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Last Updated: Monday, 14 May 2007, 18:15 GMT 19:15 UK
Hebron turned into 'ghost town'
Settler child cycling through deserted Old City
Curfews imposed on Palestinians do not apply to Jewish settlers
Human rights groups say Israeli curbs on Palestinians in the West Bank town of Hebron have forced thousands of them to leave homes and close businesses.

B'Tselem and the Association for Civil Rights in Israel said Israel had in effect expropriated central Hebron to protect some 650 Jewish settlers there.

Israel had breached the Geneva Convention prohibiting forced transfer, which was a war crime, the groups said.

The Israeli military says curbs are to maintain order and protect life.

"The policy of separation founded on ethnic criteria has caused a massive exodus of Palestinians from Hebron's city centre," the joint human rights report said.

"Israeli activities have been carried out on the basis of a preferential policy toward settlers that has turned the centre of Hebron into a ghost town."

Military closures

The groups said about 1,000 Palestinian homes, more than 40% of homes in the centre of Hebron, had been vacated because of Israeli closures in the centre of the city.

Two-thirds of these were vacated during the course of the second Palestinian intifada, or uprising, which began in 2000.

Israeli soldiers stop and search Palestinians in Hebron
Troops look after settlers' interests not Palestinians', the report says
More than 75% of shops were shut down, the joint B'Tselem/ACRI survey said, 62% of them since 2000 and a quarter of them as a result of military orders.

"They created conditions that made the Palestinians move," B'Tselem spokeswoman Sarit Michaeli said. "The army can't now say that they didn't know this was going to happen."

An Israeli military statement said the report had failed to reflect the complexities of Hebron, and that the restrictions were imposed to protect both Israeli and Palestinian residents.

"In this complicated reality the military commander is required, and is in fact obliged, to take such actions on purely security grounds," a military statement said.

'Lies, distortions'

The report said the army generally did not intervene when Palestinian residents were subjected to attacks by militant settlers, which also caused people to leave.

"Dozens of settlers attacked my house at once, and they burned things inside the house," former resident Mufid Sharabati is quoted saying.

"We called the Israeli police and the army, but nobody helped us."

Settler spokesman David Wilder denounced the report as lies and distortions, and said Palestinians left because of curfews imposed because of attacks on settlers.

"We have never tried to throw anybody out, and we have not tried to keep anyone here," he said.

Hebron is the only place in the Israeli-occupied West Bank where a small community of Jewish settlers lives in the heart of a Palestinian city.

Under an agreement with the Palestinian Authority, Israel evacuated 80% of Hebron in 1997, remaining in an area around the Old City where 650 Jewish settlers live among about 30,000 Palestinians.

All Israeli settlements built on land captured in the 1967 war are illegal under international law, although Israel disputes this.

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