I have traveled the world and been in all sorts of situations. But I never experienced what I did today in Hebron. I walked through what felt like a war zone on a tense truce as I saw a town gasping for its own survival.
This story, which is the story of Old Hebron, began in 1979 when a group of extreme Zionist women and children broke through to Palestinian territory and took control of a building there. Although it was illegal, they were allowed to stay. The Israeli government did nothing to remove them.
After one year of remaining in the building, tragically extremists on the Palestinian side killed six of the settlers. Once that happened, the settlers were allowed to stay and 40 families joined them. They took control of Palestinian territory.
Because this was in Palestinian territory that is controlled by the Israeli Army, the army took pains to protect the illegal settlers. Today there are 700 settlers protected by 2,000 Israeli soldiers in an area that is actually part of Palestine.
We were led on a tour by Anna, a human rights observer for the World Council of Churches, along with Iris, from Uruguay. Their job is to watch what is happening, report it, videotape it and share it with others, as well as being present to help protect children going to school..
They showed us the empty streets of a ghost town being choked to death.
Places where there had been vibrant businesses and a market were forcibly closed by the Israeli Army because it claimed there were security concerns. Palestinian homeowners needed to put bars on their windows to protect their homes from attacks from settlers. Where Palestinians had abandoned their homes because of their inability to have any mobility or businesses, a flag of Israel hung, claiming it for the settlers.
The names of the streets were all changed from their Arabic names to Hebrew names, and the street signs were in English and Hebrew. Keep in mind — this is Palestinian territory.
Our guide told us horror stories. She showed us a gate that students and teachers must go through to attend school each day that is controlled by the Israeli military. The people who live in the area by the gate also must pass through. But the residents are the only Palestinians allowed through the gate. They are forbidden to receive any Palestinian visitors.
Because of the control of the occupying Israeli forces, ambulances can’t come into this region. If residents need medical help, they must be carried out. And because there are turnstiles at the checkpoint, the army needs to open the gates to get through. Unfortunately, they are closed at night, and so the residents are trapped.
She said that when people go through Checkpoint 56, only internationals and residents can enter that area. No other visitors, except the schoolteachers and students at the school, are allowed.
Those who live there have a handwritten number on their pass and they give it to the guards. They are then told if they are on the list. If the soldier says they are not on the list, they can be made to wait for hours, even if they have lived there their entire lives. They are at the mercy of the whims of the soldiers.
Teachers are often detained, as well, making them late for school, even though their passes clearly said that they are allowed to enter.
Our guide was there to report what she sees and she told us. She had been personally assaulted and hit and spat upon and had eggs thrown and urine dumped on her.
As she walks with the children to school, settlers throw rocks and hurl insults at children. They dump urine on them. But the Palestinians are helpless to respond. The goal is to get them to retaliate and if the Palestinians do, they are put in prison or their homes are taken. The only thing they can do in the face of vitriol and assault is to run away because any other response will get a person detained to face charges.
Anna told us there are two sets of laws. The Palestinians face military law, so a thrown rock is an act of terrorism. For the Israeli it is civil law and a minor—uncharged — offense.
At 14, a Palestinian can be put in jail as an adult — and if they are 13, they are held until they are 14 to be charged. It isn’t the age when they commit the act, it is the age they are when they go to trial. And children can serve up to 15 years in prison for throwing a rock.
She told us that last week 14 Palestinian children — all under the age of 12 — were detained by the Israeli guards. They were put in a cage by the checkpoint together, so small cage that they were forced against one another. The military kicked them, hit them, took selfies in front of them.
And they did all of this while it was being videotaped by the human rights activists while others were watching.
Imagine what happens behind closed doors. In custody, people are blindfolded, spat upon and threatened to have their home taken away or to be thrown in prison. It is no wonder that so much anger is stirred between these two factions. It breeds hatred from the very beginning. It seems so hopeless.
The settlers are biding their time. They use claims of security concerns for the illegal settlers to clamp down on every available freedom in order to make the place unlivable for the Palestinians. The settlers’ goal is to provoke violence from the Palestinians in order to claim more territory as their own when they act out.
Yet nonviolent resisters hold onto the hope that some day they will be able to keep their land, and in the meantime, maintain their dignity. They also want to help those who wish to respond in violence to turn to nonviolence as a way to survive. Violence will lead them to lose what they have. So the Palestinians need to hold on, hope and pray that world will care enough to say “enough.”
After our tour, we had dinner in the home of a Palestinian woman. We reclined in a room that was reminiscent of the upper room and shared a feast she made and then she came in to join us.
She lives in fear that her home is next, that what happened in the Old Town will happen to her, and in the reality of economic and physical oppression.
She first made it clear that the Palestinians don’t fight because the people are Jewish. They are willing to share. But they also want to keep what is theirs.
She said, “It is so hard, but we know we will go to heaven for surviving this. That is our hope. We suffer so much. We have no weapons. They surround us with guns, but we have only our bodies.
“Our children are in prisons you built with your U.S. tax dollars. We need you to look at what we see and feel what we feel. To see what it is like. We aren’t fighting because they are Jewish. We fight because it is our home and our land. Peace you should feel. We don’t feel safe. We need to feel safe. Then we can talk about peace.”
She finished by saying, “I just want to share. What you want for yourselves you should want for me.”
This is a sad and hard story of a town being killed and the people within it slowly losing hope, as their neighbors wonder if they are next. But it needs to be shared.
I can testify with my own eyes what I saw and what I heard with my own ears in order to know what my brothers and sisters in Hebron are feeling.
This is an illegal occupation, and we need to advocate for a powerless people. They deserve justice, dignity and human rights. Layla is right. We should want for them the basic rights what we want for ourselves, and anything less than that is not enough.