Friday, 12 December 2008

Despite all odds, Palestinians carry on with living in the Heart of Hebron

Hebron, or Al-Khalil, lies 30 km south of Jerusalem and is the second largest Palestinian city with a population of 163,000 Palestinians. Hebron is one of the commercial centres of the Occupied Palestinian Territories and several industries emerged in Hebron and continue to find their home there. Like the rest of Palestine, the cancer of illegal settlements has set its lethal teeth in Hebron. This city is not only surrounded by settlements like other Palestinian cities and towns, but has settlement points in its heart. In 1968 a group of Israelis rented a hotel room in Hebron for 48 hours, after which they refused to leave, and 6 months later the establishment of a Jewish neighbourhood in Hebron was approved by the Zionist state, to be followed in 19070 by another approval to establish the illegal settlement Kiryat Arba. In 1980 the Israeli government decided to add a floor to the Beit Hadassah point, to be used as a school, the corner stone for a settlement in the heart of the old city of Hebron. 4 years later, a Jewish settlement point was established in Tel Rumeida. In 1994 a fanatic Jewish settler entered the Ibrahimi mosque and opened fire on the worshippers there killing 29 Palestinians. According to the Protocol concerning the Redeployment in Hebron, signed 1997 between the PLO and Israel, Hebron was divided into 2 sections: H1 and H2. H1, forming 80% of the city (18 square km), is home to some 120,000 Palestinians, and is under Palestinian control. H2 covering the old city with the commercial centre and the Jewish settlements (4.3 square km), where around 40,000 Palestinians are forced to live with some 600 fanatic Jewish settlers, fell under Isreali control. The presence of these illegal settlers in the heart of Hebron, mainly in the Casaba, had led to the closure of many commercial shops, and many residents were either forced out of their houses or left due to lack of security and livelihood. Severe restrictions are placed upon the Palestinians, including restrictions on movement in H2. Many streets are completely or partially closed, and Palestinians are not allowed to drive cars in large areas in H2. Also, the movement of ambulances has to be coordinated in advance with the IOF, even in cases of emergency, and in Tel Rumeida even the ownership of kitchen knives for house use is not allowed. None of these restrictions apply on the illegal Jewish settlers. Today, Hebron is surrounded from the east by the illegal settlement Kiryat Arba and to the south by Bet Haggai. Settlement points inside the old city include the Avraham Avinu neighbourhood, Beit Hadassah, Beit Romano and Tel Rumeida.

A couple of weeks ago, some friends and I were invited by a Hebronite friend to visit him in Tel Rumeida. I, personally, was only a couple of times in Hebron as a little kid, and only to visit my uncles in Israeli prisons. So, I was anxious to see this city, especially Tel Rumeida. On the way to Hebron we were accompanied by the views of the illegal settlements on both sides of the road, and junctions leading to more illegal settlements. The land spreading between these settlements was often surrounded by wire fences, indicating it was confiscated. Every now and then one would come across an olive field or a vineyard and would wonder how long before this piece of land would also be confiscated in the name of "peace“. The same scenario repeated in all Palestinian areas: settlements spreading on the hilltops, land surrounded by wire fences and construction sites for building more settler roads or expanding existing settlements. The sight of these settlements causes not only heartache, a headache, but an eye ache as well. With their European-styled red brick roofs, they were out of place, and trying to be part of the Palestinian landscape but failing drastically. Palestinian villages and towns were on the other hand a much-welcomed change of view, a delight to see, mingling with the whole landscape and forming an integral part of it. They are so natural there, as if the landscape was created with these Palestinian houses as part of it. There was something attractive about the way the houses scattered here and there, surrounded by the beautiful olive fields or vineyards. You could feel life shining out of them, not like the artificial red bricks trying to force themselves on a landscape that is refusing them. The various shades of green, red and brown of the Palestinian landscape was only interrupted by the grey colourless sites and barren areas where Palestinian land was being torn to pieces and Palestinian landscape desecrated by the illegal roads and settlements. These barren areas were fertile only a decade ago. At junctions, we passed settlers standing at bus stops, feeling at home in our home, the home they were kicking us out of. Many settlers waiting at the bus stops were armed with machine guns and rifles, parading them. I suppose they think this is the way to put fear into the hearts of the Palestinians. Yes, one does feel fear seeing these fanatics with their rifles because they have been known to kill innocent Palestinians for no reason at all except their thirst for blood. But what they fail to see is that parading like that, on our roads, only strengthens our will to kick them out of our lands.

At one junction we saw a sign with the warning that one was about to enter a Palestinian area and that Israelis were not allowed in, and I couldn’t help thinking whether the Nazis had such signs on the entrances to Jewish Ghettos: you are about to enter a Jewish Ghetto, good citizens of Germany are not allowed in. After a few minutes drive throw the city of Hebron, we were welcomed by our Hebronite friend in the H1 area, who was to show us his hometown. This part of the city was very lively, with shops on both sides of the road, streets buzzing with life, people coming and going, students hurrying to their university, taxi drives hooping, men arguing and women doing the weekly shopping. For some, this chaos may seem annoying and painful to the ear. To me, it was bliss, and I walked through these streets taking everything in, with a large smile on my face the whole time. I was extremely happy to see such a lively city, because it shows that despite all Israeli terror and all restrictions they cannot take this city out of us, we live and Palestine will continue to live with us. People were showing their pride at being Palestinian, for I haven’t seen a Palestinian town before, where so many Palestinian flags were hanging from buildings, shops and cars. Traditional carts driven by horses were waiting for tourists and fruit and vegetable carts were displaying their commodity with various colours that attract the eye. Here one wouldn’t have to worry about the source of the fruits and vegetables one was purchasing or what kind of poisons one was eating. It is all the product of Palestine, planted and cared for by Palestinian hands and hearts. As we walked further in the direction of the old city, the lively atmosphere began to fade.

An IOF observation tower on the one side and an IOF observation post on the roof of an old building on the opposite side, signalled that we were about to enter the H2 area of Hebron. Being in the centre of a Palestinian urban area and because it is under Israeli control, H2 attracts the most fanatic and violent of the illegal Jewish settlers. Our local friend told us that one huge building behind the tower used to be a Palestinian school, later confiscated and turned into a Jewish one for the use of the settlers. If I’m not mistaken, I believe this is the Osama Bin Munqaz school, which is now known as Beit Romano. The other IOF observation post with camouflage netting stood on an old building that seemed abandoned. We were told that there are several such posts, occupying the roofs of about 20 Palestinian buildings, and in some cases, like this one, the IOF taking over the whole building. There was also a huge gate that stood open, and I wondered if at night, the residents of that area were locked in like sheep. According to B’Tselem “at least 35 Palestinian residential dwellings and shops in Hebron are currently held by security forces permanently for their continuous or sporadic use.”[1]

The old city of Hebron has always been not only the commercial heart of the city, but that of the whole southern West Bank. This centre collapsed economically and stopped functioning with the arrival of the illegal settlers and the various Israeli restrictions on Palestinian livelihood. Many Palestinian families were thus forced directly or indirectly out of their neighborhoods. The old city with its traditional market or "souq“ was lined up with narrow alleyways and covered up with wire mesh, some sort of wire-fencing, sheets and rags that covered all exposed areas to protect the pedestrians and the shop owners from the stones, the dirt, the garbage and urine-filled bottles thrown at them from the settlers occupying the apartments above, after their original inhabitants had been kicked out. The Casaba extends till the Ibrahimi mosque, and is know for its old houses and narrow alleys, many of which were closed by the IOF, the sideway steps, passageways and the old-styled windows with the outward windowsills. We were met by endless alleys and arches leading to more arches, so beautiful were the views, and yet so sad. We’d pass under the old arches above which stood houses with beautiful old-styled windows. These arches, together with the old houses with the windowsill and traditional windows are common in the old centres of Palestinian cities, such as in Jerusalem and Bethlehem. This was in my opinion the most beautiful part of Hebron, and I felt an outrage, such a beautiful city treated with such disrespect by these land thieves. A once powerful Palestinian centre turned into a weak, almost ghost city, by the IOF restrictions on Palestinians and the terror acts of the fanatic invaders. In that moment, I so much wished I could turn time back and see these streets in their full glance, to the time when the real owners of their houses ruled over the whole city, when this city talked to the people.

We walked through the narrow streets, the high building on both side together with the wire mash and sheets, limiting the amount of sunlight pouring in. Many shops were closed here by Israeli military orders, others because of lack of security and long curfews. A number of shops were open and displaying their multi-coloured products. Some were selling traditional items and representations of the Palestinian folklore. They were all tiny shops with barley a place to stand, one would have to admire the items exhibited from outside. We took a rest at the entrance of one of these shops. The owner, a Palestinian woman, told us that she and a group of women, mostly housewives, sell their products here. They had a variety of things on display such as handbags, T-Shirt, shawls, purses, pillow covers, etc… all decorated with traditional Palestinian stitches, in addition to traditional Palestinian dresses and the Palestinian Kafeyyeh. The shop owner told us that they sell their products directly here, and don’t advertise nor distribute to other shops, and that is why they sell these items for very reasonable prices. I inquired about the price of a few items I planned on buying as presents for friends in Germany and elsewhere in Europe, and was surprised that the prices were one third of those offered for the same items in Ramallah or Bethlehem. We went on, and were delighted to see that despite all, the heart of the city was slowly, but steady regaining its strength and pumping life into the whole area. I stand corrected, this isn’t a dying city, this is a city that refuses submission and refuses to die. On the stands one is able to find almost everything, from meat and fish, oil and olives, spices, fruits and vegetables to all sorts of house utensils. Freshly slaughtered meat hung in butcheries while traditional sweets, such as Knafeh, were being prepared in pastry shops.

As we walked deeper into the old city, we encountered rows over rows of closed shops with their typical green colour. The settler garbage above our head also increased and one could only wonder at the culture from which these fanatics have emerged, if they have a culture of any sort, i.e. other than that of murder and land theft. As we came closer to the Ibrahimi mosque, we passed a few shops selling items for tourists. I could hear the shop owners telling the foreign passers by: if you want to help Hebron, please buy our local products. At the entrance to the mosque we were welcomed by revolving doors and a wire fence dividing the entrance into 2 paths. The metal detectors went buzzing the minute we went through, and after a struggle with our cameras and our handbags and after having our IDs and passports controlled by the IOF, we were allowed into the courtyard of the mosque. This was a “welcome” fit for a prison or a military base, not a place of worship. The Ibrahimi mosque is spilt into two parts, one small part is reserved for the Palestinian Muslims and the other for the Jewish settlers. On Jewish holidays, Palestinians have no access to the mosque as the whole complex is turned into one big synagogue. The first thing I saw was the huge building, then the red cabins in front of the Mosque. People would have to go through these cabins and be searched before being allowed inside the mosque. Israeli policemen were everywhere and I was told that snipers are also present on the roof. There were a few Palestinian worshippers coming and leaving and a few kids trying to sell postcards and other small items to the tourists. We were in a hurry and thus didn’t have time to go inside the mosque, which annoyed me a little bit because you never know if you’ll have a second chance to see the place. Ethnic cleansing and changing the realities in Palestine happen at such a speed that every time I come to Palestine, I search in vain for the old familiar landscapes, and instead I’m confronted with new ones, those of settlements, settler roads, checkpoints, apartheid walls and barbed wires.

We made our way onward to the solidarity tent, where a week of solidarity with the old city of Hebron had been organized by the “National Campaign against the Israeli Closures in Hebron Old City”. The old city is under continuous Israeli siege and the people are daily threatened by the Israeli measures aiming at emptying the city of its original inhabitants and causing a “quiet transfer”. While Palestinians suffer under the various restrictions, including the use of a number of their streets and neighbourhoods, the Jewish settlers roam freely. Heavily armed, these fanatics often harass and attack Palestinians with stones or bottles. The settler violence and Isreali policies and restrictions on Palestinians in the old city have forced thousands to leave their homes and the closure of “1829 Palestinian businesses in the areas of the settlements in the city”[2], according to the B’Tselem report titled “Ghost Town”. The report adds that 1014 Palestinian housing units stand vacant.

Isreali soldiers positioned everywhere in the old city are only there for “protecting” the Jewish settlers and seldom intervene to prevent settler violence. On the contrary, they often participate in harassing the Palestinians. Jewish assailants are rarely brought to justice, while Palestinians are often punished for the violent acts of the settlers, such as curfews which are imposed for weeks. We could see some people hurrying on their way back home, groups of boys playing here and there, little girls sitting in a corner whispering and giggling. These people are steadfast here, and as long as the children fill its streets and its alleys, the old city will never be abandoned, and will always be lively and waiting for those who were forced out to come back and reclaim their homes, shops, streets and neighbourhoods.

There were many people there and the lots of TV crews. The next day we heard that Luisa Morgantini, deputy president of the European Union parliament had visited Hebron, and during an argument with the Jewish settlers had shouted “You are thieves who steel buildings!” and “You assault Palestinians day and night to force them out of their homes”.[3] Behind the tent one had a superb view of the Hebron, and below us we could see the streets we had just passed. We were actually standing above the closed shops. Old styled houses spread all around us in a panorama fit of the city of the Patriarchs, the city of Abraham. Children were everywhere around us, waving Palestinian flags and chanting with the national songs coming from the loud speakers surrounding the tent. How can anyone think of this city as dead, seeing all this life?

We turned back and walked on in the direction of the Tel Rumeida neighbourhood. I have so often heard stories and seen disturbing videos of the settler brutality against the locals there, their violence, the seizure of houses and the harassment, and the humiliating treatment the Palestinians get on the hands of the settlers and the IOF. At one corner we encountered an entrance closed with heavy blocks of stone and wire, so no entry was possible. Behind the wire fence, there stood an additional number of stone blocks, similar to those used by the IOF in blocking roads or closing entrances, and similar to those placed in areas where the apartheid wall is yet to be built. The only thing visible, were the tops of building, old Hebronite houses and the tops of closed shops with the Arabic nameplate still there. The building closest to the entrance had several windows and they all had shutters that were down. Our friend told us that the settlers live there now and it is them who throw the garbage and the rocks at Palestinian pedestrians on the other side of the building. As I took some photographs, I noticed the observation camera placed in one corner and with full view of the whole street. And then, at another corner, we saw a couple of old houses that were sadly left to decay, but as we passed the corner into the next street, we could see some workers renovating part of the road. Some shops were open and people were coming and going, despite the settler houses above their heads, and the danger coming from these houses. At that moment, when asked about my thoughts, I replied that walking these streets, despite the closed houses and shops, and settler garbage above and settler racist writings on the walls accompanying us the whole way, one has a strong feeling that this city can only be Palestinian. These fanatic settlers are trying to impose realities that are not possible. Their presence is so artificial and out of place, it is bound to end one day, simply because it doesn’t fit in the picture, they have no place in Hebron. It’s like a painting of a beautiful landscape, with trees, birds and flowers, all mixing in to give the painting its uniqueness and its beauty. And then by mistake a drop of paint falls on the painting and forms a blot that destroys the whole view. It will be a long, tedious and annoying task to remove this blot from the painting without harming its other elements, but after that one is rewarded with a perfect landscape, where everything is where it belongs. The Jewish settlers are the blot on the Hebron landscape, but a blot can always be removed and life and beauty will be restored to our precious painting.

Finally, we reached the end of the street and in front of us we could see again the bustling part of Hebron. To the left, there was an upward going street, with some kind of container at its top that was blocking the view of what lay behind it. This was the entrance to Tel Rumeida. A red sign told us that we were entering an Israeli area. We were to go through the IOF check and as our friend said, we’re to say we were his personal guests. Since some time Internationals were not allowed into that neighbourhood, because much of what is going on there was coming out, in the form of film and photos. He said that they used to have regular visits from Internationals coming to show their solidarity. Also, members of the “Breaking the Silence (BTS)” used to come here and bring Israelis and Internationals and show them the reality there. Co-founded in 2004 by an Isreali soldier who served in Hebron, BTS aims at breaking the silence about the behaviour of the IOF in the Occupied Palestinian Territories and expose what they were doing there. They used to organize tours, where participants would have the chance to see the realities of life in H2 for themselves. The tours were interrupted a number of times by the Jewish settlers who attacked the participants. During one tour, the “Israeli settlers blocked the path of the bus and poured scalding water over several tour participants while the police stood by. None of the settlers were charged.”[4] After which the BTS were banned from entering Hebron by the IOF. After going through the container, with its electric devices and metal detectors, we were ordered by the army to return back. It was after our friend assured the IOF that we were friends and invited to his home for dinner that they let us in. And there we were: in Tel Rumeida.

Tel Rumeida is a neighbourhood is in the H2 area of Hebron. Here, some 600 of the most violent and fanatic of all Jewish settlers occupying Palestinian land live in the midst of the Palestinian Hebronite population, and are “protected” by around two thousand Israeli soldiers, who assist them in abusing the Palestinians. They are responsible for a reign of terror, assaulting and attacking the unarmed Palestinian population on a regular basis. While the settler men walk the Hebronite streets boasting with their machine guns and clubs, which they often put to use, settler women and children abuse Palestinians by kicking them, spitting on them and throwing stones and garbage at Palestinian women and school children. Settlers are also known to have tried to run Palestinians over with their cars, and have not only kicked Palestinian families out of their houses and occupied them, but have also destroyed Palestinian property, like doors and windows of houses and shops, cut down trees, and are known to have broken into Palestinian homes and shops and committed theft.

The first thing that came to my mind was: this is scary. In front of us we saw a typical Hebronite street with row after row of houses and shops, and Israeli flags hanging here and there. The street was completely empty and at the end of it stood the Jewish school that used to be Palestinian, the one we saw when we first entered H2. We just walked a little bit in the direction of the school but decided to turn back on the advice of our friend. We took instead a street that was going upwards, and as we walked we saw a wall with graffiti and murals, all in Hebrew, most probably painted by the settlers. On seeing some International flags drawn on the wall, I couldn’t help thinking how pathetic! They are stealing our land, our culture, our history and even our food, and now they want to imitate the international solidarity movement that draws these murals on the apartheid wall in support of the Palestinian people. As with all walls, behind it there was an Israeli tower serving as observation point. Our friend told us that Palestinian movement in this street ends with another checkpoint maybe a 100 m away from where we stood, marked by a visible stone block. Here, only Jewish settlers are allowed to drive cars, while Palestinians have to go through the checkpoints in order to enter Tel Rumeida and then carry their shopping and walk all the way to their homes.

We then went up some rocks and through a garden of some sort, walked through trees and climbed a rock here and jumped down there, until finally we reached the house of our friend. Before anything else, he showed us the marks on his house door where settlers had tried to break in, and said that he was unable to repair the iron door because the equipment needed was not allowed in Tel Rumeida, this restriction applying only to Palestinians, as with all restrictions in Hebron. Gunshot marks were also visible above the door. We then went around the house and right there, a bit elevated on a hill, were the unholy neighbours. Their position there gave them full view of the few Palestinian houses below them. Our friend pointed to one house and told us that it’s the house of the infamous Baruch Marzel, a leading right-wing politician and leader of the religious Zionist party the “Jewish National Front”, who was also head of the secretariat of the terrorist group Kach. Around us we saw the signs of living near fanatic settlers: their garbage was everywhere, one big stone block lie in the way, and nearby an old washing machine. I shivered at the thought of that stone block falling on one of the kids who were running around us as we viewed the area. Vine stems were cut in the middle and left hanging in the air to rot. From where we stood, the settler houses were high above us, with garden the trees covering the view, so we went to a narrow path where the houses stood in full view. As we started taking photos, our friend hurried us to come back, because these settlers won’t hesitate in shooting at us. There was a small piece of land there planted with olive trees, and our friend told us that he was not allowed to pluck his olives because of the settlers. One time, when he wanted to pluck the olives with a number of internationals, the settlers tried stopping them and some even stole his olives. He showed us where some stone wall stood separating his garden from the settler’s compound, which previously had been the entrance to his home, but since the settlers moved in these homes, the IOF closed the way, so he was forced to walk the way we came. On the backdoor we saw a David star and were told that it was drawn by the settlers who often come at night, walk around, make noise, turn things over, throw stones and cut off trees. Going back to the house, we passed the vine stems again and I thought: who would cut a tree like this? What did the tree do to these people? But then I remembered that these people wouldn’t hesitate to kill innocent people, so why wouldn’t they cut off a tree? Nearby was a huge olive tree, maybe a thousand years old. Many branches were cut off and it was easy to see that someone had tried cutting down the whole tree. As I commented on that, our friend pointed to a few branches that lay nearby and said that these were cut off by the settlers one night, and that the settlers had left messages telling them to leave the house.

Inside, we met the family and had dinner with them. The house was very simple and we were told about their daily life and suffering, living near such fanatics. The family as a whole can’t go out shopping or visiting relatives or friends, someone has always to stay at home, otherwise the house would be taken over by the settlers. They told us that the settlers observe them the whole time, to the extent that it happened that sometimes when they were having friends visiting, one of the settlers living nearest to them would come and threaten them in front of their guests. They showed us a number of videos filmed of settler attacks and told us that they got a video camera from B’Tselem to record all that happens to them. Their sweet little daughter told us how the settlers would attack them on their way to school, and how she herself was often hit by stones and once had her arm broken. She attends the Cordoba school, and because they are not allowed to use a section of Al-Shuhada street, closed by the IOF, the pupils and teachers had every day to take a steep dirt road and pass the settlement synagogue on their way to school and later to get home. There settler youths would be waiting for them for the ritual stoning. To help these pupils, members of the “Christian Peacemaking Team (CPT)” established a daily escort for the pupils, but this didn’t stop the settler attacks. After a couple of hours there, and as it was getting dark, we bid the family good bye and went down the road in the direction of the container checkpoint. On the way, we passed a house with green doors and some broken windows, and our friend told us that the settlers had occupied the house during a curfew, assisted by the IOF, who were secretly filmed opening the doors for the settlers with the help of the equipment used for opening locked doors. The owners and the neighbours protested taking over the house and in this case the settlers were forced to evacuate it. We walked further and at the checkpoint we bid our friend good bye, since he had to go back home before night falls and the settlers start their nightly terror.

We left Hebron, still shocked at the blatant display of hate, racism and violence by the illegal Jewish settlers, and wondered why there are still people defending the Zionist state. In recent weeks, settler violence had been on the rise, particularly in Hebron and its surroundings. Palestinian farmers have often been attacked by the settlers while farming their lands or during the olive-picking season. The presence of internationals, including aid workers and diplomats, or international observers, had not succeeded in preventing attacks, physical or verbal, from Jewish settlers. In a report titled “Justice for All”, the Isreali human rights organization Yesh Din “examined 205 cases of alleged assault by the Israeli settlers that were reported over the years. Only in 13 cases were indictments filed, while 163 cases were closed.”[5] On the way home, as we passed the stream of Palestinian towns and villages interrupted by the illegal Jewish settlements and IOF posts. The isolated settlements on top of hills, their bare houses with not a single view of tree, were a great contrast to the Palestinian towns and villages, where colours and sounds mixed. I thought of the children running the streets of Hebron, holding Palestinian flags and singing for Palestine. I thought of those shop-owners who insisted on opening their shops despite their horrific “neighbours”, and I thought of our friend and his family and all the families in the old city of Hebron, who continue to endure the suffering and harassment, but won’t leave their homes to the settlers. By the time I reached Bethlehem, a city bustling with life, I was full of hope that Hebron will one day rise and brush off these illegal settlers of its hills, plains and of its heart. One day, this city will once again be the pearl of the south.

[1] B’Tselem: Ghost Town: Israel’s Separation Policy and Forced Eviction of Palestinians from the Center of Hebron. 07
[2] B’Tselem: Ghost Town: Israel’s Separation Policy and Forced Eviction of Palestinians from the Center of Hebron. 07


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