WEST BANK — Palestinians living in one of the neighbourhoods near Shuhada Street are allowed to pass through a junction next to the Ibrahimi Mosque, or the Cave of the Patriarchs, but can’t head left or right. In early June at the junction, Palestinians and Jewish settlers just looked at each other as they passed by. Words were not exchanged.
In the eerily quiet parts of Shuhada Street, shops that once did brisk business were shuttered. Jewish people, who have illegally settled in the area, occasionally walked past. A jogger wearing a traditional Jewish undergarment, did repeated laps of the empty street. Two American Jews, explaining that they didn't live in Hebron, said they were there to support Israeli soldiers. They were affable, and the man from Los Angeles explained that he could totally understand why Palestinians were angry, and even admitted that they were repressed. But this was all brought upon themselves, he said, because of past attacks in Hebron against Jews.
It was a necessary security measure, he said
Then why place yourself in a dangerous area, right in the middle of people who see you as occupiers, I asked. “Hebron is like my right hand,” he answered. He went on to explain the importance of Hebron in Judaism, how it could never be forsaken.
The Palestinians of Hebron would just have to accept it, he argued.
This radical mindset is prevalent across Israel today; many Israelis, including their right-wing government, believe that they have a divine approval to usurp Palestinian lands and Palestinian people should not resist.
Abdelaziz al Khateeb was one of the victims of the decades-old Israeli aggression. I met Khateeb at his house in Himza, a village on a hilltop of West Bank surrounded by illegal Jewish settlements.
A polite man in his early 70s, Khateeb has grown familiar with TV crews pitching up their equipment to film his neighbourhood and the patch of rubble that lies next to his home.
His wife was blunt enough to point out the monotony of never-ending arrivals of TV crews. “What’s the point?” she said, “It’s not like anything will ever change.”
Two months ago, the Israeli authorities asked Khateeb’s son to vacate his house. Within 12 hours of serving the notice, dozens of soldiers turned up, along with the bulldozers. I could still make out the track marks in the dry mud; a satellite dish and a toilet still sat in the rubble.
The house their son lived in was built without a permit. It had to go. No matter that it was on Khateeb’s land, and that it was extremely difficult to get a permit. The occupying forces went ahead with the demolition.
Hizma sits on a sensitive part of the West Bank. The separation wall has been built behind Khateeb’s property, and a road used by Jewish settlers – built on his land – lies in the front.
Khateeb’s life, and Hizma, was representative of Israel's 50-year long occupation of the West Bank. Entrenched, inflexible, unfair.
The village was only around 10 kilometres away from Jerusalem. In his youth, prior to the occupation, Khateeb said he was able to walk to Jerusalem. I almost found this hard to believe. Our drive, which had to pass through certain checkpoints because we had a Palestinian with us, was a lot longer than what apparently 60 years ago, was a brisk walk.
For Khateeb, there was no end to the hard times. He was not the only one who felt that way. It's quite clear to most observers that Israel won't reverse its aggressive approach toward the Palestinians. The United States may occasionally chastise the country on the issue of settlements or the like, and maintains different protocols in relation to East Jerusalem and the West Bank, but it doesn't look like they will go any further. If anything, the presidency of Donald Trump has only emboldened the Israelis. Driving through Jerusalem, posters repeated to me numerous times – "President Trump – Jerusalem is Israel’s united capital!"
Even in the Arab world, Israel is finding more friends. The United Arab Emirates now hosts an Israeli diplomatic mission, and, along with Saudi Arabia, has been working increasingly in the open with the Israelis to isolate Iran. In a first, a Saudi commentator recently felt comfortable enough to appear on Israeli television. The Arab boycott of Israel remains in name only, and even that may not last long. All of this at a time when Israel has just broken new ground on its first new illegal settlement since the 1990s, and has the most right-wing government in its history.
At least for most Arab governments, the appetite to confront Israel is gone. After 50 years of occupation, can the same be said for the Palestinians? I was interested in the answer. On the face of it, surely, after living under occupation for so long it would make sense for people to give up.
Among pro-Palestinian people on the outside, the answer might be a certain "no." But I was slightly surprised to note how many Palestinians in the West Bank worked in nearby settlements, and even in Israel itself. For Israelis, cheap labour is cheap labour, and for Palestinians, a job is a job.
And while all the Palestinians I spoke to were clear that the buck stopped with Israel, many didn't have kind words for their own leaders. In their eyes, the President of the Palestinian Authority, Mahmoud Abbas, has increasingly taken on the sensibilities and tendencies of an authoritarian Arab leader. The difference is that he doesn't exactly have a state to govern.
The man touted as his possible replacement, Marwan Barghouti, is a prisoner, and there are no signs that he will be released any time soon. Barghouti becoming president would have symbolic significance, but he would be unable to govern from his prison cell. And the more I thought about it, that combination of symbolism and impotence felt like what the Palestinian Authority embodies at the moment.
It has done little to improve the lives of Palestinians. For them, life is still full of walls, checkpoints, and the tantalising proximity of what life could be like. Yes, rich and poor live side by side across the world's major cities. But the contrasts here are on another level.
Pleasant settlement homes sit a hilltop away from Palestinian villages which lack basic services. The gleaming skyscrapers of Tel Aviv are visible from Ramallah's potholed streets. The wall between the Talpiot area of Jerusalem and Bethlehem may as well be a portal into a different world.
But this proximity goes to the very heart of the problem.
For one of the most fought-over territories on earth, one thing becomes very clear when you are travelling around – this place is very small. Israel and the Palestinian territories barely cover 25,000 square kilometres. Getting around most places only takes a couple of hours at a maximum, as long as you're not a Palestinian having to figure out which roads and checkpoints you can and cannot take.
The geography means that Israel will often say that it simply cannot give up the land they have occupied, That any handover of territory would leave Israel open to attack. The West Bank is mostly on higher terrain than Israel’s coastal strip. Israelis argue that handing over the West Bank to a potential foe would be suicide.
And so they continue their settlement building. I could look at hundreds of maps, but it was only when I travelled around the West Bank I came to see how the settlements and the checkpoints affected lives here.
If the road that we were travelling on was nice and smooth, indistinguishable from one in western Europe, then I knew we were on a road that Palestinians weren't allowed on, or one shared with settlers. If, having travelled 15 minutes or so, I noticed that there was a sudden increase in potholes, or assorted rocks on the side of the road, I knew we were in Area A – where Israelis weren't technically allowed in. This was due to the danger posed, bright red signs told us.
As we drove through Hebron, the West Bank’s most populous city, we saw a couple of hundred hard-right Jewish settlers. Their presence meant that Shuhada Street, the former centre of Palestinian life in Hebron, is now out of bounds for Palestinians.
As we walked through the alleyways of Hebron’s Old City we found metal fencing above our heads to stop settlers from throwing rubbish at Palestinians passing below. Twenty percent of the city is a military zone set up purely for the settlers’ security, making life for Palestinians difficult. Most of the restrictions began after a Jewish extremist massacred 29 Palestinians here in 1994.
This is all very difficult to defend, and plays very badly for the Israelis in the court of world opinion. And yet, it appears to not matter. Israel is willing to take the hit, because it can.