Friday, March 04, 2011

OPT:17 years after Goldstein massacre, Hebron city center paralyzed

Source: B'TSELEM - The Israeli Information Center for Human Rights in the Occupied Territories

Zlikhah Muhtasab, 49, is one of the few Palestinians still living on Shuhada Street in the center of Hebron. The street, one of Hebron 's main thoroughfares, links the north and south of the city and passes by the major markets, the Old City , the Tomb of the Patriarchs and al-Haram al-Ibrahimi, and Israeli settlement compounds. Since October 2000, Israel has forbidden Palestinians to walk or drive on the street, although no valid military order for the closure has been presented. Along with other restrictions on Palestinian movement in the area, this has led to an economic collapse of the city center. Many residents have left, and the area has become a ghost town. Over the years, the army repeatedly claimed it was about to permit Palestinians to use the street again, but this has yet to occur.

Israeli settlers, however, are allowed to move freely on the street. In a testimony she gave to B'Tselem, Zlikhah related the harassment she and her 75-year-old mother have suffered since they moved, for financial reasons, to a house on the largely deserted street in 2006. In the first year, settlers regularly threw stones at the house. After Zlikhah came home one day to discover a large amount of stones within the house, she asked the Hebron Rehabilitation Committee to assist her in installing iron grating on the windows and porches of the house for protection. The grating, which gives the house a cage-like appearance, did not assist in deterring assaults, and settlers continue to throw stones at the house from time to time, even at night.

Israel began to restrict Palestinian movement along the street in 1994. After the massacre carried out by Baruch Goldstein in the Tomb of the Patriarchs that year, Israel chose to impose restrictions on the Palestinians, rather than on the Israeli settlers in the city, contending that these restrictions were necessary in order to protect the settlers' safety. At first, Israel forbade Palestinian commerce and vehicle traffic on part of the Shuhada Street , and only residents of the street were allowed to enter by vehicle. Under the Hebron Agreement, signed in January 1997, control of a large part of the city, referred to as Area H1, was transferred to the Palestinian Authority. The section of the city in which Israeli settlements had been established, termed H2, remained under Israeli control. The parties agreed that Israel would once again allow Palestinian vehicle traffic on Shuhada Street , in area H2. For several years, until the beginning of the second intifada, the forbidden section of the street was alternately opened and closed.

When the second intifada broke out, in October 2000, the army placed more stringent restrictions on movement on the street. Now, Palestinians are forbidden to drive along the entire length of the street, and even to walk along the section between the Avraham Avinu settlement compound and the Bet Hadassah settlement compound. The army also prohibits Palestinian traffic on adjacent streets, thereby creating a contiguous strip of land in the center of Hebron , from the Kiryat Arba settlement in the east to the Jewish cemetery in the west, in which Palestinian vehicles are completely forbidden.

As a result of these severe restrictions, 304 shops and warehouses along Shuhada Street closed down, and Palestinian municipal and governmental offices that had been on the street were relocated to Area H1. Israel also took control of the central bus station that had been on the street, turning it into an army base. In 2006, B'Tselem's investigation revealed that most of the properties on or adjacent to Shuhada Street , including homes and businesses, had been abandoned or had been closed by military order. The army forces the few Palestinian families that continue to live on the street to enter their homes via side entrances, since they are not allowed to use the main entrances on Shuhada Street . Where side entrances are not available, the Palestinian residents have no choice but to climb on ladders leading to the roofs of the buildings.

Like other residents still living on the street, Zlikhah and her mother are also forced to enter and leave their home by climbing a steep flight of stairs that serves as a side entrance. As they are forbidden to walk on the main street, they must take circuitous routes and go through two checkpoints in order to reach the mosque of al-Haram al-Ibrahimi (the Tomb of the Patriarchs) or to visit relatives who live nearby. Zlikhah's elderly mother has to walk almost a kilometer to reach her medical clinic, only 300 meters away if she could go via Shuhada Street . The cemetery in which Zlikhah's grandfather and other relatives are buried lies right across the street, but the two have great difficulty visiting it now.

In April 2007, following reports in the Israeli media and public pressure on the issue, the Civil Administration began to issue temporary permits to some Palestinians living on the street. These permits enabled them to enter and leave their houses via the main entrance on the street. Visitors were still denied use of these entrances. The permits were valid for three months, and were extended four times. During this period, Zlikhah, her mother, and their neighbors returned to using the front entrances to their homes and to walking freely on Shuhada Street.

Zlikhah told B'Tselem of the relief she felt and how she would often go out to walk on the street, sometimes at night too, in order to realize her newly returned freedom. She noted that soldiers posted on the street fulfilled their duty to protect Palestinians who were now using the street again, and that settlers in the area were displeased with the development.

The last permit given to Zlikhah expired in August 2008. She related that when she and her neighbors applied to renew the permits again, the Civil Administration said the requests would be handled after the Jewish holidays. Then the Civil Administration dragged its feet, and repeatedly postponed renewing the permits, until the communication ceased altogether. The Palestinian residents of the street had to return to using side entrances or rooftops.

In 2005, the Hebron Municipality and the Association for Civil Rights in Israel petitioned Israel 's High Court of Justice to open the street to Palestinian movement. The state, in response, presented a “plan for protection of the Jewish community in Hebron ,” according to which Palestinians would be allowed to walk on the street, but the prohibition on opening shops and on vehicular traffic on the street would remain in force. Subsequently, military orders were issued restricting vehicular traffic on the street but not pedestrians.

Following this, ACRI wrote to the legal advisor for Judea and Samaria , who stated, in December 2006, that the army had prohibited Palestinians from walking along the street for six years “by mistake.” This contention was clearly a lie. In any event, the army continued to prevent Palestinian pedestrians from using the street. In response to a request ACRI made to the judge advocate general, the latter raised a new argument, whereby the army maintains that the street should remain closed “for security reasons,” without delineating the reasons. Two years ago, the army informed the media that it intended to cancel the prohibition on Palestinian movement on Shuhada Street . To this day, the prohibition remains in force.

The closing of Shuhada Street is part of the policy of separation that Israel imposes in the heart of Hebron. This policy has led to Palestinian mass abandonment of the city center and has brought with it severe, continuing breach of the human rights of Palestinians. It is, de facto, an unacceptable regime of discriminatory separation.