Hebron, West Bank
Everyone is affected, from the smallest kid attending a kindergarten above a high wall topped by razor wire, to the oldest woman forced to take a long circuitous route around the checkpoint blocking the way to her home.
There are still some Palestinian families holding out on Shuhada Street. They live above shops that are welded shut, shops no more but fossilized reminders of what was once a thriving thoroughfare, Hebron’s busiest.
Shuhada Street was closed down after a blow-in from Brooklyn, who moved to the Kiryat Arba settlement, took a gun and massacred 29 Muslims, injuring 150 more, at the Al-Ibrahimi mosque in Hebron in 1994.
The Israelis decided to seal off Shuhada Street for “security reasons” following locals’ subsequent protests, forcing the shops to close and effectively punishing the Palestinians for an outrage committed by one of their own.
Baruch Goldstein, the murderer who was killed before he could kill any more, is buried in his adopted home of Kiryat Arba, where admirers can go and pay their respects. Many do.
“He gave his life for the people of Israel, its Torah and land,” is inscribed on his gravestone, according to The Atlantic. I didn’t visit the shrine.
I did go to Shuhada Street, though. Israeli soldiers graciously let me through the checkpoint after carefully checking my passport. Western tourists are allowed through the metal gates. Most Palestinians are not.
Everything at street level on Shuhada Street is sealed shut, and everything above – where Palestinians still live – is protected from settlers by welded wire mesh. One balcony, surrounded by a metal cage, had a sign saying, “Caution: This was taken by Israel. You are apartheid.”
The residents reach their homes though complicated means from the back streets not cut off by checkpoints. They have to climb stairs, over blocks, across neighboring roofs, and in through back entrances wherever and however possible.
Israeli soldiers from the neighboring military base (which used to be the bus station) jog up and down the deserted street, blasting hip-hop or some other shit from their Bluetooth speakers so the remaining inhabitants can enjoy it, too.
One soldier, exercising on his bike, filmed me with his phone while laughing as he cycled past. This was after I’d taken photographs of him on his first round. The soldiers are on edge. They don’t appreciate being photographed.
Shuhada Street now has signs in Hebrew, and there are placards detailing how Jews once lived in Hebron until they were massacred by Arabs in 1929. Then in 1967, when the Israelis took over the West Bank after the war that led to the current occupation, it was the “liberation of Hebron and reestablishment of its Jewish community.”
The Israeli settlements followed, aided by the military. In 1997 the Hebron Protocol divided the city into H1 and H2, the former encompassing about 80 percent of the city under Palestinian control and the rest, which includes most of the center, coming under Israeli control.
Though thousands of Palestinians fled their homes, a majority still lives in both H1 and H2, their movements severely restricted. On the other hand, despite making up making up a very small minority, the settlers can move freely in about 20 percent of the city.
The more settlements you have, the fewer Palestinians. It seems there is a concerted effort to make life as unbearable as possible so they will leave, allowing settlers take over. It’s a land grab, plain and simple.
In Hebron, there are settlements right in the center of the city, separated from the locals by razor wire, fencing and rubbish – by anything that acts as a barrier. There are checkpoints to ensure no locals bother the settlers, who proclaim their presence with Israel flags as if on conquered land.
The checkpoints are not just around the settlements, however, but also around the Al-Ibrahimi mosque, scene of the Goldstein massacre. Any Muslim who wants to pray in the mosque has to go through an Israeli checkpoint, which is basically a revolving gate where they pick people at random to harass and intimidate.
This is where I saw children crying because of the sheer numbers of people trying to get to the mosque on the prophet Mohammed’s birthday. It was frightening, hundreds of people pushing to get through barriers that can only fit one at a time. The soldiers could have opened the gates to let people through to the mosque, but no. They lit cigarettes, joked among themselves, and pointed their guns menacingly at anyone whose looks they didn’t like.
Every Saturday during the Jewish Shabbat, settlers go to the Palestinian market for a walkabout, protected by Israeli soldiers, singing provocative songs and taunting people whose homes they’ve taken.
The market is protected by wire meshing to stop the rubbish thrown from settlers living above. That’s just one form of intimidation – the soldiers also play their part, going on patrols in the “Palestinian controlled” H1, stopping locals at gunpoint and searching their vehicles or bags.
I’m only writing about what I saw in four days. There are countless other examples on YouTube.
Two forms of law apply: Israeli martial law for Palestinians, who also have their own police force, and civil law for the settlers. So an Israeli child throwing a stone will be treated very differently than a Palestinian child doing the same. It’s social services for the former, jail and military court for the latter. The day after I returned, a 5-year-old boy was taken away, placed in a military vehicle without a parent and taken to an unknown destination, according to CPT Palestine.
Unsurprisingly, the number of Palestinians living in H2 is dwindling. Remaining families who put up the ongoing harassment are not replaced when they leave.
Israel is taking over. The settlers have a purpose. Though they’re illegal under international law, the settlements function like the British plantations did in Ireland, displacing locals for outsiders to take their place.
Palestinians I met remained cautiously optimistic, however. They had similar sad stories, of homes lost, businesses closed, livelihoods destroyed, stories of ongoing hardship, but they somehow retain hope that the situation will change.