In Hebron, 'miracle' for settlers ended 'golden age' for Palestinians

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Its Old City is in constant lockdown, its holy site where the biblical Abraham may have been buried guarded by Israeli soldiers at checkpoints.

Fifty years after the Six-Day War, the ancient city of Hebron, set in the hills of the southern West Bank, has become perhaps the starkest symbol of Israel's occupation.

Several hundred Israeli settlers -- many of them especially hardline -- live in the centre of the Palestinian city of some 200,000 residents.

Israeli soldiers keep a close watch, and parts of the city are off limits to Palestinians.

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For Palestinian residents of Hebron, the Six-Day War marked the end of "a golden age," says Eid Jaabari, 21 at the time of the conflict that saw Israel win a stunning victory over neighbouring Arab countries a nd seize swathes of territory.

"There was no fighting, the Arabs had withdrawn," says Jaabari, adding that he saw troops from Jordan, which had controlled the West Bank, leave without firing a single bullet. For the first Israelis to settle in Hebron afterwards, it was "a great miracle".

They speak of the first major return of Jews to the city since a 1929 massacre of members of the small Jewish community there, describing it as an extension of a history of 4,000 years of Jewish presence in Hebron.

"It seemed we would never return," says Noam Arnon, spokesman for the settlers.

Palestinian Eid Jaabari smokes a waterpipe in the old city of Hebron on May 8, 2017 in the Israeli-occupied West Bank (photo by: HAZEM BADER/AFP)

Israeli forces seized Hebron from Jordan on June 5, 1967, the first day of the Six-Day War and, at first, the return of Jews to the city did not cause tensions.

Empty streets, padlocked doors

In those early years, Palestinians recall having good relations with the Israelis in Hebron's Old City, which borders the holy site known to Jews as the Tomb of the Patriarchs and to Muslims as the Ibrahimi Mosque.

The site is where Abraham, revered by Christians, Jews and Muslims, is believed to have been buried.

"The Jews wanted everything to remain calm," and their arrival even "created jobs," recalls Abdel Rauf al-Mohtasseb, who runs a stall in the Old City.

Jaabari, wearing a traditional keffiyeh headscarf and smoking a hookah in a deserted cobbled alley of the Old City, also remembers a time when the area was bustling.

"There was so much jostling, you couldn't put one foot in front of the other," he says.

Things changed when in the late 1970s the Israeli government agreed to settler demands and authorised an Israeli civilian presence in the heart of the city. Areas of Hebron are now closed to Palestinians, the streets abandoned, ghost neighbourhoods with iron padlocks rusting on doors.

Hebron is the only Palestinian city inhabited by Jewish settlers, in contrast with other parts of the occupied West Bank where settlements sprawl over hills outside major Palestinian population centres.

ivided West Bank city of Hebron on May 17, 2017 (photo by: MENAHEM KAHANA/AFP)

Hebron even has its own status that divides the city, leaving a handful of settlers in certain sectors surrounded by checkpoints and hundreds of soldiers, to the dismay of Palestinians who can't move freely. Many of the city's Israeli settlers say they feel besieged.

"I have no problem with the Arabs living here," says Gabriel Ben-Yitzhak, a scribe from the Tel Rumeida district who feels a deep connection to the sites he sees from his window and writes of in Torah scrolls.

"If it is quiet I have no problem with them continuing to live here. But it is not possible that we are in a constant fear of someone coming to stab us."

'Like a ghetto'

Arnon, the settlers' spokesman, decries a situation that allows Jews in "only three percent of the city" -- easily identifiable by Israeli flags and soldiers.

It is "like a ghetto," Arnon says. Hebron has for decades seen major unrest and was a focal point of the wave of Palestinian knife attacks that erupted in October 2015.

Violence in the city peaked in 1994 when Israeli-American Baruch Goldstein shot dead 29 Muslims in prayer in the Ibrahimi Mosque/Tomb of the Patriarchs.

Since then, the site -- divided into a mosque and synagogue -- is the scene of regular violence. Arnon says that Israeli security control of the entire city, while leaving civilian matters to the Palestinians, would stop the violence.

"There is a history book here composed of 4,000 pages," each representing a year of the city's Jewish history, Arnon says.

A Palestinian woman sits in the old city of the West Bank city of Hebron on May 8, 2017 (photo by: HAZEM BADER/AFP)

"We are writing our page now," he says. "It gives a meaning to life."

But Palestinians say the settlers' aim is to force t hem out of their own city.

"What they want is a land with nobody on it, but the Palestinians are here," Mohtasseb, 59, says. "We can all live together, but the land and the houses are ours. I want to welcome guests, but not armed ones."

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