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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‘What Israeli students aren’t being taught’ – video

On the same day that Israel’s education minister visits Hebron, an Israeli officer is filmed breaking a Palestinian youth’s nose

Speaking with Israeli soldiers on the streets in Hebron, we often get asked: “Why do you [meaning observers, journalists, etc] only show us hitting Palestinians? Why don’t you show what happens before we hit them?”

This video, filmed yesterday (25.7.12) by B’Tselem volunteer Zidan Sharabati, shows what happens before, during and after an Israeli border police officer headbutts a Palestinian youth, breaking his nose.

As the Israeli ex-soldiers group Breaking the Silence pointed out on their Facebook account, the incident took place on the same day that Israel’s education minister Gideon Sa’ar took members of his ministry on a tour of Hebron. “Sadly this is not something Mr Sa’ar will teach Israeli students about,” the group said.

The group were referring to the controversial “Ascending to Hebron” tour programme, which since its launch in February 2011 has taken 3,000 Israeli students on tours of Jewish settlements and holy sites in Hebron. The tours gloss over the strife of thousands of Palestinians living under military occupation in the ancient city.

Last last week, Breaking the Silence – who expose the realities of Israeli military presence in Palestinian territories – were due to take a group of Jerusalem high school students around Hebron, but the trip was cancelled by Israeli police.

So that’s the background. The video shows an Israeli soldier detaining some Palestinian youths at a checkpoint on Shuhada Street in Hebron’s H2 area, which is under Israeli military control. After the soldier asks them for ID, 17-year-old Thair Ghanam is seen arguing with the soldier, who grabs his arms. The youths were then ordered to wait against a wall.

A border police officer arrives at the scene and pushes Ghanam. Later, Ghanam told B’Tselem he tried to push the officer off him, which is partially obscured in the footage.

The video then shows the officer holding the youth, forcibly taking him up the street, then head-butting him. The officer is seen continuing to assaut Ghanam. Releasing him, he then follows him up the road. Finally, the film shows Ghanam, blindfolded with hands tied, being led down the street and into a military vehicle.

Ghanam was taken to the military base on Shuhada Street and released shortly after. Following his release, Ghanam went to a hospital in Hebron, where the doctors diagnosed a broken nose. B’Tselem reported the incident to the IDF spokesperson’s office and the Military Police Investigative Division.

Palestinians living in H2 are still recovering from life under the Golani brigade, a notorious Israeli military unit that regularly abused the local population with no observed provocation earlier this year.

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Paying the price… for what?

Broken olive trees in the southern Hebron hills, 24 July 2012. Settler violence against Palestinians and their property has risen by 150% each year since 2008.

There’s a phrase that’s become common parlance among a number of extremist Jewish settlers in the West Bank. It gets sprayed on mosques, schools and homes following acts of violence and vandalism against Palestinians: “Price tag.”

The slogan has been adopted by settlers who’ve vowed to avenge any removal of illegal settlements by the Israeli government.

Today it was sprayed on a rock above a Palestinian-owned orchard close to the Jewish settlements of Avigayll and Ma’on, in the remote southern Hebron hills. Sprawled out below, their limbs snapped and twisted into the sky, were 44 vandalised olive trees.

“Price tag – for what? For forty years of occupation? It makes no sense,” says Abed NaMohammad, who lives in the nearby village of Yatta.

‘Price tag’ attacks cost Palestinians dearly. In recent years the campaign has seen mosques burned, property destroyed and communities intimidated with hateful graffiti. In some cases, the violence is so intense that Palestinians are forced to leave their homes and move towards larger urban areas of the West Bank for safety.

But for settlers, the campaign comes with almost no price tag whatsoever.

‘Price tag’ graffiti, southern Hebron hills, 24 July 2012.

This month the UN reported that the number of attacks by Israeli settlers against Palestinians and their property has risen by about 150 percent each year since 2008, with 154 attacks in the first half of this year alone.

At a press conference organized by UNICEF, the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights, the Ecumenical Accompaniment Programme in Palestine and Israel ‏(EAPPI‏), and the human rights groups B’Tselem and Al-Haq, international journalists were told that the Israeli authorities are failing to respond to mounting settler violence against Palestinians.

Over 90% of complaints regarding settler violence monitored by the UN in recent years have been closed without indictment.

According to Nasser a-Nawaj’a, who lives in the nearby village of Susiya, the two men who own the wrecked olive trees are unlikely to bother raising a complaint with the Israeli authorities, because they know nothing will come of it.

As Leah Levane, my EAPPI colleague and a board member of Jews for Justice for Palestinians, put it as she looked at the rows of broken trees: “It doesn’t matter what the Bible says about your right to the land. There’s no excuse for this.”

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Israeli surrealism: ‘This is not an occupation’

Hazem Abu Rajab outside his house in Hebron, July 2012. [Photo: Eero Mäntymaa]

The art of surrealism involves mastering the element of surprise, the jarring juxtaposition, and the perfect non sequitur. This week, a judiciary panel appointed by the Israeli government proved themselves to be gifted surrealists: boldly breaking with decades of legal consensus to the contrary, the panel concluded that Israel is in fact not occupying the West Bank.

One of its arguments, in a nutshell, is that occupations only last for short periods. Because Israel has been ‘a presence’ (or, in the language of unanimously-approved UN resolutions, ‘an occupier’) in the West Bank for over four decades, the situation no longer qualifies as occupation.

Try telling that to Hazem Abu Rajab, who shares his Hebron home with the Israeli border police. Since March this year, the Rajab family – nine in total, including Hazem’s parents – have had armed police occupying two-thirds of their house. Two of them sit outside the front door around the clock, while another mans the roof – on which flies an Israeli flag.

That would be enough to make anyone’s life miserable. When I visited Hazem last week – along with my EAPPI colleagues – he told me that the border police routinely pretend they do not know his family members, making them wait up to 20 minutes while they ‘confirm’ their identities before allowing them into the house.

But this is not an occupation, of course. It’s essential to remember that.

The Rajab family are in this situation because Israeli-Jewish settlers broke into their home in March this year, claiming to have purchased it from a Palestinian man – a claim the Rajab family flatly reject. Hazem told the Guardian how his family were woken at 1am by Israeli soldiers, armed and wearing black, who broke down three doors. “Within five minutes, 100 to 150 settlers were inside,” he said.

The settlers have since been evicted, but their claim has led the Israeli authorities to classify the property – which has been in the Rajab family for generations – as ‘disputed’.

“It’s going to take forever,” says Hamed Qawasmeh, a UN human rights officer. “It’s always like this. Once a home is ‘disputed’, no one can move into it.”

Hazem has spent the last seven years converting the basement of the house into an apartment, so that he can get married and live there with his wife. He works as a labourer, on low wages, and had painstakingly laid the foundations for the next phase of his life.

Now, Hazem and his family are trapped in limbo while the case makes its glacial way through the Israeli courts. His basement apartment was welded shut by the settlers when they moved in, and remains so.

Meanwhile, Hazem says, the border police humiliate his family in dozens of ways on an almost daily basis. He tells me the guards urinate in front of his female family members, swear loudly and play music, and make the Rajab family keep their windows closed on hot summer days.

“Each one of them is a government on his own,” says Hazem.

But this is not an occupation. Remember that. This is not an occupation.

By Yoval Ben Ami

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Whatever you say about Hebron, say nothing

Palestinian girls behind the segregation barrier on Al-Sahle Street in Hebron. Israeli settlers can walk and drive on the main section; Palestinians can only walk behind the barrier. The graffiti, commonly seen around the city, is a stencil by Israeli settlers. [July 2012]

When the Troubles were raging in Northern Ireland, Seamus Heaney’s famous 1975 poem ‘Whatever you say, say nothing’ served as a warning to visitors: don’t presume you understand what’s going on here. Before you speak, listen.

For the past 10 days, since arriving in Hebron, this advice has echoed in my head.

Hebron, an infamous Palestinian city in the Israeli-occupied West Bank, has seen more violence than most places in Israel/Palestine over the past century. Since 1997, following the second intifada, it has been divided into two parts: one under Palestinian authority, the other under Israeli military rule. The military controls the Old City, once Hebron’s thriving commercial centre. And this is where you find the defining feature of Hebron: the presence of 600 Israeli-Jewish settlers, living among the Palestinian population and protected by a large military presence.

There are three things to note upfront about this particular settler community. One, their presence here is illegal under international law, which states that occupying powers must not transfer their civilian population into occupied territory. (Israel has occupied the Palestinian territories of Gaza and the West Bank since 1967.) Israel disputes this, but from the perspective of practically everyone else concerned, each Israeli flag fluttering on a Palestinian home is a belligerent act.

The second is that the Hebron settlers are notorious for cruel, grinding aggression towards the local Palestinian population. This has included physical assaults, vandalism, and hurling garbage, chlorine, empty bottles and verbal abuse. The Israeli human rights group B’Tselem has noted that Israeli soldiers rarely do anything to stop such attacks.

The third is that the Israeli military have secured the settlers’ presence in central Hebron by pushing Palestinians out: each settlement is surrounded by closed shops and empty Palestinian homes, creating what perfectly fits the description of a ghost town.

So there’s plenty to say – but at the same time, nothing to say right now.

After all, what can you say about Palestinian children who have nowhere to play; who run around barefoot on broken streets peppered with broken glass, while Jewish children tumble around on cordoned-off grass nearby? What can you say when those Palestinian children – already highly vulnerable to settler attacks – are brutally kicked on the street by Israeli border police? Or when you see, as I did yesterday, one of those policemen casually pointing his machine gun at a child as they arrive at the mosque for Friday prayers?

What can you say about streets that are open to Israeli settlers – and foreigners like me – but closed to Palestinians? Or the hundreds of Palestinian shops welded shut and sprayed with the Star of David?

And what can you say after you’ve reminded yourself that the settler population, too often lazily caricatured as psychotic, have their own human reality too? One leading  figure among them, Anat Cohen, has been documented abusing Palestinians and starting fighting with internationals – including one of my colleagues. In May 2001, her brother, Gilad Zar, was ambushed and shot dead by Palestinians. That excuses nothing; but it’s her reality, and needs respecting, especially when you’re looking from the outside in.

So at this point, I’m saying nothing. But something I heard last week has stayed with me since, so I’ll share that instead.

On Shuhada Street – once the beating heart of Palestinian Hebron – I met a Canadian Jewish man who was leading a group of North American Jewish students around Israel, introducing them to Israelis from across the political spectrum. I asked him what he thought about the situation in Hebron.

“Honestly? I think there should be a Jewish community here. We have a connection to the city that dates back 3,800 years.”

Then he stopped. Looking at the boarded-up Palestinian shops, the racist graffiti on the walls, the Israeli soldier next to us fingering his gun, and the lone Palestinian child watching us all nervously nearby, he added: “But I’m not sure it’s worth this.”

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