The further you penetrate into the heart of the old part of the city of Hebron, the narrower the lanes become. Broad enough at first for a market stall on either side piled high with brilliantly coloured fruit and vegetables and a bustling crowd passing between, they gradually taper to shady tunnels with cave-like shops cut into the walls on either side.
Many of the 15th century lanes in this ancient Palestinian city are covered over but a few right in the centre of the old souk are open to the sky. Or, almost open, for the shopkeepers have fixed up wire netting all along the street between the shop awnings to catch the rubbish and rocks which extremist Jewish settlers regularly chuck down on their heads from above.
The netting bulges down in places with the weight of accumulated garbage. I saw whole bricks, stones, bottles, tin cans, peelings, dirty paper, even a broken doll. Jamal, who runs a cosy little shop selling traditionally embroidered dresses, told me that since the netting went up and the settlers could no longer hit Palestinians with their missiles, they sometimes resort to throwing bottles of urine or chemicals.
Hebron is a particular flashpoint as the Palestinians and settlers live right up next to each other and the settlers here are so peculiarly extreme and aggressive that many Israelis are disgusted by their actions. The atmosphere is always tense and oppressive and there are frequent clashes.
The city is divided into two parts – H1, a lively, noisy place administered by the Palestinian Authority which is home to around 130,000 Palestinians, and H2 which is under the iron control of the Israeli military. Here a further 35,000 Palestinians live plus about 600 Jewish settlers in three apartment blocks in the old city and a collection of houses and caravans on a slope above, guarded by around 2000 Israeli soldiers.
I arrived in Hebron last week with the rest of the EAPPI team who will be working here and we were shown round by the team we are taking over from. When we got to Jamal’s shop on a walk through the souk he pointed out the old stone apartments on the first floor above, and the newer apartments on the second floor. These were built by settlers 20 years ago and called the Abraham Avinu neighbourhood. After they moved in, he said, they gradually broke into and took over the former Palestinian apartments on the first floor too.
Reaching the end of Jamal’s street we rounded a corner and passed through Checkpoint 56 which consists of a Portakabin-style building placed across the road housing a metal detector and a couple of bored soldiers. This was the border between the H1 zone and H2 and suddenly all the hustle and bustle of the city fell silent.
No Palestinians are allowed to drive in this area – not even a taxi or an ambulance – all the shops, clinics and businesses have been closed down for “security” reasons and are shuttered and padlocked, few people were walking (the settlers are allowed to drive). It was like a ghost town.
We went up the road for 50 yards then turned right, heading for Hashem Al-Azzeh’s house on the slope known as Tel Rumeida. Turning right meant leaving the road to scramble up a stony bank then winding along a rough and narrow pathway through scrubland and up another couple of steep slopes. This has been the only way in and out of Hashem’s home since the building of the settlement 50 feet behind his house cut off access from the road. A month ago he had to carry his dying father in his arms down this way and along to the checkpoint to meet an ambulance which was allowed to come no nearer.
Being on the slope above the old city, Hashem’s house has a great view, but it also means that the house behind sits 30 feet above his and looms over it. Here lives Baruch Marzel, a right-wing radical Zionist, born in Brooklyn, New York, and now the founder and leader of the Jewish National Front Party whose avowed aim is to take over the whole area west of the Jordan river for the Israelis.
Hashem’s family – his two brothers and their families live in houses adjoining his – have suffered 20 years of harassment and attacks by the inhabitants of the Tel Rumeida settlement. Three years ago, Hashem says, a notoriously aggressive woman settler grabbed his ten-year-old nephew, Yusuf, stuffed stones in his mouth and rubbed them up and down, destroying his teeth. Then she screamed at Hashem that next time she would come with men who would rape his wife and kill him.
There is an old fridge rusting in Hashem’s back garden which was lobbed at his head and a Star of David has been spray painted on his back door.
As a result of this sort of treatment plus crippling curfews imposed by the army, the 350 Palestinian families who used to live in the area have been reduced to about 50 but Hashem and his brothers, who have been there for three generations, are determined to stay put.
He once tried to talk to Baruch Marzel, he told me. “I said to him: ‘I accept you as a neighbour, do you accept me?’ He said: ‘No. If you want peace, you can go to Jordan or Iran. Your houses and your land were promised by God to us.’ I know they don’t want peace. In fact, whenever relations improve between our governments, their harassment of us gets worse. But if I did anything to them to protect myself, the soldiers would shoot me.”
Just a few things make life bearable for Hashem – the support of Israeli friends and peace activists, the protection provided by international observers, and the steadfastness of his family. As we got up to leave, his two sisters and their husbands and children were arriving for a big family gathering over an evening meal. Hashem said:“I invite them to come all the time and to make as much noise as possible to show the settlers that we are here and we are going to stay.”I work for Quaker Peace and Social Witness as an Ecumenical Accompanier serving on the World Council of Churches’ Ecumenical Accompaniment Programme in Palestine and Israel (EAPPI). The views contained in this e-mail are personal and do not necessarily reflect those of my employer (QPSW) or the WCC.