Twenty years ago, the Old City of Hebron – one of the most important religious sites to Jews and Muslims alike – was crumbling, as curfews and restrictions reduced the Palestinian population to just 400. Then the Hebron Rehabilitation Committee started work
The barricades were to allow hardline Jewish settlers to reach their houses without having to encounter their Palestinian neighbours. But by then the Abu Shareks were the only Palestinian family left in their immediate vicinity of Hebron’s Old City anyway.
Others had grown weary of the ever-present soldiers demanding to see their papers, banning them from walking on certain roads, or bricking up windows and welding shut doors that faced on to streets used by settlers. Some were constantly fearful of arrest, or abuse – verbal and physical – from a small number of biblically driven and deeply ideological settlers who had taken up residence in the historic heart of Hebron. Other families abandoned their homes so they could reach their jobs without navigating military checkpoints, or so that their children could go to school without being called “donkeys” or “dogs”, or so their friends and relatives could visit them.
Hebron’s Old City became a ghost town.
Ancient buildings with metre-thick walls of golden stone, vaulted ceilings and arched doors and windows began to crumble and decay. Tall weeds grew in the cracks; wild dogs and scabby cats nosed around in the rubbish. More than 500 shops were closed by military order. At least twice as many were shut, as curfews, constraints and depopulation took hold.
But in recent years, there has been a change. Although heavy restrictions on the Palestinian population in “H2” – the sector of Hebron under Israeli military control, where around 800 settlers live, protected by at least twice as many soldiers – persist, around 1,000 families have moved back into the Old City. They have been encouraged by the internationally funded Hebron Rehabilitation Committee (HRC), which has painstakingly renovated about 1,000 homes, 120 shops and 10 schools. Although his windows and main door are still blocked, children once again play around the fig tree in Abu Sharek’s courtyard. “It’s beautiful,” he says with a broad smile.
Hebron is one of the oldest cities in the world. As home to the imposing Tomb of the Patriarchs – the resting place of the biblical figures Jacob, Isaac and Abraham, and their wives Leah, Rebecca and Sarah – it is the second holiest place in the Jewish faith. Also known as the Ibrahimi Mosque, the site holds special significance to Muslims, too. Both religions have had a presence in Hebron stretching back for centuries.
The city lies deep in the West Bank, a dozen miles from the Green Line, which demarcated the new state of Israel from Palestinian territory following the 1948 war. Within a few years of Israeli forces conquering and occupying the West Bank, East Jerusalem and Gaza in 1967, Jewish settlers had set their sights on Hebron. First they established a large settlement, Kiryat Arba, on the edge of the city; then they moved into its ancient centre.
Since 1997 – under an agreement between Israel and the late Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat – Hebron has been divided into two parts. H1, the large Palestinian sector, is a typically chaotic Arab city with a thriving commercial centre and a bustling souk. Across barricades and checkpoints lies the much smaller H2. It is a tense, bleak place of shuttered shops and deserted streets. Israeli bulletproof buses take settlers to and from Jerusalem, 45 minutes drive away. Palestinian cars are forbidden. The main drag, Shuhada Street, is banned to Palestinian pedestrians and patrolled by armed soldiers, who refer to it as a “sterile road”.
It was in this area of H2 that the HRC began work. At the time of Hebron’s division, the Palestinian population of the Old City had plummeted from 7,500 to 400. Those remaining – many of them elderly, disabled or unemployed – were living amid near-dereliction, overlooked by army watchtowers and bases.
The HRC – funded by the Palestinian Authority along with international donors, including Saudi Arabia, the UK and Spain – started by rebuilding and renovating the properties in H2 closest to the five Israeli settlements. It was a deliberate strategy to hamper their expansion. “We have both a political aim and a cultural heritage aim,” said Emad Hamdan, HRC’s director. “You cannot separate the political from the cultural issue. Cultural heritage is about preserving Palestinian identity.”
The HRC’s goals include “surrounding settlements with circles of Palestinian buildings” and “increasing the Arab population density”. It also aims to reconnect the Old City to the rest of Hebron, provide affordable social housing, improve living conditions and boost trade and the local economy.
The ambitious plan was made harder by stop-work orders repeatedly issued by Israeli authorities, and the arrests of hundreds of Palestinian labourers working on the renovation projects. “The settlers would throw stones at our workers, and then go to the police and claim the labourers had thrown the stones,” said Hamdan. “The [Israeli] police would arrive, see stones and glass on the ground, and arrest our workers.”
The HRC hired defence lawyers and paid double wages to detained workers, but, inevitably, such arrests discouraged people from working on HRC projects.
The HRC also faced difficulties in bringing materials into areas where Palestinian vehicles were banned. “Sometimes we had to go back to more traditional methods of transportation – like horses and donkeys. Sometimes they even arrested the donkeys,” said Hamdan. Settlers living in the heart of Hebron deny impeding the HRC’s work.
Despite the obstacles, the achievements of the HRC are quite remarkable. Using traditional materials and methods, and painstakingly documenting every stage of work, it has transformed and revitalised parts of the Old City. Its efforts have not just been focused on buildings, but also on services to support the population, cultural activities, local trade and handicrafts, and community building.
“Bringing people back to the historic centre of Hebron is not the end, it’s the first thing,” said Mohammed Abu Hammad of Unesco, the UN’s heritage agency. He added that “living heritage” was just as important – and potentially more so – than preserving old buildings.
But persuading people to return has not been easy. Early progress was halted by the second Palestinian intifada, or uprising, in 2000. Even now, a time of relative calm in the West Bank, incentives – including rent-free housing for a minimum of five years – are necessary to attract residents. Aware of the risks of creating a community of poor families drawn by cheap living, the HRC is actively seeking ways to encourage educated middle-class Palestinians to help repopulate the Old City.
And there are critics among activists on the Palestinian side, who say that rehabilitation of buildings and repopulation cannot mask the continued Israeli control over a significant part of a Palestinian city. They believe the HRC’s work is a cosmetic distraction.
Hebron’s settlers strongly object to the HRC’s work. “Unfortunately, their aims are not just restoration, which would be very nice,” said spokesman Noam Arnon. “They deny the right of Jews to live in this place. For them, the presence of Jews is not acceptable. We want to see the Old City as a cultural, historical, archaeological place for everyone; they only want it for themselves. It’s very sad.”
To date, roughly 6,000 people have moved back to the Old City, mostly relocating from H1 or the villages surrounding Hebron. “Some simply need housing. Some want to return to a place they lived before. Some consider it a national mission to protect this area from being targeted by settlers. Some like it because of the cultural heritage,” said Hamdan. Many of the Old City’s original large properties – known as hosh, and used to house large, extended families – have been divided into smaller apartments, reflecting changes in Palestinian society towards more private living space.
Hamdan is proud of the HRC’s achievements over almost two decades – which have won the organisation several awards, including the World Habitat Award last year. “In 1996, it really was a ghost area. More than 90% of the residents had left. Buildings were crumbling, they were full of garbage and bugs. This is what we started with. Now you are talking about a living city, a renovated area. There is life here.”
But, beyond that, Hamdan talks of renovation and restoration as an act of resistance to the Israeli occupation of his city. “What we are doing is driving [the Israelis] crazy. We are not fighting; we are simply restoring old buildings and bringing people to live here. This is a non-violent way of struggle.”
Harriet Sherwood’s flights were paid for by the Building and Social Housing Foundation