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.”

Advertisements

1 Comment

Filed under Uncategorized

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.

Leave a comment

Filed under Uncategorized

Welcome to the ghost town

Shuhada Street in H2, Hebron

The ghost town: Shuhada Street in H2, Hebron

“They came for my 5 year old. They came for my 5 year old boy. Two days ago, four of them came. Four Israeli soldiers.”

After greetings and introductions, these were Hashem’s first words to us. I had recently arrived in Hebron from the UK, via Jerusalem, to spend my first few days getting to know my work as a Human Rights Observer (or Ecumenical Accompanier/ EA).

He stands with us, a small group of EAs from different countries, in the shade at the top of Shuhada Street in Hebron. Hashem is Palestinian, a Hebronite, born and raised here. He takes out a small video camera and shows us footage of what he has described.

The Israeli settlers who are his neighbours accused Khaled, his 5 year old son, of throwing stones at them. Israeli soldiers then turned up at the home of Hashem and his wife Nisreen, wanting to investigate Khaled. This came a few short weeks after the detention of another 5 year old boy, Wadi’a Maswadeh, by the Israeli authorities in Hebron, an act which contravenes the Convention on the Rights of the Child. Hashem tells us that he showed the soldiers Khaled, who was playing on his computer, and told them that he had not been throwing stones. He told them that his settler neighbours often make up stories like this and that anyway, the army was not allowed to arrest children, and on no account would they be taking his son. The soldiers said that this visit should be taken as a warning but if it happened again then they would be back to take Khaled, and then Hashem would have to pay for his son’s release.

This situation will be inconceivable to many of you. Imagine a hostile army turning up at your door to take away your child. But in the three days spent in Hebron in my first week here in Palestine-Israel as an EA, I discovered that it was one of many disturbing incidents that are a regular feature of life for Palestinians in occupied Hebron.

Hashem telling us about life in Hebron

Hashem telling us about life in H2, Hebron

Hebron is a city of two halves. Literally. On one side is a bustling Palestinian city – the biggest in the West Bank. It is run by the Palestinian Authority and has many restaurants, cafes, shops, supermarkets and a shopping centre, as you would except in any other city. It has a fruit and vegetable market and a souk in the Old City. This part of Hebron was designated as H1 under the Oslo Accords of the failed 1990s peace process.

Then, as you walk towards a portacabin that blocks off a street in the city centre, you notice there are fewer and fewer people, there is anti-Israel graffiti and fewer shops open. The portacabin is actually Checkpoint 56. Walking through that checkpoint in like stepping into another world, like some kind of perverse Alice Through the Looking-Glass. On the other side are young Israeli soldiers with large guns who check your ID. This is an area of Palestinian territory that is occupied and controlled by Israel. It was designated as H2 under the Oslo Accords.

From Checkpoint 56 you step out into the top of Shuhada Street, which is where we meet Hashem. Shuhada Street has become famously symbolic of the ghost town that is now H2.

The area is all but deserted. It used to be the heart of commercial Hebron, filled with shops, homes, the main market, and people going about their business. In 2000, Shuhada Street was closed to Palestinians. Over 1800 businesses have since closed, according to Israeli human right organisation B’TSelem. Now, over 1000 homes stand empty and abandoned. The Israeli army has sealed many of the shops and homes – if people still live there, they often cannot use their front doors. A series of roadblocks, walls and military checkpoints separate H1 and H2, ensuring that only the small group of around 500 Israeli settlers who live there can go about their lives as they please (more on the settlers in future blogs).

Graffiti on the H1 side of Checkpoint 56

Graffiti on the H1 side of Checkpoint 56

The Israeli settlers and army can drive and walk anywhere they like. The Palestinians cannot. It’s that simple. My international passport means that I can walk down Shuhada Street but Hashem and Nisreen, whose hometown this is, cannot. They each have a permit to get to their own home. They are forbidden from driving a car to it. Hashem is also forbidden from crossing into H1, now the heart of Palestinian life in Hebron.

Hashem, Nisreen and their family live in their home in H2, which is right next to some Israeli settlers on a hill called Tel Rumeida. Hashem walks us up the hill towards his home. At the end of his street are two more Israeli soldiers. By this point, four young Belgian tourists have joined our little group, and I have my first experience of the way that the soldiers appear to make it up as they go along.

Hashem tells them that he is taking the group of about eight of us internationals to his home for tea. No, they tell him, only he can go and the rest of us cannot. We challenge this and ask for evidence. They backtrack and eventually call their commander. They then decide to check our passports and want to see our visas. One of the Belgian tourists does not have a visa. This is because his father is Palestinian, so he has a green Palestinian ID card to go along with his Belgian passport. Ah, the soldiers tell him, you are a Palestinian. You cannot walk down this street. Everyone else can go, except you. The Belgian/ Palestinian is perplexed and angry – we all are. The soldiers call their commander who shows up (he can be no more than 23 years of age) to confirm their decision. So, we go on to Hashem and Nisreen’s house without him.

Israeli commander refusing access to Belgian/ Palestinian man

Israeli commander refusing access to Tel Rumeida to Belgian/ Palestinian tourist

Another day, we (the other Hebron-based EAs and I) are having tea with some of the Palestinian shopkeepers by the Ibrahimi Mosque/ Tomb of the Patriarchs and Matriarchs when we notice two young Palestinian men crouched in the shade next to the nearby checkpoint. My colleague and I go over to ask one of the two Israeli soldiers what is going on. “ID check” comes the reply from a young soldier who can be no more than 19 years old, “We need to check if they are bad people.” We ask how long this will take, “3 hours” comes the response. We laugh, incredulous, “You can’t be serious” we tell the soldier, “You know that the longest you can detain someone is 20 minutes or else it’s an arrest.” The young soldier looks confused. “I am new” he says to us, “and this is what I was told.” He goes to ask his soldier colleague inside the checkpoint but the other soldier refuses to engage with us. We retreat a bit to watch from a distance. Shortly after this, the soldiers let the young men continue on their way.

In the following days, I see this kind of situation repeated many times – frequent, random ID checks on ordinary people going about their day-to-day lives seem to be standard practice in the parallel universe that is the ghost town.

I am surprised that the soldier seems to have no idea about the law. Later, when I am back in Jerusalem for training, I ask Avner about this. Avner is 28 years old and a veteran soldier who works for Breaking the Silence, a fantastic organisation of former Israeli soldiers who “have taken it upon themselves to expose the Israeli public to the reality of everyday life” in the occupied Palestinian territory. I ask Avner whether the soldiers are taught about the law during their training. He tells me that they are taught nothing about any kind of law. Instead of the law, the soldiers are taught to carry out their orders. Typically in Hebron, this includes orders to “instill a sense of fear in Palestinians”, to “make your presence felt” and to “disrupt the day-to-day lives of Palestinians”.

Like the child detention, much of what goes on in Hebron is illegal under international law. Under international human rights law, namely Article 13 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and Article 12 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, Israel is required to respect the right of residents of the occupied Palestinian territory to move about freely. As the occupier, international humanitarian law also requires Israel to ensure the safety and wellbeing of the local residents and to maintain, to the extent possible, normal living conditions.

After these first three days in Hebron, I travel back to Jerusalem for more training sessions with EAPPI. When I get there I have the space to think more deeply about what I have seen in Hebron in the last week. In my first blog post I described that on previous visits to Hebron I had found it to be the strangest place I had ever been; I was not wrong. I try to understand the things that I have seen.

How does it make sense to treat the Palestinians this way? Whose interests does this situation serve? What are the Israeli authorities hoping to achieve?

On our subsequent training in Jerusalem, we meet an Israeli named Hanna Barag, who monitors checkpoints with other Israeli women in the organisation MachsomWatch. “Who is going to Hebron?” she asks us all. My three team-mates and I raise our hands, and she looks at us, “If you have come here to have a good time, then you have made a mistake.”

“Hebron is impossible to understand.”

4 Comments

Filed under Uncategorized

Yalla! (Let’s go!)

Jerusalem - when I visited in 2007

Jerusalem – when I visited in 2007

“I do not live in a tent because I want to live in a tent.  I live here because they will not let me build a house with water and electricity.  I also want peace – but I say this last because it will never happen.”

These words have stayed with me.  They were spoken by a resident of Sussiya in the South Hebron Hills, deep inside the West Bank, when I met him and his family on a visit to Israel and the occupied Palestinian territory in January 2011.  His family was living in a tent because the Israeli authorities had destroyed his home.  On that occasion I was travelling with my then employer, international development agency Christian Aid.

Two and a half years on, I am about to travel back to the region to spend 3 months working as a Human Rights Observer in an international team with the Ecumenical Accompaniment Programme in Palestine and Israel (EAPPI).  EAPPI is a program of the World Council of Churches, supported in the UK by international development charities including Christian Aid and CAFOD, and administered by the Quakers.  It was founded in 2002 in response to a request from the Heads of Churches in Jerusalem.  The programme is the biggest presence of internationals working for human rights in the occupied Palestinian territory. It has two aims: to help end the occupation, and to advocate for a just peace based on international law.

I’m taking a secondment from my job as Head of Advocacy at international poverty charity ActionAid UK, where I spent the first 6 months of this year working to influence the G8 to deliver action to tackle tax dodging, a problem which costs poor countries more than they receive in aid every year.  This involved numerous meetings with politicians and civil servants in Westminster: in Parliament, the Treasury and at 10 Downing Street; and media work: I appeared on TV, on the radio and in newspapers to publicise our message.

The next few months are going to be very different.  I’m being posted to Hebron, which is the biggest city in the West Bank, and is a place of particular tension and division in the long, tragic conflict between the Israelis and the Palestinians.  It is occupied by 1500 Israeli soldiers who are primarily there to protect the 500 Israeli settlers who hold strong religious views and sometimes use violence to uphold them.  I have visited Hebron twice before, just for a few hours, and found it to be the strangest place I have ever been.

Some of the cards and gifts from my lovely friends to wish me well

Some of the cards and gifts from my lovely friends to wish me well

I will be living there in an apartment with three other people from different countries, none of whom I have ever met.  We will work together to provide a ‘protective presence’ and to monitor and report on human rights abuses.  The idea – which has been found useful in a number of conflicts across the world – is that the presence of internationals, armed with nothing more than a notebook and a camera, helps ordinary people to feel safer and know that they are not alone.  It can reduce the propensity for human rights abuses to occur because perpetrators are less willing to act when someone is recording what they do and telling the outside world about it.

In Hebron, our work is likely to include accompanying Palestinian children experiencing harassment and intimidation from Israeli settlers to school; monitoring the length of time it takes Palestinian workers to cross military checkpoints; accompanying Palestinian farmers at risk of violence from Israeli settlers as they harvest their olives; and supporting the non-violent activities of Israelis and Palestinians working together jointly for peace and human rights.

So: what is my motivation for doing this?  Life in the UK is pretty comfortable and I love my regular job with ActionAid.  My first two visits to Israel-Palestine were on delegations which introduced the region and the many issues in the conflict from a Jewish/ Israeli perspective.  The first trip was about 10 years ago.  It was fascinating – we met Israeli politicians, academics and discussed a huge range of issues.  We went to Jerusalem, Jaffa, Tel Aviv and visited Yad Vashem, the Holocaust memorial.  We talked about the fear that ordinary Israelis felt about suicide bombings.  We met Israelis and Palestinians who had lost loved ones in the conflict and were working across the divide with the Parents Circle, a fantastic organisation.  On my second visit we went to Haifa and also to Ramallah, and met some Palestinian politicians and NGOs.  But on both trips, the overwhelming majority of what we saw and heard was, unsurprisingly, from only one perspective.

I was very aware of this and so, on my third visit (for a Jewish friend’s wedding at a kibbutz), I made sure that I educated myself about the Palestinian perspective.  I visited Bethlehem and walked through the massive military checkpoint there, rather than cruising through on a coach as most tourists do.  I went back to Ramallah, and I spent time in East Jerusalem (the largely Palestinian part of this divided city except for the increasing numbers of Israelis who live in settlements there).

I met an old Palestinian woman sitting in a tent in the garden of her home in Sheikh Jarrah, surrounded by her cooker, her fridge and all of her possessions.  Inside her empty home was an armed private Israeli security guard, employed by the Israeli settlers who had evicted the old woman from her home.  An Israeli police car sat out in the street, clearly finding nothing that they should intervene in.  The settlers, who had also taken over the house across the street, shouted some abuse at us as we left.  They had American accents.

When I later went to work for Christian Aid, I travelled to Israel-Palestine twice more.  I met inspiring Israelis working for human rights and peace in organisations like B’TSelem, Breaking the Silence, the Association for Civil Rights in Israel, and Ta’ayush.  I travelled across the West Bank to Nablus, Jericho, the Jordan Valley, Jayyous, Jenin, the South Hebron Hills – and Hebron itself.  I have never seen parents actively encourage their children to be violent before but this is what we witnessed in Hebron with some Israeli settlers encouraging their children to come and kick our guide from Breaking the Silence; an Orthodox Jew who had served in the Israeli army in Hebron and was telling us what he used to do there.

I learnt much more about the other perspective in the conflict, that of the Palestinians, and came away feeling that I now had a much more balanced sense of things and a reasonable understanding of the viewpoints and arguments of each ‘side’.

On my last two visits we also met some Human Rights Observers – or Ecumenical Accompaniers (EAs) as they are known – from Europe, who were serving with EAPPI.  At 6am they were monitoring the amount of time it took Palestinian workers to cross the enormous Bethlehem checkpoint to the jobs in Palestinian East Jerusalem and Israel.  Literally hundreds of older men (it is practically impossible for young Palestinian men to get work permits) were crammed into metal pens to have their details checked by teenage Israeli soldiers.  I had never witnessed people be treated in such a degrading manner.

I was intensely interested in the work of the EAs and how they came to be there.  My experiences left me with a deep sense of the injustice of the conflict, and of the poverty and suffering in much of the West Bank.  The man in a tent in Sussiya, the old lady in her garden in Sheikh Jarrah and the Hebron settler children attacking a fellow Israeli were not things I could easily forget.

So that is how it came to be that I will shortly fly there to work for 3 months.  There is so much bluster and debate about the issues in Israel-Palestine that I decided it was time to do something more useful than argue about it in the pub.  Whatever the situation, I have never believed that we should walk by on the other side – if we can do something to help, then we should.  The time I will spend there is my way of making a tiny contribution.  I feel excited and apprehensive about arriving and starting work.

That place is never dull but it will be especially interesting when John Kerry’s efforts to re-energise the peace deal are ongoing.  Let us hope and pray that he succeeds.

In the meantime, if my efforts mean that a few children can get to school safely and more easily, then my forthcoming adventure will have been worth it.

2 Comments

Filed under Uncategorized