Ever since I arrived in the West Bank, I’ve been wanting to go to Hebron, sadly known for being the place where the occupation is the most visible and violent, because the settlements are in this case inside of the city (on the contrary to most of cities of the region, where the settlements are generally on top of hills surrounding them).
But around Nablus, there’s always something to do, so when I realized how much time had gone by, that I would have to leave soon and could possibly not be able to come back, I decided to arrange my stay there, by contacting the only person from Hebron who is on CouchSurfing, Mo.
Mo welcoms me warmly in his home when I arrive after a very long trip from Nablus with a change of buses in Ramallah. He lives outside of the center, close to the university.
After some insightful conversations, he takes me and the other ‘couchsurfers’, two lovely Austrian girls, to watch the sunset. On the way, we walk by a watchtower. Mo tells us that soldiers often hang out in a building close to where he comes and sits almost everyday, and explains that if they wanted, they could shoot him anytime. There would probably not be any consequences for them. This is no news for me, but the two girls react strongly to the whole thing. I realize they are discovering this situation for the first time, and they are indignant about it. They can’t believe such things are happening. For my part, I sadly have to admit that I am so used to hearing those stories daily, that nothing surprises me anymore…
The next day, after sharing a breakfast and thanking Mo for is wonderful hospitality, we set off for the center of the city, where I will meet some other volunteers from Project Hope that are coming for the day.
That’s when the uncomfortable journey through one of the most disturbing places I’ve ever been to begins…
After driving by the new city, which doesn’t seem very different from all the others I’ve seen until now, I find my friends in the old city, with the help of locals. Soon, we notice details, an atmosphere that is indeed very different from all the other Palestinian cities.
We are in Palestine, but Israel is everywhere. I mean, it is also all over the rest of the West Bank, but here, it’s even more intense, more invasive than anywhere else. Can you imagine looking out of your window to see a soldier watching you? That’s how many people in Hebron live. Let me tell you more about it…
As you can see in the map above, Hebron (Al-Khalil in Arabic) is separated into two main areas – H1 and H2, one belonging to the Palestinian Authority and the other to Israel.
A small area is mentioned as Area C. This is part of the bigger picture – the West Bank is divided between areas A, B and C, like the following image explains:
The numbers in this map may be outdated, since it’s a few years old and the number of settlers (and settlements) keep growing all the time.
Anyway, back to Hebron. Here’s a summary of the history of the city in the last century:
Palestine was under the British Mandate from 1921 to 1947. In 1929, after riots in Jerusalem in reaction to Zionist movements, 67 Jews were killed in Hebron. Hundreds of others were protected by the Muslim population.
After being under Egypt control for a couple of years, Jordan then took over Hebron until 1967, when Israel took possession of the entire area. Settlements started being built in 1969, until the first settlers were implanted inside of the heart of the city, in 1976. In 1994, a settler penetrated in Ibrahim Mosque during praying time and shot at the crowd: 29 Palestinians were killed and 200 were injured. In 1997, the city was divided into the two zones that I presented earlier. Since 2000, a part of the old city is forbidden for Palestinians, including the old main street, forcing hundreds of shops to close and thousands of people to leave their homes.
Today, there are 5 settlements in the old town, where about 500 settlers live, protected by around 2000 soldiers (a ratio that’s a bit over the top, don’t you think?). That’s for the theoretical part, that I knew a bit about before going there. But no words will ever be able to grasp the suffocating atmosphere in which Hebronites have to live in every single day of their lives. Just spending a few hours there made me sick.
The streets of the old city need to be protected by grids, because the settlers keep throwing objects and rocks onto the locals.
After walking for a few minutes, we come across a dead end. We’re told that this path use to be connected to the main street, that is now under Isreali occupation.
A man sees us and offers us to go up onto his roof, so that we can understand the situation better. From there, we have a clear view of the occupied part of the city. And it’s terrifying. The settlements are literally next to the Palestinian houses. Here too, they need a grid above their own roof to protect themselves from what the settlers could throw at them.There’s a watchtower a few meters away from there, and another a bit further with a soldier watching. The inhabitants of this building can’t access the road just below their house, because it’s an H2 zone. We look and see Israeli children playing there. There’s also a Muslim cemetery across the street, but the people can’t cross it. So, if they want to pay respect to their lost beloved ones, they have to make a huge detour of several kilometres, around the settlement. And as if this can’t get any worse, the owner then shows us their water tanks, that have been shot by settlers in order to empty them.
To the people who support Israel, I have a question: How does “defending yourselves” justify depriving civilians from basic necessities such as water? ….
After thanking these people, who see in us the hope that their message will get out there, we continue our exploration of the city, until we reach the checkpoint between the two zones, just before Ibrahim’s Mosque, considered to be the Cave of the Patriarchs. Anyone who wants to go and pray there has to cross it everyday.
On the other side, many soldiers are around. A bit further, part of the old main street, “Shuada Street” or street of the martyrs, is shared by both Palestinians and settlers.
We reach a point where Palestinians can’t go further. We can, after showing our passports. The place is extremely creepy; we walk along totally empty streets, with remains of all the shops that had to close. We can only imagine how it was like at the time, when the heart of the city was there…. Now I understand why they call it the Ghost Town.
There are Israeli flags and propaganda posters everywhere. Hebron has always been inhabited by a majority of Muslims, and a small minority of Jewish people. We see a few military vehicles and soldiers, some settlers.
There are also walls that separate the roads that used to lead to the rest of the old city…
Some settlers are waiting for the bus that can take them directly to Jerusalem – a road that’s of course forbidden to Palestinians…
On our way back, we want to visit the mosque. There is a Jewish side and a Muslim side. We first try to go to the side of the synagogue, but we are stopped by soldiers who ask our friend Tariq, that has darker skin, if he is a Muslim, to which he answers yes. They tell him he can’t go in. The rest of the group still wants to see it, but all the soldiers (who are younger than us) are now very suspicious. “Why do you have a Muslim friend?” They ask to see our passeports. One of them is French, but still asks “Where is the religion on your passeport?” to the French person of our group, as if he didn’t know that her religion is not written on there. Then, one of them sees my necklace, which represents a key – symbol of the houses taken away from the Palestinians – and gets very angry at me. “Are you kidding me? You think you can support Palestine and go in?” Yeah, because of course, supporting Palestine makes me a terrorist. We ask them if they can go in the Muslim side and they say they can’t, but are clearly lying because we will later see some soldiers in the mosque. The conversation starts getting a bit heated, and I decide to leave before I really lose my temper – I don’t even want to see the Jewish side anymore…
So we only visit the Muslim side.
We go back in the H1 zone and keep walking around for a while…
A few minutes before we leave, some people tell us to come and see their street. Some barbed wires separate it from settlements just above their heads. They show us some trash on the floor and explain to us that just 20 minutes ago, the settlers threw it there, as they do everyday. That’s how they make them feel, every single day – like trash.
On the way back, my mind is full of questions. How can this situation be real? Why would people even want to live in these settlements? How are we not doing anything to stop it? Will this ever stop? And again, I see the wall in the horizon…
And I swear to myself to do the only thing I can do, which is to spread the message of these oppressed people. If you feel the same way as I do, please do the same and share this blog post.