The Apartheid System in Hebron Persecutes and Subjugates Palestinians

There are two roads leading to the Abraham Mosque in Hebron, Palestine. The roads are side by side, separated only by a fence and barbed wire. One of the roads is for the Jewish settlers of Hebron, and the other is for the Palestinians.

The settler’s side is a nice, clean, asphalt-paved road, easily accessible for everyone, including the elderly and those with disabilities. The Palestinians’ side is a narrow, uneven dirt path, littered with trash and rubble, and unfit for walking. These dual paths are known as “Apartheid Road” to local Palestinians and international activists, and they serve as metaphor for the larger systematic apartheid of Hebron.

“Apartheid Road” from the Palestinian side:

The International Criminal Court defines apartheid as the “institutionalized regime of systematic oppression and domination by one racial group over any other racial group or groups and committed with the intention of maintaining that regime.” By any reasonable reading of that statute, the situation in Hebron and other areas of the occupied West Bank certainly qualify as apartheid.

Hebron, known as al-Khalil in Arabic, is the largest city in the occupied West Bank, with more than 200,000 residents. Hebron has been under Israeli occupation since the Six-Day War in June 1967. The following year, right-wing Israelis began establishing settlements (widely recognized as illegal under international law) in the heart of Hebron. Around 600 settlers live in Hebron, and upwards of 2,000 soldiers guard them.

The soldiers operate dozens of checkpoints, barriers and closed military zones in Hebron, sharply restricting Palestinian freedom of movement. Palestinians in Hebron have to pass through several checkpoints every day, oftentimes being detained for hours or even denied entry. Several areas of Hebron are exclusively for Jewish settlers, and entry to Palestinians is forbidden.

Palestinian man passes through a checkpoint in Hebron.
Palestinian man passes through a checkpoint in Hebron.

The settlers and the Palestinians of Hebron live under two drastically different systems. The settlers enjoy systemic superiority and legal supremacy with nearly no restrictions. The local, Indigenous Palestinian population has virtually no rights, and is subject to daily abuse and humiliation both by the soldiers and the settlers.

The settlers of Hebron operate with near total legal impunity, regularly harassing and attacking Palestinians and international activists, and vandalizing Palestinian property. On a near daily basis, settlers uproot Palestinian olive trees, attack houses and assault Palestinians, all with virtually no consequences, legally or otherwise. In fact, most settler violence is committed in plain view of Israeli soldiers and Israeli cameras, yet settlers are almost never punished or even investigated. Oftentimes, it is the victim of a settler attack who is punished, not the attacker.

Idress Zahdeh is a 70-year-old Palestinian man who has lived in Hebron his entire life. On June 30, 2019, Zahdeh was attacked and stabbed in the hand by three settlers while working in his field, in plain view of Israeli army cameras. After being treated for his wounds at the hospital, Zahdeh went to the police station to file a complaint.

At the station, the Israeli police arrested him and then informed him that the security footage of the attack had been “accidentally” deleted. Zahdeh was then ordered to pay 2,000 Israeli new shekels for his release, but he refused. “You will have to shoot me before I give you even one shekel,” he told his Israeli captors. Hours later, Zahdeh was released. According to Zahdeh, no investigation was opened into his attack.

Idrees Zahdeh stands in his field where he was attacked.
Idrees Zahdeh stands in his field where he was attacked.

For many Palestinians, Zahdeh’s story is unremarkable.

While the Jewish settlers live under civil law and are tried in civilian courts, with all of the due process rights that Israelis within Israel proper have, Palestinians are tried under military courts where their conviction rates are nearly 100 percent. Nearly 5,000 Palestinians are currently in Israeli prisons, including hundreds of children.

Frequently, Palestinians are not even granted the right to a military trial, and instead are arrested and imprisoned at the whim of an army commander. This is known as “administrative detention,” which, according to Jerusalem-based human rights organization B’Tselem, is “incarceration without trial or charge, alleging that a person plans to commit a future offense.” When a Palestinian is under administrative detention, no evidence is presented and no due process of any kind is granted. Administrative detention typically lasts six months, but is frequently extended to a year or more. There are currently more than 450 Palestinians in administrative detention.

A significant number of Palestinians are in Israeli prisons for rock throwing, something that has become popular with young Jewish settlers as well. The Associated Press conducted a study in 2014 comparing the punishments for Palestinians throwing rocks and Jewish settlers throwing rocks. Of the Palestinian rock throwers, almost 1,200 were arrested, 528 were tried and 100 percent were found guilty. Of the Israeli settler rock throwers, 90 percent were immediately released without charges, and the conviction rate for those who were charged was 0 percent.

Apartheid and the Economy of Hebron

Shuhada Street, the main road running through the center of Hebron, was once the center of cultural and commercial life in the city. Thousands of shops and homes were located on or close to Shuhada Street. This vital street was closed by an Israeli military order in 1994, not in response to Palestinian violence, but because a Jewish settler massacred 29 Palestinian worshippers in the Abraham Mosque. Most of Shuhada Street is now forbidden for Palestinians, yet fully accessible for settlers. The closure of Shuhada Street devastated Hebron’s economy, closing hundreds of shops and businesses, and causing Hebron to have “the highest poverty rate in the West Bank.”

Shuhada Street today.
Shuhada Street today.

In contrast, the settlers of Hebron are the most heavily subsidized settlers in all of the West Bank, receiving seven times as much money per person as Israelis within Israel proper. Furthermore, Israel recently approved a 22-million shekel (U.S. $6.1 million) expansion project in Hebron, further ghettoizing the local population.

Any effort to peacefully demonstrate against this system of apartheid and economic destruction of Hebron is crushed by force. The Israeli police and army use stun grenades, rubber bullets, tear gas, and pepper spray to quell protests and deny Palestinians any freedom of expression and peaceful association.

The situation in Hebron is not a disparity between those with more rights and those with less, nor is it a question of mild discrimination or racism. It is a disparity between the Jewish settler population having near total power and privilege, and the Indigenous Palestinian population who have virtually no rights whatsoever in the land where they were born.