How to tell the story of Hebron?
Meet Ayesha. She’s eight and lives in Hebron – the largest city in the West Bank.
This is the view from Ayesha’s front door in the centre of Hebron. It looks innocent enough, but what you don’t know is that the people living in the houses that sit just a few metres away are Israeli settlers.
Outside Ayesha’s front door
This what makes Hebron unique. Elsewhere in the West Bank, settlers often live in close proximity to villages and towns but, in Hebron, they are on top of each other. Literally.
After spending a few days in Jerusalem, I travelled to Ramallah to meet up with a fellow volunteer and together we made the two hour trip by taxi down to Hebron. We’d been invited by Ayesha’s sister Sundos Al-Azzeh.
Sundos is involved with an organisation called Youth Against Settlements – a group of forty young Hebronites that organise courses for local women and children. One of the courses they run is Hebrew – so that residents can talk to the soldiers that line their streets.
We’d been invited to stay with Sundos, Ayesha and the rest of the Al-Azzeh family – their parents and two brothers, Yousef and Ahmed. Over the day and a half we were there, we experienced incredible hospitality and generosity as well as enjoying some of the best home cooked food I’ve had so far here in Palestine.
The Al-Azzeh family
We also got a bitter taste of what it is like to live in Hebron.
From the moment you arrive in Hebron, the sense of tension is intoxicating. The city is divided into two areas – H1 and H2. The former under the authority of the Palestinian Authority, the latter – which covers the old city and surrounding area where the settlements exist – is under full Israeli military control.
As you walk the streets of H2, units of soldiers march past at frequent intervals. Moving around is made even harder due to the presence of checkpoints within the city. It’s not unusual to be walking down a road and be required to show your ID and go through a metal detector.
Israeli soldiers in Hebron
Israeli checkpoint in a street in Hebron
Soldiers at a checkpoint
As international visitors, the soldiers were generally friendly towards us, but Palestinians often aren’t as lucky. According to Sundos, there are “good and bad soldiers”.
An example of the latter happened just two days before we arrived. At 4am in the morning, IDF soldiers stormed the house of one of Sundos’ friends, alleging that he ‘might’ have been throwing stones at soldiers. As he was led away, his mother – understandably distraught – came out of her house and started remonstrating with the soldiers. This was seen as aggressive behaviour. She was manhandled and also arrested.
The son was released a few hours later as the allegations were totally false. But the 55 year old mother was detained in an Israeli prison for three days until a bail of £1,000 was paid (raised by Youths Against Settlements). You can see a video of the arrest here. It is disturbing in places.
This is just one story we were told. There are many, many more.
In total, Hebron is home to four hundred settlers dotted around the city living in clumps of houses. Settlements are illegal under international law – something Israel disputes. To protect these settlers, the Israeli army deploys over 4,000 troops in Hebron – that’s 10 soldiers for every settler. It is doubtful whether Israel is fulfilling its requirements as part of the Geneva Convention to protect the people it occupies.
In some cases, the settlers live at the top of buildings with Palestinians living below. Walking down these streets, you see metal grates above your head. They are there to protect Palestinians from the debris that settlers throw, debris that sometimes includes acid.
Street in Hebron with protective grates
Protective grates with Settler flats above
If you can look beyond the military checkpoints that have decimated parts of the city then you will see that the old city in Hebron is actually very beautiful. It’s winding streets lead to the Ibrahim Mosque – a building that is vital to understanding why this city is filled with such animosity.
The Mosque is built on the tomb of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob – an incredibly significant place for Christians, Muslims and Jews. After the Arab-Israeli war in 1948, the Jewish population was forced to leave Hebron, but after the 1967 war and the subsequent Israeli occupation, extremist Jewish settlers started to return.
In 1994, an American Jew – Baruch Goldstein – entered the Mosque during the overlapping religious holidays of Ramadan and Purim. He gunned down 29 praying Muslims, injuring a further 125.
The Israelis took this as an opportunity to close the Mosque for two years. When it reopened, 60% of the building had been turned into a Synagogue with a separate entrance alongside the obligatory checkpoints. Walking round the Synagogue (we were allowed to enter only because we weren’t Palestinian) you can still see segments of the Qur’an written on the walls next to the newer Hebrew texts.
Hebrew and Arabic in the Synagogue
Throughout the West Bank, religion is offered as one explanation for persecution and occupation. For me, this seems flawed. Hebron is all about fear and control. The main street in Hebron’s old city used to be the bustling heart of the city. Now it is deep within H2, is surrounded by settlements and is lined with Israeli flags. The shops have all closed now and, while we are allowed to walk the length of it, Ayesha and Sundos were stopped by soldiers halfway down. Palestinians are unable to walk freely in their own city.
Israeli flags line the former main street – the shops are closed now
Israeli watchtowers keep a close eye
So, as we took the long way round with Sundos and Ayesha, it’s impossible to imagine the extent of the psychological effects of growing up in a city under military occupation. Aged eight, Ayesha probably sees more soldiers with rifles in a week than I have seen in my entire life.
When you see the extent of the fortifications that have been built in a city like Hebron, it’s hard not to despair about the situation here. All things considered, it’s humbling to receive the generosity of these people, to listen to their stories, to laugh and joke with their children. They live in a place with unimaginable terrors and yet somehow still manage to stay positive.
With Israeli flags lining the streets and soldiers encamped on every corner, it is hard to see how the situation here can get better before getting worse. I hope, for Ayesha’s sake, that I am wrong.
You can see more photos from Hebron here.
-- ends --