Israeli Re-deployment from Hebron - The Mirage of Self-Rule

by Jessi Roemer

Hours after the signing of the Hebron agreement, the international networks showed the latest episode in the running series, Historic Scenes of Peace: All watched as Israeli army trucks "pulled out" of their posts near Hebron's entrance, not far from the municipality. Actually, these trucks were merely driving around the corner, but that was irrelevant for the peace-hungry media. For the world's purposes, it was 'out of camera-range, out of Hebron.'

In the streets, there were no big celebrations -- no crowds of happy Palestinians following the soldiers with olive branches, no last stones thrown for good measure. In fact, save for the villagers and school children that Arafat bussed in to celebrate their "liberation," most Hebronites stayed home.

When the news reporter for Israel Radio was asked the following day why the Palestinians weren't dancing in the streets, he answered: "Perhaps it's because when you come right down to it, not much has changed around here." Indeed, if the media hadn't told us that the occupation had ended in Hebron, it would be difficult to tell.

The agreement leaves 80 percent of Hebron to the Palestinians. This does not mean 80 percent of the city proper, however, but of the city and surrounding area. Much of the land now under Palestinian control consists of the periphery and outlying villages, where there weren't many Israeli soldiers to begin with. In fact, most Israeli troops did not leave the city at all; they simply re-located -- in some places to as far away as across the street. And many more stayed right where they were.

This is not to say that the new agreement has not brought changes to Hebron. For one, a huge, picture of smiling Arafat now looms over the city gate, followed by five blocks of PA billboards and strings of fluttering plastic flags. To judge from these few blocks (where all the TV cameras were stationed on January 15), it would indeed seem that Hebron really does belong to the Palestinians, or at least to Arafat. Yet this visual frappery has the same effect as a false storefront -- where the downtown area begins, the flags end, and so does Palestinian autonomy. The heart of Hebron, including its Old City, remains entirely under Israeli control. The market is still tense with the presence of settlers and army trucks; the central road to Tel Rumeida is blocked off by gates and barbed wire. Flanked by Israeli guard towers, Shuhada Street remains dead silent.

There are now twice as many checkpoints as before. The area is divided into numerous zones, which are classified as H1 (Palestinian-controlled), H2 (Israeli-controlled) or as un-policed buffer areas. Traveling within the city proper, one encounters a new zone every few hundred meters. At almost every border stands a checkpoint.

"To go in any direction from my house, I have to pass through two checkpoints," says Nuzmi Daana, who lives in H2 off the road to Kiryat Arba. "Before the agreement, there was one checkpoint, and that was bad enough. But this is worse -- not only because it's more, but because it's permanent."

Many residents of H2 worry about the permanence of this arrangement, and about their status under Israeli rule. They will receive no Israeli citizenship and will therefore have no rights under Israeli law. Nor will they become Palestinian citizens -- should a state ever come into existence. Under the Hebron agreement the H2 Palestinians receive a vague cultural autonomy, which neither specifies their rights nor guarantees their future on the land where they live. Their status is no less precarious than it was under occupation.

As if to prove this point, within two weeks after the agreement was signed, the Israeli authorities issued five demolition orders for Palestinian houses in the Hebron area. The claim was that they were obstructing the way for a new by-pass road. The houses had initially been located in a Palestinian-administered area, until last year when the Israeli government changed its plans for the road and unilaterally decided to move the border, thus placing the houses in Israeli territory. On February 19, a case against the demolition orders was brought to the Israeli Supreme Court by the Palestinian Society for the Protection of Human Rights. The case itself contests the Israeli claim that the houses are in H2 (and - according to the Oslo agreement - are therefore rightfully subject to demolition). Regardless of its outcome, the very terms of this case demonstrate the facility with which the Israeli government can legally expel from their homes Palestinian residents under its authority, paving the way for the sort of "ethnic cleansing" which is already taking place in Hebron's Old City and various parts of Jerusalem.

Figures for the number of Palestinians now living in H2 vary, with the most conservative estimate at 17,000. In the Old City itself (site of the Ibrahimi Mosque and the Avraham Avinu settlement) live at least 6,000 Palestinians. In the eighties, settlers moved in and together with the army, managed to harass many Palestinian families into leaving. In January, immediately after the signing, the Hebron municipality began to renovate these houses in an effort to encourage Palestinian homeowners to move back to the Old City. After three weeks, however, most of these renovations were halted by the Israeli army on the pretext that such work would aggravate the settlers. This violated the agreement, which grants the municipality jurisdiction over civil sites. Judging from past patterns, it is likely that these houses will eventually become open territory for expansion of Jewish settlement in Hebron.

Not only are renovations forbidden to Palestinians. In downtown Hebron, they may not build anything higher than two stories, or nine meters high (in some places seven). Meanwhile, smack in the town center, a 25-meter high, 30-meter deep, four-storey tower is rising which will serve as a residence and yeshiva for some 300 settlers. According to the Hebron Municipality, this building is being funded by an Australian named Gutnick, who donated 35 million dollars for Jewish construction in Hebron.

Even in daily life, the firm grip of Israeli control is felt by residents of H1 and H2 alike. Mr. Masswadeh lives in H1 and runs a shop in the Old City (H2). To travel the half kilometer to work, he now has to pass through two checkpoints (one Palestinian, one Israeli).

"What redeployment?" he asks. "I don't feel the least bit liberated – so what if I live in H1? When H2 is under curfew, my business closes down – I can't even leave my neighborhood." Indeed, the centrality of the H2 zones effectively places all of Hebron under Israeli control; by clamping down on H2 (as it did during the first days of redeployment), the Israeli army can easily paralyze the entire city.

As for those who now live in Palestinian-policed areas, few feel that they have gained much sovereignty over their lives. Residents of H1 already complain of blatant corruption and favoritism in the Palestinian Authority. Yet the threat of arrest and imprisonment looms so large that they are afraid to vocalize public dissent against Arafat's policies.

"It's like in Orwell's Animal Farm," says Nuzmi Daana. "For a long time the animals consoled themselves that at least they were running their own affairs, when in fact the situation was quite oppressive. We are still trying to console ourselves. What else can we do? Our own leadership has agreed to assist in this indirect occupation."

As for the future, Hebron seems only to exemplify what is in store for the entire West Bank: an occupation in sheep's clothing. Monitored by a weave of Israeli and Palestinian forces, and entrenched by a series of agreements and concessions, the status quo of inequality is already quickly becoming the norm.

Re-entering Jerusalem, our Palestinian taxi is forced to pull over at the Israeli checkpoint. An Israeli soldier peers in.

"Good afternoon," he says in Hebrew. "How are you all? ID cards, please." The Palestinian passengers hold up their Israeli identification, and he surveys the cards one by one. "You're all okay," he says. "You see? When everyone does as they're told and shows their ID quickly, everything goes smoothly. Have a good day."