Ahlan wa sahlan, Ahlan wa sahlan…the welcoming phrase that you are greeted with as you take your first steps in the contentious terrain of Hebron. The greeting speaks volumes about the casual generosity of Palestinians and is a very hard thing to grasp for someone who has spent their last years in the self-consumed bubble that is London! Yet lying beneath this warm spirit is a barrage of stories of Palestinian arrests, forced displacements and endless disputes with the Jewish settlers living in the occupied territories.
Hebron provides one of the most tangible and tense examples of the ongoing conflict that has plagued the history of Palestine-Israel to date. The second largest city, south of West Bank, it is divided into two parts: the Israeli settler occupied H2 area (including parts under Israeli military rule) and the Palestinian controlled H1 area. The H2 zone has been home to the greatest areas of conflict between the Israeli Jews and Palestinians. This is mainly due to the establishment of some of the largest settlements in the heart of city. Many sources provide different figures for the population ratio of Jewish-to-Muslim presence, however recent estimates indicate a number of 800 settlers living alongside 170,000 Palestinians – with a further growth in settlements.
The violence that has ensued between these parallel communities forms part of a wider historical landscape. The most notable being, the Arab massacre of 67 Jews in 1929 and the 1994 massacre of 29 Muslims praying at the Ibrahimi Mosque. It is also important to note that Hebron has a holy significance. Touching the religious sentiment of all 3 Abrahamic religions, Judaism, Islam and Christianity, it is believed that Abraham’s tomb lies there. However, while one may mistake this common religious belief to serve as a possible unifier, it has culminated in a struggle for ownership.
Currently the settlers - with the strong support of the Israeli army (an approximate ratio of 4000 soldiers to 800 settlers) - have the upper hand. Thus as one can imagine, this results in an asymmetrical power dynamic, enabling settlers to inflict what we would deem unacceptable levels of both, physical violence and intimidation against the Palestinians residents.
The most disturbing visual image that you are confronted with is the caged roofing protecting Palestinians from the droppings (waste, urine, sometimes acid) settlers throw on top of them from their elevated houses. These conditions are further exacerbated by other tactics, which include the destruction of Palestinian-owned olive trees or the Israeli government’s confiscation of lands where the trees grow.
This proves vital to our understanding of the conflict. Not only have there been a series of physical and psychological assaults, which have been condoned by the Israeli state; there has also been a consistent strategy of undermining Palestinian attempts to build an economic infrastructure. One that is self-sufficient and free of Israeli dependence. By consequence, Palestine’s weaker position vis-à-vis Israel is sustained, limiting its influence and negotiating capacity on the international stage.
In a tour with a local Palestinian, Sundus, our guide gives us a personalised account of the conflict. Living just more than a stone throw away from the settler house, she shows us video footage of her family and friends suffering frequent harassment by the settlers and the Israeli soldiers. Sundus goes on to give a specific example of her brother’s own run in with a settler attempting to run his car into her brother – whether it was merely a tactic of intimidation or with real intent is not known. While her brother managed to escape, the settler then proceeded in his assault by getting out of his car and attacking him.
As if desperate to convey the situation to those of us who can take these stories outside the confines of the occupied land, Sundus shows us some more recent footage of an arrest of a 51-year-old Palestinian women. The footage is a disturbing episode of an elderly women wailing as Israeli soldiers arrest her son, for reasons unknown to them. In a moment of frustration the mother attempts to stop the soldiers by hitting them, only to be arrested herself. Having been held for some time before being handcuffed, the mother becomes hysterical. Our translator tells us that she is told to ‘shut up’ by one of the soldiers and following this, we see the woman collapse on to the ground.
Our tour ends with a visit to Shuada street, a former bustling Arab street filled with shops which has now been boarded up and restricted to Palestinians. The experience is made all the more bizarre as we are able to saunter down this street while our Palestinian guide has to wait our return as she is not able to ‘trespass’ on these grounds. The irony is not lost, as we internationals – with no claims to the land – are able to use our rights to free movement, while a Palestinian, who according to international law has rightful ownership over Hebron is unable to exercise that same freedom.
The impression one is left with is that of despair. It is hard to feel undisturbed by what is clearly an infringement of the most fundamental human rights and the everyday violence caused by the Israeli settlements, something which has continued unabated for over 40 years.
From the vast supply of soldiers to the numerous watchtowers that overlook the H2 area, the looming threat of aggression manages to distil calls for resistance among the Palestinian population. Yet, remarkably the warm spirit of the Palestinians we meet still remains as we are showered in a thousand welcomes, coffees and invitations into unknown homes.
Written by Ayesha Carmouche and published on 05-December-2012