A Quiet Week in Hebron
30 August 2005
In other parts of the West Bank, we hear news of settler violence in the aftermath of the disengagement from the Gaza Strip. Five Palestinians were shot dead in Tulkarm, and settlers have rampaged through eight villages near Nablus. In the village of Tuwani in the South Hebron hills where our second team lives, this last news has led to fears of similar things happening there. CPTers and villagers together have been keeping a watch every night, and planning for any emergency.
But for us in Hebron, this has been a quiet week, when we have been able to visit Palestinian friends in a leisurely way, without having to respond to emergencies. We keep up our usual patrols through the Old City, and up near the Israeli settlements, but to our great relief, there has so far been no trouble out of the ordinary.
We visited a family who live on the second floor of an apartment block similar to ours, adjoining the Avrahim Avinu settlement in the heart of the Old City. Now the way in to the city alongside the house is blocked with razor wire, so they have to go a long way round to get in and out, through 2 checkpoints. Only two out of eight flats in the building are still occupied. Gradually the other families have moved out, worn down by the harassment from soldiers and settlers. Um Mahmoud*, the mother, looks desperate and at the end of her tether. She now feels quite isolated there. Her own mother is afraid to visit, as she has to run the gauntlet of the settler children throwing rocks, and she has also been treated roughly by soldiers. Um Mahmoud’s children are mostly grown up now: her eldest, unashamedly her favorite, is studying in the USA; the next son, Abed*, has just returned from 6 years study in Russia. She wanted to throw a party for him to celebrate his successful graduation and return home, but it is too difficult for most of the family to get there. A third son, Hussein*, and a daughter are at University here, while a second daughter is in her last year of High School. Hussein has joined a non violent peace group. The youngest son, still at primary school, is afraid to go out alone. We will need to make sure that he can get to school safely.
The family who used to be our immediate neighbours in the upstairs flat, found the hassle of getting in and out of the Old City through the checkpoints too much for them when the chicken market where we live was blocked off with gates and wire three years ago. They live now half way up Tel Rumeida, just across Shuhada St (the settler-only road on the other side of the barrier). Dianne, John and I went to visit them last week and talked with the 25 year old daughter, Maha*, who was on vacation from university. Although it is very close, it is a half hour walk to get there. They moved back to one of the homes belonging to their extended family. It has a view, and land with amazing huge 2,000 year-old olive trees, so they love living there, but it is like jumping from the frying pan into the fire, as they are now harassed by the notorious Tel Rumeida Israeli settlers. The Civil Administration (which is the Israeli Military Administration for civilian affairs in the occupied territories) has just served them a notice saying that part of their land will be taken for a new road up to Tel Rumeida. This will cut across the Muslim cemetery, and uproot the ancient olive trees in its path. Maha’s mother insisted that we stay for a delicious lunch which included stuffed cabbage leaves.
On our way home we passed an open gateway and were called in by Khalid*, who was sitting in the grape arbour outside his house, with many family members. Other internationals, from the World Council of Churches Ecumenical Accompaniment Programme – with whom we keep in close touch – were already there, and we all enjoyed fruit juice and coke together. Police appeared to be installing an observation post on his roof, but he did not seem too put out by this – it seemed to be for observing the settlers. Talk turned to the close relations between the old Hebron Jewish community and their Moslem neighbours. An entirely peaceful Jewish community had lived here from the sixteenth century (when the Inquisition had turned them out of Spain) until 1929, when Arabs from out of Hebron had massacred 69 of them. Many local Muslim families are proud of having sheltered and saved their Jewish friends and close neighbours at that time. Khalid’s grandfather had been among them. Dianne has a special concern for bringing together the descendants, and publishing their stories to give the lie to the common myth that Moslems and Jews cannot live together in peace, and that they have been in conflict with one another for hundreds of years. However, though many families are interested in doing this, Khalid replied passionately that what was important to him was not being friends with Israelis, but freedom from the Occupation.
On Wednesday, we held our monthly dinner here for a number of Palestinian and international friends.
It is very difficult for Israelis to come into the Old City, so there were none here on this occasion. Also, Palestinians from outside the Old City feel it is dangerous for them to be out after dark, in case they are stopped by soldiers on their way home. We prepared quantities of food for about 30 people. These dinners usually have a topic for discussion, and the people we invite are chosen accordingly. This time it was the pre-1929 community. Members of three families who had saved their Jewish neighbours came and told their stories. Yahya, a lawyer whose house on Tel Rumeida we can see easily from here, brought an old photograph album with accounts in Hebrew of the old Jewish community, and of the events of 1929. Rajeb Shaheen, related to our landlord, has been headmaster of several Palestinian schools, and now runs the Hebron Department of Youth and Sport. We all went up on the roof, and looked just across the road at his old family home – taken over by the IDF years ago. He had not been back in 20 years. His grandfather had been head of the household in 1929. There were 19 members of a Jewish family living with them in the old house. They were like one family, with the Jewish and Moslem mothers even suckling each other’s children. When the Arabs from the villages came rampaging down the street, forcing entry and searching houses on the way, Rajeb’s grandfather, having hidden the Jews in a back room, stood in the doorway with his sword drawn and kept the Arabs at bay, and told them there were no Jews there. Rajeb’s grandmother stood on the roof, crying out to the mob as they returned. She tore off her hijab (head scarf) and rent her clothes in a dramatic gesture that brought them to a halt and sent them shamefaced on their way.
We all hope that the coming week will bring some positive news of next steps after the disengagement. But we are sceptical. It is clear that settlement building is continuing in East Jerusalem; Wall building goes on apace; and at the village of the settlers in the illegal outpost in the forest they are actually putting up four new structures. Sharon agreed that all settlement outposts built since 2001 should be dismantled, so that at the very least should be happening forthwith – but there is no sign of any action of that sort.