It’s the first day of Eid. After the long fasting days of Ramadan, families all over the city are coming together to celebrate. This year, though, the festivities have a sombre undertone. Arafat was buried yesterday in Ramallah.Posters showing his image next to that of Hebron’s Ibrahimi Mosque are plastered over walls and the windscreens of cars and taxis.
11 year-old Mohamad from the family upstairs has just arrived to wish us a happy new year. He’s in his new suit, very smart and proud. We all wish him the same, in excruciating Arabic. But in Hebron the happiness of children like Mohamad depends on circumstances beyond his control, and beyond the control of his huge, close, protective family. His good fortune will ultimately depend on how the occupying forces are feeling. A bored young soldier at a checkpoint can, on a whim, turn your day into a nightmare. Everyone you meet has a story of physical abuse from soldiers and police. Everyone.
A group of us are staying in an apartment owned by Mohamad’s father. A dozen or so young children constantly tumble in and out. None of us has much Arabic, but it’s OK. Everyone tunes in to the universal language of football, hide and seek, mimicry, giggling…
It is an inspiration to be living among these beautiful, generous people. Palestinians don’t have much, but whatever they have they share. Hospitality isn’t a way of life here, it is life itself. Food materialises at regular intervals. People greet you in the street, bring you out sweets and biscuits. Already, this feels like our neighbourhood. Sometimes, when you’re walking in a remote suburb, there’s tension – strangers here almost always mean trouble. You get the occasional stone thrown. Almost always, people intervene when they realisewe’re not army or settlers, but it is heartbreaking to see so many kids brutalised by the conditions here. A collapsed economy, severe poverty – stone throwing’s the only game in town.
Now Eid has arrived, all the children have cheap new toys. Girls have many different cheap new toys. All the boys have cheap new toy guns. Evenings are mostly spent talking. drinking tea, smoking argilah – a soothing, fruit-flavoured hookah job which is really welcome after a hard day. There’s a lot of laughter here. Someone mentions the new graffiti that’s appeared in the Old City: ‘Arabs to the gas chambers.’
No matter how prepared you are for life under the Occupation. you have to see it to understand just how fatuous the common perceptions are back home. Politicians, terrified of being accused of anti-Semitism if they criticise Israeli government policy, talk constantly of how ‘both sides in the conflict’ must take action to secure a just and lasting peace. Bollocks. Both sides? The oppressor and the oppressed?
Mohamad and his family are not a ‘side’. They are part of a Palestinian community being relentlessly and ruthlessly driven from their homes and their land. Illegal settlers control this region – the army and the police defer to them – and they act with total impunity. A couple of days ago we were forced to wait for half an hour while ID was checked. A recently-arrived settler had spotted that we were with a member of the local Christian Peacemaker Team (CPT). The settler was clearly theone giving orders. He took the passport from the soldier and insisted on further scrutiny. The soldier just did as he was told. Every settler you encounter seems unhinged. The sort of person you pray doesn’t sit next to you on the bus. Secure behind the armed Israeli checkpoint barrier, he ostentatiously celebrated Arafat’s death, punching the air in jubilation. He joked to anyone who listened that Arafat had AIDS.
He was from Quebec. Lucky Quebec.
The CPT does great work here – accompanying local children to school, trying to protect them from settler attacks. Two CPTers were recently severely beaten by masked settlers armed with baseball bats and chains. We met one of them while olive-picking the other day. She suffered a broken arm and severe bruising. The other guy got broken ribs and a punctured lung. Here’s a test for the ‘both sides’ brigade: what concession should children walking to school between illegal settlements make in the cause of peace? Less provocative lunch boxes?
Another Occupation Myth is that the West Bank settlements are few, remote and isolated. And that they keep themselves to themselves. Hebron, where the earliest Zionist settlement in Palestine was founded (Kiryat Arba) is now surrounded by illegal development on stolen land. And it’s closing in. Since 1968, Israelis – many arriving here from far beyond the Middle East – have seized 48% of the land in Greater Hebron region for their settlements. A further 24 ‘outposts’ have been staked out for inevitable expansion.
That’s how it works here. Some distance from a main settlement, a caravan or trailer appears overnight. A week later, another. Then another. One or two settlers with dogs and guns move in. Fences are erected (for security).
The army establishes a presence (for security). Which means a road. And more fences. More trailers. Barriers. Gates. Walls. The construction of houses. In a matter of months, it is a fortified, illegal and rapidly expanding settlement. A ‘fact on the ground.’
Having encircled Hebron, the next objective here is absolute control. Ethnic cleansing and cultural erasure are now well underway. The area around Shehada Street, close to the mosque, was once a thriving market area.
Now it’s a dead zone, only marginally less terrifying in daylight than in darkness. Shehada Street itself has been commandeered for settler use only. Ancient stone gateways are blocked by steel gates with slip bolts on the ‘Israeli’ side.
Through intimidation – and that other great weapon of oppression through the ages, bureaucracy – souk traders have been forced out. Houses are deserted, or have been taken over by the army for observation and sniper posts.
Street closures are often arbitrary, but always sudden. And when they close yourstreet, you can’t use your front door. It means you and your family must exit via the roof, enter a neighbour’s house and get out through their front door.
Only a few years ago there were around 7,500 Palestinians living in the central Old City area. Now there are fewer than 1,500. In the same area between 450-500 settlers have moved in. They’re guarded by 2,000 soldiers. At times of increased tension, 4,000.
Along the main street that runs through the Old City there is chain link fencing. It’s the same fencing used by the Israelis to sketch out the boundaries of their land grabs, before they ink them in with concrete and steel. Here, though. it is has been erected horizontally, not vertically, and by Palestinians.
Why? A section of the street is unroofed. There, squatting on the alley wall itself, is the towering bulk of the settlement’s flank wall. The chain link fencing is to protect passers-by from being pelted with objects thrown from settlement windows. There, trapped in the improvised netting is the forensic evidence of a feral hatred: discarded cans, bottles, food. Rocks. Bricks. Sometimes they tip out their piss.
Another myth is the idea of an Israeli Defence Force. Defence is not what’s happening here. It is aggression. A civilian population suffers routine humiliation and casual violence at the hands of the IDF every day. From our apartment window we can see the neighbouring hill, blanketed with homes.
At the summit are three new schools. Not that they were schools for long. Shortly after opening they were taken over and turned into a heavily armed police station. When resistance fighters started firing shots at neighbouring settlements, they sent tank shells randomly into residential areas. It was two days before we discovered that the hole in our living room wall was the result of one of these blind reprisals. Hebron is a microcosm of the West Bank: Palestinians gradually walled in and forced out by intimidation. Rubble everywhere. Everything possible has been done to crush the spirit of these people, but it hasn’t worked. There must be more children here per square mile than anywhere I’ve been.
Hope may be thin on the ground among the older people, but the sheer weight of children’s optimism is what keeps you going. And in the end, it’s the children’s faces that stick in the mind. The settlers’ children, for instance, who stood with their parents at a demo the other day, watching as the soldiers soundbombed and teargassed us. Blank faces. What were the parents telling them?
That we are evil, that we are Nazis, that we should be exterminated? Lovely, gentle Mohamad in his new suit. What will the future hold for him, and Aseel, and Marwan, and Razar, and Asme, and all his other brothers, sisters, cousins? How long before he is arrested for the first time, plucked at random from the crowd, simply for being a Palestinian teenager in the Occupied Territories? When will he be beaten for the first time?
We will be leaving here in a few days. Everyone has promised to stay in touch, and I for one will miss the kids, just having them round, just about the only sane, recognisable part of life here in this devastated place. We’ll probably never see them again. And if anything happens to them, it will beyour fault and mine, because we didn’t shake off this wicked Occupation. That’s where the ‘peace process’ starts, and it must start now.
The Israelis categorise every Palestinian as a terrorist, and use this as an excuse to brutally repress them. It is the Roman Empire. It is white-controlled South Africa. Those empires fell, as this one must.
Mohamad’s back. ‘Hello. How are you?’ he says in careful, perfect English.
How am I? I’m afraid, and guilty.