New Documentary Presents Deeply Troubling History of Jews, Palestinians In Hebron

Two weeks ago, Israel marked its 76th anniversary, a celebration certainly tempered by Oct. 7 and what has transpired in response since, in Israel, the U.S. and around the world. With much of the focus these last seven months on Gaza, there has been considerably less attention paid to the West Bank. It is where Hebron, the subject of the illuminating, disturbing and truly compelling documentary, H2: The Occupation Lab, directed by Idit Avrahami and Noam Sheizaf, is located. Hebron is distinctive because it is the only Palestinian city with a Jewish settlement in it. It’s also the largest city in the West Bank with 800 Jewish settlers and 250,000 Palestinians, who have been under the authority of the Israeli military since the Six-Day War and today as citizens, the Arab population has virtually no rights.

Released overseas in 2022, but just available now in the U.S., H2 uses abundant archival footage and interviews with some of Hebron’s former military commanders and others who were part of the fabric of the city after 1967. It’s a story of a place marred by violence, cruelty, intolerance and religious extremism, at the hands of both the Arabs and the Jews.

The through-line to the disastrous situation today has its origins in the murders of 67 Jews by Arabs in 1929, which Avrahami and Sheizaf identify as “year zero.” Another significant “flashpoint” was the holy Cave Of The Patriarchs, where both Jews and Muslims believe their common forefather, Abraham, is buried, along with his wife Sarah. Until the Israeli’s victory in 1967, Jews had been banned from entering for centuries. This triumph initially created expected tensions between the communities, but early peacekeeping efforts of people such as the long-time mayor of Hebron Muhammad Ali Ja’Abari and Moshe Dayan, the then-Minister of Defense (Dayan had observed the US’s involvement in Vietnam and decided, “We’re not going to do that. We don’t want the population to feel as if they’re living under occupation”) achieved a measure of success.

However, when Jewish settlers moved into a hotel in 1968 with the government’s tacit authorization for a “permanent Jewish presence in Hebron,” according to Shlomo Gazit, the First Military Administrator Of The Occupied Territories, the conflict would turn irrevocably disastrous. The increase in the number of Jews happened in tandem with an escalation of force by the Israelis, who used checkpoints, arrests, curfews and raids to foment an atmosphere of harassment, terror and oppression. As human rights attorney Michael Sfard put it, Israel used Hebron as “a testing ground. Everything it does in the West Bank or East Jerusalem began as ‘trial and error.’ When you come to Hebron, you see what will happen in other places in two months or a year from now.”

Arguably the starkest example of this catastrophic experiment came after the 1997 Hebron Agreement, which had been preceded by the massacring of a group of 29 Muslims praying in the Cave by an American-born Jewish settler trying to stop the Oslo Peace Accords in 1993, and the assassination two years later of Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin, one of the signers of the Accords. What formed from the Hebron Agreement was an ethnically separated city in which the military divided it into H1 (for the Palestinians) and H2, the Israel-controlled area which includes the Cave and the Jewish neighborhoods, right next to the Palestinians. H2 is now full of barriers, fences and checkpoints.

In the 21st Century, the thriving, energetic city center populated by Arab businesses is deserted. The shops are long gone and what was once a major Middle East hub is reduced to confrontations between Arabs and Israeli soldiers at checkpoints, in their homes, and really anywhere the arm of the government sees fit to reach. The film’s camera crew captures multiple instances of hostile, angry exchanges and threats of and actual arrests.

The filmmakers, both of whom are Israeli (Sheizaf’s military service was in Hebron in the 90s), were moved to document the conditions and destruction of Hebron after the horrifying 2016 daytime execution in the street of a wounded Abdel Fattah al-Sharif by Elor Azaria, a soldier. Azaria received a prison sentence of 18 months and was hailed by Israelis as a hero. H2: The Occupation Lab is unlikely to change many minds, but the filmmakers – whose mission statement is one in which they express hope for “a new kind of political thinking – one founded on equal rights, respect and cooperation” – have created a portrait of Arab citizens of Hebron who are utterly deserving of our empathy. If you are upset, or outraged, or inspired to take action, then the documentary has achieved some part of its goals. The film is a must-watch; it’s available on many video-on-demand or digital streaming services.