Saed Shukhy
Bitterlemons (Opinion)
December 17, 2008 - 1:00am

The settler riots earlier this month were some of the worst instances of violence in Hebron in many years. But they were not isolated incidents and cannot be divorced from the brittle situation in Hebron that is a direct result of the city's fanatical settler presence, nor from the provocation of the settlement project in occupied Palestinian territory in general.

When the Israeli Army on December 4 finally implemented an Israeli court order to vacate settlers from a Palestinian house near the Kiryat Arba settlement that had been taken over a year-and-a-half earlier, it sparked a night of violence that was only barely contained by Israeli soldiers.

Four Palestinians were shot and dozens injured while settlers ran rampant, torching houses and cars and damaging some 150 olive trees. The army did little to protect Palestinians in the area and for those Palestinian families who live in or near Kiryat Arba it was a night of terror that reminded many of the massacre of 29 Palestinians while they were praying in 1994 by Baruch Goldstein, a fanatic settler from Kiryat Arba who has since become a hero to many right-wing settlers.

And while the house in question was vacated of settlers and the violence ultimately contained - not least because of the Israeli and international media focus that shone an unwelcome spotlight on the behavior of these settlers - such violence, albeit on a smaller scale, is a daily occurrence for Palestinians in Hebron. Not a day goes by when settlers do not abuse, verbally or physically, local Palestinians. Not a day goes by without a new graffiti insulting Islam or otherwise provoking Hebronites. And in all this, the Israeli Army is complicit, standing idly by as armed settlers behave as if they are a law unto themselves in Hebron. Which, of course, they are.

Hebron, part of the largest Palestinian governorate, is home to some 140,000 Palestinians and the city, as per the Hebron agreement of 1997, is divided into two sectors: H1 and H2. In H2, the center of Hebron, there are 30,000 Palestinians living under Israeli security control because of the presence of five small settlements, home to some 400 Jewish settlers, as well as of Kiryat Arba to the east, home to some 7,000 settlers.

But the laws are not equal for the two populations. While the 30,000 Palestinians live under military rule, settlers live under the full protection of Israeli civil law. This is the case across the occupied Palestinian territories, but as a result of their close proximity in Hebron, the separate laws for separate peoples are much more clearly in evidence here.

The Hebron agreement also explains the absence of Palestinian security forces in the center, where they are not allowed to operate. The Palestinian Authority had only recently, and to much fanfare, deployed a large security contingent in Hebron. Barred by direct orders as well as the Hebron agreement from interfering, these forces stood by idle as settlers ran amok.

Hebronites understand that it would have caused enormous problems should Palestinian forces have interfered. Nevertheless, the question many asked is why have security forces that are not able to provide security for their own people? Whose security, then, are these forces there to ensure?

Anger was also directed at Palestinian officials, whose promises of compensation did little to alleviate local frustration. Hebronites feel that the Palestinian Authority has long been unwilling to support families that are directly affected by the extraordinary and unsustainable situation their close proximity to these fanatical settlers, who are illegally squatting on occupied territory, puts them in. While compensation for damages is welcome, it is seen as a reaction rather than as a policy.

Ultimately, the entire set-up of the settler project in Hebron is only an egregious version of the settlement project throughout the occupied Palestinian territories. But the presence of such an uncompromising contingent of settlers makes it imperative that they be removed sooner rather than later, whether an overall agreement is in place or not. Their presence is a time bomb just waiting to happen.


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