Sarah Lazare reports from Hebron/Al Khalil in the southern West Bank, where Palestinian and Israeli anti-occupation organizers take her on a chilling tour of the Israeli military occupation, Israeli settler harassment and apartheid-style separation driving Palestinians from this city.
Nineteen-year-old Palestinian Sundus Azza cannot leave her family home, or the Sumoud and Challenge Center it is attached to, without making sure there is someone else there, because if she does, she might come home to find Israeli settlers living there.
So far, settlers have attacked her house and the center with spray paint, fire, rocks, eggs, and filthy water, cut the water pipes, and recently built a large wooden swinging chair sporting an Israeli flag in the middle of the garden in the backyard. A month ago, settlers brought dogs to attack Palestinian children playing in a field by Azza's home, and five months ago, a settler attempted to run over her 15-year-old brother with a minibus.
"They are trying to make us leave," explained the cheerful teenager as she pointed to the place on the outer wall near the front door where the fire scorched a black path. "To be here is a form of resistance."
My two colleagues and I were sitting in front of her home and the center, which rest on a hilltop in Hebron/Al Khalil's Israeli-controlled district, overlooking this Southern West Bank Palestinian city that has become ground zero for an ethnic cleansing campaign waged by settlers with the complicity of the Israeli army. My colleagues and I had just finished a chilling tour of the city's apartheid systems with former Israeli soldiers and the anti-occupation organization Breaking the Silence. As a cool breeze rolled past, Azza explained that this stunning view - checkered with pale buildings climbing a rolling landscape of olive trees and gray stones - is the scene of unspeakable violence.
"We want people to know the truth," she said. "We hope people will come see with their own eyes."
Geographies of Separation and Displacement
Hebron is the largest Palestinian city in the West Bank and an important center of trade, accounting for an estimated one third of the West Bank's GDP. Since the 1967 war, Israeli settlers, backed by Israeli soldiers, have divided in two this city of almost 200,000 Palestinians and transformed its central quarters into a prison laced with ghost streets. The settlement has been declared illegal under international law, yet the Israeli state continues to dispatch approximately 1,500 soldiers at any given time to protect and reinforce the settlers' presence.
Hebron's settlers, many of whom were born in the United States, say they are reclaiming land stolen in a 1929 massacre of 67 Hebron Jews. They leave out the fact that over 400 Jews were protected by Palestinian neighbors, who hid them in their homes and helped them survive the horrific 1929 murders.
Settler displacement of Hebron's Palestinians violently erupted in 1994 when US-born Israeli settler Baruch Goldstein opened fire at Muslims praying at Abraham's tomb, killing 29 and wounding 125. In response to the massacre, the Israeli army imposed a curfew on the Palestinian population, shut down centers of commerce, evicted residents, and in the following years, divided the city into H1, controlled by the Palestinian Authority, and H2, controlled by the Israeli military. Settlers built a memorial park for Goldstein, which attracts thousands of visitors, and settlers hold ceremonies in his memory.
Today, between 400 and 800 settlers and approximately 30,000 Palestinians in the H2 area live literally on top of each other, but mazes of Israeli-only roads, concrete barriers blocking Palestinian movement and literal cages surrounding Palestinian houses prevent these populations from coming into contact with each other. Local activists explained that many settlers do not live here permanently, but stay in shifts to maximize the displacement of Palestinians.
When visible and invisible dividing lines are breached by settlers who attack children at school, throw objects from their homes into the Palestinian market, invade houses and scrawl threats of extermination on the walls of Palestinian homes, soldiers seldom intervene to stop the violence. Rather, the soldiers punish Palestinians, not the settlers who levy these attacks: Palestinians face strict curfews, restrictions on their movement and excessive violence from soldiers responding to alleged security threats. Twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week, Israeli soldiers patrol H2, and cameras perched in the streets remind Palestinians that they are always being watched. Youth in Hebron are subject to arrest and detention at the hands of Israeli soldiers. In late March, 30 children from Hebron were violently arrested from school and detained by Israeli soldiers on suspicion of throwing stones; part of the arrest was captured on video.
The systematic harassment has emptied the H2 district of Palestinians: a 2006 survey by Israeli human rights organization B'Tselem found 41.9 percent of all housing units and 76.6 percent of all businesses had been vacated.
I first visited this city four years ago, and coming back was like returning to a bad dream. While the Israeli military occupation of Palestine is increasingly recognized across the world, there is nothing like a visit to Hebron to unearth the sinister reality that is woven into this state violence: racial and ethnic hatred, rooted in claims of white, Jewish supremacy, aimed towards the displacement, and even murder, of Palestinians. Apartheid between people whose geographical lives are entangled, who live above, below, and among each other yet maintain a strict separation which strangles the life out of the city. All backed by the Israeli state, under the guise of protecting security.
The fact that histories of violence against Jews, like the 1929 massacre, are used to justify ethnic cleansing of Palestinians is bitterly sad. Hebron is a testament to the tragedies that multiply and compound when colonial land grabs and military force are looked to as solutions to social traumas.
There is not any exact historical comparison for what is happening today in Hebron, but walking around the H2 district of this city, and listening to the stories of local Palestinians like Azza, my US-based colleagues and I were reminded of tactics employed by the Ku Klux Klan, including cross burnings, to terrorize African-Americans as well as Jews, immigrants and many others in the US South. While this is an imperfect analogy, we nonetheless found ourselves returning to it throughout our visit as we learned of acts of intimidation and violence against the Palestinian population.
Walking Hebron's Ghost Streets
Graffiti messages are scrawled on Palestinian homes and former shops throughout the H2 district, declaring "Kill All Arabs" and "Exterminate the Muslims." We passed by a rusted, welded-shut door to a Palestinian shop that contains chilling words in black spray paint: "Gas the Arabs," signed by the Jewish Defense League. A nearby plaque declares, "This land was stolen by Arabs" and is signed, "The Jewish Community of Hebron." Use of the word "Arabs" not only denies the national identity of Palestinians, but also the existence of the vast numbers of Arab Jews.
We were on an earlier tour of H2 with Avner Gvaryahu, a Breaking the Silence staff member and former Israeli army paratrooper who now takes people to see the city that he calls "a microcosm of the Israeli occupation." Gvaryahu brought us to a school buzzing with Palestinian children getting out of class, explaining that this has been the site of repeated attacks from settlers. Later, Azza told of settlers who wait for children to get out of school, then attack them with rocks while soldiers stand by. "My parents told me that if you see a settler, don't say anything, just try to be far away," she explained.
The once-bustling commercial thoroughfare Shuhada Street, which runs through H2, is now a ghost road, its Palestinian shops welded shut after the army closed down this street to "protect security" following the Goldstein massacre. A handful of Palestinian families still live on this street, but are not allowed to access the road, which is deemed Israeli-only, and so they must enter and exit their homes by forging paths that take them over rooftops, through windows and even scampering down ropes. As we walked this street, we saw windows covered in cages, which were erected to protect the families living there from stones thrown by settlers.
"It is really hard to live here. I can't move freely," Azza told us, explaining that someday she hopes to move to the H1 area. "Shuhada Street is closed. It takes a long time to go anywhere."
Streets in H2 have Palestinian-only designated sides of the road, and we passed one house that is almost completely covered in mesh caging: it seems an impossible edifice to enter or exit. "A Palestinian family is currently living there," explained Gvaryahu.
As we walked past a Muslim cemetery, we saw a squad of soldiers on patrol through the streets, in green Israeli army uniforms, wielding M4 rifles. Gvaryahu explained that his friend, a former Israeli soldier who was deployed to Hebron during the second intifada, was instructed to respond to reports of fire from Palestinian neighborhoods near the cemetery by shooting an M19 grenade launcher into those residential areas. Instead, he repeatedly shot grenades into the cemetery in hopes he would not kill anyone.
"The purpose of the army here is to make its presence felt," explained Gvaryahu, who was briefly deployed to Hebron to conduct training exercises on Palestinians' rooftops.
Sixteen-year-old Palestinian Hebron resident Gustan, who requested his last name not be used, took us to the Palestinian market in H2, which lies just below settler apartments. The market was covered with a screen to protect people passing beneath from objects thrown down by settlers, many of those objects now caught in the mesh: rocks, garbage and even a giant concrete slab that must have weighed 75 to 100 pounds. "The person who threw that was trying to kill someone," says Gustan, pointing to where the slab had broken through some of the screen, its corner dangling over the market.
"People are sick with hate," declared a Palestinian woman with the Women in Hebron, a Palestinian women's embroidery collaborative.
The Light of Resistance
Yet, if Hebron illustrates the horrors of the occupation, it also illuminates promising resistance. Sitting in her front yard, Azza told us of her organizing with Youth Against Settlements, a Hebron-based Palestinian nonpartisan group that organizes against Israeli colonization, including regular protests and candlelight rallies calling for freedom of movement. Since 2010, this organization has led international days of action each February 25 to call attention to the Israeli state shutdown of Shuhada Street. In past years, solidarity activists from Johannesburg, South Africa, to San Francisco, California, have shut down major thoroughfares in their respective cities in solidarity with Palestinians in Hebron.
On the 2010 day of action, over 200 Palestinian organizers and dozens of Israelis were met with tear gas and stun grenades when they attempted to walk down Shuhada Street. During President Obama's late March visit to Israel/Palestine, Palestinian children and international activists donned President Obama masks and T-shirts that read "I have a dream" and attempted to walk down Shuhada Street. They were instantly encircled by Israeli soldiers, and an unconfirmed number were detained.
As we sat in front of her home at the conclusion of the tour, Azza, who plans to study at a university in a nearby West Bank village next year, explained that, in addition to these organized mobilizations, simply living one's life, spending time with family, going to work and studying under these conditions are acts of resistance.
"It is often the women, who stay at home during the day, who protect the house from settlers," she noted. In H2, Palestinian women carry a large part of the resistance that is often unseen, at the front lines of protecting the home, making life livable, and surviving the webs of walls, cages and restricted streets that make them prisoners in their own neighborhoods.
After Azza showed us around the Sumoud and Challenge Center, my colleagues and I decided that, following the long day of taking in Hebron, it was time for a meal. We invited Azza to join us for felafel sandwiches, but she politely declined.
"I have to stay here," she explained matter-of-factly. "Everyone else is gone, and there would be no one to watch the house."