Shuhada Street in Hebron’s old city was once a busy shopping street, but now its businesses are gone. The front doors of its Palestinian residents are welded shut. Palestinian pedestrians are banned from the street. The bus station now hosts both and Israeli military base and a settlement.
Revered by Jews and Muslims alike, Abraham, the biblical patriarch, is said to be buried in Hebron. It’s hard to see anything else in the city that unites the Palestinians and Israeli settlers who live here.
The city was formally divided between the Palestinian Authority and Israel under the 1995 Oslo Peace Accords. They control 80% and 20% of the city respectively. The zones are called H1 and H2.
Israeli-controlled H2 is home to 33,000 Palestinians. The five Israeli Jewish settlements in the heart of the old city are what make Hebron a special case. The settlements are illegal under international law, but Israel, which disputes this, has deployed 650 Israeli Defence Forces (IDF) troops to protect them. This protection means the centre of the old city in H2 is a closed military zone.
The 7,000 Palestinians living directly beside settlements inhabit what the UN calls a "coercive environment". In a survey last month, the UN’s Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) found 89% of Palestinian residents have no vehicular access to their house. Over 80% have to pass through checkpoints. Three-quarters of their homes have been raided by the IDF.
Murderous violence has regularly broken out in Hebron. Even before Israel was established, the British - who were then the occupying power - evacuated the city’s Jews in 1931 after more than 70 were killed in a bloody pogrom.
In 1994, Baruch Goldstein shot and killed 29 worshippers in the mosque at the site of Abraham’s grave before being overpowered and killed by Muslim worshippers. There have been many, many other attacks. The UN says settler violence has played a role in Palestinians moving out of the area. An upsurge in knife attacks on settlers and soldiers in 2015 resulted in the current restrictions on movement being tightly enforced.
Yehuda Shaul once patrolled Hebron’s streets with the IDF, and he says his experiences there made him question the entire occupation of the West Bank. He came from a right-wing settler background.
Travelling around Hebron on his walking tours, he tells people what occupation means on a day-to-day basis. On the day RTÉ accompanies him, a settler sees his broken arm and tells him to break the other one. Another slows his car to point him out as a traitor to his children. Two more sing and dance to interrupt as he points out the doors on Shuhada Street that he once helped to weld up.
"I’ve never broken into houses in the middle of the night in Jerusalem tearing apart apartments, probably the police doesn’t do that in Dublin either, but here in 24-7 Hebron, we do what we call making our presence felt."
Palestinian activists fare worse. Issa Amro runs Youth Against Settlements in Hebron, which runs a campaign to reopen Shuhada Street. He says this has made him a target for attacks by settlers.
"You don’t feel safe. My nose was broken, I got five stitches, three stitches", he says gesturing to a couple of points on his head.
"They intimidate you with guns, they throw stones to your house.
"Israeli settlers are allowed to carry guns and they use that power to intimidate us. One of the settlers came here and told me: ‘One day my son will kill you and take your house’."
He says there is fear of soldiers too in the city.
"You are between moody soldiers. You don’t know what soldiers will do. We feel that we live in a military base. Army everywhere, Israeli soldiers are everywhere."
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Efrat is a different scale of settlement. Founded in 1983, it looks like a well-landscaped suburb of Jerusalem, serving commuters. Playgrounds are regularly interspersed on hillside housing estates. A mall is full of shops and restaurants. Palestinians work here on the building sites. But a part of what is now Efrat was built on land that once belonged to the town of al-Khader near Bethlehem, which was made state land by Israel in the 1970s.
Under international law, it is just as illegal as the Hebron settlements, but it looks like a different world. One resident who spoke to RTÉ said he believed people would take a different view of settlements if more people could see the type of life he and his wife lead here.
Its mayor Oded Revivi, foreign envoy of the settler movement’s Yesha Council, says it is time for the international community to recognise the "facts on the ground" on the West Bank, which he calls Judea and Samaria.
"Today we have over half a million Jewish people living in Judea and Samaria. Way back in 1967, if this area was considered to be in some sort of ‘stand by’ in some sort of peace agreement under the equation of land for peace, I think over the last 52 years we’ve seen how this equation has faded off."
He says that Israel’s withdrawals from Lebanon and Gaza did not bring peace, and he argues that the dismantling of settlements in the Occupied Territories would not do so either.
"They actually brought forth rounds of violence and missiles being shot into deeper areas of Israel."
The upcoming US peace plan’s contents and Benjamin Netanyahu’s re-election promise to integrate settlements more closely into Israel, and will make this a contested space for some time to come.