Hebron is the largest Palestinian city in the West Bank. The only one where Israeli settlements are inside the city itself. Hebron has been split in two since 1997. 80% of the city is under Palestinian control; the remaining 20% —also called H2— is administered by Israel. 40,000 Palestinians live in H2 among 800 settlers. The close proximity between the two communities creates frictions on a daily basis.
The cave of the Patriarchs is not only a holy site to Judaism, Christianity and Islam.
Achiya Schatz is a former sergeant in the Israeli army, now member of Breaking the Silence, an Israeli organisation of veterans exposing the harsh reality of daily life in the Palestinian territories.
"The 1929 massacre was a massacre in which 67 Jews were killed,” he says. “The 1994 massacre was a settler coming in shooting and killing 29 Palestinians praying inside the Mosque. But the '29 massacre is now feeding the narrative of the settlers’ movement, saying like Jews were killed here, we are Jews, we are allowed to do whatever we want inside this place. The ‘94 massacre' shaped the reality of the Palestinians here."
The 1994 massacre, carried out by far-right settler Baruch Goldstein, led to the separation principle whereby large empty buffer areas are built around settlements for security reasons.
"All the purple areas are territories where Palestinians are not allowed to drive,” says Schatz, pointing to a map of the city. “All the stripy areas is where Palestinians are not allowed to open shops. And all the red areas is what we call ‘sterile zones’, territories where Palestinians are not allowed to walk even.”
We walked into the sterile zone. The main street, called Shuhada street, was once a bustling Palestinian market area in the heart of the old centre. It’s now completely deserted.
"This is like the fifth avenue of Hebron used to be,” says Schatz. “And the truth is, it’s all empty. Why? Security reasons. We sterilize the territory so settlers can continue. So settlers invade places they're not allowed to be. And then the army comes and secures them."
Across the occupied territories, soldiers are asked to make their presence felt.
"So making their presence felt is one of the most basic ways… It's a kind of a doctrine for us to control the occupied territories,” explains Schatz. “Making our presence felt is a way for us to make sure that all the population is scared of us at all time. In that way we can control them better. “
Over 1,800 businesses were closed in the city centre. Front doors welded down, no matter whether Palestinians were still living there. Only five families have stayed, challenging curfews, violence and harassment.
"I still receive stones,” says a resident, despite having fences installed to protect her. “If you look up here. It's full of stones. The settlers stand up there and throw stones at the house. When this front door was closed, the neighbours made an opening in the wall so that I can go in and out. We need to cooperate"
Another of the last Palestinian residents on Shuhada street complains about settlers' attacks and the army's random night incursions. He also told us Israel has been tightening its grip on Palestinian residents to force them out of the area.
"Since 1994 until today, little by little, they're closing the area, adding checkpoints here, gates there, new ways in,” says Palestinian resident Zidane Sharabati. “Day after day, they continue to close in on us until we're suffocated. And today, anyone that wants to get in needs a special number on his ID. I'm going to show you. So if you don't have this kind of number, you don't get through the checkpoint.”
Daily tensions between Israeli settlers, soldiers and Palestinian civilians, often end up in clashes and sometimes even murders. B'Tselem, the Israeli information centre for Human Rights in the Occupied Territories says the Israeli side acts with impunity.
"Settler violence is a constant factor of life in the occupied territories in the West Bank,” says B'Tselem Director Hagai El-ad. “There are numerous cases of killings of Palestinians. And in the case of security forces 97% of the time - based on our data - either an investigation isn't even opened or even if it is open, no one is held accountable. No one is brought even to trial."
Settlers lament systematic Palestinian attacks, stabbing attempts and stone-throwing. In the past 10 years 60 Israeli civilians, including settlers, were reported killed by Palestinians in the West Bank. Over 400 Palestinian civilians were killed by the army or by Israeli civilians.
"We condemn every violence,” says Noam Arnon of the Jewish Community of Hebron. “We are against every violence. And if it happens, I'm not sure... if it happens, we condemn it. I hope that Shuhada street will be open when the whole town would reopen. What is impossible is to put the Jews into this ghetto and then Jews are being attacked and shot by terrorists from around and then say that this street must be open for free movement that might include terrorists."
More than any other place on the West Bank, Hebron shows the difficulty of sharing the land between Palestinians and Israelis, and the remote possibility of finding peace.