Tag Archives: human rights

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 you 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 an 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 basics 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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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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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.”

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