Tag Archives: Palestinian people

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

Advertisements

Leave a comment

Filed under Uncategorized

In Hebron, you don’t ask “why?”

National Israeli newspaper Haaretz published an article by me about Hebron on 11 December 2013. It is online at http://www.haaretz.com/mobile/.premium-1.562723. Here is the text of the article:

In Hebron, you don’t ask ‘why?’

Three months of living in Hebron taught me what goes on there makes no sense, either for Israel’s security or for the Palestinians who live there.

In my first few days working as a Human Rights Observer in Hebron, I kept looking for logic in the things I saw. I quickly learnt to stop. “Don’t ask why,” seemed to be the mantra of many of the people there.

I first visited Israel nearly 10 years ago with the UK’s Union of Jewish Students. I’m not Jewish but was a student leader in Scotland and worked closely with UJS. It was just after the second intifada and the palpable fear of suicide bombings that hung in the air has stayed with me. The visit was special because for the first time I felt connected to part of my own history – my great-grandfather was a Polish Jew who, my family believes, was killed in the Holocaust. Walking in the Valley of the Communities at Yad Vashem was especially emotional.

After a second visit that again focused on Israeli perspectives, particularly on the conflict with the Palestinians, I decided to see the West Bank for myself. I was shocked at how it differed from what I had heard in Israel. The military occupation caused enormous disruption to everyday Palestinian life, and further visits deepened my sense that something was very wrong. That was how it came to be that I have just spent three months working in Hebron, deep inside the occupied Palestinian territory, with the Ecumenical Accompaniment Program in Palestine and Israel.

I had briefly visited Hebron itself twice before and – despite its being holy to Jews, Muslims and Christians – it was the strangest place I had ever been. Under the Oslo Accords, Hebron was divided into H1, controlled by the Palestinian Authority, and H2, controlled by Israel. H2 houses around 500 Israeli settlers, protected by hundreds of Israeli soldiers, alongside 30,000 Palestinians. Many of the settlers are religious extremists who do not shirk from using violence and intimidation in their oft-stated aim of ridding Hebron of Palestinians.

As Hanna, an Israeli in Jerusalem, told me, “Hebron is impossible to understand.” What goes on makes no sense, neither for Israel’s security services nor for the Palestinians who live there. Heavily armed soldiers on the street; frequent detentions and arrests of Palestinians, including children; 122 road and other closures, including the banning of Palestinian cars, and even Palestinians walking on what used to be the busiest street in the city – at one point a soldier told me Shuhada Street was “Jews only.”

I learned that harassment of Palestinians is routine. I witnessed, for example, a Palestinian man called Zidan detained for two hours for taking biscuits to a kindergarten. They obviously didn’t set off the checkpoint metal detector but soldiers wanted him to open every individual packet, ruining the lot.

I kept asking: Why?

British-born Israeli friends said the criminal behavior of many of the Hebron settlers would see them in prison if they lived in the UK. Having witnessed their actions almost every day for three months, words cannot express my bafflement at why Israel sends its army to protect them.

On Shabbat Chayyei Sarah, October 2013, settlers attacked the Palestinian Al Khamerie family as they were taking sweets home with their four-year-old daughter and disabled son. The group of settlers called others to “come and attack the Arabs.” The parents, Mohammed and Ramsina, were hospitalized; Ramsina has still not recovered. Soldiers were there but did not prevent the attack and on their release from hospital the victims were threatened with arrest by the Israeli police unless they attended the police station for questioning.

Another Friday night, settlers from Tel Rumeida in Hebron blocked the Palestinian Azzeh family from entering or leaving their home. Neither the police nor the nine watching soldiers responded to our requests for intervention. A settler child then threw a bucket of bleach at us, directly into my colleague’s eyes. She had to go to hospital and later made an official complaint to the police. Rather than act to bring the perpetrators to justice with the help of the IDF witnesses, the police next day arrested a fellow international who had been injured by the same settlers. Watching settlers cheered.

If the justification for what goes on in Hebron is Israel’s security, then I can only say that, from the bottom of my heart, what happens there – especially to the young people – makes Israel less secure.

One recent Sunday, a couple of 12-year-old Palestinian schoolboys threw pebbles at the fence by checkpoint 29 (I say ‘pebbles’ advisedly – I have also witnessed rocks being thrown by both Israelis and Palestinians – this was very different.) Israeli soldiers quickly advanced in full combat gear, threw a stun grenade and then fired tear gas at the children. The tear gas went into the school playground. Dozens of terrified smaller children huddled next to me.

I asked the soldiers why this was a sensible response. There was no answer.

While I was there, Gal Kobi, a 20-year-old soldier from Haifa, was sadly shot and killed in Hebron: A terrible waste of a young life. I imagined a debate might ensue in the Israeli media as to why that young man had been sent there by his government in the first place. But it did not.

Aside from the danger to their lives, I wonder what effect it must have on the young Israelis who are sent to protect the extremist settlers of Hebron. I don’t believe that these young men, sent to Palestinian land to use weapons against children, detain people twice their age for carrying biscuits and stand idly by as people are attacked and hospitalized, will walk away undamaged from such experiences.

Why does Israel think that what goes on in Hebron is in its best interests? Why are ordinary Israelis willing to send their sons and daughters to be soldiers in places like Hebron?

I walked away from Hebron feeling like I am one of the only people asking these questions. I ask out of genuine engagement and concern, as someone who has seen and heard both sides over the years. Despite the self-harm, it seems that too many Israelis prefer not to ask why.

I hope I am mistaken, but if you too think it sounds like there is something wrong, maybe you will join me in asking: “Why?”

Melanie Ward is from Scotland, studied at the University of Stirling and the School of Oriental and African Studies, and works for a global anti-poverty charity in London. She lived in Hebron for three months in late 2013 when working as a Human Rights Observer with EAPPI. She blogs at http://www.melanieward.org and tweets @melanie_ward

2 Comments

Filed under Uncategorized

Maybe they don’t want to see

“I think people don’t want to see what is going on.”

I am in Haifa, Israel talking to a group of 16 year old Israeli students about life in the West Bank, when one of the girls says this. I have just summarised what takes place in Hebron – Israeli soldiers, Israeli settlers, life for Palestinians – the types of things I have written about in my blogs. I struggle to hold it together when speaking, both because of the reality of life in Hebron but also because I am acutely aware that these young people are the next generation of Israeli soldiers. Any of them could be serving in Hebron in a couple of years: protecting violent settlers living in illegal settlements and doing the things I have observed like searching Palestinian children’s schoolbags, harassing ordinary people going about their business and detaining children.

Some of the students tell me they have never heard of Hebron and had no idea about what goes on there, or about the situation with checkpoints and other problems that my EAPPI colleagues based in Jerusalem, Bethlehem and Yanoun describe. A lively discussion between the students arises as to why this might be. A few blame the media. We point out that these issues are in the press on a daily basis, including the Israeli press, and there is a vast amount of information on the internet. After all, none of us EAs come from the region, and we managed to find out about what is going on.

The conversation changes when a girl suggests that many Israelis don’t want to see what is going on, they don’t want to know.

Certainly, it is absolutely possible to live a fairly normal life in Israel whilst mostly ignoring what goes on just a few miles away on the other side of the wall that separates it from much of the West Bank. Ruth, another Israeli who kindly hosted me with her family in Haifa for a weekend, told me that in the last five years there were just three days when the conflict with the Palestinians touched her life in some way. The rest of the time, if she had chosen to, she could have completely ignored that it was happening. This is despite the fact that, if things carry on as they are, her two sons will be conscripted into the army in a few years.

It tallies with what organisations like Breaking the Silence, a group of former Israeli soldiers says, “Cases of abuse towards Palestinians, looting, and destruction of property have been the norm for years… While this reality is known to Israeli soldiers and commanders, Israeli society continues to turn a blind eye, and to deny what is done in its name.”

During our meeting with the young people at their college in Haifa, they showed us a memorial room which has photographs of 20 students or former students who were killed in the conflict. Although significantly fewer in number overall, the examples of tragic loss seem to be everywhere you turn in Israel, as in Palestine. But still, those young people were entirely ignorant of Hebron – one of the most notorious examples of this conflict.

I find this deeply, deeply troubling. In a previous blog I mentioned that a 20 year old Israeli soldier was shot and killed recently at checkpoint 209 in Hebron, apparently by a Palestinian. His name was Gavriel Kovi and, as it happens he came from Haifa, the city where I spent the weekend staying with an Israeli family – Ruth, Sarah and their two sons. I have seen no outcry in Israel about why he was there in the first place and this is puzzling. He was there to protect a group of Israeli settlers who use violence to further their views, which I have both witnessed and experienced. Such acts of violence would normally be subject to the force of the law but instead, the Israeli government sends its army to protect them. This army is made of young people who are sometimes tragically killed, as with Gavriel Kovi. I fail to understand both how it is in Israel’s own interests for this to be happening or why people don’t want to see this.

But some, like Israeli settler Bob Lang, feel differently. He was born in the USA but is now spokesperson for the settlement of Efrat. I felt uncomfortable going to Efrat because of the damage that the settlements do, and their illegal status. I was expecting him to try to charm us into agreeing that he had a fair case but I was wrong. His method of persuasion was to shout at us for about 10 minutes at a time, at one point shaking and going red with rage in response to questions about international law.

Bob Lang, spokesperson for the Israeli settlement of Efrat

Bob Lang, spokesperson for the Israeli settlement of Efrat telling us his perspective

He told us about the expansion of the settlement – it has permission from the Israeli government to build 1000 new housing units, with 600 currently under construction. All of these are being built on Palestinian land that is illegally occupied. Bob told us of “The masterplan for Efrat… to be built on seven hilltops. We have five already.” He gestured at caravans on a nearby hilltop, which is often how settlers begin to take more land. They are normally illegal under Israel’s own laws as well as international law. Despite this, they are often supplied with water, electricity, roads and public transport by the Israeli government, and end up becoming new settlements or merging with existing ones, eating up more Palestinian land. It’s not that Bob doesn’t want to see what is going on, more that he sees it and supports it.

In Sderot, southern Israel, I meet an Israeli called Nomika Zion who couldn’t have more different views to Bob Lang. Yet she lives in a part of Israel where it is most difficult to be. Sderot is unfortunately famous because it is located very close to Gaza and is often on the receiving end of rockets fired by Hamas and other Palestinian groups who use violence. Some fifteen Israelis living in Sderot have been killed by the rockets. Nomika tells us that the last rocket was around a month ago.

A bus stop in Sderot that doubles as a shelter from rockets

A bus stop in Sderot that doubles as a shelter from rockets

She describes the fear and stress caused by living in such circumstances, “you never know what will happen in the next minute”. She tells us that in the past many people slept in their clothes in case they had to run outside to the communal bomb shelters. Some families could no longer cope, so they locked their villas and left. The Israeli government has now built a security room onto each house which people can run to when warning sirens sound. We see a children’s playground with a giant concrete caterpillar which Nomika tells us is specially designed to double up as a bomb shelter as well as a plaything, so that the children can shelter in it immediately the sirens sound. How sad that such a thing is needed.

Despite the rockets, Nomika is hugely concerned at the attitude of the Israeli government and much of Israeli society towards the Palestinians and the conflict with them. She describes the situation when Israel invaded Gaza in 2008 in a 22 day war known as Operation Cast Lead. Its stated aim was to end the rocket attacks. According to Amnesty International some 1400 Palestinians were killed – many of whom were unarmed civilians – including some 300 children. With clear distress, Nomika recalls many of her neighbours sitting on their roofs watching the bombs dropping on Gaza and cheering each time one exploded.

Nomika Zion and 12 year old Zahara telling us about life in Sderot

Israelis Nomika Zion and 12 year old Zahara telling us about life in Sderot

Nomika and a group of around 20 fellow Sderot residents have formed Other Voice, a group which keeps in touch with some of their neighbours who live in Gaza. As the bombs dropped, the group was receiving texts and emails from their Gazan friends. One email came from a 14 year old girl in Gaza, “Help us. Don’t they understand that we are also humans?”

After ten days of bombing, Nomika says that she couldn’t stand it anymore and had to speak out about what was happening. She wrote an article about why the bombardment was not in her name, ‘War Diary from Sderot’. This was very controversial in Israeli society because it went against the conventional wisdom that the war was right. It received huge national and international media attention, and Nomika was viewed as a traitor by many of her neighbours. But, she tells us, “as long as something remains of our democracy, it is my civil obligation to speak out.”

Nomika agrees with the 16 year old Israeli girl in Haifa who thinks that many Israelis don’t want to see what is happening in their name. The goal of Other Voice is simply “to make the invisible visible.” She is gravely concerned about the consequences of the kind of wilful blindness that seems to have permeated Israel,

“We have lost our ability to see the Palestinians as human beings. This is very dangerous. We have becomes blind to them. We don’t see them. They don’t have voices or faces. We give them one collective identity: terrorists. Palestinians equal terrorists to most of Israeli society.”

“We have become blind. Worse than this, we have become numb. Like Hannah Arendt said: the evil becomes so banal that you don’t see the evil anymore. This is very dangerous to the spirit of our society. We have lost our ability to feel empathy. When you lose this, you lose part of your humanity. The Jewish people carry a tragedy on our backs: the Holocaust. We know that to lose our human empathy is dangerous.”

8 Comments

Filed under Uncategorized

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.”

1 Comment

Filed under Uncategorized