“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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
“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.
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.
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.
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.