Tag Archives: palestine and israel

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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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.

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