinians have been forced to leave their homes and close down their businesses to make way for the settlers – considered some of the most extreme in the occupied West Bank.
In 1997, the Hebron Protocol divided Hebron into two areas: H1 under Palestinian control and H2 under Israeli control. The Old City in H2 is home to approximately 160,000 Palestinians and about 600 Israeli settlers living in four downtown settlements.
B’tselem conducted a study in 2006 showing that more than 1,000 homes were vacated by Palestinians in the centre of the city, representing 41 percent of the homes in the area.
Nearly 2,000 Palestinian businesses, or over 75 percent of all commercial establishments in the surveyed area, were closed. Hundreds of these closures were by military orders during the second Intifada.
According to a study by the International Committee of the Red Cross in 2009, 77 percent of Palestinians in Hebron’s Old City live below the poverty line.
Israel’s restrictions on the Old City began following the 1994 massacre of 29 Muslims praying at the Ibrahimi Mosque during Ramadan. The perpetrator, Israeli-American doctor Baruch Goldstein, was beaten to death by worshippers. Settlers built a shrine to honour him.
In the subsequent clashes, Israeli security forces killed another 10 Palestinians in Hebron. Palestinians were placed under curfew for weeks while armed settlers roamed the empty streets.
Hebron’s main Shuhada Street was also closed to Palestinian vehicles and pedestrians, and the Ibrahimi Mosque was partitioned into Muslim and Jewish areas.
An Israeli army spokesperson told Al Jazeera: “The Cave of the Patriarchs [where the Ibrahimi Mosque is located] in Hebron is considered a holy site for both Jews and Muslims. Therefore, the site is split between Jews and Muslims to worship freely at the site throughout the year.”
Leila Awadet, 54, supports six children by helping to run Hebron Women’s Cooperative, which sells jewellery, clothing, tablecloths and cushions made by Palestinian women who have been left as their family’s sole breadwinners.
“Business got especially bad after the Gaza war when there was a lot of tension and conflict between the settlers and residents of the Old City,” Awadet told Al Jazeera.
“Even today, the settlers throw rubbish and urine on us from their apartments built above the Old City. You can see the wire meshing over the shops to protect us.”
Muhammad Fakhoury, 22, runs a souvenir shop opened by his grandfather years ago. He helps to support six brothers and two sisters.
“Before the mosque massacre and before Israel implemented the 1994 restrictions, we used to get lots of tourists. We could make between $200 and $300 daily,” Fakhoury told Al Jazeera. “Now, we have to shut our shops when Israeli settlers tour the Old City and on Jewish holidays. During these periods, Palestinians are scared to walk around the Old City to shop, and tourists avoid the area because of bad media publicity.
“Today we are lucky if we can pull in $20 to $30 a day,” he added. “It’s a struggle to survive financially. There is no future for us.”