Photostory: Total occupation, a journey around Hebron

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With 400 hard-line religious settlers packed tightly amidst more than 160,000 Palestinians in the center of Hebron’s Old City, violence is not a probability, it is a given. Add to that the nearly 2,000 Israeli troops assigned to “protect” the settlers — a loose term given the near total impunity enjoyed by the settlers whose daily abuse of their Palestinian neighbors is unimaginable — and you can begin to understand how peace is a little more than a word in this part of the West Bank.

After touring some of the devastation wrought by Israel’s “separation barrier” the previous day and witnessing the dissected refugee town of Deir al-Barid where children are forced to scramble through a fetid and dangerous sewage system as their only means of access between their homes and school, I felt certain little remained to shock me. I was wrong.

As I was to witness — in Hebron, occupation is total.

Entering Hebron on that cool Thursday morning was deceptively easy. Our guide, a charismatic and inspiring Palestinian from East Jerusalem, provided us with an incisive and disturbing background on what we were about to witness as we abandoned the car on the outskirts of town and ventured forward on foot. Immediately as I hit the dusty, bruised earth of Hebron, I am smothered by a feeling altogether different from the depressed mood of Deir al-Barid. The air is charged. It is electric, pregnant with tension.

The first thing one notices in Hebron is, in fact, the nothingness. The streets are desolate, the residents fleeting apparitions — a face here, a few blurred shapes there. Breaking the nothingness is the glint of fresh steel and military metalwork that make up the twisting skeleton of control, blocking streets, engulfing gardens, trapping humans. As we wander slowly in the direction of Hebron’s historic heart, the Ibrahimi Mosque (or, to Israelis, the Sanctuary of Abraham), the dull smear of Israeli army uniforms, the only shade of green in the town, begins to come into view.

The mosque is an unwilling microcosm of Palestinian life in Hebron. Split in two, half the mosque is reserved for the settlers as a synagogue, while the other much smaller section is granted to the vastly more massive Muslim community. During the numerous Jewish holidays the entire mosque becomes a synagogue and no Palestinian is allowed entrance. It was in this cramped, tightly-packed section of the mosque in 1994 that fanatical US-born settler Baruch Goldstein methodically and brutally murdered some 29 Palestinians (wounding over 70 others) before being overcome by the remaining crowd. We are told by our guide that Goldstein’s wife is still petitioning the Israeli government to find her husband’s killers and that settler communities throughout the Hebron area hold a yearly vigil on the date of the massacre (25 February) to commemorate Goldstein and his act of mass murder — his grave now a site of pilgrimage for the extremist settlers in the West Bank. As we are told these stories, that palpable, invisible vice of occupation tightens and I can feel the tension swirling.

Departing the mosque, the hazy facade of a “normal” town begins to dissipate almost immediately. I notice the mosque is no longer a holy place, it is a fortress — snipers on the roof, guard towers hewn through the ancient spires — it affords the Israeli army an ideal vantage point from which to rule the town. And the rule is absolute. Palestinians cannot walk many of the streets, their main thoroughfare bisected for use only by the settler residents. In contrast, the settlers are free to roam at will throughout the town and do so often heavily armed with automatic rifles, stones, and bottles. This is a town where Palestinians are regularly assaulted in the streets or “bombed” from houses above by the heaviest objects, refuse and rocks. This is a town run by extremists.

Given the ongoing attacks and abuses, Palestinian streets have almost totally been lined with a macabre cage-like wire fencing above and around all exposed areas, their only protection from regular volleys of trash and alcohol bottles fired from above. As I snap pictures of the detritus hovering over our heads, a man emerges from a small landing and upon seeing my group, waves us into his home, one of the few remaining Palestinian-occupied houses in this section of Hebron.

As we ascend the steps, I begin to understand this home’s precarious position, as it is almost totally surrounded on all sides by settler-occupied buildings, many within arm’s length of his doors and windows. As our guide interprets, the resident and his frightened wife recount what has transpired over the preceding 24 hours. The night before our arrival, fire-bombs were thrown into the upstairs bedroom, wounding the owner’s brother and forcing much of their family to vacate the crumbling two-story house. That very morning, the same settlers, unhappy their previous night’s attempt did not succeed in driving all residents from the building, resumed their fire attacks, throwing more bombs through the bathroom window. The window is now boarded up with a thin piece of wood, unlikely to protect against the next onslaught. For the past week he has tried to involve the Israeli police and army, begging for protection from the settlers. Predictably, no help has been offered.

Seeing my camera, the man entreats me, “Take pictures, please. Tell people. Please tell people.”

Like most Palestinian residents of the Old City, the family no longer uses their roof, as the risk of exposing themselves to rock and bottle attacks from nearby settler homes is too great. On this occasion, our host is feeling bold. Buoyed by our presence, and perhaps our cameras, he leads us to his rooftop to witness the state of total siege in which he and his family now live.

At first I see no settlers, just the familiar fresh cement and cosmetically superior structure of their homes, crouched imperially against the inadequate and unsafe building I find myself standing upon. Suddenly I hear the high-pitched voices of children. Settler children are playing a game of hide and seek on the adjoining rooftop and without warning our presence is noticed. Realizing people are on the adjacent Palestinian roof, the children almost immediately begin screaming and cursing, the older boy pointing his unfocused ferocity in my direction. The situation rapidly deteriorates, as the child’s screams and slurs are heard across the settler rooftops, escalating the drama. For our safety and that of the Palestinian family, we quickly come down from the roof. For me, more than any photograph I took during my time in the West Bank, the image of that settler child will continue to haunt me.

As several Palestinians told me repeatedly during my time in Jerusalem and the West Bank: unless you see these things with your own eyes, it is very hard to believe. And once you do, it is even harder to forget. Even now, I can still hear the appeal of that Palestinian father who today likely remains imprisoned, terrorized in his besieged home in Hebron.

“Tell people. Please tell people.”

Eddie Vassallo lives and works in London and is the Founder of, a new website dedicated to sharing news, information, and original commentary on the occupation of Palestine.

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