Heart of Hebron is dark and dangerous

Arab families are fleeing the once venerable Old City that is now full of hazards: thieves, drug addicts, soldiers and settlers.

HEBRON // While the Palestinian neighbourhoods on the outskirts of this venerable West Bank city are prospering, the tangled alleyways of its Old City decay under the weight of Arab-Jewish tension, crime and deepening poverty.

Most shops in the heart of the city, which includes the reputed burial site of the patriarch Abraham, are shuttered. Petty criminals and drug abusers roam freely. A soup kitchen serves Palestinians who lack the means to move elsewhere.

"You wouldn't believe it if I told you that I'm more afraid of the Arab thieves here than the Israeli soldiers," said Mrs Mohataseb, a 29-year-old mother of four who declined to give her first name out of fear for her family's safety.

Unlike in other parts of Hebron, the increasingly proficient security forces of the Palestinian Authority (PA) are barred from its heart. Responsibility for policing its narrow streets and protecting about 800 Jewish settlers who have scratched out a beachhead there instead belongs to the Israeli military. A phalanx of checkpoints, barriers and concertina wire overseen by Israeli troops has drained the area of any sense of normality, let alone vitality.

"If you want to talk about progress in the Old City, you can't," said Kamel Hemeid, governor of the Hebron Governorate, who described the area as "collapsing".

Economic growth in the West Bank has been given a boost by Israel's easing of security restrictions, giving freer movement to people and goods. But, the governor said, the 100-plus checkpoints in and around the Old City remain firmly in place and still stifle its Palestinian residents.

Mr Hemeid cited the difficulty of arresting wanted criminals who, having sought refuge in the Israeli-controlled area, have caused trouble. On Sunday, in the latest of 10 killings in a years-long feud between two local families, a Palestinian man was gunned down nearby in broad daylight.

"When the family of the murdered person came to me for protection," said Mr Hemeid, "I had to tell them I couldn't do anything about it. I told an Israeli commander there are weapons in the area, hundreds of them, but Israel does nothing about it," he said, adding, "It's an attempt to weaken the image of the PA."

What has balkanised this city, the West Bank's largest, is the same thing that many say should unite it: veneration of Abraham, regarded as a holy figure by Muslims, Jews and Christians alike.

The religious significance of Hebron has attracted a particularly messianic breed of Jewish settler, whose presence has helped turn the Mameluke and Ottoman-era neighbourhood into perhaps the highest-profile flashpoint in the Israel-Palestinian conflict. In 1994, the American-born settler Baruch Goldstein gunned down 29 Muslim worshippers at a mosque on the site of Abraham's tomb, the Cave of the Patriarchs.

Since then, either fearing for the safety or pushed out by encroaching settlers, the old city's merchant families have moved to safer areas. Despite a United Nations subsidy programme to induce businesses in the Old City to stay, about half are estimated to have gone bankrupt.

"The businesses are moving out to other areas of Hebron and taking all our customers with them," said Jamal Maraga, 49, who sells handmade wool blankets in the Qazzazne area of the Old City.

Since the start of the second intifada in 2000, his neighbouring businesses left despite their tax-free status in the Old City. Around the corner from his shop is al Shuhada Street, a once bustling thoroughfare that now teems with settlers who toss rubbish and excrement on Mr Maraga and what remains of his neighbouring businesses.

"Now there are thieves, drugs among us, but no business. The criminals come here and steal from us, but the Palestinian Authority can't come after them."

"The rest of the West Bank is doing much better because they don't have to deal with the settlers like we do," he added.

Some charitable organisation are attempting to revive the old city amid settler intimidation, such as the Hebron Rehabilitation Committee (HRC), which pays for Palestinians to live in Old City homes after renovating them.

The PA-linked organisation pays rent and utilities for about 900 families who have moved into the area since 1996, said Walid Abu Alhalaweh, the organisation's public-relations director.

But even he acknowledged the difficulty convincing people to move to a place of randomly imposed Israeli curfews and settler attacks. "The problem is that these people have to live here with a lot of risk," he said, adding that the old city's population had marginally increased in population to 4,000 people.

"This has made Hebron a black box for the people."

Those who have taken up the HRC programme tend to be poor people who cannot afford the increasingly expensive housing in other areas of the city, such as Naila Shyoukhi.

The 37-year-old mother of three recently moved into a home restored by HRC. After several unfriendly encounters with Israeli soldiers and attempted robberies, she said her family would move out if they could afford it.

"The criminals steal right in front of you, but when you ask them about it, they tell you, 'What are you going to do about?'" said Mrs Shyoukhi, who also relies on food handouts from the Red Cross.

Still, many of those who have left long for a return to a flourishing Old City.

Hajj Imran al Said, a 77-year-old spice trader, moved his business out of the old city two years ago.

Profits are bigger at his new location on nearby Wadi al Tuffah street, and he said: "Thank God, the Palestinian security has made us feel safe here."

But he still pays rent on his empty shop in the Old City, clinging to the hope of selling za'atar and rosemary where he had worked for 60 years.

"God willing," he said, "we can return to our lives there."