Monthly Archives: September 2013

The clashes

Israeli forces in H1, Hebron on Sunday 22 September

Israeli forces at Bab al Zawiya in H1, Hebron on Sunday 22 September

“The Jewish holidays are a happy time for the settlers.  But they are very bad days for the Palestinians.” 

Hebron is never a ‘normal’ place.  But the last few days have been significantly worse than usual.

Issa Amro is a Palestinian human rights activist from the Hebron organisation Youth Against Settlements, which focuses on non-violent resistance to the Israeli occupation here.  He was talking to me on Sunday about the Jewish festival of Sukkot during which actions, taken mainly by  Israeli settlers,  have escalated tensions and lead to the outbreak of violent clashes between the Israeli army and Palestinians.

These are the first clashes for about a month but they are more serious and more sustained than last time.

They began on Friday and Saturday, but on Sunday the trouble worsened.  Shortly after 11am a group of Israeli soldiers, border police (don’t ask me why they are here, this is nowhere near any kind of border) and riot police came through checkpoint 56 into H1.  H1, as you may know from my previous posts, is the part of Hebron supposedly controlled by the Palestinian Authority under the terms of the Hebron Accord of the 1990s which established the H1 and H2 arrangement (at the time this was supposed to be temporary).  Therefore, any kind of Israeli presence in H1 is extremely provocative, never mind in large numbers.  The soldiers and police were heavily armed with a variety of weapons including rifles, guns which shoot plastic-coated steel bullets (so-called rubber bullets) and guns with massive barrels which shoot tear gas canisters.  They brought a selection of military vehicles too.

I watched as they began forcing shopkeepers to close their shops; closing roads; and demanding that buses and people leave the area.  None of the Palestinians were very happy about this but there wasn’t much they could do.  The soldiers slowly advanced down the street towards Bab Al Zawiya, the area that is normally the busiest part of Hebron.  It wasn’t long before they met some more physical opposition, when Palestinians youths began throwing some stones.  Almost immediately, this was met with rubber bullets being shot – something which hadn’t been obviously used in the milder clashes the two days before.  There was also a volley of sound bombs – handheld devices which flash and bang very loudly when thrown at the ground.  Like most Hebronites, I am now unfortunately fairly familiar with them.

A Palestinian shopkeeper objects to the Israeli army making his close his shop

A Palestinian shopkeeper objects to the Israeli army making his close his shop

An hour or so later, the reason for the closures and incursion into Palestinian controlled H1 became clear: groups of Israeli settlers and their visitors began walking along the back road in H1, now heavily protected by military, to visit an old tomb.  Over 200 hundred came in all.  Some stopped to take photos of the scene they had created, which by now almost resembled a war zone that you might more usually see on TV, not right in front of you.  There were Israeli snipers on the roofs, rounds of rubber bullets being fired with at least one Palestinian hit and carried away from the scene.  But the settlers sauntered along to see the tomb, many with young children, as if on a regular outing.  I was astounded that people would choose to bring their children to such a situation, as it was clearly not the safest place to be.

Here’s a short film I took of what went on:

Issa said to me, “Military measures are being used to free the settlers to come and do something that is illegal under international law… The army has declared this a closed military zone but has used civilian reasons.  It’s a provocation to Palestinians.  We want a two state solution (to the conflict) but even here, in the middle of the West Bank, we have hundreds of Israeli settlers.”

Issa and I talking at the clashes on Sunday

Issa and I talking at the clashes on Sunday

A couple of days later I was having a conversation with two 20 year old Israeli soldiers guarding checkpoint 56.  They had called me over to talk, wanting to know why I am here when “it is not my problem” (part of my response was that I don’t believe that’s how the world works – we should not only care about things that are very obviously about ourselves).  They told me that they had to retaliate with weapons when Palestinians threw stones at them.  They genuinely seemed to believe that they played no part in creating any of the tensions or conflict in Hebron.

Around 3pm on Sunday the settlers eventually returned to H2, the area controlled by Israel.  But the clashes carried on all afternoon into the evening.  For the most part, ordinary life – as ordinary as it ever is here at least – entirely ceased for thousands of Palestinians because  200 or so Israelis with extremist views (who live in settlements illegal under international law) wanted to visit a tomb during their holidays and had access to soldiers to protect them.  Many schools had to close early but still, schoolkids on their way home had to cross an area where rubber bullets were being shot.  People were injured.  Shopkeepers lost a fortune in business.  Abu Salah, who owns a restaurant at Bab Al Zawiya where we often go for hummus or falafel told me, “Four years ago I bought this restaurant but I cannot work properly at the moment.  This means I am losing money and my investment.  Business is very, very, very bad.  When I can’t work it is hard to feed my family.”

An old man despairs at what is happening around him

An old man despairs at what is happening around him

My colleague and I on Sunday

My EAPPI colleague Dominik and I on Sunday

Israeli border police fire rubber bullets in H1

Israeli border police fire rubber bullets at Palestinians in H1

Amidst the clashes there was the odd almost comical moment when Hebronites tried really hard to carry on with what they normally do.  A bin lorry came to empty the bins immediately in front of a particularly scary looking Israeli special forces officer and a group of his also armed colleagues.  A chicken lorry drove right up to the Israeli forces lined up across the street, determined to make his chicken delivery on the other side of the street.  He argued for a bit then thought better of it and reversed.  A Palestinian man handed me a cup of coffee at one point.  I can’t bear coffee but it didn’t seem the time to refuse.  I spilt it everywhere when some soldiers, including the scary special forces guy, suddenly dashed up next to me to grab and take away a Palestinian teenager.

Later that afternoon a 20 year old Israeli soldier was shot and killed at checkpoint 209, at the other end of Shuhada Street.  He was a young man who had been on guard outside a Palestinian house that the army had forcibly taken over to use as accommodation for the extra soldiers they had in Hebron for the week of Sukkot.  I don’t think I met the soldier who died but it was sad news – he was just a young man, sent there by his government to defend a small group of ideological settlers whom the rest of the world believe have no right to be in Hebron.  If Israel complied with international law, that young man would never have been in Hebron.

But it turns out that an incident like the death of a soldier is not something to deter the settlers.  On Sunday they were able to ensure that much of the souq in the Old City was ‘made safe’ so that they could go on ‘guided tours’ surrounded by heavily armed police and soldiers.  One of the tours with an English-speaking guide began with a lecture about the presence of human rights observers like myself who should actually go to Syria (this is a favourite line from the settlers at present) or Egypt and are apparently paid vast sums for our work here (shows how little they actually know).  They proceeded through the souq with ordinary Palestinians sitting having coffee and minding their own business at one point having three police surround them and point rifles at them, as the settlers stopped to discuss the symbols on a doorframe opposite.

Israeli police point guns at Palestinians drinking coffee as settlers tour the souq

Israeli police point guns at Palestinians drinking coffee as settlers tour the souq

Whilst they were touring, loud bangs from rubber bullets and sound bombs drifted down the street because clashes had begun again.  In the next street over, settlers were having a huge festival outside the Ibrahimi Mosque/ Tomb of the Patriarchs (the mosque/ synagogue where it is believed that Abraham and his family are buried) with a singer and barbeques.  The normally deserted Shuhada Street, famous for representing the ghost town of H2, was filled with coaches and thousands of Jewish visitors.  According to the settlers’ website, they had paid them handsome amounts for their day tickets.

A couple of streets over from the pony rides they were offering amongst road blocks and barbed wire in Shuhada Street, is checkpoint 209. Here, squads of Israeli soldiers were conducting raids on Palestinian homes to try to find who had killed the young soldier the previous day.  In the night, dozens of Palestinian men had been rounded up in house raids, made to walk down the street with their hands on their head and held in a school compound, presumably for interrogation.  Violent clashes; a settler festival with pony rides; and armed house raids: undoubtedly the weirdest set of juxtapositions I have ever seen in my life.  I cannot understand why this would be anyone’s idea of a great family day out.

For now, it seems that the tension and the clashes continue here.  I have been thinking about the 20 year anniversary of the signing of the Oslo Accords, which was a fortnight ago.  It was hoped at the time that the Accords would begin a genuine and lasting peace process between Israel and Palestine.  This was the occasion when then Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin  famously shook hands with then Palestinian President Yasser Arafat in front of Bill Clinton on the White House lawn.  Rabin gave a powerfully crafted speech,

“Let me say to you, the Palestinians, we are destined to live together on the same soil in the same land.  We, the soldiers who have returned from battles stained with blood; we who have seen our relatives and friends killed before our eyes; we who have attended their funerals and cannot look in the eyes of their parents; we who have come from a land where parents bury their children; we who have fought against you, the Palestinians—we say to you today, in a loud and clear voice: enough blood and tears. Enough.”

Both men were subsequently awarded the Nobel Peace Prize for their efforts.  But around two years later, Rabin was shot and killed by a Jewish man who believed that Israel was ceding too much to the Palestinians.  Sadly, he achieved his aim by derailing the peace process.

In the early hours of Monday morning after the death of the soldier here in Hebron, current Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu announced that settlers would be facilitated to move back into a Palestinian home they had first taken over in 2012.  The house is called Beit Ha Machpela by the settlers or the Abu Rajab house by Palestinians, and is near to the Ibrahimi Mosque/ Cave of the Patriarchs (it is different to the Al Rajabi building, which you may also have heard about).  The settlers going back there will have grave implications for the Palestinians who live around it because of the settlers’ propensity to use violence and harassment against Palestinians and the ‘security’ measures that the Israeli army will likely implement.  There have been at least three violent settler attacks against Palestinians here in recent days, one of which ended in the hospitalisation of a little Palestinian boy.

On Monday night the settlers went back to that house.  In doing so they violated not only international law (as with all settlements) but also Israeli law, because the house is the subject of a court dispute.  Nevertheless, they were guarded by Israeli police.

Israeli settlers guarded by police at the Palestinian house on Tuesday that Netanyahu has said they can move into

Israeli settlers guarded by police at the Palestinian house on Tuesday that Netanyahu has said they can move into

In the face of heightened tension and violence here in Hebron, Netanyahu has taken action which will only make things worse.  Israeli veterans organisation Breaking The Silence said, “The same politicians who sent us to Hebron to guard 800 settlers in the midst of a Palestinian city are the ones who, with this morning’s decision, continue to risk the lives of IDF soldiers, ruin the lives of hundreds of thousands of Palestinians, and prevent millions of Israelis of a better future.”

A Palestinian boy watches the soldiers in H1 on Sunday

A Palestinian boy watches the soldiers in H1 on Sunday

I wonder when and how these clashes are going to end.  I hope and pray that, despite the odds, they end soon and we return to ‘normality’ in Hebron.

In the words of my Palestinian friend Hamed, “Peace be upon my hometown of Hebron.”

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The settlers

“They consider us as the enemy. These are extreme settlers.” 

Hishem, a Palestinian (not to be confused with Hashem in my last post), sits with us in the shade of an olive tree in front of his home in Wadi al Hussein, Hebron.  His children are playing on the hill behind us, and directly behind them stands the vast Israeli settlement of Kiryat Arba.  There, a man – a settler – is standing on his balcony watching us.

Hishem's children play in the shadow of Israeli settlement Kiryat Arba

Hishem’s children play in the shadow of Israeli settlement Kiryat Arba

It is hard to know where to start when trying to explain the settlers of Hebron.  They are at the heart of the problems here.  One of my first encounters with them was on my second proper day of work, when I was walking down Shuhada Street and found myself on the wrong end of an egg thrown by a little settler boy of 7 or 8 years old.  One of the local shopkeepers, Munir, has now nicknamed me ‘Umm Baydah’ or ‘Mother Egg’, for being the first of my group to be hit by one.  He said “now you are a Palestinian”, and told me to start a tally count.

You might think, what kind of parents give their children things to throw at people walking down the street?  But eggs are the least of it.  Hishem’s extended family has been attacked, had their windows smashed, their homes set on fire and even been shot by their settler neighbours.

The settlers of Hebron are a religiously motivated group of Israeli Jews who occupy four areas, known as settlements, in the centre of H2 (Israel-controlled), Hebron, and two settlements in the Wadi where Hishem lives.  They are known for their willingness to use violence, harassment and intimidation against those they perceive to be standing in the way of them achieving their goals, which are primarily to rid the city of Palestinians.  The settlers never refer to Palestinians, always to Arabs because they deny that there was ever such a place as Palestine or such a people as the Palestinians.  They say that the Palestinians should leave and go to one of “their own” Arab countries.

Graffiti on the outside wall of Cordoba School in H2 says “Gas the Arabs”

All settlements, including those in East Jerusalem, are illegal under international law.  Every country in the world recognises this except Israel.  From some of my stories so far, it might seem like there is one set of rules for Israelis and one for Palestinians.  That’s because there actually is.  In the West Bank the Israeli authorities enforce Israeli civil law on settlers, but military law on Palestinians.

The settlers believe in Eretz Israel – greater Israel – that Israel should permanently encompass the Palestinian territory of East Jerusalem, the Gaza Strip and the West Bank.  These are the areas currently occupied and/ or controlled by the Israeli army.  Some settlers believe that Israel’s borders should stretch even further afield than this into other countries.  Their beliefs contradict all international understandings of where Israel’s borders should be.

These are the nuts and bolts of the daily battle being played out in H2.  Everything is about who owns what, who can walk or drive where, even who can stand where.  Hebron is the only city in the West Bank to have Israeli settlers living in its centre.  The city is of religious significance because it is where Abraham and his sons and their wives lived, and are buried.  It is the second holiest site for Jews, the fourth holiest site for Muslims, and is also of significance to Christians.

The settlers believe that they are doing God’s work in ridding Hebron of Palestinians, and dream of turning it into a Jewish city.  But I don’t know of any God that would approve of their behaviour.  Ironically, there tends to be most trouble on Friday nights and Saturdays – the Jewish Sabbath.  One of my jobs is to be present whilst hundreds of settlers walk from Kiryat Arba through a Palestinian neighbourhood to pray at the synagogue on a Friday night.  Dozens of extra soldiers are bussed in to protect them but some of the settlers carry their own rifles too.  I find it quite bizarre, and certainly one of the least holy sights I have ever seen.

Armed settlers flanked by Israeli Army go to pray at synagogue on the Jewish Sabbath

Armed settlers flanked by the Israeli army go to pray in Hebron on the Jewish Sabbath

On the Sabbath last week, a colleague from another international organisation saw a group of teenage settler girls spitting at a group of Palestinian girls on Shuhada Street.  Again, not so holy.  I met Nadar, Noocha and their family, who showed me their windows which were smashed by settlers.  They live next to the synagogue in Hebron.  A Palestinian I meet called Hani tells me he does not believe that the settlers follow the true Jewish faith.

Me with Nadar and Noocha's 4 year old daughter.  Their windows have been smashed by settlers

Me with Meyar, Nadar and Noocha’s 4 year old daughter. Their windows have been smashed by settlers

The settlers seem to be willing to do almost anything to achieve their aims.  This short film clip, from Israeli human rights organisation BT’Selem, first shows one of the settlers explaining things for herself, and then some of her actions.  At least watch the first 2 minutes if you can – I’m pretty sure you’ll be shocked.

You might have noticed the solider standing by whilst the settler abuses her neighbour and then the solider pushing the Palestinian woman, rather than dealing with the settler children attacking her home.  Palestinians often report that soldiers do nothing whilst settlers are on the attack.  I have already seen for myself the close relations between many settlers and soldiers, with settlers bringing food and drinks to soldiers throughout the day, and even settler children playing in military watch points whilst soldiers are on duty there.

In March this year, the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights said,

“settler violence continues to be perpetrated with impunity… Israel needs to hold perpetrators accountable.  While investigations are not opened into most incidents of settler violence, between 2005 and 2011, only 9 per cent of the investigations opened resulted in an indictment.”

Hani, Reema and their family live just past the caged house in that BT’Selem film clip, by the settlement of Tel Rumeida.  They have to walk past the settlement and through the yard of an Israeli army base to get to their house.  They can’t take a car to their house.  They have been harassed and attacked by their neighbours many times.  The settlers have even tried to burn down their home, and have come in the night to smash it up.  About a month ago, they tried to burn down the family’s 300 olive trees for the ninth time, scorching the land, and making some of it impossible to harvest this year.  Burning and chopping down olive trees is a common tactic of settlers across the West Bank.

Hani and Reema's scorched olive trees, burnt by settlers a few weeks ago for the ninth time

Hani and Reema’s scorched olive trees, burnt by settlers a few weeks ago for the ninth time

“Aren’t you frightened?” I ask Reema and she replies, “At the start we were frightened but now we are used to it.”

One of our duties on the Sabbath is to spend time sitting on the roof of the Abu Shamsiya family’s home in H2.  The flat roof of the family’s home backs onto Shuhada Street, and has a small Israeli army watchtower on it which does not appear to be used at present.  From the roof you can look out across the city of Hebron, and down onto the family’s terrace below.  The terrace has a cage around it to try and stop the family being struck by objects thrown by settlers on the roof.  In the past, these objects have included eggs (they seem to be a favourite) and stones, and settlers have even urinated on them. 

The Abu Shamsiya family's terrace from their roof, where settlers come and attack them

The Abu Shamsiya family’s terrace from their roof, where settlers come and attack them

So the reason for our presence is to deter settlers from coming onto the roof.  The first time I sat there, we prevented three settler groups from coming onto the roof.  A teenage boy in one of them had a rifle slung across his person.  On Tuesday, we were unable to prevent one settler coming onto the family’s roof when we were there.  He pointed at the view of the Palestinian city, “This is Israel” he said.  “It’s Palestine” I said. “Lo” (no) he said.  Another group that my colleague saw gestured at the view of the Palestinian city and said “All of this will be Jewish”.

Virtually every Palestinian home in H2 has a kind of cage across the windows to try to guard against settler attacks.  It is hard to get used to seeing children waving and shouting hello to us from behind these cages.

Children in H2 wave to us from behind the cage placed there to protect them from settlers

Children in H2 wave to us from behind the cage placed there to protect them from settlers

On Monday last week when I was doing the lunchtime school run (accompanying Palestinian children to Cordoba School down Shuhada Street) about 150 settlers, most of them teenagers, arrived apparently on some kind of tour.  Remember – they can go anywhere in H2 but the Palestinians are very restricted as to where they can even walk.  The settlers were congregating at the bottom of the school steps.  When it came time for the kids to go home from school, many of them were scared to go down the stairs because of the settlers.  I walked up and down the steps with them, to try to make them feel more secure, and it seemed to give them confidence to be able to get home.  Although the truth is that I had no way of knowing whether the settlers would cause trouble.  Luckily, the worst they did was to stare at us all, and shout and throw things at the feet of my male colleague who arrived to help me.

Not all Israeli settlers are religious extremists like those in Hebron.  Some, who live in settlements in Palestinian East Jerusalem for example, are economically motivated.  They are attracted by the housing subsidies that the Israeli government provides in many settlements.

Wherever they are located though, there is no doubt that the settlers and settlement expansion, are a major barrier to peace between Israel and Palestine.

Hani and his son have both spent time in prison for retaliating when settlers have attacked them.  But Hani tells me that he now believes in non-violent resistance because it gets more positive results.  He says it helps him to separate hatred for a policy from hatred for a people, and believes that it can help those in other countries, especially Jews, to see what is happening here.

Non-violent resistance at the Youth Against Settlements project: "They can pull out out trees but we will always plant more"

Non-violent resistance at the Youth Against Settlements project: “They can pull out our trees but we will always plant more”

You might ask, how do the Palestinians put up with this?  Why don’t they give up?  How can they carry on living where they do, facing such violence and harassment on a daily basis?  I asked a few of the people I met whether they would ever think of leaving,

“At the end of the day, it’s our right to our land,” says Hani.

“We are here, and we will stay here.  This is our land.” says Hishem.

“We will stay here in a tent if we have to, we will not leave,” says another.

Many of them could not afford to go elsewhere, and where would they go anyway?  Over 60% of the West Bank is directly under Israeli control.  And many of them, like Hishem’s family, have already been refugees once from the time that the State of Israel was created.  And why should they leave?  As international law confirms, this IS their land.

But there is another reason, one which is about the Palestinians as a people.

The truth is that they must not leave if the dream of having a Palestinian state is ever to be realised.  The settlers and the soldiers must not succeed in cleansing Hebron – or anywhere else in the West Bank – of Palestinians.

I hope that my presence here, and that of my EAPPI colleagues, somehow helps to make it a tiny bit easier for them to stay.  One man tells me, “When settlers see people like you they are less likely to cause problems, especially on a Friday and Saturday.”  And Hani says, “Before, we were alone as Palestinians with the Israelis but because of the internationals – people like you – we have witnesses to the violence of the settlers.  This makes things a bit better for us.”

Just knowing that makes being here worthwhile.

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