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Palestinians in Hebron strike against Israel's planned new settlement

Israel seeking to bulldoze antique vegetable market to build 70 apartments that could double Israeli settlers’ population
A Palestinian man walks in front of a closed shop in Hebron during a general strike over Israeli settlement activity (AFP)

Palestinians in Hebron staged a general strike on Monday, protesting against Israel's plans to build a new illegal settlement in the flashpoint West Bank city.

The strike was accompanied by some sporadic protests, which Israeli forces cracked down on with tear gas, leaving two Palestinians needing medical treatment, local news agency Wafa reported.

On 1 December, Defence Minister Naftali Bennett approved a new settlement and the building of 70 apartments that could double the population of Israeli settlers in Hebron, which has been under military occupation since 1967.

An antique wholesale market owned by the Palestinian municipality is set to be razed to make room for the highly controversial project.

Almost 800 Israeli settlers currently live in the heart of Hebron under heavy military guard among a Palestinian population of 30,000. The total population of Hebron is about 200,000 people.

In 1994, Israel closed the major Shuhada Street after the Ibrahimi Mosque massacre in which 29 Palestinians were killed by an Israeli settler. Following the attack, Israel divided the holy site, known to Jews as the Tomb of the Patriarchs, into separate spaces for use by Palestinians and settlers.

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Imad Kharwat, an official from Fatah, the Palestinian movement that runs the West Bank, told Wafa that his group called for the general strike as a response to settlers' "desecration" of the Ibrahimi Mosque and to send a message to the world that "Palestinian people will not compromise on their land".

Since last week, Palestinians have been flocking in their hundreds to the daily dawn prayer at the Ibrahimi Mosque as part of the protests.

They are also calling for the reopening of Shuhada Street, once a bustling commercial thoroughfare that is now totally shuttered and only accessible to the occasional Israeli settler or foreigner.

Since Bennett was appointed as interim defence minister on 12 November, he has made several drastic and confrontational moves.

On that date, Bennett approved the assassination of Islamic Jihad commander Baha Abu al-Atta in an air strike on his Gaza home, leading to two days of clashes during which 34 Palestinians were killed by Israeli strikes, including women and children, before a ceasefire was agreed.

He subsequently announced that the Israeli army will no longer release the bodies of Palestinians killed by Israeli forces, regardless of their political affiliations, and set up a database of Palestinian and Arab activists to target their financial activities in Israel and abroad. The hawkish minister has also concocted a war plan against “Iran’s presence in Syria”.

An editorial in Israeli daily Haaretz said Bennett is “exploiting his five minutes” as defence minister to shatter a long-standing status quo in Hebron with his decision to build a new settlement. The paper said that even the Israeli army objects to the planned settlement. 

It added that Bennett has turned the defence ministry into “a headquarters for the next election campaign" and to advance the "dreams" of settlers and right-wing Israelis in the West Bank.