The Old City of Hebron - now a Prison
10 August 2005
I arrived back here to rejoin the Christian Peacemaker Team (CPT) in the Old City of Hebron, a few days ago. It is good to be back, meeting old friends and new. Straight away I can see some dramatic changes since I was here last November.
Unlike Jerusalem, with its magnificent medieval walls, Old Hebron is an unwalled city. Instead, the old houses all join on to each other, with archways and tunnels leading through the outer houses to the paved alleyways winding across and up and down the hillside through the close-packed houses and into the souq (bazaar), lined with small shops. The main route through the souq leads down from the rest of the city by wide streets to the entrance off the Beit Romano checkpoint, to the exit opposite the Ibrahimi (Abraham’s) Mosque over the Caves of Macphelah. There have been Israeli soldiers (Israeli Defence Forces, IDF) stationed at these two points for years. Some of the other entrances on the side near the tiny fanatical Israeli settlements in the city, have been blocked off or controlled by IDF for years too. Our flat is just inside one such blocked entrance, in what used to be the chicken market - now almost deserted.
Now, the way through to the Mosque has not just a guardpost at one end, but a double barrier, with full height turnstiles at each end of the tunnel, with another barrier down the centre, dividing those going in from those coming out. The turnstiles are electronically controlled by the soldiers.
Yesterday, I saw children carrying cartons and crates to or from the few shops on the other side, heaving them up 2 metres on to the top of the turnstile, then going through and heaving them down again. The soldiers are only detaining a very few people at the moment, but the potential is there for easy total control. It is a grim and chilling sight.
Completely new just last week are 5 new solid sheet iron gates blocking the archways of all the other entrances to the Old City.
Iron gates blocking the archways of the entrances
They are all open now, but anyone can see how quickly the soldiers can shut them, leaving the 2 main checkpoints as the only access. Palestinians are angry and even more anxious than usual, about what the future holds, now that the Old City can be closed off like a jail at no notice.
Twice in the last week, the IDF have taken over Palestinian homes for 2 to 3 days, preventing any of the family from going in or out during that time. We kept watch outside one of these homes, rang the IDF with our concerns, and Joanne and I visited the family when the soldiers had gone. One daughter, Sayida, 25, who is at University here and spoke English, told us about their ordeal. ‘Seven of us – my parents, my two younger sisters and my youngest brother were at home when twelve soldiers came’, she said. ‘We were all told to stay in one room with the curtains drawn, and not to call attention to ourselves. They took our cell phones, and disconnected the land line. They did not go up on the roof, (like soldiers usually do when they come in to Palestinian homes) and they would not tell us why they were here. However, she went on, they were good people. They treated us with respect, and did no damage. They allowed us to go to the toilet and to the kitchen to cook, and when they sent out for supplies, they asked if there was anything we needed, and fetched the asthma medication for my sister. When my brother came home and could not come in, he was frantic as he was sure they were molesting us. He was trying to break in, which would have made everything much worse, so I begged the soldiers to let us tell him we were safe. At length, they let me call out from the window just those few words. We had interesting conversations with the soldiers. They were surprised to find that my parents are both teachers. They had never had ordinary conversations with a Palestinian family before. They said they were here to protect Palestinians. We do not know what to make of it all.’
We hear rumours that extremist settlers from here who are currently in the Gaza Strip, may come back after the disengagement with plans to massacre their Palestinian neighbours. Today we hear that five Israeli Human Rights organizations have issued an urgent call to the Israeli Government to have effective measures in place to protect the Palestinian population – so maybe the temporary occupation of that family’s home was indeed part of such preparations.