HEBRON (Occupied Palestinian West Bank), Jan. 22 (IPS) - As the illegal Israeli occupation grinds on, the daily situation for Palestinians worsens by the day. Hebron presents a vivid picture of the cumulative face of this colonial project.
Hebron, about 35km south of Jerusalem in the occupied West Bank, has historically existed as a mixed Muslim-Jewish city, but over the last few decades the Israeli authorities have been choking its 150,000 Palestinians while supporting the settler movement.
Approximately 650 radical right-wing settlers have taken over parts of the old city, destroyed Palestinian neighbourhoods and the economic infrastructure, and are free to terrorise Palestinians at whim.
Hebron is divided into two parts called H1 and H2, drawing a line between the settlements and the rest of the city. Today, most Palestinians are not allowed anywhere near H2.
Once a bustling marketplace and residential neighbourhood, that part of the city has become essentially a ghost town inhabited by settlers who are protected by the occupation soldiers and the Israeli police force.
Graffiti is sprayed all over the closed metal shop doors and mosques, with Stars of David and slogans such as ‘Kill the Arabs’, ‘God will take revenge on the non-religious’, ‘Arabs to the gas chambers’.
Hani Abu Akker was born in his house 40 years ago in the Tel Rumeida neighbourhood, now a part of H2, at the top of a steep hill that overlooks the old city of Hebron. Here, the cacophony of the lively Palestinian market below blends with the shouts and sounds of children playing soccer against the walls of apartments near Hani’s home.
“See this street? My father built it with his own hands in 1945, before there was anything called Israel,” he told IPS, standing near the house where he now lives at the bottom of the hill.
Abu Akker cannot enter his home through the front door. Barbed wire and steel bars enclosing his home are only minimal protection against the ongoing attacks and harassment he and his family of ten face almost daily. To come and go from home, Abu Akker must use the backdoor, cross a small, muddy meadow and circumvent the neighbourhood from the back.
Abu Akker’s house is in the middle of a colonial war zone, and the Israeli soldier behind a small pillbox barrack mandates who comes and goes up and down his street. Jewish settlers roam the streets often carrying firearms.
Israeli Yehuda Shaul knows too well the structure of policy and law enforcement in Hebron. Co-founder of the left-wing activist group Breaking the Silence, Shaul earlier spent his mandatory military service as commander of a battalion stationed in the H2 district.
“All you need to know about the occupation you can see in this 5-kilometre square area inside Hebron,” Shaul tells IPS, standing in the middle of an open space that was once a lively meat market but is now completely destroyed and abandoned, with garbage and twisted metal littering the ground.
“It’s all here. This is a microcosm of what’s happening in Israel-Palestine … here, 650 settlers run the town, and 150,000 Palestinians pay the price. There is a policy here, and I know because it was told to me, and I was expected to pass it on to my unit, that we are not to interfere against the settlers.”
Palestinians living in this area have been attacked and harassed for years. Many families have left the area after years of torment, and the rain of garbage, faeces, oil, car batteries, used diapers, old furniture and large rocks thrown onto their homes and through their windows.
Palestinian children have been the target of serious physical attacks in recent years. International human rights workers have stationed themselves near the elementary school specifically to escort children to and from school during the day.
Last week Efrat Akobi, a settler in Tel Rumeida, was questioned by the Israeli police after B’Tselem, an Israeli human rights group, released film footage where Akobi was seen verbally harassing a teenaged member of a Palestinian family in the neighborhood.
In the footage, Akobi taunts the young girl, telling her to “get back in your cage”, while hurling insults at her.
Israeli Defence Minister Amir Peretz said he was “shocked” by the footage and announced he would ask for a full investigation. But Palestinians in Hebron say this is not an isolated incident, and that many more shocking incidents come daily in this small area.
B’Tselem said in a statement published last week: “The attacks in Hebron are carried out in full view of Israeli soldiers, who are unable or unwilling to stop them. The Hebron police, who receive hundreds of complaints about settler violence, are also well aware of the situation.”
The statement added: “The fact that the Defence Minister and the security establishment feign ignorance and mobilise to respond to the problem only following the public controversy generated by this video is outrageous.”
Meanwhile, as press coverage waxes and wanes, Hani Abu Akker recalls something that happened almost two years ago, that he says still keeps him up at night.
“My father at the time was very sick. We negotiated (with the Israeli military) for the ambulance to come to our house. It took over 48 hours for the ambulance to pass. My father went to the hospital, and slipped into a coma. My father told me two weeks before that he wanted to die in his house and that I should make arrangements when it was time.
“After a few weeks, the doctor said my father should go back to the house to die according to his wishes. After another two days of negotiations with the Israeli military, they let us pass to our home. My father eventually passed away.
“When my father’s body was transferred to the ambulance, the settlers made a circle and surrounded it. They began dancing and throwing sweets and candies at the ambulance. They cheered, ‘Your old man is dead. We hope all of you will be dead too.’
“I saw an Israeli soldier standing alone, tears streaming down his face. He was sad and frustrated that he could not stop this from happening. I realised that I was not the only one bothered by this. Even the soldiers that are here to protect the settlers could not believe what was happening.
“Before this happened, I tried to make contact with the Israeli settlers; to talk with them, to say that we should try peace — we live in the same neighbourhood, so we should live together and live our lives in peace. But instead, on that day, I understood that they came not just to live here but they came to move the Palestinians from their neighbourhoods; to remove them without discussion.”
Two years on, all that has not changed in Hebron.
All rights reserved, IPS – Inter Press Service (2007). Total or partial publication, retransmission or sale forbidden.