- - Monday, January 11, 2016

HEBRON, West Bank — Palestinians are calling it the “Al-Aqsa Intifada,” naming the latest bloody flare-up in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict after the mosque that sits atop the Temple Mount in Jerusalem.

But the violence that broke out in October when Israel curtailed access to the Al-Aqsa mosque — the third-holiest site in Islam — after a spate of attacks on Israeli citizens has been centered in Hebron, the only place in the West Bank where Israeli settlers have moved into a Palestinian city.

The tiny Gaza Strip along the Mediterranean’s eastern shore, controlled by Hamas, has long been the epicenter of the Palestinian resistance. But in a change, this traditional trading hub just 20 miles from Jerusalem has sustained the bulk of the violence in recent weeks.

“Palestinians in Hebron are in daily contact with the Israelis, and each of those points of daily contact is a point of friction and a reminder that nothing is changing,” said Gershom Gorenberg, an American-born Israeli author of several books about Israel’s West Bank policies.

About 850 Jewish settlers live in the center of Hebron, the largest city in the West Bank, with a population of around 170,000. A 1997 accord gives Israel direct control of about 20 percent of the city’s confines, increasing the number of military checkpoints and blocking off parts of the city’s oldest neighborhoods to Palestinian residents.

They have become easy targets for frustrated Palestinians who say they are fed up with the expanding pace of Israeli settlements, restrictions on Palestinian movements to and from Israel proper, and Israel Defense Forces‘ crackdowns on Palestinian protests.

“It’s a response to daily harassment by soldiers,” said Abu-Sneineh, pointing to an Israeli checkpoint from her balcony overlooking the Tomb of the Patriarchs neighborhood where the Jewish settlers live in a fortified concentration of apartment buildings.

More than a third of the 152 Palestinians who have died in clashes with Israeli forces since October are from Hebron, according to the Palestinian Health Ministry.

Many of the Palestinians who have attacked and killed around 30 Israelis in recent months — often in stabbing incidents — also hail from the city in the southern West Bank. Many attacks have been in Hebron and the Etzion Bloc settlement area to the north of the city.

Hebron now appears locked in a cycle of tit-for-tat violence.

In November, Israeli forces disguised as Palestinian civilians — including one impersonating a pregnant woman in a wheelchair — entered the Al-Ahly hospital in Hebron, shooting dead Azzam Shalaldeh, a suspect in a stabbing attack.

“Nobody thought they were soldiers until they showed their weapons,” said the hospital’s director, Dr. Jihad Shawar. “All the doctors were held at gunpoint. They could do nothing.”

Israeli government officials confirmed the raid at the hospital and the shooting, which was captured on a widely circulated closed-circuit TV video.

“During the operation, a family member of the terrorist attacked the forces and was shot,” said a spokesman for the Shin-Bet, Israel’s internal security and counterintelligence service. “Israel will not allow safe havens for any terrorist activity whatsoever.”

Islamist cell broken up

On Sunday, Shin-Bet officials said they had broken up an Islamist cell that was acquiring automatic rifles and planning to escalate tensions with a new wave of shootings at Israeli soldiers and settlers around Hebron.

The cell was headed by Muhammad Ali Kawasme, 38, whose brother Hassam Ali Kawasme orchestrated the kidnappings and slayings of three Israeli teenagers near a Hebron-area settlement in June 2014, the officials said. Mr. Kawasme and other members of the suspected cell are in custody.

Those killings ignited the rise of tensions between Hamas and the Israelis that lead to the 2014 Israeli-Gaza conflict, which resulted in more 2,000 Palestinian deaths, 66 Israeli casualties and the destruction of thousands of homes and businesses in the tiny territory on the Mediterranean. The West Bank is under the control of the more moderate Palestinian Authority, Hamas‘ rival, which makes the recent outbursts of violence in Hebron a striking phenomenon for analysts.

But Hamas clearly has a base inside Hebron, and there are some signs that the attacks against Israelis are being organized in part to embarrass the Palestinian Authority on what should be its home turf. The New York Times reported in October that Hamas‘ Aqsa television channel was giving wide coverage to the Hamas violence, helping to fuel even more attacks.

Gershon Hacohen, a fellow at the Begin Sadat Center for Strategic Studies — the Israeli think tank most closely aligned with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu — said the violence in Hebron stems from the activities of terrorists like Kawasme and a sign that Hamas is expanding its footprint in the city.

“Hebron is a hub for Hamas,” said Mr. Hacohen. “Hamas is strong there because it is very traditional city, very dependent on the power of families, and it’s far away from the central regime of [Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas] in Ramallah.”

Hebron residents disagreed that Hamas was fomenting the unrest in their midst.

“The youth involved in this uprising are not driven by any Palestinian faction,” said Hebron homemaker Manal Abu-Sneineh. “They are just trying to take revenge for friends and relatives killed by Israelis.”

But they agree that their town is highly motivated by clan loyalty and that the killings or detentions of family members or Israeli land confiscations are likely to prompt more violence.

“If somebody hurts anyone in your family, you rise to their defense. Brothers are revenging their sisters and sisters are revenging their brothers,” said Hebron resident Shiraz Madi, 22, adding that social media spreads news of Israeli slights against family members faster than ever.

“There are Facebook campaigns to rebuild the destroyed houses of the people who are killed and for people who stab or try to kill Israelis after the Israeli army bulldozes their houses,” Ms. Madi said.

Despite the tensions, Mr. Hacohen said, it is imperative for Palestinians and Israelis to live together in Hebron.

“If Jews will not live inside Hebron, the problem that will emerge from there will be harder for the Israel Defense Forces than what is going on in Gaza,” the analyst said. “I prefer to be involved in daily frictions among the people than the alternative, like what happened in the Gaza Strip, where we are divided by a fence. The result is that every operation must be supported by air attacks — with a lot of causalities. The presence of Israelis in Hebron is better even for the residents there.”

Asma’ Jawabreh reported from Hebron. Jacob Wirtschafter reported from Cairo.

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