Tuesday, April 10, 2012

A Violently Divided City

Last week, I spent two days in Hebron, interviewing families and children about their experiences living under occupation and specifically with Israeli settlements throughout the city, which according to the UN under the Fourth Geneva Convention are considered to be illegal. I have written about Hebron before, when I last visited in 2010, and unfortunately things are still extremely difficult for the Palestinians who live here.

Hebron is a surreal place, especially H2, which is the area of the city where over 500 Israeli settlers are living alongside 30,000 Palestinians. Despite the population imbalance, the Israeli settlers hold the power in H2, often commanding the Israeli soldiers stationed in the area. There are few people on the streets and all of the stores along Shuhada Street--once a bustling part of the Palestinian city center--are closed up and abandoned (see photo below) after the settlers moved into the area and forced Palestinian businesses to leave. Settlers freely walk around the streets, as they are guarded closely by the Israeli military. However, the statistics point to more violence directed towards Palestinians than settlers, so this "protection" is misplaced. In fact, the settlers frequently use the Israeli army to further oppress the Palestinians, which was reaffirmed in stories I heard from families. The Palestinians who are out on the streets are usually hurrying towards the safety of home. The Palestinians' fear is palpable, especially throughout my interviews. One family does not let their children (ranging in ages from 5-18) leave the house unless they are accompanied by an adult. Another family has installed multiple security cameras, which keep getting stolen by the settlers. Another family told me a story about their six-year-old son who was kidnapped by Israeli settler youth. One child-participant was scared to open up her front door to me, because she said that the settlers (who are her neighbors) might see her. The settler's power is seen clearly in all the Stars of David that are drawn on the walls and doors throughout the neighborhood, laying claim to the territory.

When I revisited Hebron a few days ago, I met members of the Ecumenical Accompaniment Programme in Palestine and Israel (EAPPI). These international volunteers--or Ecumenical Accompaniers (EA's)--"provide protective presence to vulnerable communities, monitor and report human rights abuses and support Palestinians and Israelis working together for peace" (see photo to the right). They invited me to observe them in their daily activities, including accompanying Palestinian children as they walk to and from school (as they are the frequent target of violence from Israeli settlers) and monitoring settler activity within Hebron.

On the day that I visited EAPPI, an EA and I waited at the bottom of some stairs where the children would pass by on their way from school to home. The schoolchildren were friendly (see photo below left), though cautious, especially with presence of so many settlers, who had gathered at the settlement just across the street from the stairs. (The number of settlers increased dramatically at this time of year, because of the Jewish passover.) Even when one of the Israeli settlers came up and yelled for us to leave, the children did not flinch; they just continued on their way, jostling and joking with one another, along Shuhada Street and home. At one point they squealed when they spotted a lizard.

One infamous settler named Anat Cohen, who, along with her husband and 14 children, lives in the Beit Hadassa settlement in the middle of H2. The house belongs to a Palestinian, Mr. Abu Ribhi Dies who was thrown out of the home in 1975 after a military order was issued claiming that the home did not belong to him. In addition to being the head of education for the settler children in H2, Anat Cohen is known for encouraging settler violence against Palestinians. She has also been known to be violent with internationals who visit H2 in support of Palestinians. I actually saw this with my own eyes, when I noticed an older woman with a taut and weathered face approach us, yell in Hebrew, and point at us. I was told that she was shouting at the nearby Israeli soldiers to arrest us, though there was obviously no legal reason for this. About five minutes later, I saw her throw water (along with some young female settlers) at an international visiting from Germany and then kick another international visiting from the US. After witnessing this, the EA and I encouraged the Israeli police to file a report about Ms. Cohen's violent behavior towards internationals. But instead, we were thrown out of H2 by the Israeli soldiers and police, a perfect example of how the settlers utilize the Israeli military to further their own goals. It also illustrates how difficult it is for Palestinians to see true justice.

At the end of my day in Hebron, I went along with another EA to monitor settler activity in H1. many settlers and their Israeli guests entered the Old City of Hebron to take historic tours of the area. According to the 1997 Hebron Agreement, H1 is under the Palestinian Authority's control, and therefore off-limits to Israelis. Despite this, the Israeli settlers--accompanied by dozens of Israeli soldiers (see photo to the left)--regularly visit the area to "sight see." When I asked one settler what the tour guide was saying, he told me, "We are learning that this city belongs to us."

I watched the Israeli settlers, accompanied by heavily armed soldiers, walked through the narrow streets of the Old City. The settlers also watched me, and found it amusing to take photos of me. (At one point, I felt like a tourist attraction.) Palestinian children also watched the settlers curiously, but also took time to skirmish with a soccer ball. Though it was extremely strange to see these large groups of settlers accompanied by heavily-armed Israeli soldiers moving through a Palestinian city, it was just another day for the Palestinian children, who seemed eager for the Israeli settlers and soldiers to leave, so they could get on with their football match.

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