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Life Under Siege

Life Under Siege

“The Israeli soldiers ask for my papers. I am turned away at the security point that blocks off Shuhada Street, which is open to the Israeli Jews and foreign visitors, but closed to the Palestinians. I do not have my US passport on me.”

Hebron map

A cement divider and an Israeli security checkpoint segregate Shuhada Street, the link between the northern and southern parts of Hebron. Shuhada Street is also the walkway leading to the 1,000-year-old al-Haram al-Ibrahimi Mosque, also known as the Tomb of the Patriarchs — the resting place of prophets Ibrahim (Abraham), Ishaq (Isaac), Yakoob (Jacob), and their wives, and a place of religious significance to Muslims, Jews, and Christians.

The Israeli soldiers ask for my papers. I am turned away at the security point that blocks off Shuhada Street, which is open to the Israeli Jews and foreign visitors, but closed to the Palestinians. I do not have my US passport on me.

Denied entry, I embark on the journey that Palestinian residents, including children, go through each day to get to their homes and lives — using backdoors and stairways, climbing roofs of neighboring houses, walking through garbage dumps, burnt and dilapidated buildings, and more.

The former lively bustle of Shuhada Street, which was once Hebron’s main commercial strip and home to the wholesale, gold, and vegetable market, has drowned behind the green shutters of the boarded up shops, abandoned homes, and empty sidewalks.

“Open Shuhada (Apartheid) Street,” defiantly spray painted in black on the cement divider, is in the face of the Israeli soldiers — young men in uniform with automatic rifles — watching all who approach.

Hebron, or al-Khalil in Arabic, is the largest city in the West Bank and the only city in the Occupied Palestinian Territory apart from Jerusalem with illegal settlements inside the city. The first Israeli settlement, Kiryat Arba, was founded in the eastern outskirts of Hebron in 1968. The settlers then moved into the city’s ancient center when a group of women and children from Kiryat Arba established the Beit Hadassah settlement in the Old City in 1979. In 1980, after six hesder yeshiva students were killed in front of the settlement, the building was renovated and expanded with support from the Israeli government. Today, an estimated 500-800 settlers live in four settlements in the city center — Avraham Avinu, Beit Romano, Beit Hadassah, and Tel Rumeida, — all in violation of international law. Another 7,000 settlers live in Kiryat Arba. Beit Ha Shalom or the Rajabi House, a four-storey apartment building and the fifth settlement within Hebron’s municipality boundaries, was established in 2014.

Road closure in the Old City. Credit: The Oakland Institute
Road closure in the Old City. Credit: The Oakland Institute

Collective Punishment for the Victims

Collective Punishment for the Victims

In 1994, riots erupted in Hebron after an American Jewish settler killed 29 Palestinians in a massacre at the Ibrahimi Mosque. Eleven Palestinians were killed by Israeli soldiers in the ensuing chaos. In the aftermath of the riots, the doors of Palestinian homes and shops on Shuhada Street were welded shut by the Israel Defense Forces (IDF). 520 businesses were ordered closed overnight. The Ibrahimi Mosque was divided in two, with Israeli settlers and Jewish visitors granted exclusive access to more than half of the historic and significant building.

The Israeli soldiers ask for my papers. I am turned away at the security point that blocks off Shuhada Street, which is open to the Israeli Jews and foreign visitors, but closed to the Palestinians. I do not have my US passport on me.

The horrific act of a Jewish settler turned into collective punishment for the Palestinian residents of the Old City.

In 2000, the second Intifada brought more stringent restrictions, including military checkpoints, continuous curfews, and the closure of the main streets. Palestinians were prohibited from driving along the entire length of Shuhada Street, walking between the Avraham Avinu and the Beit Hadassah settlement compounds, or using adjacent streets, resulting in the closure of 304 shops, warehouses, and the relocation of Palestinian municipal and governmental offices that had been on the street. The central bus station on the street was turned into an army base.

During the first three years of the Intifada, the local residents faced curfew for more than 377 days — with short breaks on only 182 of these days for them to obtain essential goods. In 2002, Shuhada Street was completely fenced off by the Israeli army.

In 1997, under the Hebron Protocol — an agreement between Israel and the late Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat — Hebron was divided into two areas. H1 was placed under Palestinian Authority control and H2 — 20 percent of the city — under Israeli control. 

The Old City center — which includes the Casbah, four Israeli settlements, Shuhada Street, and the Ibrahimi Mosque, and has a population of some 7,000 Palestinians, between 500 and 800 settlers, and around 1,500 Israeli soldiers — is in the H2 area and came under Israeli control. Severe restrictions in the H2 area have forced thousands of Palestinians out of their homes and livelihoods. Twenty-one Israeli military orders forcibly transferred dozens of families from the Old City — around 6,000 individuals in total. The United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) reported a third of Palestinian homes in the restricted area (1,105 housing units) abandoned in 2015 and an estimated 1,600 businesses closed — 500 commercial establishments were shut down by military order and the rest closed by the owners due to closures and restricted access.

Currently over 100 physical obstacles, including 18 permanently-staffed checkpoints, 14 partial checkpoints, and various permanent blockades, cut the Old City off from the rest of Hebron. Several streets, designated for the exclusive use of settlers, restrict Palestinian traffic and, in some streets, even Palestinian pedestrians are banned. In 2016, two checkpoints for magnetometric identification, with revolving gates, cameras, and separation chambers between soldiers and the passersby were added in the neighborhood of Tel Rumeida, worsening the everyday ordeal of some 1,200 residents.

“Since November 2015, Tel Rumeida neighborhood and Al Shuhada Street, where approximately 2,000 Palestinians live, have been declared a closed military area. Only Palestinian residents of the two areas who were registered with the army and allocated a number hand written on the cover of their IDs are allowed through the two checkpoints (Bab Az Zawiya and Gilbert) which control access to their homes. One of these checkpoints (checkpoint 56 or Bab Az Zawiya), located on the main access point to this area from H1, was turned into a multilayered ‘fortress’ with high metal fences and doors, automated metal turnstiles, metal detectors and a military lookout point. During religious celebrations by Israeli settlers and their visitors, the area is hermetically sealed off to Palestinians, leaving some locked in their homes and others unable to return home on time.”

Security checkpoint at the Ibrahimi Mosque. Credit: The Oakland Institute

Security checkpoint at the Ibrahimi Mosque. Credit: The Oakland Institute

Nonviolent Resistance: The Hebron Rehabilitation Committee

Nonviolent Resistance: The Hebron Rehabilitation Committee

Emad Hamdan used to reside in the United States. In the 1990s, however, his desire to give to his people led him to move to Hebron to work at the Hebron Rehabilitation Committee (HRC), an organization formed as the city was being divided into H1 and H2. HRC’s vision is to maintain Arab and Islamic identity in Hebron’s Old City — an area dotted with ancient buildings and steeped with history, which is firmly planted in the heart of the Israeli-controlled H2.

Twenty-one years later, Hamdan is the Director General of HRC.

At its core, HRC rehabilitates and maintains Hebron’s most historic buildings, like the Ibrahimi Mosque. But the impact, philosophy, and politics of its actions go much further.

At the time of Hebron’s division, under the shadows of watchtowers, checkpoints, and strict military rule, the Palestinian population of the Old City dropped dramatically. In 1996, only 400 Palestinian residents were left. In this context, HRC became not just about renovating and rehabilitating historic buildings in the Old City, but making them available for low-to-no cost housing for Palestinians willing to return.

We got them [the settlers] out of several homes by showing that they were occupying homes illegally.… When we win, we have to pay to use the IDF soldiers for eviction.

Emad Hamdan

Given that housing alone is not always enough to encourage resettlement, HRC also ensures that Palestinian residents have access to key infrastructure, such as sewage, electricity, drinking water, road and fire networks, as well as schools, libraries, and playgrounds. It provides services like fire extinguishers, window protection, medicine kits, and a phone number to call in case of an attack. HRC reports such attacks, brings international attention to this violence, visits families of victims, and registers the names of attackers.

HRC also works to revitalize the local economy, by preserving markets, supporting tourism development, and training and creating job opportunities for engineers and others interested in restoration and rehabilitation work. Taken together, these projects demonstrate how the work of HRC “encompass[es] all aspects of life in the Old City to ensure decent and secure life for its citizens.” And it is working.

In 2016 over 7,000 Palestinian residents were back, residing in Hebron.

However, this work is not easy as HRC operates under innumerable constraints. During the rehabilitation of the Ibrahimi Mosque, for instance, the use of transportation vehicles was prohibited, causing HRC to use horses and donkeys instead. Additionally, only seven workers were allowed to participate to the renovation of the 200-year-old shrine.

Wire mesh above homes and shops. Credit: The Oakland Institute

Although ensuring access to sewage systems may not seem political at first sight, revitalizing Palestinian culture and re-populating the Old City is indeed an act of resistance. In HRC’s early days, its rehabilitation projects focused on restoring the buildings right next to five Israeli settlements, specifically to prevent the settlements’ expansion. Likewise, in the face of numerous challenges — including stop-work orders, trouble with permits, Palestinian workers being arrested, and more — HRC created a legal unit to challenge military orders, document attacks by the Israeli army on Palestinian citizens and property, increase awareness of legal actions available to Palestinians, and work with international legal mechanisms to enhance the struggle against the occupation.

“My hope is not to see any settlers in Hebron,” Emad Hamdan tells the research team. “We are working hard, but they are working harder. They have their government, but we have no support, even though HRC was created by a Palestinian Presidential decree. International funding is declining. Our work grows as we challenge the illegal takeover of Palestinian homes in Hebron. We got them [the settlers] out of several homes by showing that they were occupying homes illegally. When we get a decision after years, we are told that the residents have changed and we have to start again. This is a slow process as the court says that there are too many cases. When we win, we have to pay to use the IDF soldiers for eviction.”

Issa Amro. Credit: The Oakland Institute

Issa Amro. Credit: The Oakland Institute

The Struggle Will Not Be Silenced

The Struggle Will Not Be Silenced

On July 9, 2017, the trial of Issa Amro began in Israel’s military court. Issa is a Palestinian activist who was recognized as a “human rights defender of the year in Palestine” by the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights in 2010. He faces 18 charges that go back as far as 2010. Many of the charges are for what would be considered exercising free speech in the US, like “participating in a march without a permit.” One indictment is for leading a group of protestors wearing a mask of President Obama and shirts imprinted with “I have a dream.”

As a Palestinian, Issa is deemed guilty under Israeli military law and needs to prove his innocence. All of the witnesses for the prosecution are settlers and soldiers and the judge and prosecutor are military officers. The conviction rate in Israeli military courts is 99.74 percent.

Issa is the cofounder of Youth Against Settlements, an organization devoted to ending Israel's occupation of the Palestinian Territory through nonviolent action.

“Israel knows the power of nonviolent action to create change and that is why they are trying to put me in prison. They can win against violence — but they have no power to stop a nonviolent struggle against which no pistol or gun works.

I was born into occupation and have lived my entire life without freedom. I was in my last year of college at an engineering college in Hebron — interested in my studies and soccer — when the Israeli army closed down the campus. In a moment, I lost my degree and all opportunities. So I read about Gandhi, Martin Luther King Jr., the civil rights movement, and Mandela. I decided to work with the youth and use nonviolence as a tactic. It is the only method to be used — so even after the occupation is over, we will still be strong.”

Each year, on February 25, Youth Against Settlements organizes the Open Shuhada Street Campaign in Hebron and around the world, in commemoration of the anniversary of the Ibrahimi massacre. After a week of family friendly activities, the campaign culminates in a march that attempts to go down Shuhada Street. In 2017, the international campaign targeted the Hebron Fund, a New York-based tax-exempt charity, which raises funds for Israeli settlers in Hebron, as well as Goldman Sachs, for funneling money to the fund.

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Youth Against Settlements is also working to preserve the Palestinian identity and culture of the Old City as the Israeli settlers attempt to obliterate Palestinian language and presence by changing the names of streets from Arabic to Hebrew and even mounting Hebrew street signs illegally on Palestinian homes and shops. The signs are installed without approval from the Hebron municipality or the Israeli military.

In response to one of the most offensive signs — a banner on Shuhada Street that read “Palestine Never Existed (and never will)” — Youth Against Settlements dropped their own banner from a balcony overlooking Shuhada Street. It read, “This is Palestine. Welcome to Apartheid Street.” This type of nonviolent action is emblematic of Youth Against Settlements and its efforts for justice.

While being persecuted by Israel, Issa was arrested by the Palestinian Authority Security forces on September 4, 2017, for criticizing the arrest of a Palestinian journalist, Ayman Qawasmi, on Facebook. His post read: “Yes to freedom of opinion and expression. We are living in a quasi-state, and it must respect the freedom of opinion and expression, that's what its international commitments require. It must defend freedom of opinion and expression.”

After a week enduring beatings in a Palestinian Authority detention center, and after launching a hunger strike to protest his detainment, Issa was released on bail. During his detention, no family, media, and international diplomats, were allowed inside his court hearing. His military trial starts again in October 2017.

Looming above the Old City is the Ibrahimi Mosque. Amidst the presence of Israeli soldiers, security vehicles, and security checks is the clamor of young boys aged five- to nine-years-old hawking souvenirs and competing for customers. A young Palestinian boy is selling wristbands. He looks at me directly. His hand extends forward with a band printed with the words. “Free Palestine.”