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December 19, 2011

The journey from Nablus in the north of the West Bank to Hebron can be breathtaking. The rolling hills, mountains and valleys filled with Olive trees seem to go on and on at times and are truly beautiful. The journey however is seen to take much longer than it should. When driving through the valleys it becomes quickly apparent the reason for why this is the case. Perched on the top of what seems almost every hill and mountain between Nablus and Hebron are Israeli settlements, settlements which under International Law are deemed illegal.

The larger settlements such as Ma’ael Adummim which rest on the hilltops surrounding East Jerusalem are the reason why the journey takes so long. As the so called ‘security wall’ or ‘apartheid wall’ surrounds these settlements cutting deep inside the West Bank territories, denying Palestinians access and forcing any movement to divert around the settlements and wall for long distances. These settlements are worrying enough in terms of size, imposing nature and their negative contribution to the ‘negotiations’. However during the drive south it was the continuing sight of both smaller established settlements and outposts that provided the greater feeling of a bleak future. These small settlements and outposts (seen as illegal by Israeli government, however provided with logistical and military support from it) surround the hilltops of villages and towns and gather close to the larger settlements. Contributing to the web like makeup of a West Bank map, in which groups of settlements are established close to each other and begin to expand, eventually joining together and cutting off swathes of land denying Palestinians access to their homes, agricultural land and freedom of movement.

I have written about the violent effects of settlements within the West Bank in past blogs and I wish to convey that not all settlers are violent. However settlements as an ideology and a practice themselves can be seen to be so. They take away land once owned, worked and lived on by others and are often taken by force. Once established they take up elevated positions high on hilltops overlooking Palestinian villages and towns and often surrounding Palestinian cities. Coupled with the constant Israeli military jet ‘fly overs’ which often create sonic booms over the cities (also illegal under International Law), and the checkpoints throughout the West bank, they play a significant role in the psychological warfare that is carried out daily in these territories. They are a constant physical reminder of the occupation and a source of contention between Palestinians and Israelis. Whilst I felt I had come to understand the reality of settlements well over the last six months, I was duly reminded of how little I know and understand when finally arriving in Hebron.

It is difficult to speak of anything in this region without historical context. In Hebron as in much of the Palestinian territories there has been a presence of Jewish and other faith communities amongst the majority Muslim community for centuries. The narrative of the Zionist community in Hebron now speaks of this historical reality being played out within the context of discrimination and abuse towards the Jewish communities. The polar narrative of this from some in the Muslim community in the city describes of a time when both communities lived together in complete harmony. However Incidents of brutality and murder towards the other can be heard from both sides historically. In the early 20th century tensions between the two communities were growing, during a time of increased immigration of European Jews led by the Zionist movement. These tensions came to a horrific end, when rumours spread that Jews had killed Palestinians and took over the religious sites in Jerusalem. Sixty seven people were killed by a crowd of Palestinians in Hebron with the survivors being evacuated by the British.

After the 1967 war however Hebron along with the rest of the West Bank, Gaza, Sinai and the Golan heights was occupied by Israel. This saw Jewish settlers move ‘back’ to the city, the majority of whom where American born. The settler’s historical accounts speak of ‘returning’ to the city after being driven out by the Palestinian Muslims. What is often missing from this historical account however are the stories of members of the Jewish community being hidden in Palestinian homes by Arab families in order to save them from the mob. What is also often missing from the Zionist accounts are atrocities carried out by themselves. Such as In 1994 a settler named Goldstein entered the Ibrahimi mosque in Hebron and murdered 39 Palestinians and injured 100 during Friday prayers, his massacre only coming to an end when he ran out of ammunition and was over powered by survivors.

Historical context as said is important in this region, but it also must not be used as a tool to justify continued suffering. The historical narrative portrays competiveness for the ‘side’ who can best apply to themselves the tag of the victim. However this does not seem to suit the realities on the ground. As may be seen in the rest of this article, the daily events Hebron speak for themselves and can be seen to better represent the realities of suffering here and now within the city.

Hebron is a city split into two areas that of H1 which is under Palestinian Authority control and H2 which is under Israeli control. Walking around much of H1 except for the old city has a similar feeling of walking around any other Palestinian city such as Nablus except maybe for its size (Hebron is the biggest city in the West Bank). However entering H2 and the old city has a very different feel. A group of us had arranged to meet our guide at the start of Shuhadda Street. This street was once the main thoroughfare through the city connecting east and west, but is now the heart of H2 and is where many of the 400 settlers who are protected by around 4,000 Israeli military live. On the wall is sprayed ‘Welcome To Apartheid Street’. A row of concrete blocks across what was once the entrance to the street now mark the border between areas H1 and H2. The street is then again blocked with an Israeli checkpoint consisting of a prefabricated cabin with automated doors and a metal detector inside, with the whole structure surrounded by barbed wire. Behind stand a number of armed Israeli soldiers who check the ID’s of those passing through and a large imposing military vehicle parked right behind it. This blocked road causes diversions of up to 20km around the settlement inside H2.

After passing through the checkpoint and having our ID’s checked we were greeted with what can only be described as some kind of post apocalyptic scene. In which a long row of what was once houses and businesses lay empty and derelict. Our guide is Hashem Azzeh, a Palestinian man who still lives within H2. Throughout the course of the day it becomes increasingly clear that his life and indeed his family’s lives are continually intertwined with the effects of the breakup of the city, settlers and the wider occupation, giving him no time to consider little else. He informs us that H2 used to house up to around 160,000 Palestinians but that now that number has dwindled to around 45,000 with 1,800 shops now closed both in the H2 and the Old city. These numbers seem to be different to other conflicting sources which provide differing statistics with some being as low as only 30,000 residents in the first place, however regardless of the exact numbers the evidence of a once densely populated area now being deserted is incredibly apparent with the street leaving you with a feeling of standing in the middle of a mid western ghost town. The windows of the buildings are almost all smashed and the structures themselves severely damaged. Hashem explains how this once bustling street became the wasteland it is now after families and business owners where hounded and harassed by the settlers and the military, often facing threats and violence. Bussiness’s and service buildings where closed down by the military and bordered up, leaving many without work, amenities and access to health and education, forcing them to move.

Moving further down Shuhadda Street we quickly come to a military post at the side of the road. In front of us stands the Israeli settlement Beit Hadassah. To the right of us are a set of stairs that lead up the side of a hill to a walkway that pass’s the settlement from a distance. On the bottom of these stairs are blue and white markings. We are informed by our guide that this marks the point to which Palestinians can walk. All Palestinians who wish to gain access to their homes further down this street must climb the steep steps and divert around the settlement as they are not permitted to walk on the same street where the Israeli settlers live. Once up there Hashem begins to describe to us how Palestinian residents regularly suffer from violent attacks, abuse and harassment from settlers in the full view of Israeli military soldiers. Soldiers he says who are provided with weapons as ‘gifts’ from the settlers. He points out below a white van, with silhouettes of soldiers, tanks and military hardware on it. He explains that this van is not a military vehicle, but that it is in fact a settler vehicle with the words ‘Hebron Hospitality’ written on the side of the door. These vans are given to soldiers, used to transport their gifts and for whatever other purpose they may need them for.

As we continue to walk along the elevated walkway, diverting past the settlement. Hashem points out a tall building further down Shuhada Street. He explains to us that this building is a Beth Midrash – a Jewish teaching institute, however the building is actually built on top of what used to be a Palestinian school. He claims that many of the extreme settlers in the West Bank have studied there. As we walk on further we come to a primary school. Originally a girls only school, it is now a mixed school for around 170 students. It used to have around 300 girls in attendance but once families where hounded out of the area those numbers dropped to around 70. Teachers at the school are regularly stopped at the checkpoints and denied access to their place of work, in turn denying the pupils of their education. The main access to the school is now the walkway as the other stairs that lead from Shuhadda Street to the main entrance have now been blocked with large amounts of barbed wire. In order to protect the pupils and staff, the school has built large walls around to surround the building, which then had to be extended even higher with meshed wire as stones and other objects were still thrown over the wall.

Later on in the day we are shown a video of the young pupil’s, teachers and International observers being confronted outside the school on the elevated walkway by a group of young settler girls. In the full view of military and settler adults, these girls  shout verbal abuse at the teachers and pupils and then proceed to physically assault them, kicking and pushing both pupils and teachers alike. The group of teachers are then forced to hurriedly lead the school children away from the group along the walkway and down the stairs back onto Shuhadda Street. As they attempt to flee the pupils, teachers and observers are followed by the girls and also met by another group of youths at the bottom of the stairs who throw stones and other projectiles at them as they attempt to escape. When shown the video Hashem explains to us how this was not some ‘special’ occasion, but that these types of events happen regularly.

We continue walking around the diversion and come to the back of the school where below is a military base. Hasheem explains to us that the base used to be the Hebron main Bus station, he then looks to the bottom of the street we are standing on and begins to say how we should not go much further as settlers may attempt to cause trouble with us. As he says that an Israeli settler family walks across the T junction at the bottom of the street. I, and I assume the rest of the group don’t think much of it, but Hashem instantly says ‘see watch this’. The family then stopped, looked up the street and decided to come walking up towards us. A strange unnerving feeling could then be felt amongst the group (or at least I thought so). In which we where now caught in some sort of ‘standoff’ with a group of settlers consisting of what seemed to be parents and their young children (between around 8 & 18 maybe). Nothing happened, except the group starring at us and a few comments in Hebrew being muttered. However it seemed evident that the change in direction and the hostile glares where carried out just for our groups benefit. It was really unnerving, not because I exactly feared for my safety but that parents had purposefully sought out a confrontational situation in which their children would be involved. It must be said that Hashem and members of our group (including myself most probably) also played a part in this ‘standoff’. As ‘sides’ felt like they was taken and an ‘us against them’ situation arouse under such strange circumstances. I also got the unnerving feeling that our guide had somewhat relished the opportunity to show us such an event occurring too.

We then head back to the way we came and met a man at the bottom of the stairs whose house stands around 10 yards away from the military post and settlement. As we walk past the military post a young settler male in around his early 20’s is standing with 2 fully armed soldiers. All three stare at the group as we walk past. Walking at the back with a young Palestinian man from Nablus we are both spat at by the young settler. Realising we are about to stop outside the man’s house who we have come to meet, I tell my Palestinian friend to keep walking and ignore him. As we stand outside the man’s house shaking hands. The settler continues to abuse the group aiming most of his tirade at our Palestinian friend. With his middle finger raised high he continues to spit towards the group and shouts ‘fuck you’. As one of the group attempt to take a photograph of his actions he raises his hands in a mocking fashion as if to be holding a gun and repeatedly shouts ‘I will fucking kill you’. This happened whilst the two soldiers he is standing with do nothing except laugh and shake his hand.

The man who Hashem brought us to meet invites us into his house for tea and we are all glad to get off the street and away from the tirade of abuse and threats. Inside his house, we discover that our host is a member of the ‘Committee of National Justice’ and the ‘Equal Rights Association’ along with Hashem and other activists. The committee is currently working on a plan to occupy and fill the empty buildings in Shuhadda Street with Palestinians and is working on offering incentives to families to come back and re populate the area. The equal rights association works towards teaching children and parents about their civil rights in order to be better prepared to deal with their current situation.

Whilst sitting in the house and discussing these matters however I was beginning to struggle to fully take in the conversations that were going on around me. I felt stuck sitting there with my head in my hands struggling to grasp what I had seen and heard already, with question after question in my head seeming to be unanswerable and only leading on to more questions. How does this happen? How does it continue to happen? How do you live like this, whether a Palestinian or a settler? How do you bring your kids up in this environment? How do you put an end to what seems unavoidable hatred? Why stay here? Why wouldn’t you just move and forget it? I am very much of the mind of struggling and fighting for what you believe in, however how do you continue under these circumstances? But if you don’t what is the consequence for those who do stay and for the rest of the city/ territory? My head continued to spin, until our hosts little girl came into the room and brightened things up with a big smile, handshakes and a ‘marhaba’ (hello) for everybody. This small relief however was quickly taken away as it is explained by Hashem and our host’s friend (who is blind in one eye from an attack by a settler which resulted in a stone striking him in the eye) that the young girl was recently almost kidnapped by settlers. Standing outside the house she was snatched by a settler woman and was only not taken due to the efforts of Palestinian residents who intervened and managed to pull the girl back. Is there ever a day of ‘normality’ for these children and families?

We thank our host for his hospitality and for sharing his stories and tea with us and say our goodbyes. We then head back towards the checkpoint and up a side street on the left which climbs up the hill. At the top is another settlement and some Palestinian houses. At the foot of the settlement is Hashem’s house. The original access to his house has been blocked off by the building of the settlement. In order for Hashem and his family to access their house, they must scramble over walls and gardens of abandoned houses. As we stand at the back of his property looking up at what used to be the only access he had up until relatively recently, Hashem tells us the story of when his father died. The access at the back of the house was a small hole high up in his back wall that he and his brother had to climb down carrying his father’s body. They then had to scramble over the dirt track, over walls and gardens down onto the main road. There is no Ambulance access to H2 so they attempted to make their way out of the area, however they was stopped by Israeli soldiers on the road and detained for more than an 1 ½ hours. Hashem then informs us that whilst being detained on the road, the soldiers saw that his father had a watch on his wrist. One of the soldiers using the butt of his gun smashed the watch, breaking bones in his dead father’s hand. In return for promising to not place a formal complaint Hashem was provided with slightly better access to his home, which still consists of scrambling over walls however the climb is now somewhat more gradual. Hasheem says he still submitted a formal complaint but to no avail.

We make our way to Hashem’s house where the settlement behind rises high above his property provided an unnerving imposing feeling. He points out to us the small part of his garden in which grows several olive trees. He informs us that this land was taken from him by the settlement in 2003. He won the rights to harvest his olives on this land in 2007, however fails to do so due to fear of violence. He later shows us a video in which he is seen to attempt to harvest his olives along with international observers. He is quickly confronted by settlers and verbally and then physically abused by a particularly aggressive female settler with the support of her male community members. Above us hang grape vines, however the grapes and leaves are of a brown and yellow colour and are evidentially dying or dead. Hashem accuses his settler neighbours of spraying his grapes  with poison.

Before we enter the house Hashem explains to us that the Israeli military regularly enter his house by force. He tells us how his wife, he and other members of the family have been attacked during these raids as well as raids from settlers. He explains how on two occasions his wife was beaten when pregnant, and as a result of her injuries and trauma tragically lost her unborn infants. He tells how in 2008 settlers raided houses across the H2 area in retaliation to a settler girl being shot, something Hashem questions. Settlers rioted through the H2 area and in full view of Israeli soldiers who stood by and watched, smashed windows, kicked down doors, destroyed property and violently assaulted Palestinian residents. This included a 97 year old man whose arms were broken whilst attempting to take refuge in his house, Hashem’s wife who lost her unborn child and Hashem who lost his teeth when hit in the face with the butt of a gun. On a separate occasion Hashem explains how his nephew was attacked by settlers outside their house. He was apparently captured, had rocks forced into his mouth which were then violently thrashed around inside smashing his teeth.

We spend a little time in his house and meet his amazing wife and children. He shows us the many videos he has of the atrocities that he has managed to film in H2 and speaks of his dealings with Israeli military, settlers and some NGO’s (Non Governmental Organisations) with whom he has grievances with for as he sees it not properly portraying the realities of life for Palestinians living in H2 and the Old city. His wife is a local artist and paints some great images of Palestinian life, which the family sell to support themselves. Hashem then takes us to his brother’s house which is still on his property. We scramble our way over the back wall up a ladder and around some trees. We quickly notice standing on top of the house however is an Israeli soldier. On the roof of the house there is a small military post complete with a look out post and military camouflage netting. The soldier attempts to deny Hashem and the rest of us access to the house proclaiming that the property is not Hashm’s and he must leave. Hashem explains to him that he has the key to the house and that it is his property. The soldier threatens to call the police and Hashem suggests to him that he may not have seen him before because he (the soldier) must be new and that he ‘can ask anybody who I am and whether I own this house’. The soldier replies ‘I will’ and goes off to presumably call a senior on his radio. Hashem shows us into the house and points out how all of the windows are protected by metal shutters to keep out projectiles thrown by settlers.

We make our way to the old city, leaving Shuhadda Street by the checkpoint we entered through. Upon leaving, the soldiers wish us a good day and say goodbye followed by a ‘fuck you’ as we finally pass. Upon getting to the other side of the checkpoint I am over whelmed with a strange feeling of relief, as the tension of being in H2 is lifted and a feeling of relative safety returns. We make our way through the beautiful old city of Hebron. It is a Friday so is not bustling with the busy shoppers it would normally which is a shame however it is a great opportunity to admire the amazing old buildings, coved shops and narrow streets. As had been the case through our short Hebron experience any admiration or feeling of normality is quickly taken away when we notice the famous metal caging above the old city main walkway. This net was put in place to protect the Palestinian residents using the old city from the relentless barrage of projectiles thrown down upon them from the settlements which lurk over the old city streets from the back of Shuhadda Street. On top of the metal cage, lay countless amounts of large rocks, furniture, bottles, garbage and pretty much anything you can think of that have been thrown down and thankfully been caught on the net. Despite this the residents of Hebron who use the Old city continue to be at risk as settlers have taken to throwing ‘dirty water’ (urine and other filthy liquids such as dishwater) down on the people as this will not be stopped by the metal netting.

The old city has had many of its shops forcefully closed by Israeli military. With those that have been closed being clearly marked with a red dot of paint on their doors and a metal bar welded across them. The streets are filled with CCTV cameras hanging from the settlement above. Military posts and soldiers stand guard fully armed on top of the settlements looking down on the Old city and the people who walk along its streets. At the end of the main street in the Old city past the old main square which is now cut off by a heavily armed Israeli checkpoint, is a large metal turnstile checkpoint much like the one at Qalandia. The large imposing turnstiles when the light turns green lead to the Ibrahimi mosque (the scene of the massacre in 1994). The mosque has been sub divided into two parts with half of the mosque now a Jewish synagogue. The mosque itself is heavily guarded with a checkpoint, with only so many Palestinian Muslims permitted to enter the mosque for prayers. The road to the right leads down to Shuhadda Street and is guarded by an Israeli checkpoint. The road splits into two, the smaller side for Arab Palestinians and the larger side for non Arab Palestinians. This segregation is evident throughout the whole of H2 and the old city, as Palestinians are denied their rights of movement in and around the settlement area. Large metal structures block off streets and markets that business’s once prospered on and people lived. Behind the structures lay mounds of scrap metal, garbage and disposed furniture. Largely out of view from the settlements but providing an imposing scar on the beauty of the Old city. Palestinians are told where they can and cannot walk and often have curfews forced upon them when the settlers decide to walk through the Old city. Resulting in Palestinians being forced into their homes and off the streets in order to provide ‘security’ for the settlers who then enter the city under heavy armed military gaurd.

We visit the Women’s Cooperative before leaving which is a group of amazing local women who hand make souvenirs of all sorts in order to support the families of Hebron. We then make our way back through the Old City after leaving the mosque area, back through the checkpoint and pass the military posts, blocked roads, Israeli soldiers, settlement and metal guarding above. We say our goodbyes to our guide and host and make promises in relation to his request to pass on the stories he has told us. We make our way to the Service station and board our taxi back to north to Nablus.

On leaving the city we pass the Israeli checkpoints one of which we are later stopped at and made to wait whilst all of our passports are checked. Living in Nablus I had been made aware of the suffering that had been inflicted on the people of the city during invasions at the times of the first and second intifada. Suffering that still continues to a relatively smaller degree in the villages and parts of the city (Israeli invasions to arrest Palestinians in the city including academics has been on a sharp increase since the prisoner swap a month ago). However Hebron is a startling reminder of the true horrors of a continued occupation. Throughout the journey home and days preceding I continued struggling to comprehend what I had witnessed, How does this happen? Where is the world’s media? Where is the International community? Who/what is going to put an end to this? What is to stop the Israeli military imposing these powers and conditions on the rest of the West Bank when the media’s attention continues to shift to Iran?

What worries me most however is the inhumanity of the situation and the horrific conditions in which children are being raised. How can the children from either communities growing up under these conditions grow to have compasion for others and reject hate, and what is the consequences of this for the next generation and the future of the city and region?

  1. Maria Fraser permalink

    Hello John

    I was with you that day in Hebron. Avery factual and accurate account of events. Have been back to Israel since then but sadly did not get to Hebron.
    Hope you are well. Keep up the good work.

  2. Thank you very much maria, how did you come accross the article if you dont mind me asking?

    Hope you are well too

    • Maria Fraser permalink

      Sheer chance, really. Put in the name of our guide and it came up. Hashem and his family are lovely people trying to survive in very difficult circumstances. It is remarkable he can remain so upbeat.

      I had been to Hebron before so had encountered the settlers.
      I have been back in Israel since Christmas to see friends and hope to go again soon.

      If you are still out there next time I go, perhaps we can meet up.
      Keep up the good work.

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