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The city in two pieces

by: -bat.

There are no other events in this account which are violent and dramatic in the way Bil’in was, but in the days since I have been back I have had some bad dreams about the trip, and it hasn’t been that which comes back to haunt me. Violence is shocking, but for something really disturbing that you just can’t shake off you need a more subtle but all pervasive atmosphere of menace. Hebron provides this in abundance.

On the subject of settlements

As I have described in earlier posts, settlements in the west bank are a very obvious feature of the landscape. They sit on the hilltops as little isolated enclaves of Israeli’s. Surrounded by fences, and connected by their own road systems they are an obvious example of the colonisation process taking place in Palestine. I imagine it as the infrastructure of one country stretched over the top of another like a net or a web. They may be ‘towns’ in the the literal sense, but they are separate, not mixing with the population centres around them.

In Hebron, however, all the ideas of separateness go out of the window, as here are two settlements in the form of accommodation blocks, right in the centre of town. One at the top of the hill and another at the bottom, they are embedded in the heart of Hebron’s old city. When the Oslo accords were signed giving autonomy to the Palestinian towns, Hebron was divided up into two parts; H1 as the main body of the Palestinian town, with an area H2 carved out of it containing the settlements and under Israeli military rule. When I say “carved out” I mean that it is sealed off from the main body of town. Access in and out is on foot through the checkpoint I described yesterday, and no Palestinians are allowed to drive vehicles inside H2. This applies to ambulances and emergency vehicles as well. They are not allowed to walk along certain roads, and have to take to the back paths and skirt round to get where they are going. The settlers, meanwhile, can drive where they want and are free to roam the streets, protected by the presence of Israeli police and army everywhere.

The Palestinian population here numbered thirty thousand when the division was drawn up. The army and police force sent in to protect the settlers numbered three thousand, one for every ten residents. How many settlers was all this in aid of ?

Four hundred.

Welcome to the infamous Tel Rumeida.

Meeting the police

I wake up early on the floor in the front room of the ISM flat in Hebron. It is halfway up the hillside in Tel Rumeida, and the steep slope gives a superb view out across the city, which stretches up the opposite side of the valley. The densely packed coverage of flat roofed white buildings means that the outside is dazzlingly bright to my eyes, and it is a while before I realise that rather that being a bright sunny day it is actually grey and overcast. Some of the other ISM volunteers are also up, grabbing video cameras and heading out of the door. I don’t catch quite what is going on, but some phone call has been received requesting the presence of ISM. If you wonder what the point of the presence of internationals here is, it is to support the Palestinian population as requested by observing and recording when the settlers try something against them. As with any illegal activity (and the intimidation *is* illegal under Israeli’s law, despite the fact that the police often turn a blind eye), the presence of observers with recording equipment helps puts a limit on how far the perpetrators can go.

It doesn’t take long after leaving the building for us to have our first brush with authority. Katie and I are standing just outside the door of the flat showing her presents from the night before to some of the local children when an Israeli Police vehicle pulls up and stops. Katie hasn’t been here in a while and the policeman recognises her. He is acting in a very creepy way, being all smiling, but saying how he saw Katie the previous evening and how dreadful it is to see her surrounded by all those arab men. It is blatent racism, so blatent in fact that initially I am thinking that he must mean something else as nobody would be so upfront about their prejudices, surely? Try and imagine an english policeman saying how awful it is to see a nice white girl surrounded by all those black men and you get the effect.

“Those people are my friends” she acidly points out. The policeman scowls and the vehicles pulls away up the hill. “It’s because he knows I am Jewish”, Katie tells me, “He’s so unpleasant, all sleazy smiles one moment and then threatening the next. One time he was alternating between asking me out and saying he was going to have me arrested all in the same conversation.”

Black flowers and empty places

We walk up to the top of the hill where one of the settlements is, and cut across to head for some open ground. We are the only people around – the place is like a ghost town, yet this is a saturday morning. As we reach the brow of the hill the police come back down. This time they are very direct and to the point. Katie is not allowed out of H2 and if they see her entering H1 they will arrest her. So much for the charm.

The fields at the top of the hill stretch down round the back of the buildings, and we walk down a rough path. It was presumably once an olive grove of some kind, but is heading more towards wasteland these days. Alongside the path are some jet black flowers – what appear to be lilies to me. Next to the plants coils of razor wire have been embedded into the fence which marks the boundary of the buildings. The flowers are very fitting in-situ, and I take some pictures (though they end up being ditched).

We walk on down the slope, and past an abandoned building. A lot of the buildings in the area have been abandoned. I said at the beginning that when the are was divided there were thirty thousand Palestinians living here alongside only four hundred settlers. The use of the past tense was deliberate – under continual harassment over the years the people have started to leave, unable to stand it any longer. They leave empty buildings behind them and the settlers try to move into these buildings, despite the fact that this is illegal. It’s a colonisation process in miniature, driving out the indigenous population and replacing them when they leave. This particular building has been declared ‘unsafe’ to prevent anybody moving into it. Though this prevents settler occupation, it does, of course, also prevent the legitimate owners from returning to live in it. As far as the numbers game is concerned this is a win for the settlers, as it is one less Palestinian family living in the area.

Writing on walls

We cross in front of the house, picking our way through more razor wire, and meet a man coming the other way up the path. He is the only person we have passed on foot so far. He has a gun slung over his shoulder and I assume he is a soldier rather than a settler, though the settlers are allowed to carry weapons as well. Down the path he has come up is an overgrown tangle of abandoned buildings. Here some steps go down next to a wall where Katie painted one of her murals when she first came here. The mural was to cover graffiti left by settlers – it is of children playing under a blue sky. The message it covers read “DIE ARAB SAND NIGGERS”. Enlish graffitti as hebrew cannot be read by the Palestinians. The mural has been defaced, and on the corner of the same building more english text reads something like “ARAB, WE WILL RAPE AND KILL ALL YOUR WOMEN”. I can’t remember the exact text, but that’s the gist of it.

The abandoned building at the base of the steps used to be someones home as well, but is now derelict as well. The Israeli army have converted it into an observation post, by the addition of netting and a prefabricated watchtower sitting on the roof. A soldier with a gun eyes us as we shuffle along the concrete wall at the back of the house, and into another building behind it. Katie has brought me here to show me some more graffiti. It’s a grim place, there is a smell of decay in the air, and the first room we enter has a dead dog stretched across the floor, sightless eyes staring at me as I enter the room. Turning round, on the wall where I came in, is a large spray painted cartoon of a Palestinian being hanged. His neck is stretched by the noose, and his tongue hangs out. Being jabbed into his shoulder is the bayonet from a machine gun levelled at his chest.

We do a tour of some of the other rooms, and it is all equally grim and really doesn’t require describing in detail. Anti arab and islam sentiments dominate, and there are the logo’s of an extreme right wing Israeli group. By it’s nature the settlements in Tel Rumeida attract militants and extremists, and in the writing they have left here it shows. The air of menace is disturbing and I am glad to leave the building into the relative cheerfulness of the world of derelict concrete outside, with the solider watching from above. You can, of course, find extremist graffiti all over the world (London has it’s fair share) as it only takes one person with a spraycan to fill a wall with hate. But here it feels different, because I know the people who wrote this are here backed up by troops and police, and are free to act out a watered down version of the violent intent displayed in the messages, and do so every day.

The school by the road

Out from the buildings we come onto the road which runs along the base of the hill, meeting Tel Rumeida street that we started on at the portacabin checkpoint that I passed through the night before. This is Shuhada Street, which runs directly down to the Beit Hasassah settlement. Palestinians are allowed to walk down this road to a certain point, but no further. At this point they have to take to a path on the grassy bank on the side away from the settlement, halfway down this is a small Palestinian school, which is where we walk to.

This is the school where Katie teaches the children art classes. I have heard a number of stories about the place, and seeing it brings them to life. The proximity of the school to the settlement means that the children and staff are prime targets for harassment by the settlers. Sometimes actively, and sometimes simply in a passive aggressive way. She tells me one story of how one day a group of them blocked the path by standing on it tightly together so it was impassable without actually pushing them aside. The police did nothing, so to enable the children to use the path they escorted them through one at a time. At which point the police *did* do something; they took Katie in and said the had been accused of assaulting one of the settlers by pushing past them when taking a child down the path. Thus justice is metered out Tel Rumeida style.

At the school the children are on a break, and seeing Katie a number of them run out and surround her chattering excitedly. It always strikes me how different the children here are compared to children at home. Despite the conditions that they are living under they seem happy and vibrant. We spend a while with them showing off the birthday gifts from the night before. These include one fluffy bear which, when supplied with batteries, has glowing red eyes and starts singing happy birthday in arabic loudly. It’s an instant hit with the kids. Eventually, however, we leave them as we are asked to go back down the road to see something which happened in the night.

Just another small incident

Back past the point where Palestinians are allowed to walk on Shuhada Street again a man takes us to the front door of a house. A family lives here and the lock to the door is completely smashed. During the night some settlers came to the house and sealed up the locks somehow. Upon waking the family found that they were trapped inside. Eventually they manged to attract the attention of the soldiers, who got them out by simply smashing the locks. Now the door is unable to close and unable to lock, and the family are scared in case the settlers return that night as they have no way of locking the door to keep themselves safe. The soldiers, having broken the lock, have no further interest in persuing the original perpetrators. The inhabitants are left to worry about what the coming night might bring.

I wish I could tell you how this ends, but as I had to leave that afternoon I do not know what happened that night. But is is just another small incident, one of many. ISM can monitor and photograph and report to the police, but there are few of them, the settlers smash their cameras (I saw camera which had been broken the night I arrived) and when incidents are reported then the police take no interest. Living in a crime ridden neighbourhood is one thing, but when the police are on the side of the criminals then the tiny things build up day after day until the people eventually can’t take it any longer and move away. The emptying neighbourhood is the result.

Whilst we are talking to the house owner two more young children appear, whom Katie also knows from the past. They come and hang out for a while and talk to her. She tells me that one of them is saying that they were playing football, but the settlers came and stole the ball so now they have nothing to play with. Replacing the lost football is one of the few small things which it is possible to do, so we set off to get one from the market.

How the other half lives

It is very quiet as we walk up Shuhada Street back to the checkpoint, a few This used to be one of the main shopping streets. All along either side there are shops closed with shutters. It has been this way for a number of years, there are promises to re-open it, but it has never happened. So it remains empty. The few people who are around are soldiers and police, plus a settler couple. taking a saturday stroll up the middle of the road, with a pushchair and their children. I wonder where they are going – in it’s own way they have made this place a prison for themselves too. They have nowhere to expand to, and are trapped in this area, unable to leave and go out into the main town. They can take a walk past the empty buildings and closed shops, under the eyes of the soldiers sent there to protect them, and then they can go home. I do not understand why anyone would chose to put themselves into that situation, let alone choose to enforce it on their family.

At the top of the road the portacabin checkpoint sits wedged into the space between the buildings. As I said before, no Palestinian vehicles are allowed to drive in H2. Having a heart attack and need an ambulance ? Unlucky – you need to be carried down the road, through the checkpoint and one called for you the far side. Chances of survival are not good – one of the attendees at the party the night before had a relative die this way. Similarly if you are having a baby. No lift to the hospital, it’s a walk across the neighbourhood and though the metal detectors, even if you are in labour. No exceptions.

The policeman from earlier is not around, so we pass through the checkpoint and at the end of the road we walk from from the stillness of Tel Rumeida into the noise and bustle of a market at mid-day. The contrast is stark. From the ghost town atmosphere beyond the barrier I find myself immersed in stalls of all kinds packed with produce and goods, the area packed with people buying and selling. It is noisy, colourful and above all vibrant. This is what Shuhada Street used to be like before it was closed. We push further into the market (the same place I had fruit pressed upon me the night before) and down to a stall selling footballs. Then it is back to the checkpoint. I go through alone, just in case anyone is the far side. For some reason they make me empty all my pockets, remove my belt and jacket and pass in and out of the gate three times before they let me though on this occasion. I only want to go to the far side for a few seconds to hand over the ball.

In and out. Silence and noise. People unable to walk their own streets compared to a crowded market place. Two halves of a city.

The occupation, in miniature

I said at the top that this was the thing which gives me bad dreams. I don’t know if I have succeeded in explaining why – cliched as that may sound it may be one of those places you can’t imagine unless you have been there. I had heard a lot of stories, and I heard more whilst I was there, but seeing the places, walking the streets and examining the buildings brings them all to life in an acute way. Nobody whom comes here remains unaffected by it. Katie trains people before they come here and she recommends that nobody does more than a couple of months as it messes with peoples heads so badly.

But if you want to see a microcosm of the conflict, then here it is. What is happening across the entire west bank is duplicated here on a tiny scale. Settlement towns become settlement blocks. Areas of the west bank divided up by checkpoints with restricted movement become individual parts of town or even streets. The settlers come in knowing that the police will turn a blind eye and that they are protected from reprisal by the military. Eventually life becomes too miserable for the Palestinians and and they move on. Once there we thirty thousand Palestinians in H2, today they number a few thousand at the most. To me it felt like a ghost town.

I can’t think of a good way to finish this one. Writing it all up was depressing as hell, and googling to check my facts was even worse as it kept turning up new stuff which I was not aware of. Unremittingly bleak.

I’ve run out of stuff to say 🙁