Rights group: Israel’s search for settlers led to collective punishment

Military closed West Bank city of Hebron for third day, imposed blanket travel restrictions in hunt for missing teens

In its search for three missing settlers, Israel has imposed unlawful collective punishment on Palestinians living in Hebron, the Israeli human rights group B’Tselem said Tuesday. 

“Security forces have extensive operational powers to achieve the rightful and essential objective of finding the abducted teens,” B’Tselem said in a statement. “Yet these powers are not unlimited, and not all measures are lawful.”

The southern West Bank city — under Israeli military closure since Saturday — has long been a flashpoint for confrontation. As long ago as 1929, Hebron saw 67 Jews massacred in a pogrom. After Israel occupied the West Bank in 1967 and allowed Israeli settlers to take over apartment buildings in the city, it became a source of escalating tension with local Palestinians — and was the site of a 1994 massacre of 29 Palestinian worshippers at a mosque by an Israeli settler.

Jewish settler families move belongings into a contested house in the volatile city of Hebron in April after a protracted legal battle.
Nasser Shiyoukhi / AP

As Israel launches a wide crackdown in response to the kidnapping of three teenage students from the city last Thursday, Hebron’s 750,000 residents on Tuesday found themselves under a third day of closure by the Israel military — which has blocked all main entrances to the city and stationed soldiers at other entrances, B’Tselem said. Any Palestinian who wants to pass must go through an inspection.

Palestinians who work in Israel have been prevented from crossing checkpoints into Israel, the rights group said. The closure amounts to collective punishment, it added, because anyone with a permit to work inside Israel has already undergone an individual security check.

The military also imposed a blanket travel restriction on all Hebron males between the ages of 16 and 50, preventing them from crossing into Jordan, B’Tselem said.

Thousands of Israeli soldiers have been deployed to Hebron and have combed the region in its search for the missing settlers, Eyal Yifrach, 19, and Gilad Shaar and Naftali Fraenkel, both 16. Residents have reported soldiers blowing up the front doors of Palestinian homes as part of arrest raids, and extensive property damage has been reported, B’Tselem said.

Shrapnel injured two young children on Sunday when the Israeli army bombed their front door in Hebron, Palestinian news agency Maan News reported. Soldiers then raided the house, arresting one male from the family.

Israel’s military has killed at least one Palestinian and detained at least 200 so far in its search effort, and B’Tselem called on the Israeli military to “refrain from abuse and torture — which are absolutely prohibited under international law — in the course of interrogation.”

Settler violence flashpoint

All Israeli settlements on territory captured in the war of 1967 are deemed illegal by the U.N. Security Council, and U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry affirmed last summer that "the United States of America views all of the settlements as illegitimate." Whereas most settlements are built as separate towns on strategic hilltops and aquifers, Hebron's settlers have set up home in the heart of the city in a series of noncontiguous apartment buildings side by side with Palestinian homes. Their presence and antagonistic relations with the surrounding community have resulted in the Israeli security forces imposing harsh restrictions on the movement of Hebron's Palestinian residents. 

Israeli soldiers guard Jewish settlers celebrating the annual Purim parade in Hebron in 2012.
Menahem Kahanda / AFP / Getty Images

Each settlement site throughout Hebron is ostensibly anchored to a formerly Jewish-owned property or archaeological site that the settlers have “reclaimed.”

Tensions in the city date back to the period of Jewish immigration to Palestine that preceded the creation of the state of Israel. Hebron had become a vibrant Jewish community by 1929, when dozens of people were killed in a wave of anti-Jewish violence. Survivors of the massacre, many of whom were sheltered by Palestinian neighbors, left Hebron soon afterward. A Jewish presence in the city was re-established after Israel occupied the West Bank in 1967.

Hebron has religious significance for both Muslims and Jews, as it is home to the Ibrihimi mosque or Tomb of the Patriarchs, thought to be the burial site of Abraham. That was where Israeli settler Baruch Goldstein massacred Palestinians during Friday prayers in 1994. Extremist settlers have made Goldstein’s tomb a venerated site and gather there on the anniversary of the massacre. A shrine honoring Goldstein erected by his supporters was demolished in 2000 by the Israeli government, which had considered removing the settlers from Hebron after his massacre.

Hebron’s city center — now taken over by settlers — was once the city's commercial hub, but most Palestinian stores there have closed in the face of intimidation and threats. A number of the winding alleyways must be roofed with wire mesh to protect Palestinians from settlers living above, who routinely throw stones, sewage and glass onto Palestinians.

Settlers can regularly be seen marching through the Palestinian area of the city center, flanked by Israeli soldiers. Palestinians complain of harassment, intimidation and physical violence from the settlers, often while soldiers stand by.

But the Israeli military has a tense relationship with Hebron's settlers, often forced to restrain the worst of the settlers’ actions against Palestinians. Israeli soldiers who served there have said they were taunted, and even called "Nazis," by ultranationalist settlers.

Last week's kidnapping, and the crackdown that has followed, is a reminder that the city remains a dangerous flashpoint as tensions escalate in the West Bank following the failure of the U.S.-led peace process to achieve an end to the occupation.

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