Israeli soldiers defend themselves against Palestinian schoolgirls in Hebron Unite activist Willie Howard reflects on a recent solidarity visit to Hebron. – By Willie Howard To glance at a road map of the West Bank, the route between Ramallah and the a …
Unite activist Willie Howard reflects on a recent solidarity visit to Hebron.
– By Willie Howard
To glance at a road map of the West Bank, the route between Ramallah and the ancient city of Hebron would seem relatively straightforward; the reality however, is somewhat different. Under the occupation, the road system has been divided into a complicated network of restricted and semi-restricted roads which severely limit Palestinians’ ability to travel between the major cities.
Most of the roads around Jerusalem (as well as the multitude of illegal settlements in the West Bank) have been designated Israeli-only and Palestinians caught driving on them face harsh consequences. The inter-city routes upon which Palestinians are permitted to travel are punctuated by a multitude of Israeli Army checkpoints which have the power to stop and detain cars at a whim. As a result of this system, travelling south from Ramallah is an arduous process which entails a long detour around Jerusalem thus doubling the length of what the journey should be.
As our car finally rounds Jerusalem, we begin to travel through the rolling hills and valleys which make up the West Bank. While many of the troughs and hillsides are interspersed with small Palestinian villages and olive groves; many of the hilltops are now home to Israeli settlements and military bases of varying sizes. Despite these being illegal under international law and in contravention of a raft of UN Resolutions, the bulldozers and construction equipment which can be seen busily working illustrate the fact that expansion continues unabated. Some of the larger settlements have recently been effectively annexed into Israel with the construction of their 700km segregation barrier which surrounds the entire West Bank.
The city of Hebron is in many respects typical of most cities in this region but it is the Old City which has become the scene of most of the conflict here. Dating back to the Canaanite period, the Old City is one of narrow, winding streets, flat-roofed sandstone buildings and numerous obscure lanes which lead between them. This area centres on the Ibrahimi Mosque and Tomb of the Patriarchs, two of the holiest sites in Islam and Judaism (built on the same steppe) and scene of a notorious massacre in 1994 when a US-born Israeli settler, Baruch Goldstein, murdered 29 Palestinian men and boys with an assault rifle during Friday prayers. The community of settlers from which Goldstein came is approximately a thousand strong and represent the most fanatical elements of the settler project. It is an unfortunate fact that Goldstein remains a hero to many of them today, as evidenced by the well-tended shrine to him that was only removed recently by the Israeli military.
Under the auspices of protecting this community, the Israeli Army retains exclusive control over a part of the city which has been designated “H2”. H2 has (a rapidly falling) population of 30,000 Palestinians and includes most of the Old City, including the holy sites. As a consequence of the occupation, the Old City is punctuated by scores of checkpoints where Palestinians often face arbitrary detention, searches and harassment. The flat roofs of Hebron are also chequered with military outposts where soldiers survey the population below, often through their rifle scopes. In keeping with the wider road system in the West Bank, some streets have also been declared Israeli-only.
Perhaps the most prominent example of this is Suhana Street. Once a thriving economic thoroughfare, it is now barren walkway which bisects the city. As the road is closed to Palestinians, all of the shops have now folded with some losing everything. Most ludicrously of all, Palestinians whose homes face Suhana Street are forbidden from opening their front door; thus many of them are forced to utilise ladders in their back garden in order to traverse the roofs and alight on a different street.
Coupled with the military restrictions, Palestinians in H2 and the surrounding villages also have to contend with systematic and organised attacks from the settlers. As I walk through a deserted market street, I wonder as to the purpose of the netting and steel cages above the walkways. I don’t have to wait long for an answer as a rock thrown from the settler apartments above crashes off the thick steel frame. As well as rocks, Palestinian shoppers and traders are also pelted with rubbish, bags of human excrement and most sinister of all, chemicals such as bleach and acid. Houses facing onto the settler-designated areas have also been targeted with windows being broken and racist graffiti being daubed on doors and walls. Most Palestinians on this interface have now left. Economic activity and life in general in this zone has almost been made impossible. Unsurprisingly, no settler in Hebron has been convicted of attacking Palestinian inhabitants. As a result of the H2 occupation, people in this part of Hebron are suffering some of the most extreme poverty you will find in an already-impoverished country.
As I leave Hebron, I can’t help but get feelings of guilt. While I can jump into my rented car and leave H2 far behind, those living here have to suffer the daily violence and indignity that military occupation entails. To listen to Israeli propaganda, one could be forgiven for thinking that they are a beleaguered state under siege and simply securing their own safety. In reality, they are presiding over a grinding occupation which is aimed at encouraging forced migration and subsequent illegal settlement; all with a view to strengthening the prospect of a “Greater Israel” which will be built at the expense of the Palestinian people.
It is clear that if the rest of the world is serious about challenging Israel’s occupation, it must work against the narrative that Israel is a normal state. Like another apartheid state before it; its goods, sporting fixtures and cultural events must be boycotted and activists must work within their own countries to apply pressure on their governments to follow suit. When change in Palestine comes, it will come about on the back of international solidarity. Let’s redouble our efforts to build that today.
– Willie Howard is active in the Palestine Solidarity Campaign. This is a report of an independent visit.
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