In Hebron, they support Hamas but dream of Tel Aviv
AnalysisReporter's notebook

In Hebron, they support Hamas but dream of Tel Aviv

While Islamic terror group has strong support among the youth, there is also talk of peace with Israel and a desire to live quietly

Avi Issacharoff

Avi Issacharoff, The Times of Israel's Middle East analyst, fills the same role for Walla, the leading portal in Israel. He is also a guest commentator on many different radio shows and current affairs programs on television. Until 2012, he was a reporter and commentator on Arab affairs for the Haaretz newspaper. He also lectures on modern Palestinian history at Tel Aviv University, and is currently writing a script for an action-drama series for the Israeli satellite Television "YES." Born in Jerusalem, he graduated cum laude from Ben Gurion University with a B.A. in Middle Eastern studies and then earned his M.A. from Tel Aviv University on the same subject, also cum laude. A fluent Arabic speaker, Avi was the Middle East Affairs correspondent for Israeli Public Radio covering the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, the war in Iraq and the Arab countries between the years 2003-2006. Avi directed and edited short documentary films on Israeli television programs dealing with the Middle East. In 2002 he won the "best reporter" award for the "Israel Radio” for his coverage of the second intifada. In 2004, together with Amos Harel, he wrote "The Seventh War - How we won and why we lost the war with the Palestinians." A year later the book won an award from the Institute for Strategic Studies for containing the best research on security affairs in Israel. In 2008, Issacharoff and Harel published their second book, entitled "34 Days - The Story of the Second Lebanon War," which won the same prize.

A Palestinian boy sits near Israeli soldiers deployed in the divided West Bank city of Hebron, on the first Friday of the Muslim month of Ramadan. July 04, 2014. (Photo credit: Nati Shohat/FLASH90)
A Palestinian boy sits near Israeli soldiers deployed in the divided West Bank city of Hebron, on the first Friday of the Muslim month of Ramadan. July 04, 2014. (Photo credit: Nati Shohat/FLASH90)

HEBRON — Hebron at noon. Male and female students move briskly near one of the branches of the Polytechnic University in Hebron.

For some reason, the traffic is thinner on the main campus. I meet the group of young students several meters from the entrance, at the Mr. Tost cafeteria. I meet the men first, and then the women.

A horse peeks at us near the door — yes, a horse; someone evidently decided to park one there. After all, it is Hebron. Six young people sit at two separate tables; they have come to talk about the state of the city, Facebook and politics. Perhaps they have come to talk about my effort to solve the mystery of what the young Palestinian generation in Hebron wants, or perhaps about their own effort to see what an Israeli looks like close up. They are twenty-something. Although the men at least  are dressed exactly like their Israeli counterparts, there is still a  yawning gap between the two groups.

The college’s student union held elections just a few weeks ago. Fatah and Hamas won 15 seats each, while the Popular Front got only one. Although the talks for forming a “coalition” are still ongoing, it is a great accomplishment for Hamas.

The group, whose members are pursued by the Shin Bet security service and the Israeli army on the one hand and by the Palestinian Authority on the other, is showing an impressive ability to survive. It has broad support among the young people, and not just in Hebron, which is considered a traditional Hamas stronghold.

In similar elections that were held at Bir Zeit University north of Ramallah, Hamas won the leadership of the student union with 26 seats to Fatah’s 19.

“Hamas is popular here because it chose the path of resistance, not because of the party or politics,” says Yitzhaak Rajbi, a single man of 21 from the Jabel Johar neighborhood and a junior majoring in civil engineering. He has a Facebook account, but says that he does not use it to meet young women. “It works differently here in Hebron. We are traditional and respect religion,” he says. “For us, whatever has been taken by force will be restored by force.”

So why aren’t you in the resistance? Why haven’t you joined the military wing?

“It is true that we are not with them physically, but we support them. Let’s say that if I were to join them, I could be arrested, and then I could forget about working in the Palestinian Authority.”

Near Yitzhaak sits Amjad Abu Khalef, also 21 and single, from Hebron’s Jabal Zaitun neighborhood, a junior majoring in business management. I ask him why he chose to attend the Polytechnic University.

“Everybody knows that they have an excellent business management faculty,” he says, “and I want to work in the city once I graduate. Could I say with certainty what I would like to do? I’m not sure. But I hope to be a businessman one day.”

Amjad is named after his cousin, who was killed in 1994 in a fight with undercover IDF troops. Amjad says that his uncle, a shahid, or martyr, was active in the Izz ad-Din al-Qassam Brigades, Hamas’s military wing.

Do you know what happened to him?

“Yes. He was sleeping at night and they surrounded the house and fired rockets at him, killing him together with some of his friends.” A look at the archive shows that a member of the Duvdevan unit was wounded by Hamas gunfire in that operation. “For me, it is a great source of pride that he was killed that way, as a shahid.”

And you are also with Hamas?

“I’m with Palestine. I don’t support any group or party. I can tell you that Hamas is very popular here, and that a war is being fought against them from within [the Palestinian Authority] and from without [Israel, Egypt and others]. I support those who serve the Palestinians and our issue. So if you were to ask me whom I would vote for, Hamas or Fatah? Hamas, without a doubt. Why? Because sometimes you have to know how to fight to get what is yours. Israel wants all of Palestine today. It is not willing to reach an agreement. And if your home were to be taken away from you, what would you do? I tell you, if there were general elections here, they would win without a doubt.”

Amjad gets quite a few glances from the young Palestinian women who come in. Not open glances, like those of young Israeli women, but ones that are more hidden. He does not appear too conscious of it.

“I have Facebook and no, I don’t have a girlfriend. It isn’t customary. I can write to a girl in a friendly way on Facebook, but nothing beyond that. If I want to meet someone, I must go to her home with my family and meet her there. And then starts a kind of engagement period that lasts indefinitely. I have Instagram too, but not Twitter.”

Hamza Tubahi, the bashful one of the group, sits quietly on the side. His father is a businessman from Hebron who is visiting Israel that day on business. He is only 20, is majoring in accounting and lives in the southern part of Hebron.

“I don’t see any possibility that there will be peace with Israel, unfortunately,” he says. “I can tell you that every Palestinian just wants peace and quiet, not problems. I’m a Palestinian citizen, right? But I can’t go to the beach. Why not?”

Hamza is the only one of the three young men who is not on Facebook. He says it bored him. “I go to university, I work at my father’s factory, and at night I’m with my friends.”

What do you all do?

“We meet and play Playstation or other computer games. No, of course there’s no alcohol — that’s forbidden.”

Two young women students, Shihad and Fida, both 21, sit at the next table. They are majoring in project management. Shihad says that she has never met an Israeli man or woman before.

“I know only that they are the enemy. When we were small, we still watched a little Israeli television in Arabic, but we don’t have that anymore either,” she says.

Whom would you vote for if there were general elections?

“Definitely not Fatah. I think it would be Hamas. If Fatah was the way it was in Yasser Arafat’s time, then yes. But Fatah went bad and doesn’t care about Palestine anymore. I don’t believe in the Palestinian Authority. Nobody does. They did nothing for us. We have no state.”

But what did Hamas do?

“Hamas is resistance. It is different. When the Palestinian Authority opposes resistance and Hamas is in favor of it, then it is obvious who is better. The Palestinian nation was in a state of sleep, and Hamas is trying to get it back its land. And look, most of the Palestinian public supports resistance. For example, the Gazans fight. We must also fight, but I hope that there won’t be war in the end. Inshallah [God willing], there will be peace, but unfortunately I don’t see that happening.”

She says that she has almost 700 friends on Facebook. “I don’t go there often. If I have messages, then I do, but nothing more. I follow the news by what people post on Facebook.”

Her friend Fida does not want to talk about politics. She likes animated films and spends time with her friends at their homes. “Once I graduate, I want to work in the field I’m studying, in all kinds of large companies. That’s my dream, even after I get married,” she says.

The female students leave, and in the meantime a few more male students gather around the four young men (one of whom refuses to be interviewed). The newcomers want to know what the interview is about and what Israelis are doing here. Amjad says that there is no real chance of peace with us.

“There’s no possibility of a peace agreement,” he says. “Israel doesn’t want one. I’ve even met Jews who told me that it was an illegal state. And I tell you: I saw videos on the Internet of young men my age and children from Israel in their schools. They’re taught that we are terrorists and full of hatred. So how is it possible to make peace with them? This is the young generation in Israel. I see the soldiers at the checkpoints who provoke us for no reason, and the children of settlers in Tel Rumeida too. And no, we don’t want a third intifada now. That’s only in Israel’s hands. But if they attack me in my home, I will definitely defend myself.

Our young people just want peace and quiet.” Yitzhaak agrees.

The contradiction in their statements does not disturb them. For them, the existence of one State of Palestine from the Jordan River to the Mediterranean Sea does not negate the idea of peace.

“Jews and Muslims lived together for centuries,” Yitzhaak says. “Why is the State of Israel necessary? According to Islam, we are obligated to protect the Christians and the Jews, like the Prophet Mohammed protected his Jewish neighbor.”

Amjad nods, but stands his ground.

“We’re tired of war. We want peace. We don’t want problems. Why do they have to detain me and question me when I am on my way home from college? Why can’t I go into Jerusalem? I want to go to visit Tel Aviv, Haifa, the beach. But even my father may not enter Israel because my cousin was a shahid of Hamas.”

What do you think of the Islamic State?

Yitzhaak: “I have nothing to say about their ‘soldiers.’ Their leaders are wrong. Their way of thinking is mistaken. Islam does not advocate the murder of innocent people. It doesn’t advocate war or the killing of children.”

Amjad: “The vast majority is against Islamic State. You won’t find people who support them here.”

They like action films, but each has his own preference. “I like Turkish movies and car chases,” Amjad says. Hamza prefers foreign films, “especially movies with Jason Statham [a star of British action films].

Yitzhaak likes Indian films. There is no movie theater in Hebron, but there is television. They see themselves staying in Hebron but dream of visiting foreign countries. Hamza says that he went to Chicago once, “and there’s a lot of business there.”

But when he tried to go there again after graduating high school, the American consulate turned down his visa application. In the meantime, they are staying in Hebron.

A four-star hotel

Despite the radical statements being made by the young generation, Hebron does not give off a threatening vibe. That could be a bit misleading since quite a few terrorist cells have operated here over the years and evidently still exist.

Marwan Kawasme and Amer Abu-Aysha, the two kidnappers who murdered Naftali Fraenkel, Gil-ad Shaar and Eyal Yifrah in June 2014, were Hamas members from a northwestern neighborhood in Hebron.

But Hebron seems to have almost forgotten the storm that tore through it last summer. Its lively downtown area is considered the most important center of business and industry in the West Bank. The industrial zone, with dozens of factories that work mostly in the stone industry, is located in the city’s southern section. The factories work in all kinds of stone: marble, tombstones, stone blocks.

Abu Rami, the foreman of one of these factories, says that 10 percent of his product is shipped to Gaza, 20 percent to Israel and the rest to the West Bank. Almost all the factory owners here do business with Israel and know Israelis. They buy the raw materials from quarries in the area and turn them into building stone.

“Stones used to be imported from Iran or Turkey,” Abu Rami says. “But stone from there warms up quickly, while stone from Hebron is known for maintaining insulation and doesn’t warm up quickly.” He says that while the economic situation is not all that great, the factory gets quite a few orders.

“I ask for payment in advance, before we work on the order, because not everybody has money to pay,” he says. “If the situation remains the way it is, some of the factories will close, and that will affect the political situation.”

In the meantime, the machines continue cutting the huge pieces of stone that arrive here. The finished product is the result of a long and complex process, including polishing by a worker named Tamer, who says he earns ten shekels per hour — an average salary for a young laborer like him.

Of course, stone is not the only industry in Hebron. One of the best-known factories there is the Hirbawi furniture factory, which produces goods for almost every place in the Middle East and is known for its high-quality products. A chain of Home Center, Hirbawi stores are open throughout the West Bank. Hebron also has thriving leather, glass and shoe industries.

And how could we not mention Hebron’s renowned restaurants, with their abundance of Arab foods? One of the best-known of them, the Abu Mazen Restaurant, started out as a tiny kiosk in the industrial zone.

After the second intifada broke out, the owners opened a new, more accessible branch downtown. They began a new project about three months ago that seems almost reckless: the Abu Mazen Hotel (the name has no connection to Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas aka Abu Mazen). Magnificence glitters from every side here. Nine floors with 51 rooms, and four-star standards. A gorgeous staircase to the events floor, where weddings and conferences are held.

“We decided to open a place unlike any other in Hebron,” Mamun Jamal, the owner’s son, tells us. “Quite a few businessmen from all over the West Bank and the Gaza Strip come here. Companies hold conferences that are several days long for their employees. We are just doing a trial run, but thank God, the place is working. There are days when we are nearly empty, and there are days when we are almost full. The price per room is $70 to $80 per night.”

But aren’t you afraid that you won’t have work? You put a lot of money into this.

“We invested about $1.5 million. If you follow the news, then obviously, you’re scared. But if you concentrate on living, then you realize that there’s a possibility of having a business here. And people want to live. It’s clear that everyone here was hit hard financially after the kidnapping of the three Israeli boys. Reservations for our restaurant were canceled, for example. But things have gone back to normal.”

Rajah Abu Alaan of Dahariya in southern Hebron manages the hotel. He worked in hotels in Israel for 17 years and speaks Hebrew fluently, with almost no accent. “An Israeli travel agent who came here to visit was astonished at the level of the place, at the rooms,” he says. Both men agree that if Israeli Jews came here, they would be glad to host them.

Meanwhile, Shuhada Street and the Cave of the Patriarchs are a few minutes’ drive away. The shops are still closed and hardly any Palestinians are visible on the streets. The soldiers and Border Police troops are tense and irritable.

Hebron, the ancestral city now and forever, continues to suffer from a split personality.

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