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Hebron under siege

By Khaled Amayreh

In practical terms, the curfew means that everybody, including women and children, must stay indoors, 24 hours a day, seven days a week. And in case a citizen ventures out, even for an emergency, he or she could be shot dead on the spot "for violating the curfew" and "obstructing the function of the Israeli Defence Force."

The shooting is not hypothetical. Last week the Israeli army seriously wounded a 54-year-old Hebron man near the Ibrahimi mosque for disobeying the curfew. The man, hit with a bullet in the chest, is still in hospital. Indeed, several Palestinians, including children, have been shot dead for merely stepping out of their houses during curfews.

Classified as H-2 by the "Hebron protocol" reached by Israel and the Palestinian Authority in 1996, Hebron's old town is under joint Israeli-Palestinian administration.

The people of Al-Khalil are no strangers to Israeli curfews. In 1994, following the Ibrahimi mosque massacre, when an American-Jewish settler, Baruch Goldstein, murdered 29 Palestinian worshipers while praying at the mosque at dawn, Israeli occupation authorities actually punished the victims by imposing a 60-day curfew, which ruined Hebron's economy and caused a collective claustrophobia among the town's 160,000 inhabitants.

"Look, the Israelis don't understand the elementary principles of justice. They always protect the murderer and punish the victim," said Husni Kubabji, an elderly citizen of the old town. "We are waiting until the Almighty intervenes."

It is not apparent why the Palestinian inhabitants of Al-Khalil's old town are being confined to their homes for that long. Israeli occupation authorities cite "security" as the main reason, a mantra that is meant to justify the sustained abuse of the Palestinians.

"A curfew is a slow death. We are all facing overwhelming stress as a result of this brutal behaviour. I hope the world forces Israel to treat us with some humanity," said Ahmed Sharabati, a 50-year-old shopkeeper. He adds with resignation, "What can we do? We just [have to] wait until they lift the curfew. We don't know when they will."

According to Abdul-Aziz Shuqir, head of the Princess Alya Hospital in Hebron, the situation in the old town is "extremely dire."

"They have been keeping 35,000 people inside their homes for 38 days now. This is taking place at a time when Jewish settlers wander about freely in the city looking for a stray Arab to kill."

Meanwhile, the H-1 area, or those parts of Hebron under the Palestinian Authority's administration, has been coming under relatively heavy bombardment by Israeli positions at hilltops overlooking the old town and the Jewish enclave therein.

Numerous buildings are now being hit on a nightly basis. The Israelis claim the Palestinians are firing from their areas towards the Jewish enclaves. This seemed to have happened a few times three weeks ago, but it has ceased ever since.

Nonetheless, the Israeli nightly pounding continues unabated, the situation bearing a burgeoning resemblance to Beirut during the Lebanese civil war, except that, in Hebron, there is only one side shooting.

Interestingly, there is a surrealistic aspect about the bombing in Hebron -- virtually all of it takes place after nightfall and continues till pre-dawn hours. In the morning, the bombed neighbourhoods bustle once more with people, some shopping, others examining the damage to buildings inflicted the previous night, and many simply strolling around.

But this is not to say, of course, that life is continuing as usual. The two main thoroughfares in Hebron, Bab Al-Zawiay and the Shalala streets have become the main flashpoints between stone-hurling Palestinian youths and Israeli soldiers. The confrontations have led to several deaths and more than 600 injuries, some serious.

The Hebron economy has been badly harmed. According to Hashem Abul-Nabi Natshe, head of the Hebron Chamber of Commerce, the city loses an estimated $3 million a day as a result of the siege being enforced on Al-Khalil. Natshe puts the total loss of the entire Palestinian economy at $20 million a day, "in addition to the high casualty figures we sustain."

The settlers in Hebron and in the nearby settlement of Kiryat Arba'a, however, remain by far the ultimate thorn in the side of the people of Hebron. "They behave like wild, mad dogs. They shoot at Arab houses, they break the windshields of our cars, they smash and vandalise our property in full view of Israeli soldiers, who look on nonchalantly. Last week, they conducted several Kristallnachts ["the night of broken glass" or the name given to acts of vandalism by Nazi youths against Jewish property on a night in 1939 in Vienna] at Tel Rumeida," said Taysir Zahdeh, who bore more than his share of what he called "this torture."

"They think they can break our will by adopting these Nazi-like tactics against us. But they are mistaken... we will not leave our homeland, no matter what. We withstood 33 years of their holocaust against us and we can withstand more torment. But at the end, they will be consumed by their own evil," said Zahdeh.


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