Four families, four stories of life under occupation
Many Palestinians in Hebron live very close to the four extremist Israeli settlements which were planted right in the Old City about 20 years ago. This area is entirely under Israeli Army control. Living alongside settlers and soldiers is so difficult that many Palestinians have moved away, if they had the resources to do so. This article tells the stories of three families whose roots are in the Old City, and a fourth who lives an hour's walk away beside another settlement.
From the roof of our apartment in the Old City, we look across a settler-only road to a hillside with a large Muslim cemetery on its lower slopes. Above are old olive trees and scattered Palestinian homes, and on the hilltop is the apartment block housing the smallest Israeli settlement. This hill is Tel Rumeida, the site of the earliest Bronze Age town in the district, and of David's first capital in 1,000 BC.
At the top of the hill, next to the settlers' buildings, lives Hani Abu Haikel with his wife, mother, sisters and children.
Hani in his teens believed that violence must be met with violence: it was essential to retaliate. But later, he began to realise that that just did not work, and meant he had descended to the same level as those using it against him. He was deeply influenced by the teaching on non-violence of Palestinian Muslim, Mohammed Awad, and has been committed to non-violence himself ever since. His inner strength and determination is outstanding. Once he asked the settler next door 'What can I do for us to be able to live in peace as neighbours?' The settler replied 'We cannot be neighbours until you move to Jordan or Egypt'. Hani said to us that he can live with people of any faith if they behave like neighbours - he extends hospitality to us Christians living in the Old City, or to Jews from Israel who visit in peace to find out what is happening, but these settlers are impossible, coming and grabbing land and houses and trying to turn out people who have lived there for generations.
Recently, as a result of the fact-finding visit of three members of the Knesset (Israeli Parliament), he has regained the right to go in and out of his own front gate unimpeded. When CPT last took a group of visitors to meet Hani, he invited us to come by the road, not the back way by a dirt path through the olive trees and a broken gap in a wall. The Israeli soldiers at the checkpoint just by the settlement stopped us 'to protect you from possible settler violence' so we rang Hani on his cell phone to ask him what he would like us to do - press on regardless, or stay where we were? He told us to stay there, while he came out of his gate and walked deliberately down the middle of the street with his head held high, past the settlement, under the eyes of the settlers. But though he can come out, he still had to take us in round the back way
Another family, the Sharabatis, used to live alongside the Avraham Avinu settlement in the Old City. This is right in the Kasba, the medieval area where all the houses join onto each other in a maze of alleys and tunnels. The attacks on the Sharabatis and their house were such that one day when only one person was at home, the settlers came and vandalised it, and he was rescued by the soldiers. The family moved out three years ago, and much of the house was destroyed by the settlers. Finally the Sharabatis won an Israeli High Court decision that the house indeed belonged to them, and that they could move back in and restore it. The Israeli soldiers have erected a concrete barrier wall between the remains of the house and the settlement, to prevent further destruction
But the scene is now so desolate, access is so hazardous, and the house is in such ruins that the family have not as yet repaired it and moved back.
Our own apartments are in a house owned by the Shaheen family, in the old chicken market. They also own the block across the street, beyond the barrier erected by the army 3 years ago to keep Israelis and Palestinians apart. This includes their old family home. That block, and all the upper floors of the houses on that side of the street, are occupied by the army, with camouflage netting and lookout posts on the roofs, and the ground floor shops welded shut. Every Friday last month during Ramadan - when far more Palestinians than usual flock into the Old City to worship at Abraham's Mosque - we found a group of up to 10 men in the street looking wistfully up at the house. They were members of the extended Shaheen family, many of whom were born there, but who have given up hope of living there again as long as settlers and army remain.
Just outside the city is the fertile Beqa'a Valley. We have known the Jaber family for many years. They grow not only grapes and olives, but many kinds of vegetables. One day, we helped pack the tomatoes for market; on another we were given a big bag of delicious stringless green beans and a box of grapes to take home.
One of the two larger Israeli settlements on the outskirts of Hebron, Harsina, has been aggressively extending its boundaries during the last two or three years. Harsina is on the hilltop overlooking the Jaber's family home. It used to be 100 metre away: now the high retaining wall the settlers have built, topped with a security fence, is right up close to the back of their house.
All their intervening land has been taken, and they are very vulnerable to attack by settlers throwing rocks down into the backyard. Three years ago, Jowdy Jaber's house was demolished by the Israeli army because it was within 100 metres of the new settler bypass road. He and his wife and 4 children had to move back into one room of his parents' house. We went to see them on the day they had just heard that they had lost a long drawn out legal battle to be allowed to rebuild. Jowdy was in despair at the prospect of having to continue indefinitely without a place of their own, in the overcrowded situation they are in now.
Palestinians are not alone in calling for an end to the Occupation. Many Israeli Peace groups are strongly opposed to it too. Many are urging that the withdrawal from the Gaza settlements be followed up with withdrawals from West Bank illegal settlement outposts - and even from the Hebron settlements. That could not come too soon for our friends and neighbours.