HEBRON, West Bank – The West Bank's largest city has become a focal point of Israeli-Palestinian violence, with near-daily deadly confrontations erupting at Israeli army checkpoints that guard enclaves of Jewish settlers in the once-thriving center of Hebron.
One-third of 58 Palestinians killed by Israeli fire since mid-September were in Hebron, including two Palestinians shot dead on Thursday. Eleven Israelis were killed in Palestinian attacks, mostly stabbings, over the same period, though none in Hebron.
Israel says nearly all of those killed in Hebron were knife-wielding attackers, but rights groups have challenged that, saying some did not pose a threat to soldiers' lives.
The events in Hebron are central to the Israeli-Palestinian clash of narratives over the latest violence.
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's government portrays the spate of Palestinian attacks as a "wave of terror" whipped up by anti-Israeli Palestinian incitement.
Netanyahu's critics say this ignores the underlying cause — nearly a half-century of Israeli military rule, with no end in sight. Palestinians "don't grow up with knives in their hands," said Yehuda Shaul, a peace activist and former Israeli combat soldier in Hebron.
Israeli military occupation is felt in its rawest form in this city of 270,000 Palestinians, whose downtown remains under exclusive Israeli control.
There, hundreds of troops guard 850 settlers, making it the only Palestinian population center in the West Bank with a major Israeli army presence. Friction is amplified by what Palestinians and Israeli rights activists say is systematic harassment by settlers.
"People are boiling — more settler violence, no hope," said Palestinian activist Issa Amro.
Settler spokesman Noam Arnon blames the violence on what he contends is the Palestinians' refusal to accept the presence of Jews and their historic roots in Hebron.
A small group of Palestinian attackers "wants to destroy the life of Jews and Arabs" in the city, he said. He dismissed allegations of systematic settler violence, portraying Palestinians as the main aggressors.
Another ingredient in Hebron's combustible mix is a major shrine that was divided into separate prayer areas for Muslims and Jews in 1995, a year after a settler killed 29 Muslims in a shooting rampage there.
Known to Jews as the Tomb of the Patriarchs, it marks the traditional burial sites of biblical patriarchs. Muslims call it the Ibrahimi Mosque, after Abraham, one of the patriarchs.
The latest violence began in Jerusalem, driven in part by Palestinian fears that Israel plans to divide a major contested shrine there like it did in Hebron. Israel denies such claims.
Initially, many of the attacks involved Palestinians from Arab neighborhoods of Jerusalem. After Israel erected roadblocks in Jerusalem earlier this month, restricting the movement of Palestinians, the momentum shifted to traditionally volatile Hebron.
An interim agreement in the 1990s divided the city, placing the center under full Israeli control and the rest under Palestinian self-rule. The fate of the Hebron settlers was left to a final Israeli-Palestinian peace deal that never materialized. Instead, settlers moved into more buildings and Israel tightened security controls, leading to the current separation regime.
About 10,000 Palestinians live in the area closest to the settler enclaves that are guarded by 18 army checkpoints, said Amro, the Palestinian activist. Palestinians can only use certain streets, while areas near settler compounds are off limits, he said. Hundreds of small businesses and workshops in the area had to close because customers could no longer reach them.
On Wednesday, the area near the shrine, in the Israeli-controlled zone, was largely deserted. Israeli troops manned a nearby metal turnstile, checking the IDs of Palestinians entering from the Palestinian self-rule zone.
But by late afternoon, word spread that a Palestinian had been shot and killed at an Israeli checkpoint; the army later said he had tried to stab a soldier. Troops sealed the area to journalists, making it impossible to interview witnesses. The boom of tear gas canisters fired by soldiers at Palestinian stone-throwers reverberated across Hebron.
Over the next 20 hours, two more Palestinians were shot dead in similar circumstances. One was killed Thursday after slightly injuring a soldier and the other in an attempted stabbing attack on a soldier, the military said.
Palestinian and international rights groups say there are mounting suspicions that in some cases, Israeli troops used lethal force when their lives weren't in danger. Amnesty International said four shootings it investigated, including three in Hebron, "appear to have been extra-judicial executions."
Lt. Col. Peter Lerner, an Israeli military spokesman, rejected the allegation.
"Outrageous, unsubstantiated and anonymous claims have become a knee-jerk Palestinian response in a reality where Israelis have been stabbed, slashed, shot, butchered and run over in recent weeks," he said. "This conveniently redirects the focus from the reality of the threat and the real victims of Palestinian incitement, violence and terror."
One case cited by Amnesty involved 17-year-old Dania Ersheid, a high school senior who was shot dead by Israeli border police this week as she tried to enter the Muslim section of the Hebron shrine.
Israeli police said she pulled out a knife and screamed at Israeli troops, who opened fire. Amnesty, citing unidentified witnesses, said she was shot as she raised her hands during a security check, yelling at border police that she did not have a knife. "She was not posing a threat to Israeli forces when she was shot," the rights group said.
The girl's father, Jihad, said his daughter was preparing for school exams, including taking after-school English lessons, and that he does not believe she intended to carry out a stabbing.
Another Palestinian teen, 16-year-old Tareq Natshe, stabbed and wounded a soldier on Oct. 17, before being shot dead. His mother, Aishe, said he wanted to avenge a friend who was shot dead hours earlier in what the military said was an attempted stabbing.
"I am proud, not sad," she said, a button with her son's photo pinned to her chest.
The family has a long list of grievances, the mother said. Her father, Aref, who survived the Hebron mosque massacre, had to close his metal workshop in the restricted zone and the family had to move out of their home to escape constant friction with settlers.
Palestinian officials say Israel is still holding the bodies of the two teens, along with those of 14 others killed in recent weeks in the Hebron area, even though speedy burial is a requirement of Islam, as it is in Judaism.
Their parents said not being able to bury their children has been difficult to bear.
In an era of omnipresent social media, they are also surrounded by gruesome images of their dead children. A photo of Dania shows her lying on the ground with a blood-soaked white headscarf. An image of Tareq depicts him on his back, his blue shirt pulled up and a soldier's boot on his right shoulder.
Shaul, the former soldier and co-founder of Breaking The Silence, a group that collects testimony from army veterans about abuses by troops in the Palestinian territories, said nothing justifies deadly Palestinian attacks, but that public debate in Israel lacks context.
"Anyone who does not understand that the word occupation needs to be at the beginning, middle and end of every sentence (about the current situation) is lying to himself and to the Israeli public," he said.
Associated Press writers Nasser Shiyoukhi in Hebron and Josef Federman in Jerusalem contributed to this report.