Like the rest of the West Bank, Hebron has been under Israeli military control since the June 1967 war. Because of its historical, religious, and strategic significance, in early 1968, Israel designated Hebron a principle frontier for the extension of its settler-colonial project eastward towards the Jordan Valley.
Since the occupation began, Israel has slowly surrounded Hebron with colonies and military infrastructure. Indeed, some of Israel’s first post-1967 settlements in the West Bank were in the Hebron area. In the late 1970s, settlers began to penetrate Hebron’s Old City itself. Over time, these settlers established a number of ethnic enclaves in and around the Old City’s commercial center. The incursion, which was made possible through land and property confiscation, made violent confrontation among settlers, occupying forces, and local Palestinians a daily reality in the city. Israeli military authorities also increasingly restricted Palestinian movement, in order to insulate the settler community from the city’s majority population.
In the 1990s, Israel’s segregationist measures became further entrenched. After the February 1994 massacre of twenty-nine Palestinians at Hebron’s Ibrahimi mosque by an Israeli settler and reserve captain, the Israeli Defense Forces (IDF) effectively shut down the Old City’s commercial center to Palestinian traffic. In 1997, Israel and the Palestinian Authority (PA) signed the Hebron Protocol, which split all of Hebron into two administrative parts: H1 (eighteen square kilometers of the city) came under the control of the PA (at least in principle); and H2 (4.3 square kilometers, including the Old City and its Israeli colonies) came under direct Israeli military control. The administrative division led to unprecedented restrictions on Palestinian movement, forcible transfer (by 2007, 42% of Palestinian homes in H2 were emptied), and the collapse of what was once the commercial center of the southern West Bank. Since then, settler organizations have worked tirelessly to erase any reference to Palestinian history from the landscape.
Palestinians have adopted various tactics to force international recognition of their anti-colonial struggle in Hebron and elsewhere. One such tactic has been to join international institutions and use them to pressure the Israeli government into reversing its discriminatory and exclusionist policies. Most recently, in July 2017, UNESCO (United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization), at the PA’s request, voted to recognize Hebron’s Old City as an endangered Palestinian heritage site. The Israeli government responded by withdrawing from UNESCO, granting new municipal powers to settlers in the Old City, and approving the first building permits for Israeli settlement units within Hebron since 2002. On October 16, 2017, the Israeli government announced that thirty-one new units will be erected in the heart of the Old City, on the grounds of the old Hebron bus station in the Beit Romano settler-outpost.
According to a statement released by Youth Against Settlements, a Palestinian activist group in Hebron:
Construction of the units will accelerate the seizing of Palestinian land in Hebron and expulsion of Palestinian citizens. It will increase the closures of the streets, markets, shops and commercial spaces in the city and region. It will means more movement restrictions, apartheid, segregation, settler violence and harassment.
Issa Amro, a prominent human rights activist and co-founder of Youth Against Settlements, a Hebron-based organization, added that the plan could potentially lead to a 20% increase in the number of Israeli settlers in the heart of Hebron (today numbering 700-800 people).
While Israel is looking to strengthen its separation policy in Hebron, the building permits were granted by the Civil Administration’s Licensing Subcommittee (an Israeli Defense Ministry body) subject to certain conditions. According to local activists, this theoretically subjects the permits to public appeal. Towards this end, the Palestinian Hebron municipality and civil society organizations have decided to challenge the permits’ legality and are generating public support for their efforts.