On a warm summer afternoon, Zuleikha stands on her landing, listening to the adhan recited from the nearby Ibrahimi Mosque. Having lived in Al-Khalil (Hebron) her whole life, Zuleikha knows every corner of the city by heart. Her house is situated within Hebron’s historic center and is part of a series of buildings that date back to the Mamelukes. At 6:30 p.m., while walking along the alleys that lead to her home, the impression is of wandering into a ghost town where one’s presence is a disturbing contrast with the silence and emptiness of the streets. It is surprising given that all Palestinians from Al-Khalil who are over thirty years old describe how this neighborhood was once the hub of the city’s commercial life. As Zuleikha tells us, going on a simple stroll here is dangerous due to the high likelihood of being harassed and attacked by the Israeli Defense Forces (IDF) — or as Palestinian groups call them, the Israel Occupation Forces — soldiers patrolling the area 24/7.
Indeed, just a few minutes spent in Hebron’s old town are enough to become aware of the injustice that rules over it. For instance, it’s easy to come across military bases and Israeli army checkpoints scattered throughout the neighborhood, which are there to filter and block the unimpeded movement of Palestinians whose families have lived here for centuries.
Al-Khalil (Hebron), Palestine, July 2023
Al-Khalil is a case study for understanding the apartheid system operating in Palestine, recently identified as such even by former Mossad chief Tamir Pardo in an interview with the Associated Press. Israeli settlements are increasingly expanding and taking away chunks of land from local populations.
Most settlements are slightly detached from the main Palestinian urban centers or villages. Al-Khalil, however, has a particularity: the settlements are located both around and in the heart of the city. As a result, one can observe the ethnically divided system of land distribution throughout the West Bank, reproduced on a small scale within a confined urban space where the differential treatment of Palestinian citizens versus Israeli citizens is even more visible and disturbing.
Following several years of settler violence in Al-Khalil targeting the indigenous Palestinian population, in 1997, as part of the Oslo Accords, the town was divided into two zones. These zones are H1, which is 80 percent of the territory and is run by the Palestinian Authority, where only Palestinians live; and H2, which is 20 percent of the area (most of which is the historical center) and is run entirely by the Israeli military, where Israeli settlers reside in houses confiscated from generations of Palestinians. Although the Israeli troops are deployed here to mediate and prevent attacks by settlers, de facto, their presence is a shield that grants impunity and protection to settlers when they violently harass the local population.
With twenty-two checkpoints in Al-Khalil’s municipal territory alone, the military presence is felt everywhere, as it regulates and hampers even the most mundane aspects of daily life: for example, commutes that without checkpoints would take five minutes by foot take dozens of minutes by car, given the requirement to go around all colonized areas. In addition, 1,800 Palestinian businesses located in downtown Al-Khalil were forced to close since 1997, and over 1,000 Palestinian homes in the H2 have remained uninhabited because they were either occupied or made inaccessible.
Zuleikha lives in one of the few houses in the historical center near H2 that have not been seized. However, while she does have a house, Zuleikha does not have a front door. Instead, what I referred to earlier as her landing is actually her neighbor’s backroom, repurposed as the only access point to her apartment. One day, during the Second Intifada, Zuleikha found her front door permanently barred, and the entire street where she lived suddenly rendered inaccessible — for her and all her Palestinian neighbors. Shuhada Street (the Street of the Martyrs) was the first of many areas within downtown Al-Khalil that were invaded and occupied by the Israeli army.
Zuleikha worked as an English teacher until she retired, and then she opened a women and children’s support center. Here, she teaches love and respect for one’s land — which she embodies every day by not abandoning her property. No matter how uncomfortable and inaccessible the military occupation has rendered her living situation, Zuleikha insists she won’t leave her home. As she refuses to leave her land, her roots, and her right to exist, Zuleikha continues to live in her apartment in which no light enters: almost all her windows, except for the one that is now her front door, face Shuhada Street and have been boarded up. When asked why she stayed, as she could have easily moved to a less demeaning situation, she answers that the only infallible form of resistance for her people — a people long subject to ethnic cleansing — is the relentless demonstration of their presence. By simply existing, Palestinians are resisting.
When Zuleikha speaks, there is no trace of hatred or resentment, either in her eyes or her voice. For her, knowing that she is on the right side of history is enough of a compensation for every evil that the Israeli state has inflicted on her throughout her life — from the murder of her father when she was five years old to the daily attempts to make her feel less important than an animal. When I ask her why she has put a sort of fishnet over her small balcony, she replies that it is to shield herself and her mother from banana skins and rocks thrown at her by settlers as they walk by her house.
Land Division and Martial Law
To fully grasp how the occupation of the West Bank affects every aspect of Palestinians’ lives, we need to know about the martial law in place following Israeli Military Orders 101 and 1651, which have legislative power only over Palestinians. Consequently, while an Israeli settler, who is subject to civil law, is always innocent until proven guilty, a Palestinian is always guilty until proven innocent.
One of the most common examples of this administrative and legislative imbalance is the high rate of Palestinian prisoners incarcerated through “administrative detentions.” Such detentions are carried out without a trial, without informing the prisoner or his family of the alleged crime committed, and without a predetermined time limit to his captivity. There are also many minors among these prisoners.
Such ethnically and racially differential treatment is felt in some parts of the West Bank more than in others. Three zones divide the Palestinian territory, and they differ in the type of occupation to which they subject their residents.
In 1995, the Oslo II Accords decreed that the West Bank would be divided into areas A, B, and C. These affect the Israeli army’s ability to intervene and interfere in the West Bank’s civil and military matters. A areas (the eight main Palestinian cities in the West Bank, in total 18 percent of the territory) are — in theory — under the administrative and military jurisdiction of the Palestinian Authority. In reality, every decision taken by the latter must be mediated and approved by the Israelis. Still, construction bans block Israelis from developing settlements here, and at the entrances to A areas, road signs inform Israeli citizens that if they decide to enter, they do so at their own risk. Yet settlers have no real need or incentive to enter the A areas since they already occupy most B and C areas. B areas (22 percent of the West Bank) serve as buffer zones between areas A and C, where civil administration (public health, schools, etc.) falls under the Palestinian Authority. Nevertheless, all security control is in the hands of Israeli forces. Not surprisingly, this is where most Palestinian refugee camps are, and they are subjected to weekly, sometimes daily, raids and incursions by Israeli forces.
Lastly, there are the C areas, which constitute 60 percent of the territory. Defined in the Oslo II agreements as areas that Israel would gradually return to the administration of the Palestinian Authority, they are presently entirely controlled by the Israeli army. Here is where the settlements are located and have been expanding. As these grow, more land is stolen from Palestinian villages, whose residents, being completely at the mercy of military law, get evicted from their homes, their lands, and their schools and are forcibly displaced without receiving any support either from the Palestinian Authority or, clearly, from the state of Israel. Palestinians living in area C (administratively similar to Al-Khalil’s H2), are the most vulnerable to IDF and settler attacks, against which they have no means of opposition. It is in these areas that the ethnic cleansing attempt against Palestinians appears most overtly.
Eviction and Dehumanization
In one of the most southern regions of the West Bank, there is a small village called Zenouta. Predominantly area C, its land is desert-like and hilly; it’s been the perfect spot for Palestinian shepherds to graze their sheep and goats for centuries. Zenouta is just a few miles from the cement wall dividing the West Bank from the rest of occupied Palestine. On the road that leads to the village, it’s easy to notice the vast barrier that constantly reminds Palestinians of the apartheid system they are living under. Yet the wall isn’t the most striking construction in sight: the four Israeli settlements (and their respective military bases) encircling Zenouta stand out even more. As they expand, they are gradually wiping away the geographic and historical traces of the village.
Asef is seventy-five years old and is the last remaining shepherd from his village. His family has lived here for many generations and always depended on this land for sustenance and commerce. Today, such a lifestyle has become impossible. Asef says he is tired and no longer knows what to do or how to react, but he won’t give up his land. For over twenty years, he’s been peacefully fighting against the occupation’s expansion across what used to be “his” hills, where his herds would freely graze. Asef has never picked up a weapon, even though his neighboring settlers and soldiers have repeatedly exposed him to violence.
He recounts an attack he suffered a few days before I met him. On the hill across from the one where his goats are, a settler has lived in an illegally built estate for many years. The shepherd was at the bottom of the valley when suddenly the settler harassed him with a rifle and hunting dogs, which killed three of his goats. When I ask him how Israeli forces react during these incidents, he smiles softly at the naiveté of my question. He points eastward to another hill near his home that the occupation has swallowed up. A vast metal pavilion contrasts sharply with the rest of the panorama. He explains that that is the Israeli Supreme Court for the Hebron region, where Palestinians are brought to martial trial and where the testimony of Israelis, who are accusing them, is worth more than the word of a hundred Palestinians. In this very “courthouse,” there is an IDF patrol which is supposed to guard and maintain peace in the valley below. Yet, when settlers harass Asef and his sons, the soldiers oversee without intervening. Indeed, they typically interfere only once the shepherds begin to vent their anger verbally to protect the (armed) settlers from the Palestinians’ words.
Asef and his family no longer live in Zenouta but in the nearby town of Ad-Dariya. It would be impossible to continue living in their village, where Israeli bulldozers have repeatedly dismantled the only school there was and where electricity isn’t available because the conduits have been cut to benefit settlements. Asef has built a small hut next to the goat pens where at least one family member must always be present. Since the territory is area C, it is controlled by Israeli forces. Consequently, should a settler find Asef’s hill with no one guarding it, he could seize and steal the land with impunity.
Recent statements on an Israeli talk show by Itamar Ben-Gvir, current minister of national security in Benjamin Netanyahu’s government, shed light on the Zionist segregationist ideology. The minister, who lives in the Kiryat Arba colony surrounding Al-Khalil, admitted, “My right, the right of my wife and children to move around in Judea and Samaria [the biblical term for the West Bank], is more important than the right to movement of the Arabs.”
“A territory where two peoples are judged under two different legal systems is an apartheid state,” Tamir Pardo, the former Mossad chief, admitted to the Associated Press. Nevertheless, it appears that the Israeli government is finalizing one of the most critical diplomatic agreements since the end of the Cold War with Saudi Arabia, which would lead to the normalization and recognition of Israel by Mohammed bin Salman’s kingdom.
Mahmoud Abbas, president of the Palestinian Authority, better known as Abu Mazen, recently reiterated to the UN General Assembly that the Middle East will not see complete peace without realizing full Palestinian rights. However, no few of his fellow citizens disapprove of him for his collaboration with the occupying power.