Freedom of Movement for Palestinians

Today in the West Bank, Palestinians live under military law, have no control over the government that controls their lives, and face restrictions on their movement.

Pesach is the Festival of Freedom, when we commemorate the Israelites achieving liberty following centuries of slavery. At the core of Pesach is the Exodus, the physical movement of the Israelites from slavery in Egypt, through the parted waters of the Red Sea, into freedom.

Today, Israel restricts the freedom of movement of many Palestinians living under its control in the West Bank. While there are times that such restrictions on movement are necessary for security reasons, there are also clear cases where preventing the free movement of people harms Israel’s security, and its moral standing.

Shuhada Street in Hebron is one such example.

In these videos from NIF grantee Breaking the Silence, IDF soldiers give testimonies of their experiences working at checkpoints in the West Bank.

Hebron is unique among the cities and towns of the West Bank, as it is the only one with Israeli settlements located in the heart of the city, surrounded by a large Palestinian population. Jewish connections to Hebron are ancient, with the Ma’arat Hamachpela (“Cave of the Machpela”) – the burial place of Abraham, Sarah, Isaac, Rebecca, Jacob and Leah – located there. There had always been a strong Jewish presence in the city, until Arab rioters in 1929 massacred 69 Jews and the rest of the community was evacuated for their own safety. Following the Six-Day War in 1967, Hebron was the first place Jews returned to in the West Bank.

Despite ancient Jewish ties to Hebron, the current settlers residing in the heart of the city represent some of the most extreme anti-Palestinian elements in Israel. In total, around 600 settlers live in the middle of Hebron, surrounded by more than 160,000 Palestinians. People such as Baruch Marzel, a far-right activist who was a senior member of the banned political party Kach, resides in Hebron and is known to harass and provoke local Palestinian residents.

During the Second Intifada, violence erupted in Hebron between the small enclaves of Israeli settlers and the large Palestinian population surrounding them. In order to ensure the protection of the small and relatively isolated settlements, the Israeli government emptied approximately 20% of Hebron of its Palestinian residents. For over 10 years, this large section of Hebron remains a ghost town – disconnected from the rest of the thriving city by military checkpoints.

A major thoroughfare, which used to be bustling with shops, Shuhada Street, is now devoid of all Palestinian life. Only a small handful of Israeli settlers can use the street in order to gain access to their homes. Shuhada Street has come to symbolise the restrictions on Palestinian movement, restrictions which in this case serve the interests of a tiny handful of the most extreme Israelis, without having any security benefits for the rest of Israel. It could be argued that the closure of Shuhada Street actually diminishes security in the rest of Israel, as it allows hard-core settlers like Baruch Marzel free access to continue his provocations, further inciting Palestinian hatred towards all Israelis irrespective of where they live.

When Israel restricts Palestinian freedom of movement into Israel’s major population centres, there may be security reasons for such closures. However the restriction of movement in a place like Shuhada Street does nothing to boost security in places like Jerusalem or Tel Aviv, and only serves to exacerbate tensions between the two peoples.

Discussion Questions:

  1. There are two sets of laws for residents in Hebron: one for Jews who live under Israeli law (where they are afforded the basic rights of Israel’s democratic system) and one for non-Jews who live under military law (where many basic rights are not protected). What does this situation mean for the residents?
  2. What responsibility do Israelis have towards the welfare and rights of Palestinians living under Israeli control in the West Bank?
  3. Many of Israel’s former senior security staff (as we saw in The Gatekeepers, and in presentations in Australia by Col. Shaul Arieli) consider the status quo to be detrimental to Israel’s security, and yet the political process has stagnated. What do you think it will take for Israelis and Palestinians to move forward towards a two-state reality?