An Introduction to the City of Hebron
Hebron, Al-Khalil in Arabic, Chevron in Hebrew, is the heart of a wide hilly region. Some of its neighborhoods reach the altitude of 1000 meters above sea level. The Old City, also called Qasba in Arabic, and the Ibrahimi Mosque/Cave of Machpela are situated on the northern flank of a valley, at an altitude of approximately 860m. This relatively high altitude grants the city cool weather during summertime and abundant rainfalls in winter.
Agricultural areas surround the city. Farmers in the Hebron region usually cultivate fruits such as grapes and plums. In addition to agriculture, local economy relies on handicraft, small- and medium-scale industry and construction. Surrounded by towns as Halhul, Yatta, Dura, Al-Dhahariya, each counting more than 20,000 inhabitants, Hebron is one of the most important marketplaces in the Palestinian Territories.
Since the beginning of the twentieth century, the city has expanded dramatically, mostly along the roads leading to Jerusalem and Beersheva. In 1997, Hebron counted 120,000 inhabitants. This makes it the second most populated West Bank city after Jerusalem. The municipality borders delimit a territory of approximately 17 km2.
Apart from Jewish settlers
and Israeli troops, the population of the
city is mostly Muslim.
For centuries, however, an important Jewish
community was part of Hebron society. This
peaceful coexistence ended brutally with the
riots, during which some 60 Hebronite
Jews were killed. Subsequently, the British
mandatory authorities transferred the
Jewish population from the city.
Hebron has the reputation
of being a conservative and traditional city.
No cinemas or places of entertainment can
be found here. There are very few restaurants
and coffeehouses, compared to other Palestinian
cities. Nevertheless, the city enjoys a rich
community life, with a number of popular institutions,
such as women and youth groups, and art centers.
Hebron also has its own university, founded
in 1973, and a polytechnic school.
The Distinction between "H1" and "H2"
In January 1997, after nearly thirty years of occupation, the Israel Defense Forces (IDF) withdrew from some 80 percent of the Hebron municipal territory. This redeployment, originally agreed upon in the Interim Agreement (Oslo II) of September 1995, was postponed for several months, until a new agreement - the "Protocol Concerning the Redeployment in Hebron" - was reached. In the meantime, most of the biggest West Bank cities had already been handed over to the Palestinian Authority.
In the Hebron Protocol, a distinction is made between Hebron's "H1" and "H2" areas. The status of the largest part of the city, "H1", is similar to the one pertaining to "Area A". The Palestinian Police Forces (PPF) exercise full control over "H1", while the IDF are not allowed to enter, unless escorted by Palestinian security forces. Yet, the IDF maintain indirect control over this part of the city, by occasionally establishing checkpoints at entrances to the city, or by closing these points of access. "H1" covers residential sectors as well as the commercial areas of Bab Al-Zawiya and Wadi Al-Tuffah, situated west of the Old City.
In the remaining part of the city, "H2", Israel maintains military presence, as well as control over various aspects of Palestinian daily life. Palestinian civil institutions operate under certain restrictions imposed by the Israeli military administration. When it comes to the PPF, they are only present when they participate in joint patrols led by the IDF.
"H2" covers approximately 20 percent of the municipal territory. It comprises the entire Qasba and areas adjacent to the Jewish settlements. The population in this area is composed of an estimated 30,000-35,000 Palestinians and approximately 400 Jewish settlers.
This relatively small sector is the geographic, economic, historic and religious center of Hebron.
Al-Shuhada Street and the Old City
One main road runs through "H2" and connects the western to the eastern part of the city: Al-Shuhada Street. The traffic on this street, where three of the four Israeli settlements of Hebron are located, is tightly controlled by the IDF. Various restrictions are imposed on Palestinian motorists who want to use it. A bus station used to be located along Al-Shuhada Street. This popular meeting point was closed in 1986 and subsequently turned into an Israeli military compound. To this day, these successive measures have led to the virtual extinction of the economic activity along Al-Shuhada Street.
In spite of being located inside the Israeli-controlled area of the city, the Souq situated inside the Qasba and behind Al-Shuhada Street remains one of the busiest in the West Bank. However, the wholesale vegetables market (Al-Hisbe), adjacent to the Souq, has also been closed by Israel, due to security considerations.
The Qasba itself is no longer among the most densely populated areas of the city. Since the first half of the twentieth century, its population dropped from 8,000 to a few hundred. To reverse this evolution, the Palestinian local authorities have, since 1997, made a continuous effort to renovate, rehabilitate and develop the Old City. This led to an increase in the number of families moving into the Qasba. Similarly, efforts are being made to highlight its cultural heritage.
Located northeast of the Old City, the Ibrahimi Mosque/Cave of Machpela is included in the area under Israeli control, as are Islamic institutions, and a number of old mosques.
The Ibrahimi Mosque/Cave of Machpela
The question of the Ibrahimi Mosque/Cave of Machpela is among the most sensitive issues in the Palestinian-Israeli conflict. The sanctuary is dedicated to Abraham, the patriarch of both Arabs and Jews. Deep-rooted in Jewish tradition, the history of the Cave of Machpela takes on a special importance, as the site is believed to be the first piece of land bought by Abraham in the Promised Land.
Since the Islamic conquest of the region, in the seventh century, the site is predominantly revered by Muslims as Al-Haram Al-Ibrahimi, the Abraham Sanctuary or Ibrahimi Mosque. For seven centuries, its access was restricted to Muslim worshippers only. Jewish pilgrims were allowed to pray at a special location, outside the building.
During the 1967 War, on the same day the Israeli troops entered Hebron, the IDF chaplain placed a Torah scroll inside the Mosque. This initiative made it possible for Jews to hold prayers and religious services in various parts of the sanctuary - sometimes at the same time and place as the Muslims. This move raised a wide indignation among the Arab public opinion and Muslim clergymen. According to them, the installation of a synagogue inside the sanctuary challenges the Muslim character of the site.
The recent history of the site was marked by the massacre of 29 Muslim worshippers by a Kiryat Arba settler, in February 1994. An Israeli commission headed by Meir Shamgar examined the circumstances of the bloodshed. Its recommendations led to a number of new arrangements, such as the establishment of a physical separation between the worshippers of the two communities and the tightening of the security checks at the entrances. It was also decided that on an equal number of days a year, the Ibrahimi Mosque/Cave of Machpela would be reserved for members of one community only.
Hebron is the only West Bank City where a number of Israelis have settled. In 1968, a group of Israelis occupied a small hotel in Hebron, expressing their intention to re-establish a Jewish community in Hebron. They failed to obtain an authorization from the Israeli military administration, but were granted the right to build a settlement on uninhabited land outside the city: Kiryat Arba. A few years later, in the early 1980s, Israelis received from the government the permission to dwell in old houses that used to belong to members of the old Hebronite Jewish community, to re-build parts of the run-down Jewish Quarter and to settle in houses of disputed ownership.
Four small Israeli settlements have been established between 1979 and 1984 - in the Qasba, along Al-Shuhada Street and on top of the Tel Rumeida hill, overlooking the Old City. These settlements number less than fifty families, that is, approximately, 400 people. In addition, Hebron is bordered to the east by the large settlement of Kiryat Arba, whose population now reaches 6,000. Noteworthy, the settlements are all located either close to densely populated, or to busy commercial areas.
The main task of the IDF in "H2" is the protection of the Jewish community. This task is achieved through a number of security measures imposed on the Palestinian population, such as observation posts on rooftops, checkpoints, intensive identity checks, and restrictions of traffic. The IDF also maintains a tight supervision on construction and rehabilitation works. Similarly, the Israeli military administration can impose restrictions of use and military orders on private houses, public premises and infrastructure.
Source: Temporary International Presence in Hebron