Hebron Settlers
Jewish settlers walk under Israeli Army escort through downtown Hebron, in the West Bank, on October 20, 2012 Gabriele Barbati

HEBRON, West Bank -- It took over 30 years to hold local elections in the West Bank’s largest city, but to some, it was worth the wait: Last Saturday’s vote was the first ever in which women were elected to seats in the municipal council. But to some, it failed to bring about the change they say is sorely needed in Hebron.

Last week, Palestinian voters in this city of 250,000 (around 60,000 were registered to vote, but the exact number isn’t clear) chose their representatives for the first time since 1976. Local elections were held in the West Bank and Gaza in 2005 and 2006, but not in Hebron, where the Palestinian Authority called off the vote for fear that Hamas, the Islamist group that rules the Gaza Strip, would gain control of the largest municipality in the Palestinian territories.

But this time, Hamas wasn’t participating. The movement, which secured a landslide victory in the Hebron district in the 2006 general elections, boycotted the local vote over sharp differences with Fatah, the main Palestinian political faction, led by Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas. This allowed Fatah and groups headed by ex-Fatah members, which rely heavily on the loyalty of prominent family clans, to win the majority of the seats in most of the West Bank’s 93 towns and villages. Another 261 have either postponed the vote or fielded a single list of candidates.

Still, to some people in Hebron, where Fatah won near two-thirds of the council seats, and of the quota reserved for women by law, the historic vote was a grave disappointment.

“The three women who were elected are simply going to comply with the directives of the traditional parties”, said Maysoun Qawasmi, 43, the leader of the first-ever all-women list. As its name -- “By participating, we can” -- implies, she campaigned for a bigger say for women in this conservative society, where their role is often restricted to raising a family or teaching. They were also running against the city’s traditional clan-dominated society. “I think we should also listen to people’s demands for better services, like improving the scarce water supply, and reopening the unjust Hebron Protocol,” she said.

Qawasmi was referring to the 1997 protocol expanding the so-called Oslo II agreement between Israel and the Palestinian National Authority. That protocol split Hebron in two areas marked as H1, administered by the Palestinians, and H2, under full Israeli security control.

But unlike most parts of the West Bank, the demarcation line in Hebron slices through the heart of the city, with its religious landmarks sacred to the Jewish and Muslim faiths -- the Tomb of the Patriarchs and the Ibrahimi Mosque.

That divide might help explain the poor turnout at the polls in Hebron: just 33 percent in comparison to an average 55 percent throughout the rest of the West Bank.

“The ongoing political divide between the West Bank and Gaza has likely discouraged people from casting their ballot. But, mainly, it’s Israeli policy that is creating the feeling that nothing can be changed here until the occupation is ended,” said Mohammad Asa’d Ewaiwi, professor of political science at Hebron’s Al Quds university.

A stroll through Shuhada Street is a stark reminder of the conflict. Before the second Palestinian uprising in the early 2000s, its bustling market was the trademark of the Old City of Hebron. Since then, all shops are shut due to security limitations imposed by Israel. Palestinians are allowed to use a stretch of the road on a separate sidewalk, while its middle section cuts through the Jewish enclave, home to, according to conflicting estimates, 500 to 850 settlers, whose presence is deemed illegal by international law but who intend to stay despite the fact their presence is an obstacle to peace. This is, after all, where tradition has it that patriarchs, including Abraham, are buried.

“It is a tremendous privilege for us to live in Hebron, which is the first Jewish city in history and the second holiest place after Jerusalem. And it’s a mission, because if we were not here, perhaps Jews would lose access to the Tomb of the Patriarchs,” said David Wilder, a spokesman for the Jewish community of Hebron. “Anybody should be able to live here, but if the Arabs try to kill us, then security measures are legitimate,” he said, explaining the reason for the pistol holstered around his waist.

Outside his office, armed Israeli soldiers man rooftop observation posts, watching over the neighborhoods of Avraham Avinu, Beit Hadassa, Beit Romano and Tel Romeida, among the hotspots of H2 patrolled daily by the observers of the Temporary International Presence in Hebron. The outfit, known as TIPH, was set up in 1997 by six governments -- Norway, Italy, Denmark, Sweden, Switzerland and Turkey -- after Baruch Goldstein, a Jewish settler, gunned down 29 people inside the Ibrahimi Mosque. TIPH’s mandate is to report violations of the Protocol and assist efforts to bring about normalization in the city.

“Unfortunately, we are very far from this goal, given the hostility and the lack of a dialogue between the two communities,” said Oddvar Midtkandal, the Norwegian retired general who heads the 67-strong mission.

Violence, though, hasn’t killed anybody in Hebron lately. “In recent years we haven’t seen bloodshed. Violence is mostly confined to verbal harassment, rock and firebomb-throwing incidents involving Jews, Palestinians and the Israeli army,” Midtkandal said. The figures aren’t available. The TIPH officers know these, but hold them as confidential information and disclose them only to the six TIPH governments, and to Israeli and Palestinian authorities.

While violence has gone down, tension remains palpable in and around the Old City. On Saturday afternoon, as Palestinian headed to the polling stations, dozens of Jewish settlers took their weekly stroll in the market area, accompanied by a security detail of an equal number of armed troops clearing their way.

It was yet another reminder of a torn city, where freedom of movement is strictly limited by checkpoints, concrete blocks and gates dotting the city. According to TIPH observers, some 144 of those choke points harass the daily lives of both Jews and Palestinians in Hebron. Saturday’s vote, sadly, did nothing to move the peace process toward a day when those obstacles may be gone.