Transfer By Any Other Name
By Graham Usher
During curfew Hebron becomes a city in the air. Palestinian children play on a sea of cup-shaped roofs that shore the mighty Ibrahimi mosque, resting place to the Prophet Abraham and a contested site between Arab and Jew in the West Bank city. Women sling buckets of bread from window to window. Men smoke in arched doorways.
For most of the last two months, the streets have been given over to their conquerors. On a square hosting a vast Jewish candelabra, decked with Israeli flags, two women chat in the wintry sunshine. They are among the 400 Jewish settlers in Hebron who live amid 130,000 Palestinians, guarded by 2,000 Israeli soldiers. During curfew, the settlers are free to walk the streets of Hebron's Old City. The Old City's 20,000 Palestinians are free to watch them from aerial domiciles while the ground is pulled from under their feet.
On 15 November three Palestinian guerrillas from Islamic Jihad killed nine soldiers and three Israeli security guards on a road that links the Old City to the Kiryat Arba settlement that lies on its outskirts. Speaking to army commanders the next day, Israel's Prime Minister Ariel Sharon said Israel would "take advantage of the opportunity" to "minimise the number of Palestinians living among the Jewish settlers" in Hebron.
In practical terms this meant authorisation for establishing a new territorial "corridor" joining Kiryat Arba to the Ibrahimi mosque. The new road will be 1.7 kilometres-long, off-limits to the Palestinians and fenced by two two-metre walls. The Palestinians say the corridor will entail the destruction of 20 historic buildings, some dating from the 15th century, and the expropriation of 61 parcels of Palestinian-owned land. The army says the "widened" road is needed for security and that in any case the buildings are uninhabited ruins.
The homes are certainly ancient. But they are not empty. If the destruction goes ahead, eight Palestinian families will lose their properties, rendering 110 people homeless. 76-year-old Ahmad Jaber is one of them. He lives with his 15 children and grandchildren in a three-floor apartment on the edge of the new road. His home has so far been spared a demolition order, though not an army observation post that perches on the roof.
But he will lose the neighbouring ancestral buildings. One is hewn from Hebron quarried stone with an arched gable and capped with a small dome. Until recently his brother lived there. Today it serves as a stable. In a darkened corner there is a sword relief, dating it from the Ottoman period. "It saddens me to lose this," says Jaber. "It is erasing our history. We are so close to the Ibrahimi mosque."
But he is more alarmed about what may happen in the aftermath. "What if the settlers from Kiryat Arba decide to move in next door? What will happen to us then? We will be forced to leave."
Such fears are real, says Khalid Qawasmi, head of Hebron's Rehabilitation Committee (HRC). "The corridor between Kiryat Arba and the Old City is an old plan of Sharon's. He first raised the idea in 1996. But it's only the first stage. He has also said he wants to establish a new settlement along the route of the road. If this happens, some 5,000 Palestinians could be displaced. That's the number of people currently living in neighbourhoods on either side of the corridor."
Nor would such an exodus be unusual given the recent history of Hebron. Qawasmi cites some figures.
In 1952, 10,000 Palestinians lived in the Old City. After years of neglect by the Jordanian authorities, occupation by the Israeli army and harassment by armed settlers, by 1996 the number had dwindled to 400, with most moving north to Bethlehem, Jerusalem or Hebron's new city.
With the establishment of Palestinian Authority control over 80 per cent of Hebron in 1997 the tide started to turn. In 2000, 2,500 Palestinians were again living in the Old City, drawn back into old properties restored by the HRC with funds supplied by Arab and European donors.
Since the Intifada began -- and especially since Israel's full re- occupation of Hebron last year -- the tide has washed back again. In the last 12 months the army has confiscated 14 Palestinian properties in the Old City, shut down 500 shops and 500 Palestinians have again abandoned 100 homes. If the corridor is built, that stream could become a flood, warns Qawasmi.
For many Palestinians and Israelis, Hebron is the microcosm of the current phase of the Israel-Palestinian struggle. The settlers -- most of them from the messianic Gush Emunim movement -- believe they have a God-given right to establish a Jewish city on the land of their Patriarchs. The Palestinians say Hebron has been a mainly Arab and Muslim city for a thousand years and is in any case occupied territory under international law. Israel has no claim of sovereignty there, Biblical or otherwise.
But beneath the religious and national claims Hebron represents a more existential contest, one fought between demography and geography. The Palestinians clearly have the weight of numbers on their side and believe they will see off the soldiers and settlers in the way they saw off the Crusaders, the Ottomans and the British. But the settlers, armed with a complicit government and army, believe they have the power of geography. So long as the Jewish construction and Arab destruction proceeds, they are convinced they can carve out a Jewish Hebron in the heart of the Palestinian one.
Which will prevail -- the people or the land? The answer lies in the air, says Qawasmi.
"It depends ultimately on the international community. But we have first to encourage the Palestinians not to leave their homes. We know Sharon cannot kick out 5,000 Palestinians in one go. But he can kick out 100 Palestinians today and another 100 in six months time. Then Palestinians will start to leave on their own. We have to alert the world that is the forcible transfer of a people against their will. It might be slow, incremental and 'quiet', but it is still transfer".
Source: Al Ahram Weekly