They tell us that terror and violence must be met with force, and if that doesn’t work — then even more force. But the military occupation of Hebron has not achieved security for either its Jewish or Palestinian residents.
By Yehuda Shaul
Over the past few weeks we have not only borne witness to a wave of attacks in Jerusalem and throughout Israel, we have also seen a string of violent incidents in and around Hebron. Commentators are already talking about a new flashpoint of violence.
I know Hebron pretty well. As a soldier and commander I served in the city for over a year during the Second Intifada. Since my release, I have guided hundreds of tours in the city and its surroundings for people who wanted to get to know the city through the eyes of the soldiers that served there.
So let’s talk about Hebron, the city of the patriarchs, whose significance in Jewish history no one can dispel. It is one of the largest cities in the West Bank, with a Palestinian population of roughly 200,000, and 850 Israeli settlers who live right in the city center.
Over the last few decades, Hebron, especially the heart of the city, has turned into one of the most heavily guarded areas under Israeli control. At least 650 IDF soldiers are stationed in the city on any given day. It cannot be said that Israel withdrew from Hebron, forgot about it, or that the IDF stopped protecting it. We are constantly there.
An accurate description of the security measures that we have taken in Hebron over the last 20 years requires an entire book, not a short article. I will try nonetheless to touch on a few important points.
The foundation of Israel’s security policy in Hebron since the 1994 Goldstein massacre is the “principle of separation,” which in practice means restricting freedom of movement for Palestinians in areas near Israeli settlements in the city. In order to implement this principle, Palestinians were banned from driving their cars on streets that run near the settlements and some were even closed to pedestrian traffic.
Hundreds of Palestinian shops were shut down over the last 20 years due to military orders, and on Shuhada Street, a main thoroughfare, doors to Palestinian homes were welded shut, preventing the residents from walking onto the street on which they live.
These areas are referred to by the IDF as being “sterile” of Palestinians. As a result of this policy, about half of the residents of the area left Hebron’s city center, turning it into a ghost town.
Restricting Palestinians’ movement is not the only security tool we employ in Hebron. There are a wide variety of daily operations that comprise the military mechanisms of control over thousands of people in Hebron. When I served there, I regularly went out on missions to “make our presence felt,” which means raiding houses and conducting searches in the middle of the night, or violent patrols throughout the city. There are still at least three simultaneous patrols every day, which include entering homes and conducting random searches of pedestrians and vehicles. Each and every Palestinian who lives in the area under Israeli control knows that at any hour of the day or night, soldiers may enter their home and search through their belongings.
There are military posts around the settlements, about 50-100 meters apart. You can’t go far into the center of Hebron without running into a soldier, who is there to preserve this status quo.
When soldiers in Hebron are confronted by a threat, they know what to do. In an area where soldiers and Palestinians come into contact on a daily basis, the use of force against Palestinians is not a rarity. In September, Hadeel al-Hashlamon, an 18-year-old Palestinian woman, was shot at one of the city’s checkpoints. She was critically injured and died in the hospital. The IDF reported it as the killing of a terrorist who was threatening soldiers with a knife.
The Palestinians present a different picture, whereby Hashlamon was indeed holding a knife but was standing in a place where she did not pose any danger to the soldiers – and that even if she did try to harm them, they could have assumed control of the situation without fatally injuring her. The dispute over the facts doesn’t matter though. Either way, the incident shows that there is no hesitation to use force – even heavy force – in Hebron; it’s all in the name of maintaining security.
We are told that we must fight hard in order to deal with terror threats , and if that doesn’t work, we need to apply even more force. The Israeli army is doing precisely that in Hebron every day, at every hour. During the Second Intifada, settlers called upon Israelis to “let the IDF win,” by putting security first. In Hebron, the IDF has indeed won.
So how is it that in spite of that, in recent weeks, like during every other period of escalation, the threats to Israeli soldiers and civilians in the city have only multiplied? How is it that the most secure place under Israeli control continues to be a major flashpoint of Palestinian violence? The answer is simple. What we are enforcing in Hebron is not Israel’s security, but rather Israeli settlement and domination. And that has a price.
The soldiers that are conscripted to protect Israel, and serve in Hebron, are maintaining a mechanism that guarantees the prolonged reign of a small group of Israeli civilians in the city over Palestinians civilians. This control, labeled “security,” has managed to crush Palestinian life in the city over the last 20 years, without providing genuine security for either Israelis or Palestinians.
Hebron is the microcosm of the military’s system of control throughout the entire West Bank. The lessons we are learning in the city can and must be applied to the entire system. Prolonged military control over Palestinians will not bring security, but rather perennial cycles of violence. More forceful “security” won’t change a thing.
We aren’t the only ones to blame in this story but we are the stronger side, and we have a choice. We may either continue to enforce this policy of “security” and the violent routine that accompanies it, or try a different approach, working toward ending the occupation and militarily control of the territories. If there is hope for genuine security in our region, that is where it can be found.
Yehuda Shaul served as an infantry combat soldier and commander in the IDF during the Second Intifada, and is a founding member of Breaking the Silence.