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Middle East

New Jewish settlement reignites tensions with Palestinians

The Rajabi house in Hebron, the largest Palestinian city in the West Bank, has a deeply spiritual meaning for the Jewish community. But a recent move by Jewish settlers has reignited tensions with Palestinian neighbors.

From the outside, there isn't much to look at - the Rajabi complex is a large, unfinished apartment building surrounded by barbed wire and draped in Israeli flags, perched on the top of a hill in the divided southern West Bank town of Hebron.

For many Israeli Jews, visiting Hebron during the feast of Passover is a rite of passage. They pray at the Cave of the Patriarchs, where their forefathers are said to be buried, and there is a party-like atmosphere in the old city, with stalls selling food and drinks and sound systems blasting out Israeli tunes.

But this year the worshippers had even more to celebrate, as a group of settlers moved back into the controversial Rajabi apartment complex. They were, however, immediately accused of attacking their Palestinian neighbors.

Jewish families return

Seven years after they were forcibly evicted, three Jewish families have been given permission to reoccupy a building they like to call Beit Ha Shalom, or the House of Peace. Referred to by Palestinians as the House of Contention, the four-story development has been at the center of a long legal battle - its Palestinian owner says he never sold it.

Soldiers facing off protestors during Passover (photo: Marijke Peters)

Israeli soldiers are facing off protesters during Passover festivities

Israel's Defence Minister ruled last Sunday the group could move back in - his decision coincided with the start of Passover (14.04.2014), and the settlers held a symbolic seder meal in their new home.

Posters plastered all over the old city featuring photos of the Rajabi building, triumphantly trumpet the Jews' 'return'. "We continue with the redemption. The city of our forefathers awaits us," they read.

At the heart of conflict

Hebron has long been at the heart of the

Israel-Palestine conflict

: around 850 religious settlers live in the city center, protected by thousands of Israeli soldiers. Several streets have been closed to Palestinians who suffer daily abuse, and thousands of businesses have been forced to shut their doors. There is a web of netting above the market to prevent Arab shopkeepers being hit by rocks thrown from the settlements above.

Clashes are commonplace. It's not unusual to hear a sound of a bomb exploding in the distance, or, during Jewish religious holidays like Passover, armoured vehicles cruising through town.

A soldier on the top of the Rajabi building (photo: Marijke Peters)

A soldier guards the Rajabi building

Twenty-six-year-old Abdullah al Jabari lives almost next door to the Rajabi building, and says he was punched in the face by one of the men who recently moved in when he tried to walk past. He says a soldier then pointed a machine gun at his head.

"Of course I'm worried it will happen again," he said. "They will always attack Palestinians. What happened to me will happen to my cousins and my neighbours. If they want to avoid this kind of harassment we have to leave - but we don't want to. This is our house and our land and our dignity. We can't go."

The murder of an Israeli policeman during the Passover holiday has added to tension in the city. Chief Superintendent Baruch Mizrahi was shot as he drove to a seder in the nearby Hebron settlement of Kiryat Arba, but his death has made Jews in the city even more determined to take back what they see as their land.

Elkana, 19, traveled from Haifa to Hebron for the Passover celebrations, but said he would also make a stop at the infamous new settlement. "It's important to show that even there, where there are many Arabs surrounding it, one house of Jews in the middle can be there. It's like Israel, surrounded by Arabs. It's the last stand for the Jews," he said.

More settlers to follow?

Other families are expected to move into the new settlement, which Palestinians fear will make their lives even more difficult.

Yehuda Shaul, founder of Israeli human rights organization Breaking the Silence says the strategic location of the block - between Kiryat Arba and the Jewish-occupied homes in the old city below - is significant.

"Hebron has a DNA. We know what's going to happen here. They're going to close the roads, you're going to have military controls and harassment, soldiers going into houses day and night to create a feeling of being persecuted," he said. "You're going to have settler violence. And then you create a reality where Palestinians can’t stay here anymore because it's not a life that’s worth living."

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