Letters from Palestine: Settlers, Stories and Stones

November 12, 2014 § Leave a comment

The photos in this blog were taken by myself and my colleagues in the course of our work in Hebron. The views in this blog are my own and do not necessarily represent the views of British Quakers, EAPPI or the World Council of Churches.

“Just so you know, I completely disagree with everything that is happening in the West Bank. I never go there and I want it to end.” I was staying in Israel and meeting with members of the Reform Jewish community when someone told me what they thought about the occupation.

As you know, the West Bank has been occupied by the Israeli military since 1967. There is little sign of this occupation ending, and, meanwhile, the basic human rights of the local Palestinian population are being systematically undermined. Alongside the disturbing impact of the occupation on human rights, Israel continues to build new towns and villages that are closed to Palestinians – known as ‘settlements’ – across the West Bank, confiscating land from local communities, often with devastating impacts on the lives of those who live around them. The expansion of the settlements in the West Bank – by simple geography – is also destroying the possibility of a Palestinian state.

The settlements in the West Bank are illegal under international law – a position endorsed by the European Union, the International Court of Justice, the United Nations, alongside almost every government in the world. In this penultimate newsletter, I describe the impact of these settlements, where I am based a human rights observer, in the city Hebron.

Palestinian children walk to school as an Israeli school bus passes by. The two communities are almost completely segregated here. Credit: EAPPI/C. Venables

Palestinian children walk to school as an Israeli school bus passes by. The two communities are almost completely segregated here. Credit: EAPPI/C. Venables

Settlements in the West Bank differ significantly in size – ranging from a couple of Zionist[1] extremists with automatic rifles parking a caravan on Palestinian-owned agricultural land to large towns requiring years of planning, massive government funding, huge land grabs, inhabited by people with no ideological motivation other than a desire for an inexpensive place to live. Whatever their size – they are one of the biggest obstacles to peace because they have divided the West Bank into islands of Israelis and Palestinians.

As usual, I’ll ask you to open this map from UNOCHA [PDF]. You’ll see the islands of Areas A and B (approx. 30% of the West Bank and marked in yellow) – which are under Palestinian control – encircled by Area C (approx. 70% of the West Bank and marked in blue) which is under the control of the Israeli military and where settlements are located.

Whilst there are dissenting voices in Israel they do not seem to influence the policy of the Israeli government. The effects of those policies are felt every day by the people of Hebron. There are five settlements in the city centre of Hebron. The first was established in 1978, the most recent in March 2014.

My colleagues and I walk along Shuhada Street in Hebron. This street was home to a market which served the whole of the West Bank, but since the early 2000s, it has been completely closed to Palestinians. This destroyed the market and continues to make life very difficult for those who have not left. Credit: T. Fieldmann / EAPPI

My colleagues and I walk along Shuhada Street in Hebron – known as the ‘sterilised zone’ by the Israeli military. This street was home to a market which served the whole of the southern West Bank, but since the early 2000s, it has been completely forbidden for Palestinians to walk on this street. This destroyed the lives of those who had shops and businesses on the street and has forced most out of the area – the homes and shops now lie empty. Credit: T. Fieldmann / EAPPI

 

Settlers

“The Israeli settlers who live here have lost their humanity – they can no longer see the human in the other side.” A young Israeli soldier was speaking to me early one morning at Checkpoint 56 on the border between H1 and H2 in Hebron. He continued: “Yesterday, I saw a Rabbi, a fully grown man, shout and scream at a small Palestinian child who was just standing near him. This man has forgotten how to be human, but how hard can it be?” It is far from being universal, but the fear, maybe even hatred, of the Palestinians by the Jewish community here is pervasive – you can feel it.

A Palestinian child and two Israeli settler children shout at each other moments before throwing punches. The Israeli army intervene moments later pulling the children apart. Credit: EAPPI/C. Venables

A Palestinian child and two Israeli settler children shout at each other moments before throwing punches. The Israeli army intervene moments later pulling the children apart. Credit: EAPPI/C. Venables

The Israelis who live in the centre of Hebron are considered some of the most extreme in the West Bank. For example, amongst their number is Baruch Marzel, an American-born right-wing politician, who is affiliated to an organisation considered a terrorist group by Israel itself – as well as the European Union. I greet him most mornings with a friendly ‘Shalom’ – he has never replied – indeed, we are mostly ignored, and occasionally harassed, by the Jewish community here.

Last week, I was surrounded by 30 – 40 people, called an anti-Semite, pushed and shoved, simply for trying to speak with a lone soldier who had a small, unaccompanied Palestinian child in his custody – in violation of all international standards and conventions governing the detention of children.

A few days later I was briefly held by the Israeli military following an accusation from settlers that I hit a child – this was completely untrue, I had simply caught them throwing stones at a house and asked them to stop. This story spread within the community and we were chased, spat on, and had stones thrown at us the next day. The Israeli soldiers are powerless to intervene because the settlers are subject to Israeli civil law so they stood by and did nothing. (To hear a soldier talk about his experiences of this in Hebron, watch this video from Breaking The Silence.)

An illegal structure constructed on Palestinian land by the Israeli settlers in Hebron - the 'Synagogue Tent' is an attempt to link up two Israeli settlements. It has been destroyed by the Israeli military five times, but after every demolition it is reconstructed. Credit: EAPPI/C. Venables

An illegal structure constructed on Palestinian land by the Israeli settlers in Hebron – the ‘Synagogue Tent’ is an attempt to link up two Israeli settlements. It has been destroyed by the Israeli military five times, but after every demolition it is reconstructed. Credit: EAPPI/C. Venables

The foundation of the current Jewish communities in Hebron began shortly after the city was occupied by Israel following the Six Day War in 1967 – Jews had lived in Hebron for many thousands of years, but had not been present in the city since the creation of the state of Israel in 1948. The illegal settlements in Hebron began when a group of Jewish Israelis checked in to a hotel in the centre of Hebron and then refused to leave. The Israeli government was not prepared to allow the settlers to stay, so, instead, in 1968, they gave permission for a Jewish community to be founded on the outskirts of Hebron – the settlement of Kiryat Arba, which lies a mile or so from the city centre of Hebron is now home to approximately 8000 people. The five settlements that exist within the city centre are now home to around 700 settlers, including approximately 350 students at a Yeshiva; a Jewish religious institution focussing on the study of sacred texts.

An Israeli settler walks along a street in Hebron with his automatic rifle,  bottle of alcohol, and child in tow. Credit: EAPPI/C. Venables

An Israeli settler walks along a street in Hebron with his automatic rifle, bottle of alcohol, and child in tow. Credit: EAPPI/C. Venables

The settlers often walk around carrying automatic rifles, they regularly abuse international observers, and violence against Palestinians is common. Whilst the violence by settlers has calmed in recent years, the Old City of Hebron remains a frightening place. The settlers here regularly attack the property of Palestinians and physical violence is not uncommon – see, for example, this video from 2009 which shows Israeli settlers attack the children as they leave the school we now monitor twice a day, or this video from 2008 published by B’tselem (an Israeli human rights organisation) of a settler attacking the home of a Palestinian, or this video from 2012 of drunken settlers being violent on Shuhada Street.

In the Old City of Hebron, all houses near settlements have cages around the windows to protect those living inside from settler violence. David Wilder, the spokesperson for the Jewish community of Hebron, when asked about this violence [PDF, Pg. 23] remarked: “the violence you mention perpetrated by settlers is yet to be proven.” The videos above prove that that this is beyond disingenuous. Two weeks ago, my colleagues and I heard screaming and crying from around the corner. We arrived to find that a settler – wearing an Israeli flag – had sprayed pepper spray into the eyes of two young Palestinian boys. The two were rushed to hospital whilst the family were left crying, eyes-watering from the effect of the air-born weapon.

At the bottom of these stairs lie one of the many 'invisible lines' in Hebron -  when the child reaches the road at the bottom, he is only allowed to walk to the left. If he walks on the road to the right, he will be detained. Credit: C.Venables/EAPPI

At the bottom of these stairs lie one of the many ‘invisible lines’ in Hebron – when the Palestinian child reaches the road at the bottom, he is only allowed to walk to the left. If he walks on the road to the right, he will be detained. Non-Palestinians can walk there freely. Credit: C.Venables/EAPPI

 

The effect of the settlements on the city of Hebron are profound. There are streets Palestinians cannot walk on. There are roads only Israelis can drive on – meaning Palestinian ambulances or school buses are not permitted. There are 30 military checkpoints, and over 100 obstacles (fences, road-blocks) segregating the city. Writing to condemn Israeli settlement policy on the eve of the British vote to recognise Palestine as a state, Conservative minister Alan Duncan MP, noted: “One should not use the word ‘apartheid’ lightly, but as a description of Hebron it is both accurate and undeniable”. “In a sense, cleansing is being carried out”, said Jan Kristensen, a former leader of the UN mandated observation mission in Hebron (TIPH), who was speaking freely after his service had ended.

Stories

The narrative that a community tells about a conflict is a fundamental part of the conflict itself. The narratives in Hebron are on the tips of everyone’s tongue. The Jewish community here have even put up signs. (A privilege not granted to the Palestinians, whose houses the signs are attached too.) Earlier this week, I was walking near one of the settlements in Hebron when a young Jewish boy told me: “Be careful, the Arabs here will kill you, stay safe!”.

A sign put on a Palestinian house by the Jewish Community of Hebron - it provides a false narrative of what has happened in the Old City. For example, the shops and houses on Shuhada Street began to be closed in 1994 following the massacre of 29 Muslims worshipping in the Ibrahimi Mosque by local settler Baruch Goldstein. Credit: EAPPI/C.Venables

A sign put on a Palestinian house by the Jewish Community of Hebron – it provides a false narrative of what has happened in the Old City. For example, the shops and houses on Shuhada Street began to be closed in 1994 following the massacre of 29 Muslims worshipping in the Ibrahimi Mosque by local settler Baruch Goldstein. Credit: EAPPI/C.Venables

There is a long history of Jews living in the city of Hebron. But, following tensions and violence triggered by the support of the British government – who at that point controlled Palestine under a mandate from the League of Nations – for a Jewish homeland in Palestine, the Jewish population of Hebron were forced to leave the city. This history of suffering now forms a key part of the one-sided narrative of the Israeli community in Hebron today – they seem forget that Palestinian Jews, Christians and Muslims lived alongside each other without quarrel for many hundreds of years. And whilst the massacre of sixty nine Palestinian Jews by Palestinian Arabs in 1929 is repeatedly used by the Jewish community of Hebron to justify their existence, you will not hear mention of the 1994 massacre of twenty nine Palestinian Muslims by Baruch Goldstein, a resident of the nearby settlement of Kiryat Arba.

The central military base in the Old City of Hebron - it is also home to a number of Israeli civilians who live within the compound. This is a clear violation of international law - civilians should not be present in military installations.  Credit: C.Venables/EAPPI

The central military base in the Old City of Hebron – it is also home to a number of Israeli civilians who live within the compound. This is a clear violation of international law – civilians should not be present in military installations. Credit: C.Venables/EAPPI

 

One story we can be sure of is the utter ruin caused by the settlements since they began to be established in the late 1970s. By September 2012, as a direct result of Israeli segregation policy in Hebron, an estimated 1612 Palestinian shops had been closed in the H2 area – 512 of which were closed by direct military order. Contrary to the claims of the Israeli military that these shops were closed for security reasons, the shops began to be closed in 1994 following the massacre in the mosque by the Jewish Israeli, Baruch Goldstein: the Palestinians were punished for violence they did not commit.

Discussing the settlers in Hebron, Ephraim Sneh, a former Israeli deputy Defence Minister, admitted,The Israeli Defence Forces and the border police expend extraordinary efforts to defend the Jewish community of Hebron… But the attitude of the Hebron settlers, certainly the extremist among them, is hostile. They view the IDF as a tool to carry out their objective, which is, in the end, to seize control of Palestinian Hebron.”

Stones

The power inequality in Hebron is most evident in the almost complete control of the lives of Palestinians – see this critical letter published several weeks ago from senior members of the Israeli army’s intelligence unit on this issue. They write: “Intelligence allows for the continued control over millions of people through thorough and intrusive supervision and invasion of most areas of life. This does not allow for people to lead normal lives, and fuels more violence further distancing us from the end of the conflict”.

Whilst Palestinians live under martial law, for the Israeli settlers, Hebron has become a playground: a place where you can do very little wrong, and, where you are rarely held accountable for your actions. We witness this almost every day.

The Jewish community in Hebron regularly attempts to take over Palestinian property that lies empty because of the closure policies of the Israeli military in the Old City. Here you see a garden being built on land owned by Palestinians - they rely on international observers (who are allowed on the street) to keep track of such developments so they can take the setters to court. Credit: C.Venables/EAPPI

The Jewish community in Hebron regularly attempts to take over Palestinian property that lies empty because of the closure policies of the Israeli military in the Old City. Here you see a garden being built on land owned by Palestinians – the owners rely on international observers (who are allowed on the street) to keep track of such developments so they can alert the police, and where necessary, the courts. Credit: C.Venables/EAPPI

Last week, for example, a Palestinian farmer had been granted permission by the Israeli military to erect a small fence around his land – if you’re a Palestinian, you need a permit to build anything in H2, the Israeli-controlled area of Hebron. Soon after the fence had been built, Israeli settlers came every few hours and tried to destroy it. After one such occasion, they began to throw stones at a nearby house and even at one of my colleagues.

The Israelis in Hebron are determined to expand their presence in the Old City and with the current political climate in Israel, this is quite probable. David Wilder, a resident here, writes “When Judea and Samaria [the West Bank] are populated by millions of Jews, peace talks will change out of necessity”. But, the expansion of the settlements in Hebron, and indeed across the West Bank, would only move peace further away. In Hebron, settlements expansion will further displace Palestinians from the city centre.

A security officer for Jewish Community of Hebron jokes around with a member of the Israeli border police as they prepare to close off an area of Hebron. Credit: EAPPI/J. Kapiro

A security officer from the local Jewish settlement jokes with an office in the Israeli military before they carry out an operation in the H1 (Palestinian) area of Hebron. Credit: J. Kapiro / EAPPI

 

A few ago weeks ago I met with Jewish Israeli peace activist Nomika Zion who lives in the town of Sderot under the constant threat of rocket fire from Gaza. Nomika lamented, “Israel has lost ultimate lesson of its origins: to stop seeing the human in the other is to lose the humanity in yourself.” Nomika and her colleagues suffered verbal abuse and threats of violence when they spoke out against the latest war in Gaza. She went on to say, “The only hope Israel has is pressure from the international community. It needs pressure to Israel, as well as the Palestinian Authority and Hamas, to work for peace.”

[1] Broadly defined, Zionism is a Jewish nationalist movement which supports a Jewish state in the ancient Jewish homeland from biblical times.

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Letters from Palestine: Education, Explosives and Equality

October 1, 2014 § 1 Comment

The photos in this blog were taken by my colleagues and I during our work in Hebron over the last seven weeks. The views in this blog are my own and do not necessarily reflect those of EAPPI, the World Council of Churches, or Quakers in Britain.

“For education to thrive in Palestine, the occupation needs to end.” Samia is a teacher at a school I monitor every day in my role as a human rights observer in Hebron, Palestine. She was talking to me a few weeks ago just before children were starting the new school year. She went on to say, “Being a teacher is not just work for me – this is my life. But, everything is difficult here. I dreamed I could do something as a teacher, but my dreams are being destroyed.” In this update, I’ll be describing my experiences of how children and teachers get to school in Hebron. Before reading on, I advise you to (once again!) open up a map – this time, a map of the Old City [PDF] – spend a few minutes checking what the different symbols mean and getting a sense of the geography. Importantly, you’ll see there are a number of Palestinian schools in the Israeli-controlled areas of Hebron, and, as you might imagine, running a school in an area controlled entirely by a foreign military is not the easiest of tasks.

Samia, a teacher in the Cordoba school outside military checkpoint 56. Around 140 children attend the school every day. Credit: EAPPI/T. Fjeldmann

Samia, a teacher in the Cordoba school, outside military checkpoint 56. Around 140 children attend this school every day. Credit: EAPPI/T. Fjeldmann

In my last update, I explained that Hebron is divided into two parts. H1, which makes up 80% of the city, is (mostly1) under the control of the Palestinian Authority, whilst H2, the other 20%, is under the control of the Israeli military. Along with the majority (almost 70%) of the West Bank, H2 is administered by a wing of the Israeli military called the ‘Civil Administration’. In these areas, the Palestinian Authority (PA) – the closest thing Palestinians have to a government – has very little say in what takes place. But, the PA, along with UNRWA – the UN body set up in 1948 to provide shelter, education and health care to Palestinian refugees – runs all of the Palestinian schools in this area. The EAPPI Hebron team works almost exclusively in the H2 area of Hebron.

As you now know – because you read the last update! – the entirety of the West Bank is considered an ‘Occupied Territory’ under international humanitarian law, and Israel is considered the ‘Occupying Power’. The Fourth Geneva Convention is the primary source of legislation governing what the role and responsibilities of the Occupying Power are with regards the territory it is occupying. Article 50 of the Convention reads, “The Occupying Power shall, with the cooperation of the national and local authorities, facilitate the proper working of all institutions devoted to the care and education of children”. This places a clear responsibility on Israel – as the Occupying Power – to ensure safe and secure access to education in the H2 area of Hebron. Beyond international humanitarian law, Israel is also bound by various international legal frameworks regarding children – notably, the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child2. The Universal Declaration of Human Rights (Article 26) and the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (Articles 13 and 14) include the explicit right to education.

Soldiers search the school bags of young children at checkpoint 209 in Hebron. It is not uncommon for soldiers to search the bags of all children crossing into the H2 area - and this despite the many other ways one can enter H2 without passing through a checkpoint. Credit: EAPPI/N. Forsstroem

Soldiers search the school bags of young children at checkpoint 209 in Hebron. It is not uncommon for soldiers to search the bags of all children crossing into the H2 area – despite the fact that there are many ways to enter H2 without passing through a checkpoint. Credit: EAPPI/N. Forsstroem

A key part of my role as an observer is to monitor how children get to school in the morning, and, in many ways, the journey to school I see every morning in H2 is much the same as was my journey to school. Sleepy looking kids dragging their feet, doing their best to avoid bumping into the school bully, grudgingly running when the head teacher comes out at 7:55 shouting, “Get a move on! You’re going to be late”! The smaller kids are often accompanied by an elder sibling or parent – I remember vividly my Mum walking us to primary school every day, our bags precariously balanced on her bike. But, that’s where the similarity ends.

“Fuck you, fuck you”, the soldier shouted moments after I’d seen him shoot two smoke grenades at a group of children, some of whom has just thrown a few small stones towards him at checkpoint 209. This checkpoint is just one of the many military posts that children have to walk through every day to get to school in Hebron. Tear gas and sound grenades are a regular occurrence at these checkpoints – and last week, during Rosh Hashanah, we also witnessed live ammunition being used. My colleagues and I stand near these checkpoints every day, twice a day – as children make their way to and from school. It is normal to see children as young as four and five having their bags searched by soldiers.

Children recover from a tear gas attack outside a school  - two children were taken away in an ambulance. Credit: EAPPI/I. Rasalanavho

Children recover from a tear gas attack outside a school – two children were taken away in an ambulance. Credit: EAPPI/I. Rasalanavho

 There are a many schools in H2, and a key goal of EAPPI (and our colleagues in CPT and TIPH) is to use our resources as best we can to ensure children get to school safely. EAPPI also counts the numbers of children getting to and from school for a project funded by UNICEF – this allows the international community to objectively monitor the effect of the military occupation on education in Hebron. Whilst counting, we also report on the search and arrest of children – again, an almost daily occurrence here. In 2013, at least 41 children and 5 teachers were arrested [PDF – Page 6] by Israeli forces on their way to or from school in H2.

Pages from a Palestinian children's book we heard being read at a school in Hebron. It describes the night before a girl's first day at school. The army raid the house and kidnap her father. The next night she dreams of the day her father might be able to walk her to school.

Pages from a Palestinian children’s book we heard being read at a school in Hebron. It describes the night before a girl’s first day at school. The army raid the house and kidnap her father. The next night she dreams of the day her father might be able to walk her to school. Night raids are an every reality for Palestinians living in the West Bank.

For Palestinian children, both the legal and judicial system is run by the military, which means the focus is very much on security, not on justice. Israeli children living in the settlements in the same area are subject to Israeli civilian law.  Palestinian children are also subject to the same arrest, interrogation, trial and imprisonment as adults, carried out by military courts. In 2013, UNICEF wrote of Israel: “In no other country are children systematically tried by juvenile military courts that, by definition, fall short of providing the necessary guarantees to ensure respect for their rights.” In July 2014 (the latest month for which figures are available), 192 children were being detained by the Israeli military. Two days ago, I received a call at 3am in the morning from a local contact whose 14 year old brother had just been detained by the Israeli army following a night-raid at their family home.

I remember sometimes at school we would hold a school fair on Friday afternoon. Everyone would turn up, it was very exciting – you’d see your school friends without their uniform, see the bushy moustaches of your friend’s dads, and play games in the playing field. At the Qurtoba School – perhaps the most vulnerable school in H2 and where EAPPI spends a significant amount of time – this would not be possible. Every Friday, like clock-work, there are clashes at the main access checkpoint to the school. The teachers also tell us it is not possible to run after-school classes or any extra-curricular activities because of the danger to the children and teachers of being in that area outside of normal school hours.

Clashes at Bab-al-Zawiye, near checkpoint 56, where on school days children walk to school. Credit: EAPPI/C. Venables

Clashes at Bab-al-Zawiye near checkpoint 56, where on school days children walk to school. Credit: EAPPI/C. Venables

As a human rights monitor, we are constantly confronted by the fact that you cannot simply observe a situation without becoming a part of it yourself. There are times when we try to influence what happens on the ground, either by our presence or by intervening in some way. Last week, for example, I stopped two young children throwing stones, but our interventions don’t always work: we are often ignored or, more often, have to leave a situation because it becomes too dangerous. Many times, we feel powerless. Two weeks ago, we watched at the Israeli army detained a number of young children during clashes involving tear-gas and sound-grenades outside school. As far as we could tell, the soldier’s simply grabbed children at random – one of the children was Oday Rajabi, aged 7, and you can see a video taken by the activist group, ISM, of his capture.

A twelve year old being detained at checkpoint 29 near the Ibrahimi Mosque in Hebron. Credit: EAPPI/N. Forsstroem

During our daily monitoring of Palestinian schools in H2, we also see the children of the Israeli settlers making their way to school. Their schools are not in the city centre, so they catch school buses or catch a lift off their parents. It is heart-breaking to watch as the Israeli bus filled with excited school children drives between and around the Palestinian children walking along the same road every day. The physical divisions we see are also mirrored in an inequality in the general quality of life for the Palestinians and Israelis living in H2. The power here rests almost entirely with the Israeli military, and their concern is the settlements and their inhabitants. More depressing still, it seems that the only interaction these children have with each other is to fight in the street, or, worse, throwing stones at each other.

hebron_schoolbags_180814_nanette-marie_forsstroem

New school bags for sale hang on the barbed wire fence of one the many barriers separating the Israeli and Palestinian communities in Hebron. Credit: EAPPI/N. Forsstroem

EAPPI is working to end the occupation and realise a just peace in Palestine and Israel, but witnessing the journey of Palestinian children to school every day makes it hard to believe we are close to reaching that goal. Hebron has been under the military occupation of Israel for 47 years, and the endless cycle of violence that the occupation causes continues until today. Tomorrow, next week, next month, and even next year, it is likely that EAPPI observers will continue to see children subjected to searches and arrests, as well as tear gas, sound bombs and, occasionally, live and rubber bullets.

But, EAPPI observers intend to carry on being here, writing and speaking about what we witness. It may be that you would like to be in contact with your national elected representatives in the UK or the EU to draw their attention to the content of this newsletter. Join us in making a contribution towards ending the occupation.

[1] The Israeli military regularly enters H1 – the Palestinian controlled area of Hebron. For example, in August 2014, the Israeli military entered the H1 and destroyed the homes of three men suspected of abducting and killing the three Israeli teenagers in June 2014. These incursions into H1 often result in clashes. There are also many Israeli watch-towers in the H1 area.

[2] Israel ratified the Convention on the Rights of the Child in 1991, however it holds that it does not apply to children in the West Bank and that Palestinians are classed as children if they are under the age of 16 (as opposed to 18 for Israeli children)

Letters from Palestine: Human Rights and Humanity in Hebron

September 10, 2014 § 3 Comments

The views in the blog are my own and not necessarily reflect those of EAPPI, QPSW or the World Council of Churches. All the photos in this blog were taken by my colleagues and I in the course of our work.

“I heard the soldiers talking about you. They said you would take photos. That’s why they let me go so quickly. The soldiers can be really difficult here”. I was speaking with Mohammed, a warm and enthusiastic 25-year-old from Hebron, the city where I am currently serving as a human rights monitor with EAPPI. Mohammed was speaking to me after I saw him being stopped and questioned by soldiers at one of the many military checkpoints around the city of Hebron. The soldiers asked for his ID, and wanted to look through the photos and messages on his phone. Being held up, whether for 5 minutes or 30 minutes, is a normal part of life for Palestinians living in Hebron, and, is just one of the many daily struggles that I have seen people face here. Before describing a little more of my experience, I’ll briefly introduce the recent political history of the Hebron. I quietly (but firmly!) advise that you now open this map [PDF – new window] from UN OCHA – it will give you a good geographical and political overview of the situation, and will help you as you read through this newsletter.

My colleague, Nanette, watches Palestinian boys who have become used to the presence of Israeli soldiers in the Old City, and often try to provoke them. Credit: EAPPI/C. Venables

My colleague, Nanette, watches Palestinian boys who have become used to the presence of Israeli soldiers in the Old City, and often try to provoke them. Credit: EAPPI/C. Venables

Palestine and the West Bank

Hebron is in the West Bank, the short strip of land that runs parallel to the west bank of the River Jordan. It is one of the two (geographically separate) parts of Palestine that exists today – the other being the Gaza Strip. Following the 1967 ‘Six Day War’, the West Bank has been under the military occupation of the state of Israel. Before that, the West Bank was under the control of the Jordanians, and, before that, it was part of the British Mandate of Palestine and had been so since the end of the First World War. Before that, this land had been part of the Ottoman Empire for many hundreds of years.

Following the Olso peace process in the 1990s – the American brokered peace deal – the West Bank has been divided into different areas. Parts of the West Bank (Areas A and B) are run by the Palestinian Authority (created in the Oslo process), but the majority (almost 70%) is run by the Israeli military (Area C). To access Areas A and B, it is necessary to pass through Area C and so this means in effect that the entirety of the West Bank remains under the military control of Israel. This places certain obligations on Israel under international humanitarian law as the ‘Occupying Power’. This is the context in which myself and my fellow EAPPI human rights monitors are operating – we are observers here to monitor violations of international humanitarian law. We also meet with people here to listen to their stories. So, time for some stories from Hebron.

Hebron is a Palestinian city. It is home to over 250,000 people and is the economic hub of the West Bank – it represents over a third of its entire GDP. From the short amount of time I have spent here, it is clear that Hebron is a very tense and fragile place: violence occurs here on a daily basis. In the first week that I was in Hebron, one Palestinian was killed during clashes here, and many more were injured with live ammunition.

My colleagues and I walk along Shuhada Street in Hebron. This street was home to a market which served the whole of the West Bank, but since the early 2000s, it has been completely closed to Palestinians. This destroyed the market and continues to make life very difficult for those who have not left. Credit: T. Fieldmann / EAPPI

My colleagues and I walk along Shuhada Street in Hebron. This street was home to a market which served the whole of the southern West Bank, but since the early 2000s, it has been completely closed to Palestinians. This closure destroyed the market and continues to make life very difficult for those who live here. Credit: T. Fjeldmann / EAPPI

Hebron

In 1997, Israeli Prime Minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, and the Chairman of the Palestinian Liberation Organisation, Yasser Arafat, agreed the Hebron protocol. This agreement was part of the Oslo peace process that divided up the occupied Palestinian territories between Israel and the (newly created) Palestinian Authority, thus granting the Palestinians some degree of autonomy. The Hebron Protocol returned control of large parts of the city of Hebron to the Palestinians, ending 30 years of military occupation. Palestinian Authority police moved into the city and the Israeli Defence Forces (IDF) moved out.

But, it was not a complete Israeli withdrawal, the agreement left 20 per cent of the city under Israeli control. The city was thus split into two parts: they are formally known as H1 (Palestinian control) and H2 (Israeli control). It is the only Palestinian city in the West Bank (except for Jerusalem) where Israelis live in the city centre. The Israelis who live in the centre of Hebron are the reason why Israeli forces did not withdraw completely.

Hebron is a particularly fragile place because, as I mentioned above, the two communities live side by side. The reasons for this are religious. Hebron is a site of special religious importance to all the Abrahamic faiths because of the Ibrahimi Mosque (also known as The Cave of the Patriarchs). Many believe this is where Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Sarah, Rebecca and Leah are buried. Since 1994 – when Baruch Goldstein a Jewish extremist massacred 29 Muslims praying there – the Ibrahimi mosque has been divided in two: one side is used by Jews, the other by Muslims. At the tomb of Abraham, there is bullet proof glass to separate the two halves. The Muslim community in particular faces considerable obstacles when wishing to pray there.

The Israelis who live in the city centre (which is in H2) live in five complexes (or ‘settlements’), which, as you may know, are illegal under international law, and, even, in some cases, are illegal in the (very complicated) laws governing land-ownership in the West Bank too. They are illegal under international law for many reasons, but primarily because the Fourth Geneva convention (Article 49.6) forbids the transfer of the Occupying Power’s (Israel) civilians into the territory it occupies. See this map of the Hebron district, and this map of the centre of Hebron to see the division between H1 and H2 more clearly. H2 and the surrounding area is perhaps the most militarised and violent area in the entire West Bank, and, it is also where we spend most of our time. H2 is home to around 30,000 Palestinians, 700 Israeli settlers, and over 1000 soldiers, whose main task is to protect the 700 Israeli settlers.

Life under occupation

“When your land is under military occupation – your body, your mind, and your emotions are under occupation also.” Samia is a teacher at a local primary school and was speaking to me a few days ago as we drank a lemon iced drink in one of the many modern-looking cafés in Palestinian-controlled side of Hebron, H1. Living under military occupation presents many challenges – and, as Samia describes, perhaps the psychological impacts are the most profound – but life does go on. So, what are the main challenges? Perhaps the great restriction for Palestinians in H2 is simply being able to move freely. There are over 30 military checkpoints in H2 – the Israeli controlled area of Hebron – and, if you’re Palestinian – particularly if you’re a young man – you may walk through a checkpoint, pass through metal detector, and be asked to show your ID ten or fifteen times a day. This morning, I watched as a middle-aged man was held for 45 minutes whilst passing through a checkpoint on his way out in the morning. But, whilst this seems odd to me, this has become normal for the people living here. Taking off your belt, emptying your pockets, and waiting in a queue – something I would do once or twice a year as I fly off on holiday – is a daily routine here. You could be on your way to the shop, to the mosque, or simply going to see a friend.

Teacher plead with soldiers to let them pass through one of the checkpoints between H1 and H2. Teachers and children face a daily struggle in getting to school. Credit: N. Forrstroem/ EAPPI

Teacher plead with soldiers to let them pass through one of the checkpoints between H1 and H2. Teachers and children face a daily struggle in getting to and from school – we intervene when we think we can help. Credit: N. Forrstroem/ EAPPI

Beyond the fact that these checks might be dehumanising or degrading, there are almost no security reasons for doing them. For example, one of the major checkpoints between H1 and H2 in Hebron was closed two weeks ago. During this time, soldiers instructed the locals to simply use the ‘back route’ – through people’s garden – into H2. This was, of course, a struggle for older people, but it also demonstrated the absurdity of the checkpoint: why do you need a checkpoint if you can simply walk around it? Soldiers at this checkpoint have told me that they deny people access through the checkpoint because they are protecting their family and friends, but then go on to admit that anyone could simply walk 15 minutes around into H2 avoiding all checks.

International law and being a human rights monitor

As international monitors, we are trying to document violations of international law that we witness and bring them to the attention of the international community. We are also trying to reduce the likelihood of human rights violations occurring by acting as a deterrence. We call this latter role, providing a ‘protective presence’. By being present is tense situations – with our cameras and notepads – we hope that parties to the conflict think twice before acting. We also hope that when people do act, they do so in a more humane and respectful way – that what they do is proportional and necessary. If you’re interested to know more about the theory behind this work, see this report from the Centre for Humanitarian Dialogue.

A teacher tries to give a young boy perfume to alleviate the effects of tear gas after an attack on a UN school we were monitoring at the time. Credit: EAPPI/ I. Rasalanavho

A teacher passes my colleague perfume to help alleviate the effects of tear gas after an attack on a Palestinian school we monitor.  Credit: EAPPI/ I. Rasalanavho

Violations of international law are not always as easy to see as we would like. The legal situation in a conflict zone is incredibly complex. But, we have seen tear gas and sound bombs being fired at children whose only ‘crime’ seemed to be wanting to get home from school. This is clearly a violation of international law – children are ‘Protected Persons’ under the Geneva Conventions and are not legitimate military targets. My team has also witnessed live ammunition being used against demonstrators, as well as tear gas and sound bombs. This is (again) a violation of international law – because as civilians in an occupied territory, the demonstrators are Protected Persons. Military necessity can legitimate the use of live ammunition, but using it during a demonstration where children were present against unarmed protesters is not justifiable.

A dairy factory demolished by the Israeli military as punishment for the kidnap and murder of the three Israeli teenagers in June of this year. The military claimed the dairy factory had links with Hamas, but no evidence was provided for this. Credit: N. Forsstroem/EAPPI

A dairy factory which was demolished in H1 by the Israeli military as punishment for the kidnap and murder of the three Israeli teenagers in June of this year. The military claimed the factory had links with Hamas, but provided no evidence for this. Destroying civilian structures in this way in an occupied territory is completely illegal under the Fourth Geneva Convention. Credit: N. Forsstroem/EAPPI

Humanity

Being in a conflict zone, it would be easy to lose your faith in humanity. This comes not just from the things we witness – tear gas being used against children, homes and businesses being arbitrarily destroyed, as well as the everyday grind of the occupation – but also the difficulties we face in carrying out our work. We face intimidation and threats of violence from the local Jewish community here. Our work is also often frustrated by the Israeli army and Israeli police. But, that said, we also meet a great many people who believe in peace and are prepared to give up a great deal to work tirelessly for it. I’ve met with many Israeli peace and human rights activists, and many Palestinians whose courage in being prepared to non-violently oppose the occupation is astonishing.

My colleague Trine with Jawal, a shopkeeper in the Old City on Hebron. EAPPI provides a protective presence in the Old City to reduce the likelihood of violence occurring. Credit: N. Forstrumm / EAPPI

My colleague Trine with Jawal, a shopkeeper in the Old City on Hebron. EAPPI provides a protective presence in the Old City of Hebron to reduce the likelihood of violence occurring. Violence is a normal part of life in Hebron. Credit: N. Forstrumm / EAPPI

Thanks for reading. If you’d like to know more about the work of EAPPI in Hebron, considering watching the short film ‘Peacewatchers’ about the EAPPI Hebron team, it was made two years ago. Also, I’ll be talking about my experiences when I’m back in the UK, if you’d like to host or organise a talk, please get in touch: chrisjvenables [at] gmail.com


Chris has been sent by Quaker Peace & Social Witness (QPSW) as a human rights observer serving on the World Council of Churches’ Ecumenical Accompaniment Programme in Palestine and Israel (EAPPI). The views contained in this email are personal and do not necessarily reflect those of QPSW or the World Council of Churches. If you would like to publish the information contained here (including posting it on a website), or distribute it further, please first contact the QPSW Programme Manager for Middle East teresap@quaker.org.uk for permission. Thank you.

  • This blog contains the thoughts, photography and music of Christopher. BA in Politics. Live and work in London. Spending August, September and October as a human rights observer in the Occupied Palestinian Territories.

    I've a camera, I write and record songs, and like getting out on my bicycle. I'm 25.

    I'm interested in what makes people feel whole. I'm interested in the power of ideas. I'm trying to learn a healthy (non-patriarchal) masculinity. I'm trying to learn humility.

    Expect posts on anything.

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