Israel’s Crackdown on Hebron

Intensified restrictions on Palestinian life in the West Bank city, introduced after October 7th, could become permanent and even spread elsewhere.

Maya Rosen
February 13, 2024

A checkpoint between Hebron’s H1 and H2 areas, pictured in 2018.

Emily Glick

(This article also appeared in the Jewish Currents email newsletter; subscribe here!)

On the morning of October 7th, Issa Amro, a human rights activist in Hebron’s Tel Rumeida neighborhood, first found out that Hamas had attacked the south of Israel when a group of Israeli soldiers and settlers arrived at his home in the West Bank city and detained him as part of a retaliatory raid. In an interview with Jewish Currents, he described being taken to a nearby military base where he was tortured continuously for ten hours and sexually assaulted. The injuries he sustained caused permanent nerve damage that will require surgery. “I didn’t expect to go back home alive,” Amro said. Once he was released later in the day, Amro returned to a community under total curfew, as hundreds of Palestinian residents of several neighborhoods in Hebron were placed under full lockdown for the two weeks after October 7th, with no way to obtain even food and water. Amro and his Palestinian neighbors ate only what they had at home, going hungry much of the time.

Amro’s experience is just one example of the wave of violence and repression that has intensified against Palestinians in Hebron since October 7th. In the past four months, as anti-Palestinian sentiment has soared in Israel and the world has largely focused its attention on Gaza, Israeli settlers and soldiers have killed 384 Palestinians, including 97 children, in the West Bank and injured 4,443 more. These attacks have been rampant in Hebron, where Israeli settlers live in the center of the local Palestinian population; in the city, Israeli forces have killed 33 Palestinians since October 7th, including 3 children, and injured 223, while settlers have injured 30 others, according to the UN’s Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs. “In Hebron, settlers and soldiers are carrying out night raids, day raids, and shooting people without any instruction,” Amro told Jewish Currents. An activist from Hebron who asked to remain anonymous due to concerns for his safety offered a similarly grim report: “Since October 7th, there is no law. The soldiers treat us as less than animals. Our lives are very, very cheap to them. They shoot people for no reason,” he said.

These attacks have been accompanied by increased Israeli control over Palestinian movement. While the complete lockdown that Amro and his neighbors faced after October 7th has since eased, Palestinians in multiple Hebron neighborhoods—such as the area around the Ibrahimi Mosque and near central Shuhada Street—are still barred from going outside after 6:30 pm in the evening Sunday through Thursday, and can’t leave their homes at all on Fridays or Saturdays. Israeli forces have also added new barriers and fences blocking Palestinian movement within the city, designated certain roads as newly off-limits, and closed checkpoints that Palestinians are required to pass through to reach other parts of the city. This has severely impacted residents’ ability to reach their places of work and purchase necessities. “We started running low on food, cooking gas and medicine,” Harbiyah a-Zaro, a resident of Hebron, reported in a testimony given to the Israeli human rights organization B’tselem.

In addition to affecting Hebron’s Palestinian residents, Israel’s brutal crackdown on the city poses a threat to Palestinians across the West Bank, because restrictions and tactics that start in Hebron often end up spreading to the rest of the region. It was in Hebron, for example, that the Israeli army first used military orders to establish segregated roads; such roads are now a feature across the West Bank. Hebron is also where facial recognition technology was first used to surveil Palestinians in 2021; this, too, has spread to the rest of the West Bank. Now, as local Israeli soldiers begin to impose new restrictions in Hebron with impunity—at times seemingly acting against the official policy of their military commanders—many fear that these tactics will similarly spread, worsening the already dire situation of Palestinian communities in the West Bank. As human rights attorney Michael Sfard said in an interview in H2: Occupation Lab, a recent documentary about the city, “Hebron is the occupation’s lab. Everything the Israeli authorities do in the West Bank, even in East Jerusalem, began as ‘trial and error’ in Hebron. When you come to Heborn, you’ll see what’ll happen in other places in two months or a year from now.”

In Hebron, segregation is official policy. In 1997, the Hebron Protocol—an agreement between Israel and the Palestine Liberation Organization that grew out of the Oslo Accords—placed the majority of the city, to be known as H1, under the control of the Palestinian Authority. The remaining 20%, where all of the Israeli settlements and many Palestinians neighborhoods are located, was named H2 and put under direct Israeli control. This means that unlike most areas of the West Bank, where Israeli settlements are located nearby or adjacent to—but not directly within—Palestinian villages, in Hebron’s H2 section there is a settlement of 650 Israelis situated at the heart of an urban Palestinian population of 40,000. These 650 settlers, along with about 200 yeshiva students who are not permanent residents, are guarded by the constant presence of 650 Israeli soldiers. Because Hebron’s Palestinian residents and Israeli settlers live on the same streets, enforcing Israeli control in the city has entailed particularly stark segregation.

In order to minimize contact between the settlers and their Palestinian neighbors, allegedly to ensure security, the Israeli army operates a prolific network of checkpoints throughout the city and enforces severe restrictions of movement on the Palestinian population, creating what the Israeli army, in its official parlance, refers to as “sterilization”—areas and roads closed to Palestinians. These restrictions have destroyed the one-time commercial center of Hebron, turning the bustling city center into what many refer to as a ghost town, and have forced many Palestinian residents of H2 to leave the area. Over the years, the Israeli military has rejected entreaties to abandon this extreme segregation as a guiding principle for its security operations in Hebron and has instead only intensified it. As Harel Weinberg, the Israeli military’s legal advisor for the West Bank, said in response to a 2007 proposal submitted by external Israeli security experts to the Israeli Supreme Court about how to ease restrictions on Palestinians in Hebron without endangering Israeli settlers in the city, ​​“It seems that the basis of the opinion [of the security experts], whereby it is possible for Palestinians to live a normal life in the area alongside that of Israelis, is inconsistent with the principle of separation that underlies the security forces’ plan to safeguard the space.”

This “principle of separation” has only grown more extreme since October 7th as Israeli forces take advantage of the distraction of the war in Gaza to employ a variety of tactics to make life in H2 even less livable for Palestinians. “They added more restrictions—more checkpoints, more closures, more barbed wire, more military posts,” Amro told Jewish Currents. These restrictions compromise Palestinians’ ability to access H1, the larger, fully Palestinian section of the city, where many regularly purchase provisions, visit family and friends, and most critically, work. Out of the 22 permanent checkpoints that allow access from H2 into H1, Amro said, only five are currently being staffed, and even those are operating at unpredictable and greatly reduced hours. When the checkpoints are closed, Palestinians aren’t allowed to pass through at all. As a result, the anonymous Hebron activist said, many Palestinians in Hebron have lost their jobs, putting them in dire economic straits. “There are a lot of people who are really in need now,” he said. Amro agreed: “For the first time in my life, I am fundraising to feed families in the neighborhood,” he said. These troubles have only been compounded by other closures enforced by the Israeli military, such as those of several schools as well as large numbers of Palestinian shops and businesses.

Amro also described other, smaller steps that the Israeli military has taken to make it difficult for Palestinians to traverse Hebron. “At the checkpoint itself, they increased the sensitivity of the metal detectors to the point that it beeps on women’s bras, so the women, when they pass through the checkpoint, have to be careful not to wear a bra with underwire,” he explained. When Amro recently passed through a checkpoint he was made “to take off my shoes in the mud. It’s raining and very cold. And I had to take off my jacket completely.” There are other such indignities: for instance, Palestinians living in Amro’s neighborhood of Tel Rumeida are not allowed to drive on the road between the nearest checkpoint that allows access to H1 and their homes, meaning that even if they manage to obtain gas for cooking—which they must purchase in H1 beyond the checkpoint—they have to manually carry the heavy containers to their homes. The new restrictions have also isolated Palestinians living in H2, as no Palestinian non-residents are allowed entrance. Amro’s house had once functioned as a community center. “I used to have people in my house: visitors, friends, and activities. But now I’m alone,” he said. Even those living in the same neighborhood are sometimes unable to visit each other because of the restrictions on movement. “A friend of mine said that even though his brother only lives about 100 or 150 meters from him, he has not been able to see him or go visit him for more than 50 days,” said Hamed Qawasame, who directs the Hebron International Resource Network.

The Israeli military has claimed that any new restrictions in Hebron are temporary and are part of routine security operations, stating in a November 22 letter that “from time to time passing through checkpoints is prohibited, in accordance with an operational assessment of the situation.” But while these forms of collective punishment are often introduced as temporary measures under the guise of “security,” precedent shows that many are never lifted. Following the Goldstein Massacre of 1994, when an Israeli settler murdered 29 Palestinians while they were praying at the Ibrahimi Mosque (also known as the Tomb of the Patriarchs), a site that is holy to both Muslims and Jews, Israel placed the Palestinian residents of H2 under curfew for months due to fears they would retaliate against the settlers. When the curfew was lifted, roads were still closed to Palestinian vehicles and Palestinian markets and shops were forcibly shuttered-–restrictions that were never eased. These regulations multiplied during the Second Intifada, at which point even more markets were closed, and streets that had been closed to vehicular traffic following the Goldstein Massacre became closed to Palestinian pedestrians as well. These changes also became permanent. “What started as a small temporary closure spread and spread, and as soon as there was an excuse, it became a permanent closure,” said Nadav Weiman, senior director of the Israeli human rights group Breaking the Silence. Similarly, after a wave of stabbing attacks carried out by Palestinians in 2015, new restrictions on movement were again imposed, accompanied by orders for hundreds of stores to close. None of these restrictions were ever lifted either. “If we want to learn a history lesson from Hebron, then usually, a temporary restriction becomes a permanent one,” Weiman said.

In addition to further entrenching the city’s long-term apartheid arrangement, the new wave of repression in Hebron offers concerning evidence that its local military command may have, in effect, gone rogue. On November 13th, the Association for Civil Rights in Israel (ACRI) sent legal correspondence to the Israeli military requesting that the curfew in H2 be lifted. In the letter, Roni Pelli, the attorney for ACRI, wrote that “while Palestinians are not permitted to go out at all, the Jewish settlers in Hebron face no restrictions” and argued that the situation in Hebron violated international law. But in its response to Pelli, the military, to observers’ surprise, argued that “no curfew has been placed on the residents of the city of Hebron, and Palestinian residents of H2 are able to move freely at all hours.” Najwa Al-Jabari, a local resident, told Haaretz that they had been told “that there’s no curfew—but they’re liars.” Indeed, when residents printed out the military’s letter stating there was no curfew to show soldiers, soldiers reportedly tore it up, underscoring the total divide between the military top brass and the soldiers running the city. In a second letter to the Israeli army on December 14th, Pelli reemphasized this reality, noting that “the curfew, which the response claimed was never imposed, is still being enforced as described” and sending along meticulously compiled evidence of Hebron’s ongoing military-mandated lockdowns—including photos and videos proving that residents were being forced to remain inside their homes and photos of communication Palestinian residents of H2 had received from the military informing them of the restrictions. But Pelli’s second letter, as well as a third, went unanswered.

Pelli explained to Jewish Currents that the discrepancy between the military’s official position that there is no curfew and the reality on the ground in Hebron reveals that “the forces on the ground don’t necessarily act according to the instructions of the military commander.” Pelli noted that such a disconnect has existed from time to time in the past, “but now, it’s become really extreme. Even in cases where the military legal advisor has ordered the forces to act in a certain way, there has been no change on the ground.” The growing boldness of the city’s Israeli soldiers builds on years of precedent under which those who ignore military orders and act in contravention of military rules frequently go unpunished—a phenomenon that has been particularly present in Hebron, where soldiers have found that they can even murder Palestinians in plain sight and largely get away with it. “Senior commanders are unable to impose adequate [discipline] on soldiers,” filmmaker and journalist Noam Sheizaf, who co-directed H2: Occupation Lab, told Jewish Currents.

The free rein that soldiers enjoy in Hebron has increased as most of the city’s military presence has come to be composed of local settlers. Once most of the Israeli soldiers in active duty in Hebron were deployed to Gaza this past fall, local settler reservists were called up to join notoriously violent “regional defense battalions,” in which settlers from across the West Bank serve as part of the Israeli military in their own settlements and neighboring Palestinian villages. The settlers, emboldened by their new status, “implement their ideology on us using the army uniform,” Amro explained. “They’re now using their uniforms and guns to implement all of their plans they’ve kept in their back pockets—expelling villages, violence, settling accounts,” said Weiman. This further accelerates longstanding tactics used by the military and settlers in Hebron to use violence to force Palestinians out of H2, similarly to how violence is used to force the expulsion of Palestinians in Area C across the West Bank. “The settlers see the opportunity to make as many people as possible leave,” said Roei Kleitman, an Israeli solidarity activist who was held at gunpoint when he tried to bring food to Amro and his neighbors in the days after October 7th. In her letters to the Israeli army, Pelli framed even the recent imposition of the curfews and checkpoints as a tactic of expulsion. “Violent actors from the Jewish settlement take advantage of the forced absence of Palestinans from public space to take over and damage their property, breaking into and damaging homes and stores,” she wrote. “Threats and violence from settlers have forced Palestinian residents who live next to settlements to leave.”

Today, the “Hebronization” of the occupation is clearly visible in neighborhoods in East Jerusalem, like Sheikh Jarrah and Silwan, which now also have settlements in their urban centers. The city’s influence is also present throughout the West Bank, which now boasts Hebron trademarks like segregated roads and surveillance technologies. And, according to Sheizaf, the broader dynamics of the occupation originate in Hebron as well: “The relationship between the settlers and the government—and the impunity the settlers receive—that’s something that we saw first in Hebron,” Sheizaf said. Moreover, the phenomenon of settlers using “daily harassment and tiny acts of violence against Palestinians” in order to exert control over them was pioneered in Hebron, he argued. In this sense, Sheizaf echoes Sfard’s analysis of Hebron as a “laboratory” where Israel first tests and implements its strategies of repression. What this means, he explained to Haaretz last year, is that “Hebron is basically a postcard from the future. It’s a postcard from the future of Jerusalem—and also Tel Aviv. This is the kind of relationship that the government will be forging between Jews and Arabs in this country . . . It begins in the Hebron laboratory, and from there it will spread all over the country.”

“Hebronization” may be posed to spread even further. Notably, leaders of Hebron’s settlement movement are also among the leading supporters of Israeli resettlement in Gaza, which right-wing activists hope will soon be possible as a result of Israel’s war on the coastal enclave. “We will very soon, God willing, arrive at Jewish settlement in Gush Katif [the bloc of Israeli settlements evacuated from Gaza in 2005]. We must believe in this,” Eliyahu Libman, the head of the Hebron local council,said to a euphoric crowd at a recent pro-Gaza-settlement conference. Libman’s own son is currently being held hostage in Gaza, but he seemed to imply that this was an acceptable price to pay for the cause, stating emphatically that soldiers have been killed and injured and people have been taken hostage “so that we, God willing, will quickly return to settle Gush Katif . . . Victory is the destruction of our enemies and the revival of Gush Katif,” he said. Yishai Fleisher, the international spokesperson for the Israeli settlement in Hebron, similarly declared on X (formerly Twitter), “Israel must return to govern Gaza - that is historical justice.” Should resettlement in Gaza take place, it will likely follow the model developed by Hebron’s settlers—including the idea that implementing new measures under the guise of security concerns can be used to create a new enduring reality. “I think we will see all sorts of temporary measures, in terms of the displacement of the population, the buffer zone, become the new status quo in Gaza,” said Sheizaf. “There will be no solution, there will be a new status quo.”

Maya Rosen is the Israel/Palestine fellow at Jewish Currents.