This article was published in partnership with Local Call.
Around 30,000 Israeli Jews descended on the city of Hebron in the occupied West Bank last weekend, in honor of the Torah reading from the Book of Genesis in which Abraham purchases a plot of land in Hebron in which to bury his wife, Sarah. Every year, “Shabbat Chayei Sarah” is marked by a celebratory march through the occupied city, often accompanied by acts of violence against Palestinian residents. This year’s march was no different; in fact, local residents described it as the worst violence that the parade has wrought in some two decades.
The attacks began on Friday night, when dozens of Israelis twice attacked the home of a Palestinian resident, smashing the windows of his house and damaging his car. According to eyewitness testimonies, soldiers and police arrived at the scene but did not make any arrests. Then, on Saturday, tens of thousands of Israelis marched through the market, attacking Palestinian shops and residents while accompanied by soldiers who did nothing to prevent the violence. Meanwhile, large parts of the city center, where Palestinian movement is already heavily restricted, was further blocked off to Palestinians.
The following day, the area around the Cave of the Patriarchs/Ibrahimi Mosque was quiet, but still filled with Jewish visitors who were yet to make their way home. Workers took down stages and tents and hills of trash, evidence of the tens of thousands who had been in attendance. Along the way from Kiryat Arba to the Cave of the Patriarchs/Ibrahimi Mosque, flags emblazoned with the words “Hebron, Always and Forever” appeared every few meters, and soldiers patrolled the area.
In the neighborhood of Tel Rumeida, which is close to the Jewish settlement in the city and is above Shuhada Street, residents tried to estimate the extent of the damage the settlers inflicted, and to update their neighbors about those injured and arrested. Most of the media attention was focused on the area around the Bab al-Zawiya neighborhood, where settlers, accompanied by military forces, entered the section under Palestinian rule and attacked merchants and vandalized shops. But hundreds of people also carried out several attacks in Tel Rumeida, wounding several Palestinians, including a 17-year-old girl whose face was hit with a stone.
Ten residents of the neighborhood said that the attacks began around 3:30 p.m., and that hundreds of people participated. According to these eyewitnesses, as well as failing to prevent the attacks, Israeli soldiers in a few instances even attacked Palestinians who went out to defend their homes or to ask for help.
The house of Imad Abu Shamsiyyeh, who in 2015 recorded Israeli soldier Elor Azaria fatally shooting an injured and disarmed Palestinian attacker, is located atop overlooks a police checkpoint. On Saturday afternoon, hundreds of settlers surrounded his home and threw stones. Some climbed onto his roof and threw objects into his yard.
“There have been many attacks here, but in terms of numbers and violence, I have never seen anything like this,” Abu Shamsiyyeh repeatedly said as he stood next to the net that protects his yard and which was still covered with stones and bottles from the attack. In his view, the escalation is connected to the government that is expected to form following the election earlier this month. “Ben Gvir is the pillar of this new government, and he lives in the heart of Hebron. Yesterday he marched with them to the grave [of the biblical judge Othniel ben Kenaz, which is found on the side controlled by the Palestianians].”
Abu Shamsiyyeh estimated that most of the participants arrived from outside the city, but that local settlers directed them to the area near his house. “There were known settlers here, who said to them, ‘this is the house of Imad Abu Shamsiyyeh who photographed Elor Azaria.’ It lasted 40 minutes. They shouted ‘Death to Arabs’ and ‘Am Yisrael Chai’ [‘long live the Jewish nation’]. There were four soldiers here, and they didn’t do anything.”
Not far from Abu Shamsiyyeh’s home is the house of Basem Abu Aysheh, 60, whom soldiers beat during the attack, injuring his leg. In his telling, “They arrived here, some of them apparently drunk, made trouble, and the army helped them while they were attacking us. The neighborhood is closed like a prison, by checkpoints. In other places, people flee when there is an attack, but here we had nowhere to go. The checkpoint was closed. They descended upon us, and we were stuck in our homes.”
According to Abu Aysheh, because the residents knew beforehand that tens of thousands of people would come to the area, “not a single child, not a single adult, left their house. We stayed in our houses in order to defend them.” He also explained that, even though they are accustomed to attacks, which the army sometimes intervenes to prevent violence and sometimes does not, this time was different.
“We were surprised that the army helped them throw stun grenades and gas, [while] we are inside our homes, not doing a thing. There were many injuries in our family, at least ten of our children were injured by the soldiers’ fire and from settler violence. There is no respect for adults like me. I asked them for help, but they attacked. Soldiers beat me with their guns outside my home. The same soldiers we speak to on a daily basis, these are the ones who beat us,” he said.
The windows on the house of Abu Aysheh, like those of many homes in the neighborhood, are protected by double bars in order to prevent damage from stones. “If they weren’t barred, everything would be broken,” he said, pointing to blocks that remained outside his house. “They took stones from the nearby cemetery and threw them at us. Jewish friends who saw what happened on the news called to say they were ashamed.”
As we spoke, Abu Aysheh’s son, who was detained by soldiers yesterday and was, he said, beaten at an army base. There are visible bruises on his face and arms. He was released that night, without being questioned.
Youssef Al-Azza, another resident, was also attacked on Saturday. The 26 year-old was on his way home from work at around 3:30 p.m., when he received word that settlers had targeted his home — which is right next to a checkpoint — and injured his sister.
“I was the closest to them out of all my family members, so I ran home. My sister’s face was injured by a stone. I called to the soldiers. They came, and then left.” Afterwards, Al-Azza continued, another attack began. “I went to the yard to see what was happening. There were around 50 settlers. They punched my neck, shoulders, and back, cursed me, my mother, my father, my sister, and our prophet. I don’t want to repeat this. My head was spinning. I was afraid they would enter the house, and around here there was no one I could call for help,” Al-Azza recalled as he stood in his yard, which was still littered with stones and beer bottles.
After the attack, he ran to the main road, screaming and begging the soldiers to come help his family — a moment that was captured on video and spread on social media. “I ran to get help so that the settlers wouldn’t enter my house,” he said. “I got to the road. I saw soldiers beating two friends of mine. One was on the ground, and the soldier sat with his knee on his neck. I didn’t know what to do. I couldn’t breathe and I fell to the ground.” From there Al-Azza went to a nearby clinic, and was released that night.
“There were soldiers there, also officers, but not a single one helped us defend ourselves,” Al-Azza continued. “I am a Palestinian citizen. I don’t have a voice, I don’t have a weapon, I don’t have security or soldiers who will defend me. I have never seen anything like this. There are hundreds of soldiers, where were they yesterday? They attacked here dozens of times. I grew up here, but never in my life was it like that. If a Palestinian did something like this, within a minute the entire army would have been here.”
‘I know how to deal with Palestinians, but with Israelis I hesitate’
Unusually, the army confirmed in an official statement that Saturday’s events began after Israeli citizens threw stones. The spokesperson for Hebron’s Jewish community claimed that these were “needless and serious incidents” that occurred “on the sidelines of the event,” and which “must be dealt with by legal means.” The Hebron spokesperson also criticized the IDF Spokesperson for “emphasizing a negative and marginal incident and making it the sole subject of its announcement,” describing this as a “hostile and unprofessional approach [that] must be dealt with immediately.”
A soldier who was present in Hebron on Saturday told +972 about the army’s preparation for the events: “The whole week was crazy: patrols, four-four (hour) watches, arrests, everything to ensure that the weekend passes peacefully. We hardly slept,” he said.
On Saturday, that soldier was stationed on one of the roads where settlers passed by Palestinian homes. “In the afternoon, several hundred teenagers, but also some aged 20 and over, started throwing stones at the Arabs’ houses from above. Eventually, we managed to take back control of the event, together with the police. It took two hours. From time to time, they threw more stones, and we didn’t manage to catch them. They called us [Nazi] Germans, and cursed us. There was also a small amount of physical violence, pushing us.”
According to the soldier, there was no real preparation for dealing with unruly settlers. “We were warned before the event that it might happen, but we were under pressure, working 24/7. There was no briefing on the matter. [The settlers] felt they could do whatever they wanted. I personally hesitated to handcuff them, or to throw a stun grenade at them, which is a legitimate means [of crowd control]. As a policy, there was no heavy handedness against [the settlers]. I did not see anyone being detained. There were 30,000 people here, so hundreds [participated in the violence]. It’s only a [small] percentage, but they managed to make a real mess.
“There are no clear orders,” the soldier continued. “I know how to deal with Palestinians, but with Israelis I hesitate. I didn’t have the option [on Saturday]. I was with heavy equipment, and [the settlers] were throwing [stones] and then running away. If we were a bigger force, I hope I would have arrested [them], but it’s hard to say.”
In Beit Hadassah, near Shuhada Street, one of the guests who arrived from outside of the city said on Sunday morning that throughout the weekend he heard nothing and didn’t see any attacks. “It was a beautiful and quiet Shabbat. I didn’t see any problems with soldiers and Arabs. On Saturday evening, I heard there were assaults. The grave is outside of the settlement; this really is no indication of what happened on Shabbat. There were prayers, [it was] a wonderful atmosphere.” Another resident said that it is impossible to control “every drunk” and prevent them from joining the march.
The IDF Spokesperson said in response: “After leaving the tomb of Othniel ben Kenaz, violent clashes developed between Israelis and Palestinians. The security forces worked to separate the parties. Following the violent events, several Israeli citizens were arrested, and their case is being handled by the Israel Police. The claims of violence by soldiers against Palestinians are not known. As long as complaints are filed, they will be examined as usual.”
A version of this article was first published in Hebrew on Local Call. Read it here.