Saturday April, 11 - Hebron

Wednesday 6 January 2010
popularity : 5%

Up at 7 a.m. : today we are going to Hebron, which means about an hour travel by bus. Mazen, Ayssar and Mohammed are coming with us : it will be their first time in Hebron although it is only 30 kilometres away from their camp.

We meet in front of the centre where there is a crowd in spite of the early hour : it is departure day for the Al-Rowwad young theatrical company. They are leaving for Austria ! And since, of course, both buses are late (ah, Palestinian organisation ! Their timing is definitely different from ours ... Seriously though : how else could it be when they can be arrested or prevented to cross a checkpoint anytime the Israeli soldiers feel like it ?), we use the opportunity to speak with the kids and their parents who are both proud and anxious for their little artists. Ribal and Salam are leaving too and we wish them all the best, much pleasure and success abroad.

One hour travel on winding roads… Israeli settlements on top of the hills, modern roads that link them together, which Palestinians are forbidden to use, soldiers, jeeps, control towers, checkpoints... Again, let’s remember we are in the West Bank, not in Israel : the occupied territories are indeed occupied and well.

In Hebron we are welcomed by Chantal Abu-Eisheh from the Hebron-France Friendship and meet a group of Belgians and French people whom we will spend the day with. We split into the different cars that will take us to the old town. Four of us go with Chantal’s husband, an impressive (though very nice) bearded Palestinian professor who speaks an excellent French and shows much humour and self-mockery : « Palestinians have no problems. These people only have solutions waiting for problems, and these solutions get bored when they find no problems to solve ! », he says…

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On the way down, he stops the cars on the road that overhangs the old town and comments on what we can see : "The Martyrs-street (which is 3-km long and which Palestinians are prohibited to use) divides Hebron into 2 zones : Hebron 1 (H1) and Hebron 2 (H2). Although it is in the West Bank (and so normally under Palestinian authority), Hebron 2 (and the old city) is occupied by Israel which means that all the power is concentrated in the army’s hands".

He goes on pointing at different buildings : "Israeli constructions have increased since the 1993 Oslo Agreements. In Hebron, there are vestiges dating back to the Canaans, the Ottomans (for ex «The Quarantine" monument), but the Israeli settlers have either built their houses on these historical monuments or made them inaccessible to the Palestinians as well as to the foreign tourists. The same has happened to a number of buildings that were once used by the Palestinians : for example, the settlers have annexed the school for the children of the 1948 refugees and made a museum of it, the free clinic is now inside one of the settlements, my own primary school has become a religious school for the Israelis (consequently many shops have had to close down, roads and neighbouring Palestinian houses have been forbidden to their owners, and «watch »-posts have been set up to ensure the security of the Israeli schoolboys and girls). Many houses (among them my grand-parents’) are now isolated behind the numerous road-blocks and barricades that cut the town streets and roads".

It’s the first time we see a colonized city : in Jerusalem, the settlements were "outside" the old city, not interwoven like here. Again, what we hear about the settlers overwhelms us.

We get back into the cars and drive on : "What is special about this town, our guide says, is that wherever you are, you are observed and controlled from everywhere (cameras and miradors). You will notice it when you are in the streets. The old town, he goes on, is inhabited by a very poor population : most of the small shops have had to close down on military order or because their owners have left, hoping for a better life for themselves and their children elsewhere. Soup kitchen (churba, with sometimes a bit of meat) is distributed to those who come and ask for some everyday..."

We are now in the old town and our professor-driver leaves us in the hands of young Palestinian students who work for the Committee for the Rehabilitation of the Old Town of Hebron and will guide us around the town : they first take us all to the Patriarchs’Tombs, a religious place Muslims and Jews «share». According to the legend, 4 biblical heroes are buried here : Abraham, Isaac, Jacob and Joseph.

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The whole group queues up at the three control-posts : at the first one, we are questioned (quite dryly) by young armed Israeli soldiers ("where from, why here, who, what… ?"), then pass through a metal-detector portal where we have to take off our belt, jewels, shoes. At the second control-post (5 meters away) they take our passports, at the third one (another few meters away) we are asked the same questions again... Living in Aida has helped us forget a bit about the brutality of the soldiers at Bethlehem checkpoint, but we are back to it... One of the Palestinian guides, a nice veiled young woman, confides to us that "the aim of it all is to discourage, or even prevent the Palestinians from going to the mosque"...

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We enter the building on the "Muslim side" : the girls and women of the group are given a brown, rather ugly brown nylon cape to cover themselves with and everybody is invited to take off their shoes and leave them in the boxes provided. Inside the mosque, ceramics and paintings, geometrical designs in black, red and grey ("Mamelouk style"), red prayer-mats all lined up towards the Mecca, white walls, no furniture or pictures. The dome is currently under repair but the guides assure us that when the sun comes through the coloured glass, it is « really great ». They tell us about the place : "There was a massacre here on February 25, 1994 : Baruch Goldstein, a doctor from the neighbouring settlement of Kyriat Arba opened fire on the congregation with a machine-gun and murdered 29 people, wounded 150 before he was beaten to death. His tomb has now become a pilgrimage place for all the fanatical Israeli settlers. After this event the mosque was closed for 6 months. When it was opened again, it was cut into two parts, from then on, one of them reserved to the Jews, the other one to the Muslims. Yet, for a few days every year, both parts are made accessible at the same time, yet either only to the Jews, or only to the Muslims". We have a look around, not so much interested in the Patriarchs’ Tombs as in a narrow barred window hidden behind one of the cenotaphs : if we lean forward over the little barrier that surrounds it, we can steal a glance at Jewish people who are praying in the "synagogue" part of the building. Apart from this, there is no contact between the two communities who ignore each other...

Our three friends from Aida, Mazen, Mohammed and Ayssar, didn’t come inside the mosque with the group. They preferred to wait for us at the entrance, not feeling too much at ease here, they say (because of the tourists ?). As we all go out, we bump into messy little kids who are all carrying plastic cans and buckets : they have come to get their daily soup from the soup kitchen, the guide tells us : "It’s the house next to their school but because of the control posts, they have to make a 350-meter detour to reach it." It looks obvious to us that the soldiers could have set up their barricades 2 metres farther and allow the children to go from the one door to the other directly… "It is part of the vexations and humiliations they subject the Palestinians to", the young guide answers quietly.... Where have we already heard this? Whose voice do we remember saying the same thing in the same much too reasonable way?... Daoud, in Jerusalem...

To get to the souks of the old city, we have to go through the control posts again where we all get our passports back... Well, should get them back : the soldiers first refuse to give our young Palestinian friends their documents back and then concentrate on Ayssar (18)and rather harshly lay into him because apparently he doesn’t have the right papers with him. As we come closer to try to speak for him and tell the soldiers Ayssar is with us, we are brutally rebuffed and ordered to clear off. We understand that the more insistent we will be with them, the more dearly it will cost Ayssar. On our guides’ advice (and they look really anxious that we should stop "harassing" the soldiers!), we accept to move away and (pretend to) follow the whole group, hoping this will help the soldiers calm down and let go off Ayssar. But Mazen and Mohammed are too horrified to just let their friend down and come with us.

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We have to go on with the group, but Sophie and Laetitia decide to stay with the two boys and use the opportunity to take pictures of the scene as discreetly as possible... As we say in French "le pot de terre contre le pot de fer", one individual struggling against the authorities can’t hope to win : a scatterbrained teenager (why Ayssar - in light blue on the picture - had his brother’s papers and not his on, nobody can understand) in front of armed soldiers, carrying M16 and bludgeons, feeling so powerful in their combat-shoes and within their rights !... Ayssar is isolated, then locked up into a van that has wire netting covering the windows. Later in the day, we will learn that he has been sent to prison in Jerusalem, where his father will have to go and collect him…

Everybody in the group is shattered : so many arbitrary actions and this palpable violence, including to us, decent Westerners (!). We feel hardly more shielded from these soldiers’ brutality than the Palestinians. The only difference, but it is of importance, is that apart from making us waste our time, these soldiers can’t really harm us (They must in any case avoid spoiling Israel’s image abroad ! It IS a democracy, isn’t it?... Well for the Israelis...) As for the Palestinians, they are sent to prison faster than we can imagine. So we all keep a low profile, feeling both sad and revolted, and are very thoughtful towards Mazen and Mohammed whose hearts are in their boots during their whole first day in Hebron...

To enter the souks of the old town the whole group has to make a large detour to get just a bit farther on the same road, which is barred and guarded by armed soldiers that look at us suspiciously. "This is the lot of the Palestinians of Hebron", the young guide tells us quietly. "I know several families trapped behind a barricade that forces them to a twelve-kilometre detour before they can get a few meters further on their street. If they could go straight, it would take them 2 minutes…"

The big group is now divided into 3 sub-groups, each of which accompanied by a guide will walk along the streets of the old town and see what the settlers have done to the Palestinian districts. "The streets of Hebron are more than 800-years old, our guide informs us. The town was not surrounded by a rempart nor a defense wall : the houses were built so close to one another that it sufficed as a protection barrier against the invaders. Most of them date back to the Mamluk period but were destroyed in a terrible earthquake and then rebuilt by the Ottomans who respected the Mamluk architecture (for ex, the moucharabieh, triangular wooden windows full of little holes that enabled the ladies to look outside without being seen). The Committee for the Rehabilitation where I work is keen on restoring these old houses as well as on creating playgrounds for the children and bringing Beauty back into the town : each stone is hand-cut, carved and set by qualified craftsmen we have trained to ancient techniques". And to illustrate what she says, she takes us to a house under repair, which is being rehabilitated into a school and library for Palestinian children : it is splendid work, with great building materials (the white stone used is wonderfully beautiful). And we feel it : there really is a soul in this place… "252 people work at the rehabilitation of old houses (850 restored flats already !), but our work is by the Israeli soldiers who either arrest the workmen-craftsmen and throw them into prison, or stop them from going to their building-site (they then work behind their back !), or prevent the necessary materials from being delivered on the sites (the Palestinians of Hebron aren’t allowed to use a car : they have the materials carried by donkeys, but it costs a lot in time and money !)"

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We are going now through the old souk : the vaulted place is deserted, the poorest people survive here the best they can. Messy little children harass us until we buy their little trifles. It is difficult to say no, their eyes are too big for their little faces as they beg us : « help us, please, help us »…

The street goes a bit up now, more stalls are open, more goods are on sale, sunshine again and above our heads the blue sky and… armed soldiers on the roofs, wire fencing and nets stretched across the street holding back household refuse, rubbish of all kinds, even stones (heavy enough to knock somebody out or even kill him !) : all things thrown on the Palestinians by the Jewish settlers who have annexed the upper floors and terraces of the houses of the old town...

"After the second Intifada (2000), our guide tells us, there was much trouble : the settlers drove the Palestinians to leaving Hebron, either by forcing them to sell their house (more than a family who refused the money offered saw relatives killed and their house burnt), or by making their life hell (harassment, armed settlers raiding on the town, attacking young girls, shoplifting, letting go off their dogs on children, broadcasting songs and speeches in Hebrew at full volume on loudspeakers at night, poisoning animals (chicken, horses), throwing stones and household refuse, putting freshly rehabilitated houses on fire, forcing shops to close down…), or else preventing the Palestinians from rehabilitating their house and stocking up with goods (blocked roads and streets)…" She smiles at us : "You know, all these settlements on top on the old houses are illegal : according to the International Right, it is strictly forbidden to erect new buildings on old ones".

As we look up to the roofs, we can see quite a number of Israeli flags through the nets and wire and firmly camped next to them, soldiers pointing their M16 at the crowd. Information from our guide : "There are 101 checkpoints with turnstiles inside the town (where the Palestinians can be arbitrarily detained for hours, be they pregnant women or students going to sit for an exam) in addition to the 5 big checkpoints that regulate all the non-Israelis’ coming in and going out of the town… "

There are many things to see in Old Hebron. There are also the smiles and the extreme kindness of the Palestinian inhabitants who are all positively surprised to see us go amidst them… We meet one of the two other sub-groups : they have been on a visit of the house of a Palestinian family to whom Jewish settlers had offered a certain amount of money for it. The owners having refused the deal, Jews turned up a little time later and merely assassinated the two sons of the family. As the Palestinians still refused to leave their house, the Jews came back and set it on fire. The Palestinian family live now in what is left of their house. They welcomed the group of visitors really warmly, invited them on the terrace and showed them all the Jewish military posts set on the roofs of the neighbouring houses. They then told them that they have made a film about what happened to them, which they sell at an open price to the people who visit the town, so as to try to get enough money to repair their house. Again, we can’t but marvel at the Palestinian people’s wonderful ability to hold up their head and spring to life again after the hardships they have been through : another example of the vitality, the creativity of common people facing oppression with Beautiful Resistance !

The 3 sub-groups (as well as Mazen, Sophie, Laetitia and Mohammed) all meet back in the offices of the Commitee for the Rehabilitation of the Old Town where a slide-show is offered to us : there are different maps that clearly show the progressive confinement of the Palestinians of Hebron, the Israeli sealing off of the town. The President of the Committee comments on the slides : "600 years ago, Hebron was a famous city not only because of its mosque but also for its vineyards, its craft industry, its quarries, its stained-glass windows which were made in professional factories. It was the largest commercial town in the West Bank. But in 1967, the Israel seized it and started building settlements all around and inside it. They divided the town into two, forbade the Palestinians to go from one side to the other (be it on foot or by car) and multiplied the pressures (interdictions, vexations) to force the Palestinians to leave the town and its surroundings so as to be able to enlarge the territory of the settlements even more".

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"At present there are 6 settlements in Hebron, 5 of which in the old town, which make up maximum 400 settlers. Yet, for their security, 1500 soldiers have been dispatched who (in addition to the biased History courses they were given at school) have been brainwashed and are indeed convinced to be in peril of their life among all those Palestinian terrorists."

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"Yet, it is the settlers who actually terrorize the inhabitants of Hebron. Some of them set up raids in the town, and pace up and down the streets everyday in an absolutely arrogant way while letting their children make fun at the expense of the Palestinians..."

"Today, the town’s economy is dead. The customers have all gone. 76,6% of the shops have closed down, the unemployment rate is high. There is but only one access to the mosque (and consequently endless queues because of the permanent controls), the schoolchildren’s satchel is searched everyday as they go to or come back from school, some were even body-searched which traumatized them to the point that they preferred to stop going to school and stay locked at home. There are 50 pupils in each classrooms, except in the old town where there are only 20 left after many children have given up going".

"The Israelis are ready to do anything to drive the Palestinians to leaving Hebron. But thanks to the Committee for the Rehabilitation, the number of Palestinians living in the old town has increased from 1000 in 1993 to 3-4000 people today : the Committee tries to re-create a residential area in the old town, encourages the people to come back and live here, develops cultural activities to attract customers and tries to stop the Israeli invasion. We get money from our sponsors (we notice Belgium is not on the list ! …), Switzerland for ex. has enabled us to rehabilitate a whole street and to plant trees that will soon blossom…"

The slide show is over. We thank our hosts for their time and explanations. But they thank us even more for coming and being interested in the Palestinians. Before we leave, we interview our young guide who kindly answers our questions about "Palestinian women and Islam".

Interview of the student
IMG/mp3/Hebron_-_interview_etudiante.mp3

We take our leave of Chantal Abu-Eisheh and the group of French and Belgians, climb back into our mini-bus, except for Louise and Theodore who both go and visit the Hebron glass-factory...

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We will spend the evening in Bethlehem smallest refugee camp : Al-Aaroub. That’s where Tarek lives for the moment since he is not in his own flat but in his cousin’s’. In Palestine, it is customary for a man who wants to get married to build his own house (which in the current situation of occupation comes down to building an additional floor to his parents’ house when it is still possible). But Tarek doesn’t have enough money to accomplish this. His wife, Sarah, who is an English teacher, is currently unemployed and he can’t afford to save money on the salary he earns for the work he does at Al-Rowwad. They will have to move out as his cousin is soon getting married and will need the flat back. Tarek doesn’t know where his little family will go then... He doesn’t complain about it, that’s what happens to most young couples in the refugee camps...

Oussama is there too as well as two young Americans he has met : Ty and the handsome Michael, whom we tell about our plan to go to Nablus the next day and who accept our invitation to join us immediately. It is a deal then! We’ll go together with Oussama, Tarek, Ty and Michael, and Myriam whom we haven’t seen anymore since she collected us at Bethlehem checkpoint on the first day ! The evening turns into a song competition : the West facing the East, each team requested to find a song beginning with the final sound of the competitors’ song. Nobody acknowledges the victory of the other team of course ... !

Music with Oussama
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Read the continuation of the trip

Note : the maps/pictures marked with * have been found on the internet... We thank the authors not to see there any bad intention.