I was​ surprised a few weeks ago to find everyone I knew in Hebron feeling cheerful. Perhaps it was the weather. Four months had passed since my last visit to the city, the largest, and lately the bloodiest, in the West Bank. It was January then, and cold, and everyone had seemed distant and shaky, glassy-eyed with trauma. The previous November, most of the neighbourhood of Tel Rumeida had been declared a ‘closed military zone’, a convenient legalism that allows the Israeli army to exclude Palestinians – and journalists and foreign activists – from a predetermined area for a predetermined period. In this case the zone was a large one. Those who happened to live inside it were issued numbers and instructed to call them out each time they crossed through Checkpoint 56, at the base of Shuhada Street, where the section of Hebron inhabited by Israeli settlers is sealed off from the rest of the city. All through the winter, several Palestinians were being killed every week, sometimes a few a day, most of them in Hebron or the towns and villages surrounding it. Almost without exception, the Israeli press described the killings as incidents of terror: Palestinians armed with kitchen knives, scissors or screwdrivers shot while attacking – or apparently intending to attack – Israeli soldiers or civilians.

That wave of violence, which flared up most recently in Tel Aviv, began in Hebron on 22 September last year, when soldiers stopped an 18-year-old girl named Hadeel al-Hashlamoun at Checkpoint 56. She was standing three or four metres away from them when they shot her in the leg. She fell. One eyewitness told Amnesty International that she dropped a knife. Another said she never had one. Either way, her hands were empty when the soldiers shot her nine more times. By the time I arrived in January at least eight other Palestinians had been killed within a half-mile of that spot. February and March brought still more deaths, including the execution of 21-year-old Abdel Fattah al-Sharif, shot in the head as he lay unarmed and bleeding on the ground. That killing was caught on video, prompting the arrest of the soldier who delivered the fatal shot. The subsequent outpouring of public support for the arrested soldier was one of the factors that led Netanyahu to fire his hawkish minister of defence, Moshe Ya’alon, replacing him with the still more hawkish Avigdor Lieberman.

But there hadn’t been another killing in Hebron since then. The shootings in Tel Aviv hadn’t happened yet. Neither had Lieberman’s subsequent decision to flood the southern West Bank with troops and to seal off all exits from both Gaza and the West Bank. It was sunny and warm when I arrived, the violence was still at an ebb, and the closed military zone order had been allowed to lapse. Issa Amro, a local activist I had known for several years, was in a far better mood than I was accustomed to. I even caught him smiling, and without the tense and bitter irony that usually lifts the corners of his mouth. On the way to the checkpoint, he stopped to speak with three women. One of them was a teacher at the local girls’ school across the street from the settlers’ flats in Beit Hadassah. The other women lived behind the school. They complained that now, only the teacher was allowed to use the stairs that climbed the hill across from the settlement. None of the other Palestinians who lived nearby, and that included the other two women, was allowed through: they had to walk in a long loop to get to their homes.

Inside the checkpoint – the one where al-Hashlamoun had died – we pushed through a turnstile, removed our belts, passed through a metal detector and held our IDs up against the thick bulletproof glass for a soldier to inspect. On the other side, Amro, a young Danish woman and I walked down Shuhada Street, which was as ghostly and calm as ever, the shops sealed shut by military order more than a decade earlier, rust showing through the green paint on the collapsing metal awnings.

‘Let’s take the stairs,’ Amro said, and grinned.

At the base of the staircase across the street from Beit Hadassah was another checkpoint, this one a simple guard booth. From that point eastward, Shuhada Street – once Hebron’s busiest commercial thoroughfare – was closed to Palestinians, and only to Palestinians, and had been since the Second Intifada. Until November, the stairs, which led to the Qurtuba Girls’ School and beyond it to the neighbourhood of Tel Rumeida, had been open to settlers and Palestinians alike. (In October, 19-year-old Farouq ’Abd al-Qadr Sedr was killed where we were standing and Fadel al-Qawasmeh, 18, was shot by a settler a few metres down the road.) This was how so much of the city had already been lost – metre by metre, one block or one house at a time. Amro did not intend to let the closure slide.

The young soldier manning the checkpoint inspected our IDs and told us that the Danish woman and I could pass, but Amro could not. ‘You have to go around,’ he said in halting English. Only teachers employed at the school would be allowed through.

Amro asked the soldier why the Dane and I were allowed to pass.

‘They are tourists,’ the soldier answered. I didn’t correct him.

‘Tourists can go and I cannot?’ Amro asked. ‘Why can I not go?’

‘Because you are …’ The soldier stopped. He didn’t seem to want to finish the sentence. Eventually he found the courage. ‘Because you are Palestinian. This is a problem here,’ he explained.

Amro asked to see a written order. If no formal order had been issued, he explained, he could not be legally prevented from passing. The soldier seemed puzzled. His word, surely, was law enough. But Amro wouldn’t leave, he made it clear, until the soldier produced something in writing.

‘I know they don’t have it,’ he confided to me, ‘and if they don’t have it I can take them to court.’

A man with a long white beard interrupted us. ‘He’s a liar,’ the man shouted in American-accented English, pointing to Amro. ‘He’s also a terrorist. He’s not allowed to be here.’ He stood a metre or two behind the soldier, and had a pistol tucked into the waistband of his trousers. I recognised him as David Wilder. He lived across the street, in Beit Hadassah. When I first met him two and a half years earlier, he had been the spokesman for the Hebron settlers.

Wilder and Amro knew each other well. Soon Wilder was shouting that Amro should move to Iraq, and threatening to post photos of Amro’s wife on the internet.

Amro baited him back: ‘Why aren’t you the spokesman anymore, David? Why did they fire you?’

The soldier said nothing to Wilder, but ordered us to step five metres back. ‘You’re trying to make a mess,’ he said to Amro, and frowned. A few Palestinians from the neighbourhood gathered: women, children, old men. More soldiers arrived. I counted 11, one with a tear-gas launcher, the others holding Galil assault rifles, their fingers flat against the trigger guards.

Again Amro told the checkpoint soldier that if the staircase was closed he had a right to see the order.

‘You don’t have any rights here,’ Wilder yelled. ‘Go to Iraq.’

The soldier seemed sincerely confused. ‘What are you trying to do here?’ he asked. ‘I don’t understand.’

Amro repeated: ‘I want to see a written order.’

Half a dozen Europeans in blue and grey uniforms walked over and leaned against a wall on the far side of the street. They were members of the Temporary International Presence in Hebron, or TIPH, an international observer force with no police powers and no authority to do anything other than file reports. Their reports are not made public. Amro sat on the curb and began making phone calls. He called an Israeli lawyer, an Israeli journalist, and an Israeli human rights group. An older European couple, tanned and smartly dressed, strolled down from the checkpoint with two TIPH observers. Wilder drove slowly past in a white sedan and stopped for the Europeans. He rolled down a window and chatted amiably with the smartly dressed man. They seemed to know each other. Wilder drove off and the smartly dressed man introduced himself to Amro. His name, he said, was Pietro Pistolese. He had been one of the founders of TIPH in 1994. ‘I was here during the curfew,’ he said, referring to the bad days of the Second Intifada, when Palestinians here were forbidden to leave their homes for weeks and sometimes months at a time. He put his hand on Amro’s shoulder. ‘Believe me,’ he continued, ‘I know the situation better than you.’

Amro, on the curb, gazed up at him in silence. A smile crossed his lips and quickly disappeared.

‘We are trying to manage the situation,’ Pistolese went on.

‘You are not doing it very well,’ Amro observed.

‘You will see results,’ Pistolese promised, ‘but not immediately.’ And with that he walked off past the checkpoint and the staircase and strolled on into the section of the city forbidden to the Palestinians who live here. No one stopped him.

Amro told the soldier that he had phoned the police and been informed that a commander would be arriving soon with a copy of the order.

‘Don’t talk to me,’ the soldier said.

‘I am being respectful,’ Amro protested. ‘I am talking to you as a human being.’

‘But I am a soldier,’ the soldier said.

More soldiers arrived, and an officer with three stripes on his shoulders, and a smiling settler with an M16. The police came and went without a word to Amro. Zidan Sharabati, who lived next door, poured coffee from a jug into small paper cups. Amro offered some to the soldiers. They looked away. The officer spoke with Amro in Hebrew, telling him that if he didn’t leave, the army would close the entire area. Amro seemed pleased. ‘Let them close it,’ he said. ‘I’ll come back tomorrow.’

A boy with long forelocks ran between the soldiers’ legs with a water gun, threatening to spray them. A few metres away, Palestinian kids kicked a soccer ball. The Danish woman passed around a giant bag of sunflower seeds. Off-duty soldiers jogged by in running shorts, their rifles bobbing on their backs. Wilder drove past again, rolled down his window and asked Amro how many tickets he wanted to Iraq. Still more soldiers came. They took our photos. A little boy begged me to play soccer with him. The settlers’ children brought the soldiers a tray of brightly coloured frozen drinks. They didn’t turn them down. Young Ahmad Azzeh, who lived up the hill, swept the sunflower shells from the pavement. More than an hour had gone by. Amro still sat on the curb. ‘I’m waiting,’ he told me. ‘I’m not leaving. A lot of things come to me like that.’

Finally, three and a half hours after we arrived, an armoured police vehicle pulled up in front of us. The police inside it conferred briefly with the army officer. When they drove off again, the officer was holding several fresh sheets of paper. He approached Amro, escorted by five of his men with their guns at the ready. He pushed the papers in Amro’s face. One sheet was printed in Hebrew. The other was a map of the area, with a circle drawn in magic marker around the staircase and the field just above it. ‘Closed military zone,’ the officer announced. ‘You have ten minutes.’

In fact the order wouldn’t take effect for another hour and did not include the street on which we were standing, but no one felt like arguing. Amro grabbed his backpack. I grabbed mine. We dodged into a doorway and climbed onto the roof of the Sharabati house and from there to the top of the staircase, from where we could see the soldiers chasing everyone – at this point mainly women and children – into their homes. Everyone but the settlers, that is. Still, Amro was happy. It didn’t feel like one, but it was a victory of sorts. He had forced them to draft a fresh order, which was as good as an admission that none had existed before. And as soon as he finished work the next day, Amro promised, he would be back.

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