On Saturday 4th May our group took a trip to Hebron.
With a population of 170,000 Hebron is the largest city in the West bank, it is also one of the places where the occupation can most obviously be seen.
Since the start of the occupation in 1967, small Israeli settlements have been built in the centre of Hebron in the old city, which used to be the commercial hub of the southern West Bank. Following the 1994 massacre in the Ibrahimi mosque, the Israeli law enforcement and security forces have pursued an overt policy of separation in Hebron. The intention of this policy is to segregate the Israeli settlers from the Palestinian majority. Furthermore, under the Oslo Protocols in 1997 Hebron was divided between H1 and H2; the Palestinian authority controls H1, whilst H2 is under Israeli military control. As a consequence of this division the movement of Palestinians is severely restricted within H2. The policy of separation in Hebron has had devastating consequences for the local economy. Whole streets, where once there were shops and businesses, are now empty. The economic impact and the violations of Palestinian’s human rights have compacted the suffering of Palestinians in Hebron and led many to leave the centre of the city. For those that remain living in such close proximity to violent Israeli settlers and soldiers who are there to protect the invaders is a continuous battle. But, to exist is to resist and their continuing presence is one last act of defiance against the occupiers.
We visited the Ibrahimi Mosque (pictured above), the site of the 1994 massacre of 29 Muslim worshipers by an Israeli settler. Since this incident, which resulted in riots and the killing of 21 more Palestinians by Israeli forces, access to the Mosque by Muslims has been restricted. 60% of the Mosque is now used exclusively as a place for Jewish worship. Muslims must enter the Mosque by a side entrance, passing through a security gate before doing so, furthermore access to the Mosque is restricted by its position in H2 meaning that Palestinians must pass through a checkpoint before visiting the Mosque. This action by the Israeli forces has had the effect of punishing the victims of a crime.
Whilst removing my shoes outside of the main room of the Mosque I met a Palestinian man named Ahmed who offered to give me a tour of the Mosque. He showed me around the Mosque explaining the history of the building, which has been a place of worship for thousands of years and has been used by Christians and Muslims at different points in history.
After leaving the Mosque Ahmed and his friend Ruben offered to give us a tour of H2. They led us past the soldiers and down the hill into the Old City of Hebron. They told us that if they were alone they wouldn’t feel safe to walk around H2 but as they are in the company of Internationals the soldiers were unlikely to bother them. Even so there were some streets which we walked up alone leaving our guides to wait with the soldiers as they were not allowed to walk there. It is completely ridiculous that as British citizens, born thousands of miles away, we were able to walk these streets and yet men who were born and raised in Hebron are unable to.
Al shuhada street, once the main market street of Hebron, is today a ghost town with all the businesses boarded up and only soldiers and a few tourists walking around. The segregation of the city has had a devastating impact on the economy of the old city where today 77% of Palestinians live beneath the poverty line. According to a survey done by the UN’s Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) in 2007, 1 829 Palestinian shops located in H2 have closed since the outbreak of the Second Intifada in 2000. This is mainly due to military orders, curfews and the closure regime imposed by the Israeli authorities hampering economic activity.*
*Source: TIPH: Hebron Today
There is a heavy military presence in Hebron with approximately 3000 Israeli soldiers. The soldiers are there to protect the 500 settlers from the 30,000 Palestinians who reside within H2. According to B’Tselem (The Israeli Centre for Human Rights in the OPT) soldiers often do nothing to protect Palestinians from settler violence and do not enforce the law for Palestinians or bring assailants to justice. Apart from a soldier shouting at a group of young boys who were trying to sell us sweetcorn we did not witness any incidents between soldiers and Palestinians. In fact, in some cases the soldiers seemed to have good relationships with the Palestinians, there was no obvious animosity between them.
After walking around the Old City we visited one of the few remaining Palestinian businesses within H2, a pottery shop selling beautiful hand painted bowls, mugs and plates. The man who owned this shop had been successful in taking out a court order against the closure of his shop because his house is attached to the shop.
Whilst in the shop we were given a demonstration of how they shape the clay on the wheel. The man made it look incredibly easy, quickly and effortlessly molding a candle stick and then a little vase and then a pot with a lid which fitted the pot perfectly. During this display a large group of Israeli school girls entered the shop accompanied by a tour guide. Their tour guide gave them a running narrative about the history of the shop and it’s owner, most of which was extremely biased and carried a racist undertone. He told them that the owner of the shop was a “good Arab” whose Grandfather had sheltered Jews during the 1929 attack on Jews in Hebron and that is why his shop had been allowed to stay open. He also made a comment about how tourists visiting Hebron don’t look for examples such as these where Palestinians are able to make a good living and have good relations with Israelis, instead all they want is a picture of a soldier and not to see the reality that “peace is breaking out in Hebron”.
This was one of the first time I have come into such close contact with Israelis whilst in the West Bank and found it very uncomfortable particularly when one of the young girls turned to me and asked me, most sweetly, “What are you doing in Israel?” I moved outside so as not to have to listen to the guide and was put to work painting an espresso cup which I was later given as a gift. Once the group had left the men in the shop offered our group tea and we sat outside and talked with a young Palestinian man named Abdallah about the political situation in Palestine. He was keen to make us aware of the reality of the situation for Palestinians living in Hebron and offered to show us the settlements in the Old City. After leaving the shop Abdallah took us onto the roof of a Palestinian house from which we could see the Israeli military base (I was unable to take photographs of this for obvious reasons). Then he showed us the house of a Palestinian family who lived metres away from an Israeli settlement. The family have suffered much abuse from the settlers. Abdullah told us that one settler had poured chemical acid onto one of their children. I can’t be sure that this is true but it is certainly well known that settlers in Hebron are particularly violent towards Palestinians. Their house lies below the settlement, when you look up from outside their house, through the barbed wire, you can see the steps into the settlement.
We visited another settlement which was established in 1984 when a group of Israelis placed portable caravans on a hill top believed to be within the biblical location of Hebron where the tombs of Ruth and Jesse are said to be. Abdullah was unable to walk with us to these settlements as they are tightly protected. Most of the Palestinian residents near to this settlement have left. However, the neighbours who are an elderly husband and wife refuse to leave. As a consequence of their refusal to leave they live under a very strange situation where they must apply every 6 months for a permit to give them permission to leave their house. Their children are not allowed to visit their house (the second picture below).
The policy being pursued in Hebron is indefensible. The need to protect the security of the settlers is grossly exaggerated but more importantly the threat to their safety is self imposed by their insistence upon living in occupied territory where they have no right to reside. The only sensible option is to evacuate the 500 settlers to Israel and allow the city to return to normality without the fragmentation of the city through the presence of the security forces of the illegal occupier.