About this blog

For three months in 2013 I served as a Human Rights Observer in the occupied Palestinian territory.  I lived and worked in Hebron, in the West Bank, which is one of the most tense places in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.  My duties included accompanying vulnerable Palestinian children to school, sometimes in the face of violence; monitoring checkpoints which thousands of Palestinian workers have to cross each morning; and supporting Israelis and Palestinians working together for peace and human rights.

This blog tells the stories of some of the people I met and the things I witnessed during my time there.

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If you only knew…

…now you do.

“The arc of the moral universe is long but it bends towards justice.”

This is quote from Martin Luther King. In my three months in Hebron I thought of it many, many times as I walked around seeing all of the injustices that are done there.

I also thought: if only more people knew what really goes on there then surely things would change.

When I witnessed some of the things that I did, one of my first thoughts afterwards was always: how do I tell people this? How can I explain what it is like to see these almost unbelievable things happening before your eyes? How do I explain what the Israeli army’s occupation does: the daily humiliation that it inflicts upon so many Palestinians?

There are so many things I saw and experienced there that I haven’t told you about in my writing. I haven’t told you about the enormous checkpoints at Bethlehem and Tarqumiya and Qalandiya where thousands of Palestinians have to squash into barred walkways that resemble large cages as part of their journey to work each day (although I made a short film from the Bethlehem checkpoint which you can view here).

Palestinians queue to go to work at

Palestinians queue to go to work beneath the separation wall at checkpoint 300 in Bethlehem at 4.41 am on 4 November 2013

I haven’t told you about the barbarism of the house demolitions. I haven’t told you properly about the separation wall and how it cuts up lives. I haven’t told you about the problems with water and how I met Palestinians who get running water once a month yet they live right next to the irrigated lawns of the Israeli settlement of Kiryat Arba.

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Ahmed, a Palestinian, telling me about his family’s trouble with access to water – they collect all they can in the canisters around us. Behind, the Israeli settlement of Kiryat Arba has irrigated lawns even in the summer heat

I haven’t told of the problems in East Jerusalem where the Israeli authorities are trying to reduce the Palestinian population to 20% by 2020. Or the true impact of the dual legal system in the West Bank, where the Israeli authorities apply civil law to Israeli settlers but military law to Palestinians.  Or the farcical yet terrible proceedings at the Israeli military court in Ofer where I saw Palestinian children shackled at the ankles and handcuffed to each other.

There are two peoples’ stories which, for me, help to express the situation there. They are the stories of an Israeli and a Palestinian, both in their 80’s and born one year apart.

The first is a Jewish woman called Esther* who I met in Haifa. Esther was born in 1933 in Hungary and, as a little girl, she and her family had to hide from Hitler’s Nazis. Surviving this, in 1949 she fled the Soviet Union authorities in the dead of night and travelled for two weeks without her parents. Finally she made it to the safety of the newly created state of Israel. She has been an Israeli citizen ever since, and raised her own family there. I enjoyed lunch with Esther and her family on the beach in Haifa.

The second is a Palestinian man called Abd who I met in Hebron. Abd was born in 1932 in what was then British Mandate Palestine. He worked as a shepherd and survived British and then Jordanian rule in his homeland. In 1968, after the 1967 war when the Israeli army occupied the West Bank, soldiers set up camp near his home on a hillside in Wadi al Ghrous, Hebron. After a while the soldiers’ tents were replaced by the caravans of Israeli settlers. This became the huge settlement of Kiryat Arba in Hebron, now home to around 8000 Israeli settlers. All settlements are illegal under international law. The expansion of Kiryat Arba saw it move closer and closer towards the home of Abd and his family.

Then one day twelve years ago, the Israeli army came and demolished Abd’s home, citing “security reasons” – this often happens to Palestinians who have the misfortune to live near expanding settlements. Only the rubble remains.

The remains of Abd's house, demolished by the Israeli army. The settlement of Kiryat Arba stands in the background

The remains of Abd’s house, demolished by the Israeli army. The settlement of Kiryat Arba stands in the background

When they came to destroy his home, a soldier pushed Abd, breaking his arm. Abd and his wife then lived in a bus on the land next to their demolished home for ten years. When I met Abd he was ill and still unable to use his arm, which has never healed properly from the injuries he sustained the day his house was demolished. Abd is deeply pessimistic about the future, “There will be more wars unless God intervenes to help us.”

The bus where And and his wife lived for 10 years after their home was demolished

The bus where And and his wife lived for 10 years after their home was demolished by the Israeli army

Both Esther and Abd have stories that could make you weep with sadness. Esther’s best friend, who she fled Hungary with, went on to have a daughter who is now a leader of the settlers – the people whose behaviour has led to Abd’s misery.

Why does Esther’s safety have to mean Abd’s tragedy?

Esther and her son Shlomo*, also a Israeli, told me that it doesn’t. Shlomo was disgusted by the behaviour of the settlers. He told me that sometimes they are as bad as Palestinian militant organization Hamas. But Shlomo said that achieving peace would not be as complicated as it is often presented to be, “Everyone knows what the basic of a peace deal look like. The question is whether they want it.”

A just peace and the end of the Israeli occupation of Palestinian territory may seem very far away. But there is something that each of us can do to help bring that day closer. On the ground in Hebron, my Palestinian friends in Youth Against Settlements including Badia, Issa, Abed and Murad constantly find new ways to non-violently resist the attempts to force them from their homes in H2. They recently succeeded in renovating a building to become a kindergarten for over 20 Palestinian children.

A little Palestinian girl plays at the new kindergarten established in H2 by Youth Against Settlements

A little Palestinian girl plays at the new kindergarten established in H2, Hebron by Youth Against Settlements

Israeli soldiers and settlers tried to stop their work some 15 times but the Palestinians succeeded nonetheless. This kindergarten is now one of Youth Against Settlements’ own facts on the ground in H2.

The view of Israeli settlement Beit Haddassah from the new kindergarten

The view of Israeli settlement Beit Haddassah from the new kindergarten

Israeli activists from Ta’ayush (which means living together) risk arrest every Saturday to support and protect Palestinians from Israeli soldiers and settlers whilst they do simple tasks like picking olives and grazing their sheep in the West Bank. One of the Ta’ayush activists, a university lecturer in Classics, told me that he had been arrested by the Israeli authorities more than 40 times for what he does at the weekend.

Israeli Ta'ayush activist Yair playing with 3 year old Palestinian boy Leeth at the olive harvest in Susiya, South Hebron Hills

Israeli Ta’ayush activist Yair playing with 3 year old Palestinian boy Lyth at the olive harvest in Susiya, South Hebron Hills

In the face of such acts the things that we, who are not in Israel and Palestine, can do to help bring about change seem small – but they are no less important.

You can email your MP and ask them to write to the Foreign Secretary to help stop new settlements in Hebron.

You can be careful about what you buy in the supermarket: new guidance from the British government and EU means that products which come from Israeli settlements now have to be labeled as such. You can choose not to buy these, and tell your supermarket manager why you are doing this.

Look out for labels like this in the supermarket. This one is from dates sold by Tesco

Look out for labels like this in the supermarket. This one is from dates sold by Tesco

You can tell your friends, family, colleagues and community about what is going on – point them to this blog or the thousands of other sources available on the internet.

All of these things will help to build up the pressure for change.

When I was out there in Hebron, I thought that if only you knew then you would do something.

Now you do know.

So what will you do?

*not their real name

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You destroy the soldier himself

“You destroy the soldier himself”

A little Palestinian boy faces Israeli soldiers in the Old City of Hebron

A little Palestinian boy faces Israeli soldiers in the Old City of Hebron

That was the response of Munir, a Palestinian who is faced with Israeli soldiers at the checkpoint opposite his shop in Hebron every day, when I asked him how he thought being in Hebron must affect the soldiers.

I have had so many encounters with Israeli soldiers during my time in Hebron – it is impossible not to due to the intensity of the military occupation.

Israeli soldiers in violent clashes with Palestinian youth in H1 in Hebron city centre

Israeli soldiers in violent clashes with Palestinian youth in H1 in Hebron city centre

I have passed the time of day and talked with some of them about what we are each doing here. Some have told me of their boredom, that they would much rather be on the beach. One helped keep a stray dog away from Palestinian school children who were frightened and I thanked him. Another told the police to leave me alone when they were harassing me about where in the street I was standing during the school run, and I thanked him too.

They have also spat at me, shouted at me, threatened to arrest me and called me stupid in Hebrew and a “sharmoota” (“whore” in Arabic). I have refused to follow their orders to move or stop taking photos. I have watched heavily armed soldiers throw stun grenades, and tasted the tear gas they shoot at Palestinian children on their way to school in response to small stones being thrown at their checkpoint. I have seen them harass and detain Palestinians trying to go about their lives, push kids for “facing the wrong direction” as Israeli settlers walk past, and arrest children. I have watched them laughing and joking many times in situations that are far from funny – most recently in the aftermath of an extremely serious attack by Israeli settlers against a Palestinian family.

An Israeli soldier fires tear gas at Palestinian children on their way to school after small stones were thrown at a fence near checkpoint 29 in Hebron

An Israeli soldier fires tear gas at Palestinian children on their way to school after small stones were thrown at a fence near checkpoint 29 in Hebron

I have come to know some of the Givati Brigade of the Israeli army, currently serving in Hebron, by sight and a few by name. You can often tell how many schoolbags will be searched or Palestinians detained for ID checks by who is on duty. Almost without fail, the local Palestinians say that their treatment on a given day depends on the mood of the soldiers. I have often wondered what must be going through their minds and wished that I could talk to them properly about what they think. Amidst the tension and violence of Hebron, this is normally impossible.

Palestinian children on their way home from Cordoba School encounter a group of Israeli soldiers at the bottom of the school steps

Palestinian children on their way home from Cordoba School encounter a group of Israeli soldiers at the bottom of the school steps

One Friday night settlers blockaded a Palestinian family’s gateway and stopped them from leaving their home at Tel Rumeida in Hebron. I asked the nine watching Israeli soldiers to please help. They wouldn’t. One of them, whose name is Kawalski*, said “everything is fine.” 34 Israeli settlers were stopping a Palestinian family from walking down the street and thus from entering or leaving their home. Many of the settler children were shouting abuse, hitting our cameras and spitting at us.

An Israeli settler child hits my camera during the incident when settlers blockaded Palestinians in their home, and went on to attack us. Soldiers stand stand by in the background

An Israeli settler child hits my camera during the incident when settlers blockaded Palestinians in their home, and went on to attack us. Soldiers stand stand by in the background

They went on to throw two buckets of water at us, followed by a bucket of bleach. It was an awful scene and I cannot see how he could have thought it was fine.

Most of the soldiers in Hebron are young, ranging from 19-22 years old, and are conscripted into military service for three years. This is compulsory with a few exceptions, so most of them have not made a positive choice to be in the army. Yet in Israeli society there is real kudos attached to being a combat soldier like those in Hebron – just take a look at the Israel Defense Forces Facebook page. Only a tiny minority ever refuse to serve and spend time in prison as a result. Kawalski, the soldier on that Friday night, must be no more than 22 years old. After the incident, I wondered a lot about his “everything is fine” comment and thought maybe it was actually his internal reasoning – him trying to persuade himself it was all ok and he was in control (he most definitely was not).

An Israeli soldier gives first aid to our journalist colleague after refusing to intervene in a situation which culminated in the settlers throwing bleach in her eyes

An Israeli soldier gives first aid to our journalist colleague after refusing to intervene in a situation which culminated in the settlers throwing bleach in her eyes

Later, when he called an ambulance for my colleague after the attack on us that he had failed to prevent, he must have been forced to acknowledge that everything had not been fine.

Israeli soldiers tell a young Palestinian boy he is not allowed to ride his bike in H2 in Hebron. Israelis can drive on this street but Palestinian are not allowed to

Israeli soldiers tell a young Palestinian boy he is not allowed to ride his bike in H2 in Hebron. Israelis can drive on this street but Palestinian are not allowed to

Thousands of settlers and their supporters came to Hebron recently for Shabbat Chayei Sarah, which commemorates Sarah of biblical times, who is buried in Hebron. It was a difficult weekend, with heightened tensions and violence. Movement restrictions were even tighter than usual – the Ibrahimi Mosque and nearby Palestinian shops were forcibly closed. Most of Shuhada Street, which Palestinians are never allowed to walk down, was closed to my colleagues and I as well – “Jews only” as the enforcing soldier told me. Extra soldiers drafted into H2 checked the ID of Palestinian men every 50 metres.

Me intervening to stop Israeli soldiers harassing young Palestinians who were sitting on a wall chatting as Israeli settlers walked past on Shabbat Chayei Sarah

Me intervening to stop Israeli soldiers harassing young Palestinians who were sitting on a wall chatting as Israeli settlers walked past on Shabbat Chayei Sarah

I was patrolling with a colleague and we went to an area with a few Palestinian homes and many settlers nearby. I felt nervous because large groups of settlers, some armed and some drunk, are not normally a great thing to encounter. A Palestinian family was harvesting olives on a hill where many settlers were hanging around. We checked if the family was ok and sat down under a tree, hoping to deter the settlers from coming to bother them, throw things at them etc (there was a fence between us and the Palestinians so we couldn’t help with the olives). A couple of Israeli soldiers were standing nearby.

After a bit, a group of male settlers tried to make their way towards us and I stood up, worried about what would happen next. But rather than standing back and letting them come over, the soldier stepped in the way and asked the settlers to leave. They did. I had never seen such a thing before and, when the settlers had moved away, I thanked the soldier. “Don’t worry” he said. Shortly after, a second group of settlers tried to come and the soldier and his colleague again turned them away. After this the soldiers came to ask if we were ok. I was slightly stunned that they were looking out for us and for the Palestinians. I thanked them both and said that we would move on soon. They told us there was no need for us to leave and not to worry, they would make sure everything was ok with the Palestinians. This was the opposite of what I am used to in Hebron, where the soldiers will often do whatever they can to get rid of us, and simply stand by as settlers harass and attack Palestinians. The first soldier told me that his name was Yossi* and he was not normally based in Hebron.

Later, when there were no settlers watching, I bumped into Yossi again. I asked him if he understood what I was doing there. “You want peace” he said, and told me that he wanted peace too. He told me that after my colleague and I had gone, the settlers had pushed him and thrown stones at him. He was astonished by this and couldn’t understand it. I asked what he knew about Hebron – not much. His orders that day had been to keep the Jewish and the Palestinians apart. I told him what it is like in Hebron – the settler violence, the soldiers refusing to help, the clashes, and showed him pictures. It was all news to him. “It’s good that you are telling me this, I will tell my commander”, he said. I really appreciated this but told him I didn’t think it would help – his commander was 24 years old and decisions about what happens in Hebron are made high up in military and political circles. None of those in charge will be unaware of what actually goes on in Hebron.

Yossi told me that he loved being in the army. He told me that he loved his gun. “Why do you love your gun?!” I asked him, “It’s for killing people.” “No!” he said, “I love target practice, I don’t want to kill anyone.” “But why do you think they give you a gun?!” I asked. I learned that Yossi was 19 years old. He seemed like a good, decent young man and I believed him when he said he wanted peace and didn’t want to kill anyone. But, as I have previously written about other discussions I’ve had with Israelis, I was surprised by his lack of understanding about the facts of the conflict he is part of. I asked him to keep being nice to the Palestinians and he told me to take care in Hebron.

My encounter with Yossi really made me think. That I was so surprised at his fair conduct says a lot about the norm for soldiers in Hebron.

An Israeli soldier detains Palestinian boys aged 8 and 10 years. Photo by Maria Schaffluetzel

An Israeli soldier detains Palestinian boys aged 8 and 10 years

I wonder how it comes to be that so many of the young soldiers behave in the morally unacceptable ways I have so often observed or seen evidence of: arresting children and beating them up; demolishing Palestinian houses with bulldozers and then preventing tents and emergency aid from being delivered; even deliberately shooting innocent people, as veterans’ organisation Breaking the Silence has documented. Sometimes they will be following their orders in doing these things, and sometimes not. Mohaned, a 13 year old from the town of Beit Ummar, told me how soldiers raided his house at 3am, blindfolded and arrested him wearing only his underwear. He was held for 10 days, in which he was slapped, hit with the butt of a rifle, beaten and then released.

An 11 year old Palestinian boy arrested by Israeli soldiers in Hebron

An 11 year old Palestinian boy arrested by Israeli soldiers in Hebron

Surely it is important to ask how young men, most of whom start off as normal, decent guys like Yossi, end up doing these things?

On a day off I visited the Golan Heights and got talking to some soldiers about their jobs. One of them said that they themselves had been discussing these issues, “Some of us were talking – we are children and they give us guns.” I met another soldier in Haifa, Israel. He was 23 years old and had previously served in the Golani Brigade in Hebron. He recalled an army education week when there had been a discussion about putting the heads of dead Palestinians on poles. He had been in the minority 20:1 to say that such things were wrong. Another former Golani soldier simply refused to speak about what he had done when he served in the army.

A Palestinian looks out of his window to find armed Israeli soldiers using the roof of his home in Al Arrub refugee camp near Hebron

A Palestinian looks out of his window to find armed Israeli soldiers using the roof of his home in Al Arrub refugee camp near Hebron

My friend Sam Lebens is an Israeli-British Jew who I got to know in our student days. After my blog about my some of my experiences in Israel, he emailed me saying, “I think another big reason why it’s hard to convince Israelis about what’s going on in the territories is that almost every Israeli knows somebody who serves in the territories… it’s hard for us to believe that they are monsters.”

His use of the word “monster” really stuck with me. I don’t believe the soldiers are monsters – perhaps with a few exceptions, as with all people. But sometimes they end up doing monstrous things on a regular basis. They are born into a system which takes apparently normal teenagers and seemingly trains them to behave in these ways.

One soldier who served in Hebron told Breaking the Silence, “In Hebron, I was disturbed and frightened most of all by the unregulated and uncontrolled power, and the things it made people do.” Another said, “Another thing that has stayed with me from Hebron? I think of myself as a little injured maybe, I don’t know. Not physically injured. More emotionally injured.”

Rather than monsters, I think it makes the young soldiers part of the tragedy of the conflict. I am pretty sure that it will damage them too, that they will suffer in the long run. Aside from the terrible harm that the military occupation does to the Palestinians, I am sure that Israel also hurts itself and its own young people in what it does. What kind of society, what kind of country, will Israel end up as?

Avraham Shalom is in a position to know. He led the Shin Bet, the Israeli intelligence service, between 1980-86 and in the film The Gatekeepers he says,

“We have become cruel. To ourselves as well, but mainly to the occupied population.” The Israeli army has become “a brutal occupation force.”

*Not his real name

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In Hebron, you don’t ask “why?”

National Israeli newspaper Haaretz published an article by me about Hebron on 11 December 2013. It is online at http://www.haaretz.com/mobile/.premium-1.562723. Here is the text of the article:

In Hebron, you don’t ask ‘why?’

Three months of living in Hebron taught me what goes on there makes no sense, either for Israel’s security or for the Palestinians who live there.

In my first few days working as a Human Rights Observer in Hebron, I kept looking for logic in the things I saw. I quickly learnt to stop. “Don’t ask why,” seemed to be the mantra of many of the people there.

I first visited Israel nearly 10 years ago with the UK’s Union of Jewish Students. I’m not Jewish but was a student leader in Scotland and worked closely with UJS. It was just after the second intifada and the palpable fear of suicide bombings that hung in the air has stayed with me. The visit was special because for the first time I felt connected to part of my own history – my great-grandfather was a Polish Jew who, my family believes, was killed in the Holocaust. Walking in the Valley of the Communities at Yad Vashem was especially emotional.

After a second visit that again focused on Israeli perspectives, particularly on the conflict with the Palestinians, I decided to see the West Bank for myself. I was shocked at how it differed from what I had heard in Israel. The military occupation caused enormous disruption to everyday Palestinian life, and further visits deepened my sense that something was very wrong. That was how it came to be that I have just spent three months working in Hebron, deep inside the occupied Palestinian territory, with the Ecumenical Accompaniment Program in Palestine and Israel.

I had briefly visited Hebron itself twice before and – despite its being holy to Jews, Muslims and Christians – it was the strangest place I had ever been. Under the Oslo Accords, Hebron was divided into H1, controlled by the Palestinian Authority, and H2, controlled by Israel. H2 houses around 500 Israeli settlers, protected by hundreds of Israeli soldiers, alongside 30,000 Palestinians. Many of the settlers are religious extremists who do not shirk from using violence and intimidation in their oft-stated aim of ridding Hebron of Palestinians.

As Hanna, an Israeli in Jerusalem, told me, “Hebron is impossible to understand.” What goes on makes no sense, neither for Israel’s security services nor for the Palestinians who live there. Heavily armed soldiers on the street; frequent detentions and arrests of Palestinians, including children; 122 road and other closures, including the banning of Palestinian cars, and even Palestinians walking on what used to be the busiest street in the city – at one point a soldier told me Shuhada Street was “Jews only.”

I learned that harassment of Palestinians is routine. I witnessed, for example, a Palestinian man called Zidan detained for two hours for taking biscuits to a kindergarten. They obviously didn’t set off the checkpoint metal detector but soldiers wanted him to open every individual packet, ruining the lot.

I kept asking: Why?

British-born Israeli friends said the criminal behavior of many of the Hebron settlers would see them in prison if they lived in the UK. Having witnessed their actions almost every day for three months, words cannot express my bafflement at why Israel sends its army to protect them.

On Shabbat Chayyei Sarah, October 2013, settlers attacked the Palestinian Al Khamerie family as they were taking sweets home with their four-year-old daughter and disabled son. The group of settlers called others to “come and attack the Arabs.” The parents, Mohammed and Ramsina, were hospitalized; Ramsina has still not recovered. Soldiers were there but did not prevent the attack and on their release from hospital the victims were threatened with arrest by the Israeli police unless they attended the police station for questioning.

Another Friday night, settlers from Tel Rumeida in Hebron blocked the Palestinian Azzeh family from entering or leaving their home. Neither the police nor the nine watching soldiers responded to our requests for intervention. A settler child then threw a bucket of bleach at us, directly into my colleague’s eyes. She had to go to hospital and later made an official complaint to the police. Rather than act to bring the perpetrators to justice with the help of the IDF witnesses, the police next day arrested a fellow international who had been injured by the same settlers. Watching settlers cheered.

If the justification for what goes on in Hebron is Israel’s security, then I can only say that, from the bottom of my heart, what happens there – especially to the young people – makes Israel less secure.

One recent Sunday, a couple of 12-year-old Palestinian schoolboys threw pebbles at the fence by checkpoint 29 (I say ‘pebbles’ advisedly – I have also witnessed rocks being thrown by both Israelis and Palestinians – this was very different.) Israeli soldiers quickly advanced in full combat gear, threw a stun grenade and then fired tear gas at the children. The tear gas went into the school playground. Dozens of terrified smaller children huddled next to me.

I asked the soldiers why this was a sensible response. There was no answer.

While I was there, Gal Kobi, a 20-year-old soldier from Haifa, was sadly shot and killed in Hebron: A terrible waste of a young life. I imagined a debate might ensue in the Israeli media as to why that young man had been sent there by his government in the first place. But it did not.

Aside from the danger to their lives, I wonder what effect it must have on the young Israelis who are sent to protect the extremist settlers of Hebron. I don’t believe that these young men, sent to Palestinian land to use weapons against children, detain people twice their age for carrying biscuits and stand idly by as people are attacked and hospitalized, will walk away undamaged from such experiences.

Why does Israel think that what goes on in Hebron is in its best interests? Why are ordinary Israelis willing to send their sons and daughters to be soldiers in places like Hebron?

I walked away from Hebron feeling like I am one of the only people asking these questions. I ask out of genuine engagement and concern, as someone who has seen and heard both sides over the years. Despite the self-harm, it seems that too many Israelis prefer not to ask why.

I hope I am mistaken, but if you too think it sounds like there is something wrong, maybe you will join me in asking: “Why?”

Melanie Ward is from Scotland, studied at the University of Stirling and the School of Oriental and African Studies, and works for a global anti-poverty charity in London. She lived in Hebron for three months in late 2013 when working as a Human Rights Observer with EAPPI. She blogs at http://www.melanieward.org and tweets @melanie_ward

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Rotten to the core

Two Palestinian children encounter Israeli soldiers on their way home near the Al Rajabi building in Hebron

Two Palestinian children encounter Israeli soldiers on their way home near the Al Rajabi building in Hebron

“The occupation is rotten to the core”

Jeremy said this to me recently in Jerusalem. He is Jewish, an Israeli born in the UK, and was our guide on my first ever visit to this region nearly ten years ago. This time we talked for over two hours about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and where it was headed.

Looking back it seems strange to me now that I had not properly thought about life under occupation and what it really meant.

Palestinian Hebron along with the rest of the West Bank, Gaza and East Jerusalem, is occupied by the army of Israel, another country. The occupation is illegal under international law. Of course I knew that. But until I spent time living and working here as a Human Rights Observer with the Ecumenical Accompaniment Programme in Palestine and Israel, I didn’t really understand what it does to everyday life. How it changes the daily normality into something that is far from normal.

Soldiers in watchtowers look down on Palestinians going about their business in Hebron - this one is Beit Romano settlement which looks onto the souq

Soldiers in watchtowers look down on Palestinians going about their business in Hebron – this one is Beit Romano settlement which looks onto the souq

The physical signs of the military occupation are everywhere here: soldiers with weapons; military jeeps and mobile prisons; watchtowers all over the city, on people’s roofs and on the surrounding hilltops; roadblocks; the “sterile” Shuhada Street which Palestinians are banned from walking down or from using their front doors if they live on part of it; the bizarre spectacle of the “settler tour” through the old souq on a Saturday when dozens of Israeli settlers accompanied by large numbers of heavily armed soldiers parade through the old city of Hebron.

All of these things are horrible to look at. And you feel the tension in the air when you walk around H2, the part of the city that is controlled by Israel. But it is the disruption to everyday life which I never thought about properly before. Try to imagine soldiers from a hostile country in your own street every day, and what this would do to life.

A little Palestinian girl finds Israeli soldiers outside her door during the settler tour of the souq

A little Palestinian girl finds Israeli soldiers outside her door during the settler tour of the souq

Imagine some of the things that you do everyday – popping to the local shop for bread, for example. It should take 5 minutes. But if you are a Palestinian living in H2 in Hebron, you have no idea how long it will take. Will you even come back that day?

Soldiers may decide to randomly detain you for an ID check, with or without a full body search. This happens every day in Hebron to many, many Palestinians. When I have asked the Israeli soldiers what the people have done to be pulled over, I’ve had answers including: “to check if he is a bad person”; “maybe he is a terrorist”; “he’s done nothing.” You could be there for 10 minutes, half an hour, maybe a couple of hours. But I have never seen them find “a bad person” through doing this. If you argue or they decide you look like someone who has been seen throwing stones, they might arrest you and take you first to their army base on Shuhada Street. Many Palestinians have reported being beaten here, before being taken either to a police station in a nearby settlement and charged a significant sum of bail to be released, or to a military prison where you might have a hearing in a military court, or even be held for years without charge in administrative detention.

Palestinian man detained by Israeli soldiers for random ID check at checkpoint 56 on Shuhada Street

Palestinian man detained by Israeli soldiers for random ID check at checkpoint 56 on Shuhada Street

He was detained for around half an hour

He was detained for around half an hour

Two Palestinian men detained for random ID checks at checkpoint 55 on Shuhada Street as Israeli settler children watch

Two Palestinian men detained for random ID checks at checkpoint 55 on Shuhada Street as Israeli settler children watch

Two Palestinian men are detained for ID checks on their way to Friday prayers at the Ibrahimi Mosque

Two Palestinian men are detained for ID checks on their way to Friday prayers at the Ibrahimi Mosque

If you avoid this, then you still face having your handbag searched every time you leave your house; or watching your elderly parents be questioned and humiliated by teenage soldiers on a regular basis; or having your schoolbag searched by soldiers with large guns when you are 7 years old. It’s quite unsettling sight to watch a man with a large rifle demand that a little child hands over their Barbie or Mickey Mouse rucksack for inspection. It’s unthinkable in the UK – can you imagine it happening to your child? But sometimes the bags are not searched. Like many things, it seems to depend on the mood of the soldiers at the time. And if Israeli settlers happen to be walking past at the time, you can pretty much guarantee that Palestinians will be searched. On one occasion when I asked a soldier why he was searching a kid’s bag and he told me “it’s normal”. “No really” I told him, “it’s not”.

Palestinian schoolboy has his bag searched at checkpoint 56

Palestinian schoolboy has his bag searched at checkpoint 56

I witnessed soldiers detain a Palestinian man called Zidan at checkpoint 56 when he was taking biscuits to the kindergarten in H2. The biscuits obviously didn’t set off the metal detector but they wanted him to open every individually wrapped biscuit for inspection, which would have spoiled all of them. Another time, Zidan was detained there when taking his toolbox to his house. The soldiers searched it but wouldn’t let him leave. Eventually he got so frustrated that he tipped his tools out into the street: spanners, a hammer, a saw – regular toolbox things. More soldiers, less than half his age, came and threatened to arrest him.

Soldiers detained a Palestinian man for 2 hours after bringing these biscuits through checkpoint 56

Soldiers detained a Palestinian man for 2 hours after bringing these biscuits through checkpoint 56

Another time I encountered two Palestinian men being held up by an Israeli soldier, and went to see what was going on. The men wanted to take their emptied wheelie bin across the street to their house but the soldier had decided that this was not allowed. They were just trying to carry out a mundane daily task but even this had become impossible.

People tell me that things in Hebron are much better than they used to be. I can only imagine what it used to be like. Munir, a Palestinian shopkeeper in H2 told me, “Nothing here is normal. But over time you get used to it and these things become normal.”

It’s pretty obvious that biscuits and an empty wheelie bin are not a security threat. Yet that is the justification that the Israeli authorities give for the occupation and its associated activities. In their important new book of testimonies from soldiers who have served in the occupied Palestinian territory, Israeli organisation Breaking the Silence says,

“The widespread notion in Israeli society that control of the Territories is exclusively aimed at protecting citizens is incompatible with the information conveyed by hundreds of IDF (Israel Defense Force) soldiers… “Demonstrating a presence” and the “searing of consciousness” express this logic best: systematic harm to Palestinians as a whole makes the population more obedient and easier to control.”

To me, the occupation feels like it has an iron grip, a stranglehold on ordinary life. Normality and the freedom to move around in the most basic way is stifled, smothered by a presence that you cannot escape. So many days, I have watched what goes on and wondered how the Palestinian people manage to go on like this day after day.

An Israeli army watchtower at the entrance to Palestinian refugee camp Al Arrub near Hebron. Watchtowers like these are found throughout the West Bank

An Israeli army watchtower at the entrance to Palestinian refugee camp Al Arrub near Hebron. Watchtowers like these are found throughout the West Bank

I ask Samia, one of the Palestinian women I have come to know, how she deals with the daily humiliation of having to show her ID, be checked and searched by the young Israeli soldiers. She passes them at checkpoint 56 at least twice a day – she recognises them and they recognise her, and yet it goes on. I have watched her do this so many times with total dignity and her head held high. She tells me how she does it, “I imagine that I am in some kind of hospital and that these are people who have a real problem, who are crazy. I have to get past them so that I can go on with my business, and this means showing them my ID or my bag or whatever. If I react to the soldiers in any way – if I acted towards them in the way that they do towards me, then you know what would happen. They might kill me.”

In their book, Breaking the Silence says that the testimonies of former soldiers oblige Israelis to, “look directly at Israel’s actions and ask whether they reflect the values of a humane, democratic society.”

Six former heads of the Shin Bet, the Israeli equivalent of MI5, recently appeared in an Oscar-nominated documentary film, The Gatekeepers. More than anyone, they know the truth of what Israel does in its occupation of the Palestinians. These are men known for their ruthlessness. But in the film one of them, Carmi Gillon says, “We are making the lives of millions [of Palestinians] unbearable, into prolonged human suffering, [and] it kills me.”

Samia tells me, “We must be patient, Melanie. One day this occupation will end – history shows that these things always do.”

Jeremy is right that the occupation is rotten to the core. The evidence to show this is everywhere – being produced by Israelis and well as Palestinians and internationals.

For how much longer does the world think that Samia and her people should be patient?

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Maybe they don’t want to see

“I think people don’t want to see what is going on.”

I am in Haifa, Israel talking to a group of 16 year old Israeli students about life in the West Bank, when one of the girls says this. I have just summarised what takes place in Hebron – Israeli soldiers, Israeli settlers, life for Palestinians – the types of things I have written about in my blogs. I struggle to hold it together when speaking, both because of the reality of life in Hebron but also because I am acutely aware that these young people are the next generation of Israeli soldiers. Any of them could be serving in Hebron in a couple of years: protecting violent settlers living in illegal settlements and doing the things I have observed like searching Palestinian children’s schoolbags, harassing ordinary people going about their business and detaining children.

Some of the students tell me they have never heard of Hebron and had no idea about what goes on there, or about the situation with checkpoints and other problems that my EAPPI colleagues based in Jerusalem, Bethlehem and Yanoun describe. A lively discussion between the students arises as to why this might be. A few blame the media. We point out that these issues are in the press on a daily basis, including the Israeli press, and there is a vast amount of information on the internet. After all, none of us EAs come from the region, and we managed to find out about what is going on.

The conversation changes when a girl suggests that many Israelis don’t want to see what is going on, they don’t want to know.

Certainly, it is absolutely possible to live a fairly normal life in Israel whilst mostly ignoring what goes on just a few miles away on the other side of the wall that separates it from much of the West Bank. Ruth, another Israeli who kindly hosted me with her family in Haifa for a weekend, told me that in the last five years there were just three days when the conflict with the Palestinians touched her life in some way. The rest of the time, if she had chosen to, she could have completely ignored that it was happening. This is despite the fact that, if things carry on as they are, her two sons will be conscripted into the army in a few years.

It tallies with what organisations like Breaking the Silence, a group of former Israeli soldiers says, “Cases of abuse towards Palestinians, looting, and destruction of property have been the norm for years… While this reality is known to Israeli soldiers and commanders, Israeli society continues to turn a blind eye, and to deny what is done in its name.”

During our meeting with the young people at their college in Haifa, they showed us a memorial room which has photographs of 20 students or former students who were killed in the conflict. Although significantly fewer in number overall, the examples of tragic loss seem to be everywhere you turn in Israel, as in Palestine. But still, those young people were entirely ignorant of Hebron – one of the most notorious examples of this conflict.

I find this deeply, deeply troubling. In a previous blog I mentioned that a 20 year old Israeli soldier was shot and killed recently at checkpoint 209 in Hebron, apparently by a Palestinian. His name was Gavriel Kovi and, as it happens he came from Haifa, the city where I spent the weekend staying with an Israeli family – Ruth, Sarah and their two sons. I have seen no outcry in Israel about why he was there in the first place and this is puzzling. He was there to protect a group of Israeli settlers who use violence to further their views, which I have both witnessed and experienced. Such acts of violence would normally be subject to the force of the law but instead, the Israeli government sends its army to protect them. This army is made of young people who are sometimes tragically killed, as with Gavriel Kovi. I fail to understand both how it is in Israel’s own interests for this to be happening or why people don’t want to see this.

But some, like Israeli settler Bob Lang, feel differently. He was born in the USA but is now spokesperson for the settlement of Efrat. I felt uncomfortable going to Efrat because of the damage that the settlements do, and their illegal status. I was expecting him to try to charm us into agreeing that he had a fair case but I was wrong. His method of persuasion was to shout at us for about 10 minutes at a time, at one point shaking and going red with rage in response to questions about international law.

Bob Lang, spokesperson for the Israeli settlement of Efrat

Bob Lang, spokesperson for the Israeli settlement of Efrat telling us his perspective

He told us about the expansion of the settlement – it has permission from the Israeli government to build 1000 new housing units, with 600 currently under construction. All of these are being built on Palestinian land that is illegally occupied. Bob told us of “The masterplan for Efrat… to be built on seven hilltops. We have five already.” He gestured at caravans on a nearby hilltop, which is often how settlers begin to take more land. They are normally illegal under Israel’s own laws as well as international law. Despite this, they are often supplied with water, electricity, roads and public transport by the Israeli government, and end up becoming new settlements or merging with existing ones, eating up more Palestinian land. It’s not that Bob doesn’t want to see what is going on, more that he sees it and supports it.

In Sderot, southern Israel, I meet an Israeli called Nomika Zion who couldn’t have more different views to Bob Lang. Yet she lives in a part of Israel where it is most difficult to be. Sderot is unfortunately famous because it is located very close to Gaza and is often on the receiving end of rockets fired by Hamas and other Palestinian groups who use violence. Some fifteen Israelis living in Sderot have been killed by the rockets. Nomika tells us that the last rocket was around a month ago.

A bus stop in Sderot that doubles as a shelter from rockets

A bus stop in Sderot that doubles as a shelter from rockets

She describes the fear and stress caused by living in such circumstances, “you never know what will happen in the next minute”. She tells us that in the past many people slept in their clothes in case they had to run outside to the communal bomb shelters. Some families could no longer cope, so they locked their villas and left. The Israeli government has now built a security room onto each house which people can run to when warning sirens sound. We see a children’s playground with a giant concrete caterpillar which Nomika tells us is specially designed to double up as a bomb shelter as well as a plaything, so that the children can shelter in it immediately the sirens sound. How sad that such a thing is needed.

Despite the rockets, Nomika is hugely concerned at the attitude of the Israeli government and much of Israeli society towards the Palestinians and the conflict with them. She describes the situation when Israel invaded Gaza in 2008 in a 22 day war known as Operation Cast Lead. Its stated aim was to end the rocket attacks. According to Amnesty International some 1400 Palestinians were killed – many of whom were unarmed civilians – including some 300 children. With clear distress, Nomika recalls many of her neighbours sitting on their roofs watching the bombs dropping on Gaza and cheering each time one exploded.

Nomika Zion and 12 year old Zahara telling us about life in Sderot

Israelis Nomika Zion and 12 year old Zahara telling us about life in Sderot

Nomika and a group of around 20 fellow Sderot residents have formed Other Voice, a group which keeps in touch with some of their neighbours who live in Gaza. As the bombs dropped, the group was receiving texts and emails from their Gazan friends. One email came from a 14 year old girl in Gaza, “Help us. Don’t they understand that we are also humans?”

After ten days of bombing, Nomika says that she couldn’t stand it anymore and had to speak out about what was happening. She wrote an article about why the bombardment was not in her name, ‘War Diary from Sderot’. This was very controversial in Israeli society because it went against the conventional wisdom that the war was right. It received huge national and international media attention, and Nomika was viewed as a traitor by many of her neighbours. But, she tells us, “as long as something remains of our democracy, it is my civil obligation to speak out.”

Nomika agrees with the 16 year old Israeli girl in Haifa who thinks that many Israelis don’t want to see what is happening in their name. The goal of Other Voice is simply “to make the invisible visible.” She is gravely concerned about the consequences of the kind of wilful blindness that seems to have permeated Israel,

“We have lost our ability to see the Palestinians as human beings. This is very dangerous. We have becomes blind to them. We don’t see them. They don’t have voices or faces. We give them one collective identity: terrorists. Palestinians equal terrorists to most of Israeli society.”

“We have become blind. Worse than this, we have become numb. Like Hannah Arendt said: the evil becomes so banal that you don’t see the evil anymore. This is very dangerous to the spirit of our society. We have lost our ability to feel empathy. When you lose this, you lose part of your humanity. The Jewish people carry a tragedy on our backs: the Holocaust. We know that to lose our human empathy is dangerous.”

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Israel’s settlements devastate peace

National Scottish newspaper The Scotsman published an article by me about Hebron on 15 October 2013.  It is online at http://www.scotsman.com/news/melanie-ward-israel-s-settlements-devastate-peace-1-3141288.  Here is the text of the article:

 

Israel’s settlement’s devastate peace

Israel’s expansion into Palestinian land must stop in order for an end to the conflict to stand a chance, writes Melanie Ward

In recent weeks, I have learnt to tell the difference between the sounds that various weapons make when fired by the Israeli army: tear gas; sound bombs and plastic-coated steel bullets. Observing violent clashes, I have seen injured Palestinians – more than 200 were hurt in all – carried to ambulances, sirens blaring. I have offered my sympathy to young Israeli soldiers grieving for the loss of their friend and comrade who was shot and killed on duty. I have hugged a Palestinian mother weeping for her sons, held apparently indefinitely in Israeli prisons. I have heard the fear of an Israeli father whose daughter will soon be conscripted into the army. Both Israelis and Palestinians have told me of their desperation for peace, for an end to the conflict that blights the Holy Land and the lives of so many here.

I am in Hebron in the occupied Palestinian territory, halfway through a three month stint as a human rights observer with the Ecumenical Accompaniment Programme in Palestine and Israel (EAPPI), an initiative of the World Council of Churches. Life back home feels worlds away.

Foreign secretary William Hague says the prospect of a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is slipping away and on its last chance. This is largely due to the rate of Israel’s settlement construction and expansion on Palestinian land. It is a major obstacle to peace, being so rapid that having enough land left on which to create a viable Palestinian state will soon be impossible.

I have visited Israel-Palestine several times before, twice with organisations which focus on Israeli perspectives. My regular job is with international poverty charity ActionAid, so I have seen suffering before. But nothing can prepare you for what it is like to actually live here for a while.

My role is to monitor and report on human rights abuses and to support vulnerable communities who suffer under the Israeli military occupation. It is also to support those working for peace. Alongside dozens of Palestinians, I have met Israelis of all ages working for change. Some are young men – former Israeli soldiers like Yehuda, Avner and Shay, who want people to know the truth of what is done by their army in places such as Hebron. Others are retired Israeli women like Hanna, Tzipi and Ya’el who help Palestinians at military checkpoints.

It is these checkpoints which divide Hebron.

Hebron is literally a city of two halves. One side is a bustling Palestinian city – designated as H1 under the Oslo Accords. Then, as you step into a portacabin that blocks a street in the city centre, you find that it is actually military checkpoint 56. It’s like stepping through some kind of dystopian mirror. Exiting the checkpoint and still in Hebron, but, designated here as H2 and entirely controlled by Israel, are young Israeli soldiers with large guns. H2 is known as “the ghost town” due to its eerie, deserted feel.

In H2, Palestinians are forbidden to drive or walk on most of the main street, which used to be the heart of commercial Hebron. Some have permits to get to their own homes, some have had their front doors welded shut by soldiers. Many Palestinians have left altogether. More than 1,000 homes stand abandoned and more than 1,800 businesses have closed. But there is one group who can walk, drive and exercise their freedom – the 500-700 Israeli settlers. Their presence is illegal under international law but they are protected by 1,500 Israeli soldiers. The settlers are religiously motivated, believing that they are doing God’s work in attempting to rid Hebron of Palestinians and make it fully Jewish. They don’t shirk from using violence and harassment – I have witnessed both – and they act with almost total impunity.

The violent clashes that erupted during the Jewish holiday of Sukkot escalated when the Israeli army entered Palestinian H1 – violating international agreements – and began closing shops and roads, and demanding people leave the area. The reason became clear: 200 Israeli settlers wanted to pray at an old tomb located here.

Tensions grew and by the end of the day the centre of Hebron resembled a war zone. Later that day, an Israeli soldier was shot dead in another part of the city.

If Scotland feels far away, the US-led talks about Israeli-Palestinian peace negotiations feel even further.

Key to the settlers achieving their aim is their creation of “facts on the ground”. They already occupy four settlements in Hebron city centre and two on the outskirts. Now they plan to create two new ones.

The day the soldier was shot here, Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu said the settlers should be facilitated to take one of them, located next to a Palestinian girls’ school.

The second is a complex called the Al Rajabi building, large enough to house 40 families. Settlers call it Beit HaShalom (the House of Peace). The highly strategic location would help them expand and link existing settlements, with serious implications for the nearby Palestinians. Settlers occupied this building in 2007-8, during which time the UN documented their violence, including arson and shooting two Palestinian men.

Many here say it beggars belief for the Israeli government to encourage the creation of new settlements by violent settlers in a most bitterly contested part of the West Bank, at the same time as the attempt to restart peace negotiations.

The Israeli Supreme Court is currently considering the cases but the Israeli government will have the final say. William Hague, John Kerry and their colleagues must be uncompromising: new settlements in Hebron are entirely unacceptable.

I recently met Ismail, a 22-year-old Palestinian who has just been released from five months in an Israeli prison for writing graffiti on a refugee camp wall where he lives.

Yet he is incredibly positive and hopeful about the future. He uses social media to converse with young Israelis about their shared desire for peace.

He told me: “I think maybe one day we will be neighbours and they will say to me ‘Shalom, come in for a cup of tea.’ I think we will have peace one day.”

New settlements in Hebron devastate the dream of peace shared by Ismail and his Israeli friends. They must be stopped.


Melanie Ward is a graduate of Stirling University and a former president of NUS Scotland.

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