Category Archives: Hebron

Leaving Hebron, but not quite

I left Hebron three weeks ago today, and I haven’t written anything since. Back in London I’ve been moving house, training in public speaking with EAPPI (stay tuned for details of my public talks about life in Hebron) and trying to make sense of what I’ve seen over the past three months. And I’m still trying to figure out how a city with such a reputation for violence can so thoroughly steal your heart.

But there are many more stories to tell from this divided city – I have a stack of notebooks and a head full of memories – so I’m going to start blogging again soon. Thanks to everyone for their encouragement, kind words and useful feedback so far.

With Badia Dwaik from the Hebron-based nonviolent activist group Youth Against Settlements. Hebron, August 2012. [Photo: Eero Mantymaa]



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“He’s Arab, it’s forbidden for him to be here” – an everyday tale from Hebron

A settler boy on his horse points at Badia Dwaik: “He’s an Arab.” [Credit: Mondoweiss]

The excellent Mondoweiss website recently ran a story about my friend Badia Dwaik, a Hebron activist with the nonviolence resistance group Youth Against Settlements. The story illuminates the power imbalance and racial discrimination that determine daily life in Hebron for Palestinians.

The Mondoweiss team witnessed an encounter on Hebron’s Shuhada Street – once the beating heart of Palestinian life, now a lonely strip, most of which is closed to Palestinians but open for Jewish settlers – in which a teenage settler boy riding a horse sees Badia on the street. The boy calls out to a nearby Israeli soldier, in Hebrew: “Hoo aravi, asoor lo lehiyot po.” (‘He’s Arab, it’s forbidden for him to be here.’)

In the central H2 area of Hebron, which is under Israeli military control, around 500 illegal Israeli-Jewish settlers live among 30,000 Palestinians. In the name of security, the Israeli army openly purses of policy of preventing ordinary Palestinian life in proximity to the Jewish settlements, many of which are on Shuhada Street. The result is that thousands of Palestinian businesses have closed, and hundreds of families have been forced out of the area. The policy was introduced in the mid-nineties after a Jewish settler opened fire in Hebron’s Tomb of the Patriarchs, killing 29 Palestinian Muslims and wounding 125 more during Friday prayers.

In the video, after the boy has complained to the soldiers they come and tell Badia to move back to the checkpoint at the start of the street. He stands his ground, telling the soldiers he is not breaking the military law, but eventually agrees to move.

As Mondoweiss notes,

‘The irrationality of the odd event [we] witnessed that day in Hebron was in fact the backdrop the boy emerged from, the backdrop of an utterly distorted system. A system can become so distorted that meanness itself takes over; injustice itself takes over. People are human, but if you keep them in a system that is absurd, the framework of life becomes so distorted that they cannot avoid doing harm…  This is true of all people, and all distorted systems. It has nothing to do with being a Jew, a Muslim, a Christian. The person has no channel and no outlet for fairness, for simple human back-and-forth, when the system is unjust and absurd. An unjust system backed by one-sided force is like a foolish boy on a horse. Something childish driven by something powerful.’

Despite all this, Badia says he feels sorry for the settler boy who is growing up being taught to hate. “He learns it from his parents. It does not come from his mind. It comes from the environment around him.”

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Clowning with humanity

A clown working with Psychologists for Human Rights entertains children in Hebron. [24 August, 2012.]

You could be forgiven for thinking that Hebron, reputedly the most violent city in the West Bank, is no place for a clown. But on suggesting this to a man in enormous yellow trousers in Hebron last week, I heard a very different opinion.

“For me, this is the best place to be a clown,” said Roberto, an Italian clown who, along with four brightly-dressed colleagues, had just entertained the children of Cordoba primary school in Hebron’s Old City.

“It situations where there is a lot of tension, children need…” Roberto breaks off here to make expansive hand gestures – not because he is back in clown mode, but because I’m stretching his English to its limits.

“A release?” I suggest.

“Yes!” he says. “A release.”

That was just what they got. For forty minutes, the French and Italian clowns leapt over barriers of language and culture, wordlessly whipping the children into gales of laughter with nothing more than red noses, an accordion, and a tendency to fall flat on their faces.

For children in Hebron’s Old City, which is occupied by 2,000 Israeli soldiers and 500 hardline Jewish settlers, release can’t come often enough. They grow up learning things children shouldn’t be taught: divisions, restrictions, exclusive identities, and the constant prospect of violence.

At the entrance to Cordoba school, which nearly closed a few years ago because its pupils were so afraid of routine attacks by settler children from a nearby Jewish school, pictures drawn by the students show their daily reality: soldiers, guns, separation walls and barbed wire.

Earlier this summer, settlers painted ‘Death to Arabs’ in huge letters across the outside wall of the school. The graffiti, which has since been blacked out, ruined artwork that was put there to make the school more inviting. The importance of this shouldn’t be underestimated for children who have to pass through military checkpoints and risk abuse from soldiers and settlers just to get to classes each morning.

So, what does a clown make of all this?

Roberto, who has worked in Kenya, Argentina, the Ukraine and problem towns in southern Italy, is not an ordinary clown. Having been invited to the West Bank by Psychologists for Human Rights, he and his colleagues have been entertaining children in hospitals, refugee camps, and schools. They have also been holding workshops giving Palestinian children a space to explore their emotions through humour.

Removing his red nose, Roberto is serious for a moment.

“When you are clowning,” says Roberto, “you are clowning with humanity. There are no borders, no politics, no ideologies. You are making a direct connection.”

Then he says goodbye and, with his fellow humourists, climbs into a taxi, leaving me considering one of the most hopeful, human sentiments I’ve heard since I’ve been here.

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Hebron: Microcosm of the occupation

In this guest post, my EAPPI colleague, teacher and human rights activist Jane Harries, reflects on her recent visit to Hebron

‘I try to imagine what it must be like to bring up one’s children in fear and hate.’ (Photo: Jane Harries)

In the streets of H1 – the Palestinian sector of the city of Hebron – people are preparing for the Iftar meal, which breaks the Ramadan fast. Stalls are piled high with different types of bread and trays of the sticky sweets that traditionally finish off the meal. Everywhere there is life and bustle: the cries of vendors, people hurrying home with their purchases, the sound of music and taxis.  The atmosphere is busy, warm and relaxed – almost festive.

We pass into H2 – the Israeli-controlled centre of the city – into a space that has the quality of nightmares. This was once the heart of Hebron, home to a vibrant ‘suq’ (Arabic market).  Now the area is dead,  pervaded by an atmosphere of tension and fear.  This is Shuhada Street, the main street leading through the centre of the Old City to the Tomb of the Patriarchs. It’s ‘off limits’ for Palestinians – a practically deserted street lined with closed shutters, some daubed with Stars of David, and houses whose windows are protected by wire meshing, and with graffiti that says ‘Welcome to Apartheid Street’.

Some historical context is necessary before we proceed any further down Shuhada Street. Hebron is home to the traditional burial site of the biblical Patriarchs and Matriarchs, and is therefore considered the second-holiest city in Judaism after Jerusalem. The city is also, however, venerated by Muslims for its association with Abraham (known as ‘the friend of God’ – Ibrahim al Khalil in Arabic), and was traditionally viewed as one of the ‘four holy cities of Islam’. Jews have an ongoing and significant connection to this place. It was, for instance, the capital of King David before Jerusalem.  Following the Spanish Inquisition, many Sephardic Jews emigrated to Hebron, and became well-integrated with their Muslim neighbours, learning Arab and adopting Arabic dress.

Unfortunately relationships were not always smooth, particularly following the constitutional uncertainty created by the 1917 Balfour Declaration and the rise of Zionism in the 20th century. There have been atrocities on both sides.  The events most often quoted are those of 1929 and 1994.  In 1929, following a dispute over access to the Western Wall in Jerusalem, riots broke out and 67 Jews were killed, 60 injured and homes and synagogues ransacked.  An equally shocking event took place in 1994 when Baruch Goldstein, an Israeli physician and resident of Kiryat Arba settlement outside Hebron, opened fire on Muslims at prayer in the Ibrahimi Mosque, killing 29 and wounding 125.

We are reminded of the 1929 massacre by several exhibition boards pinned to buildings as we walk down Shuhada street.  What these boards don’t tell us is that the reality is more complex than the ‘official’ version.  As well as the 67 Jews who were killed in 1929, 118 Arabs lost their lives.  Some 435 Jews also survived because of the shelter and assistance offered them by their Arab neighbours, at the risk of their own lives.  It is, however, the black-and-white version of history that is displayed on the boards.  The justification for the existence of exclusively Jewish settlements in the heart of what is otherwise a Palestinian town is that Jewish people were violently expelled and are now reclaiming their homes. Five hundred settlers living in the midst of 175,000 Palestinians, and guarded by 2,000 Israeli soldiers.  The atmosphere of fear and antagonism which this situation generates can be felt everywhere.  Not just in the ugliness of the deserted streets, the concrete walls in front of the entrance to the settlements, and the presence of armed soldiers everywhere.  It pervades everything. I try to imagine what it must be like to bring up one’s children in fear and hate.

The move to re-establish a Jewish presence in the centre of Hebron took hold in the 1960s and 70s, largely planned and financed by the Movement for Greater Israel.  At Passover in 1968, a group led by Rabbi Moshe Levinger rented the Park Hotel in Hebron, and then refused to leave.  After a considerable amount of lobbying, this led to the establishment of Kiryat Arba settlement in an abandoned military base.  In 1979, a group of women settlers led by Miriam Levinger moved into the former Hadassah Hospital in the centre of Hebron, and turned this into a bridgehead for Jewish resettlement inside the town itself.  Supporters of Jewish resettlement within Hebron see their program as the reclamation of an important heritage dating back to Biblical times, which was dispersed or – it is argued – stolen by Arabs after the massacre of 1929. Settlers in Hebron make the lives of their Palestinian neighbours unbearable through harassment and violence which is virtually unchecked by the Israeli military.  The figures speak for themselves: by 2009, 1,000 Palestinian homes in H2 were lying empty, and 1,900 businesses had been forced to close – either for economic reasons or by order of the Israeli army.

The army plays an important role in defending the no-man’s land around the settlements, controlling the local population and creating an atmosphere of fear.  Avner Gvaryahu, a former Israeli soldier and now member of campaign group Breaking the Silence, tells us how his unit received orders to ‘stir up the everyday life of the Palestinians’.  This included performing mock arrests and ‘straw widows’ (taking over Palestinian homes for strategic purposes). The ultimate aim of his unit, he says, was to ‘encourage’ Palestinians to leave H2. The soldier at the checkpoint on our way into H2 seemed to be of the same mind set. He pointed his gun at everyone, aggressively telling us to move away from where we are standing near the checkpoint observing, although he refused to tell us why. This is his patch, and he is in control. And so a microcosm of the Occupation is kept in place here.

As we walk around the Old City, we get a glimpse of how beautiful this city could be.  Since the establishment of the Hebron Rehabilitation Committee in 1996, money has been donated to renovate some of the old houses.  At the same time, the Jewish settlements in the city centre are supported by funding from abroad. And so these two peoples continue to co-exist in frozen antagonism, perpetuating feelings of victimhood.  We are not aware of any talk of conciliation or cooperation in Hebron, although we know that some of the descendants of the Jews who were expelled in 1929 don’t agree with the Israeli settlement project.

We return to our flat in H1 and an invitation to join our landlord and his family for their Iftar meal.  We are generously welcomed and included in the family circle, then sit on the balcony drinking coffee and taking in the delicate scent of jasmine flowers.  A jasmine flower falls and lands in my coffee.  ‘Magic,’ says Chris.  ‘We could use a bit of that,’ I think.

Jane Harries is currently working for EAPPI in Yanoun, West Bank. She is blogging here.

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Voices in Hebron: “They are killing us slowly each day” – Murad Amro, 23, from Hebron

Murad Amro [Photo: Eero Mantymaa, EAPPI]

Murad is 23 years old and still remembers Shuhada Street before it became a desolate strip lined with soldiers, settlements and checkpoints. He used to come here each week with his mother, he tells me. The place bustled with life. The street wasn’t just the heart of Hebron; it was the heart of the southern West Bank.

This was nearly twenty years ago. Today, the shops have been welded shut by the Israeli army, and the markets lay empty. Hundreds of Palestinian families have been forced out. Since 1994, Palestinians have been banned from driving on the street. Since 2001, they have been banned from walking on all but a short section. This is all done on behalf of the few hundred settlers living on the street, whose presence violates international law.

Silently I wonder what it’s like, looking past soldiers down the street of your childhood, where you haven’t walked in years.

Instead of the locked doors and stray dogs, the smashed windows and armed settlers – and of course the soldiers – perhaps you still see the dairy market, the leather market, the chicken market. Maybe you hear the fruit sellers greeting your mother. Maybe you still feel them rustling your hair.

Then I wonder how it feels now, when you pass through a military checkpoint onto Shuhada Street each day – that small strip still open to you – to be greeted by a soldier pointing his gun at your face.

Then Murad breaks the silence and I stop wondering. “They could shoot me and it would be okay,” he says. “But this is worse. It’s killing me slowly each day. It’s killing all of us each day.”


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Special report: Facing demolition in Hebron’s southern hills

Masked IDF soldiers raid the village of Jinba on Tuesday, August 7, 2012. Photo by B’Tselem

Recently I reported from the South Hebron Hills, one of the most rural regions of the West Bank. Most of its Palestinian residents are poor and live in temporary structures, subsisting on farming and grazing flocks. Israel’s discriminatory policies in the West Bank mean that while (illegal) Israeli settlements have unlimited running water, rural Palestinians get by on as little as 20 litres per day (the absolute minimum recommended for emergency situations). At hugely inflated prices, they buy this water from tankers often situated miles from their homes, and transport them back across rough dirt tracks. While settlers enjoy all of Israel’s public services, more than 20 percent of Palestinian communities have extremely limited access to healthcare. And while the settlements continue to expand, it’s virtually impossible for Palestinians to get permission from Israel to add new homes, farming structures or even essential solar panels to their communities.

But despite living with these deep inequalities, the Palestinian people I met in the South Hebron Hills were warm, hospitable, and passionately attached to their land.

Two weeks ago, the Israeli defense minister Ehud Barak informed eight villages in the area that they will be demolished so their land can be used for ‘military training’. The villages have a unique culture, with people many living in caves. They are home to around 1,500 people, and 10 times as many animals. The people have farmed here since the 1830s – long before Israel occupied the West Bank in 1967.

But if the demolitions go ahead, the map will no longer show the villages of Majaz, Tabban, Sfai, Fakheit, Halaweh, Mirkez, Jinba and Kharuba. Instead it will simply say  ‘Firing Zone 918’ – the term the Israeli military has given to the area.

The Israeli army has been trying to evict the villagers since 1999, when most residents in the area received eviction orders for “illegal dwelling in a firing zone”. In December that year, 700 people were evicted and Israeli forces demolished buildings, wells and confiscated property, leaving residents with no homes or livelihoods. Many later moved back to their villages after a successful court petition, though few had homes to return to.

On Tuesday this week, masked Israeli soldiers descended on one of these villages – Jinba – without warning. They photographed and mapped the cave dwellings, tents and structures, and damaged property during extensive searches and ID checks. While the army offered villagers no explanation, the raid has raised their fears that Israel is making final preparations for demolishing their homes and expelling them from the land.

Under Israel’s plans, residents will be forced to move to the nearby Palestinian town of Yatta, where unemployment is already high. The military has said residents would still have access to their farmland on weekends and Jewish holidays, when soldiers are not training. But this would hardly make up for the loss of an entire way of life.

“Farming is in our soul and in our blood,” Sara, a resident of Jinba, told my EAPPI colleagues in the South Hebron Hills. “If they take this away, we will be destroyed.”

B’Tselem, an Israeli human rights group, has argued that Israel has no legal justification to evict these villagers. “International human rights law demands a pressing military need. Training soldiers is not a pressing need. Israel can’t simply take any land it wishes on this basis,” said Sarit Michaeli, the group’s spokesperson.

Not surprisingly, having homes demolished has a disastrous impact on Palestinian families. The UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs says that demolitions drive already poor families deeper into poverty. By destroying traditional sources of livelihood, they increase welfare dependency. Children suffer especially from the psychosocial impact of such upheaval.

The villages in question are classified as part of ‘Area C’ of the West Bank, which is under Israeli control. The 150,000 Palestinians living in Area C are under  constant threat of having their homes demolished to make way for Israeli settlements and military zones. Last year, 200 homes were destroyed. At present, 3,000 demolition orders remain outstanding, including 18 Palestinian schools. Nearly two-thirds (60%) of the West Bank is considered Area C; there are growing fears that Israel is preparing to declare sovereignty over the area, removing yet more land from any potential Palestinian state.

These fears are viscerally shared by the villagers south of Hebron whose homes are slated for destruction: many are convinced Israel wants to remove them so that nearby settlements can be expanded. “We are one kilometer away from one settlement, and 700 meters from an outpost,” one resident told Haaretz. “Why aren’t they being evacuated?”


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Voices in Hebron: “I wanted to see this with my own eyes” – Noah Goldstein, 24, from Tel Aviv

Each day in Hebron brings new voices, new perspectives, new stories. This section of my blog will be an attempt to foreground these encounters.

When I meet Noah, we’ve just spent an hour watching four young Palestinian men being detained in the Islamic cemetery overlooking the Old City of Hebron. As well as the Palestinian men, I also feel for Noah, because you could say that this might not have happened if he wasn’t here today.

Noah is traveling around Israel and the West Bank for the first time. He lives in Tel Aviv, having moved to Israel from his native US last year. (When Jewish people move to Israel, it’s called making aliyah – meaning to make your ‘ascent’.) Noah – who asked me not to use his real name – is 24 years old, friendly, smart, confident, curious, and instantly likeable. He’s been interning at a high-tech company in Tel Aviv and is about to start his first permanent job. But before that, he’s doing something that many Israelis never do: seeing how Palestinians live in the West Bank.

“I think it’s important for Israelis to understand what’s happening here. I wanted to see it with my own eyes,” he says.

In the past hour, he’s had a pretty good introduction. We watched as four Palestinian men were made to sit for an hour in 33-degree heat while seven Israeli soldiers, with studied slowness, verified their identities over the phone. For whatever reason, they don’t have their Palestinian ID cards on them, which routinely creates situations like this one. As the men sat among the gravestones, one soldier paraded up and down in front of them, barking at them to stay quiet, treating them like criminals.

I can’t help thinking about the inequality between Noah and these young men sitting among the graves. Noah says he hasn’t been asked for his new Israeli passport once today. By contrast, these Palestinian men have to present their IDs whenever an Israeli soldier asks. This afternoon, Noah has been roaming around freely inside downtown Hebron. But Palestinians, especially young men, can be forced to remove their belts, bags and jackets, and present their IDs, at more than 30 military checkpoints, many times each day.

So here’s what happened before I spoke with Noah.

An hour earlier, he had been checking out a place nearby called ‘Abraham’s Well’. The well is owned by a Palestinian family, but local Jewish settlers claim it’s a holy Jewish site mentioned in the Bible. Over the past month, settler youths have been ‘renovating’ the site – something the UN considers illegal settlement expansion – which has created tensions on Tel Rumeida, a Palestinian community with a Jewish settlement planted in its heart. Recently, a Jewish man bathing at the well was hospitalised with head injuries after a Palestinian youth threw a rock. Last week, in an apparent reprisal, a group of settlers attacked two Palestinian youths near the well with gas spray and rocks, putting one in hospital.

While Noah was at the well, a group of Palestinian youths surrounded him. “It happens when you’re traveling,” he says. “People always want to see who the new guy is. They were pretty close to me and were fooling around, trying to touch me, but I wasn’t intimated –  others might have been in that situation.” Noah is well-built, like a football player. He probably doesn’t get intimidated very easily.

But when a passing Jewish woman saw the group surrounding Noah, she deduced that Palestinians were harassing a Jewish man. She called the Israeli military, who are based minutes away and constantly patrol the area. By the time seven soldiers arrived, Noah was drinking cola and chatting with four of the young men. All entirely peaceful. But when the soldiers found the Palestinian men were not carrying ID, they detained them, and the ugly scene described above unfolded.

After the Palestinian men’s identities have finally been confirmed, and they walk away rolling their eyes, I ask Noah what he thinks about the treatment they’ve just received from the soldiers.

“I think it’s very sad,” he says. “I wish people could all live together peacefully here. But I know why these checkpoints are here. It’s necessary for security. And I understand why these soldiers behave the way they do.”

He continues, “Ten years ago they were dealing with suicide bombers. That’s still deeply rooted in their consciousness. It’s where they’re coming from. I know these soldiers are young and didn’t experience it themselves. But it’s in their institutional memory, you could say.”

That’s probably true. What it excuses, I don’t know. But I thank Noah for taking the time to speak with me. We swap details and he tells me to look him up if I’m in Tel Aviv. Then he starts down the hill, picking through the white tombstones catching the dying sunlight, towards the buses bound for Jerusalem.


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