Israeli soldiers arriving to Palestinian family house in Hebron. Picture courtesy of author.
It’s a little before 8pm when the text message arrives from Emad Abu Shamsiya – a well-known local activist here in Hebron. It’s worrying news – a group of settlers have been seen gathering by the old bus station (now converted into an Israeli army base). There is going to be another demonstration. Less than an hour later, it’s happening. Settlers have taken to the long thoroughfare – Shuhada Street, that dominates the historic centre of the city. They yell anti-Arab chants calling for Palestinians to leave, throwing stones at the houses of those who remain in the area. Some settlers carry guns, which seems superfluous since they are accompanied by their own armed guard of soldiers.
Activists from local monitoring groups rush to the scene to record the violence and try to protect families and it’s reported that one even receives a solidarity phone call from Abu Mazen – Mahmoud Abbas - , the Palestinian president who is presently on an official visit to Saudi Arabia. As I record these words, there have been further warnings that the settlers may even proceed to my neighbourhood – Jabal al-Rahma – some way away from the usual epicentre of strife. My neighbours are quietly taking the precaution of moving their cars out of sight of the main road.
The last time things kicked off like this was just two days ago when settlers began a march in the small hours of Sunday morning, accompanied by the usual hateful chanting and stone throwing aimed especially at families in the central neighbourhood of Tel Rumeida and at Palestinian families living close to the Kiryat Arba settlement. Later on that same day, settlers came to the small tourist shop run by my good friend Abed al-Muhtaseb, just next to the Ibrahimi Mosque. They brought with them iron bars – of the exact kind normally used here by the Israeli police – and proceeded to forcibly install these, shutting him out of the business which is his sole source of income.
Hebron is already notorious as a crucible of the occupation of Palestine, a dramatic microcosm of the entire struggle in which a small but fanatical group of hard line religious-nationalist settlers wages a constant war to ethnically cleanse the Palestinian inhabitants from the most populous city in the West Bank. Recently, though, things have taken a dramatic turn for the worse.
On the 28th January, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu made the shocking announcement that he would be expelling the Temporary International Presence in Hebron – an international observer team comprised of representatives from Italy, Norway, Sweden, Switzerland, Turkey and Denmark (the latter temporarily unrepresented at the time of the announcement). TIPH was established after the Ibrahimi Mosque massacre in 1994, in which the settler and IDF reservist Baruch Goldstein gunned down twenty five Palestinian worshippers. TIPH was, itself, a typically weak compromise. At the time, Palestinian negotiators, fresh from signing the first Oslo accord, hoped for a United Nations backed peacekeeping mission – a nonstarter, needless to say, due to the prospect of an American veto in the Security Council.
Even as an observer mission, TIPH was strictly limited, forbidden from using film or photography to document its findings, or to publicise its observations beyond the reports it sent back to contributing countries, as well as Israel and the Palestinian Authority. Nevertheless, its presence did help Palestinians to feel, if not totally safe, at least significantly safer in the knowledge that as long as representatives of these influential countries were watching, Israel and the settlers would feel at least somewhat restrained.
Moreover, TIPH was more than just an observer mission. Less publicised, but also important, was its behind the scenes role in supporting important civil society initiatives in the city. One such is the Ibrahimi Society – a community organisation which, among other things, runs a kindergarten, organises trips for children, and puts on training sessions for local women on the psychology of child trauma. All of these make an important difference to making life here more bearable. TIPH helped with funding and by providing computer equipment. “We’re going to miss this support”, a representative from the Society told me, laconically.
Equally ominous is the fact that TIPH isn’t the only observer mission lost to Hebron. The news of TIPH’s expulsion almost immediately prompted an announcement by the World Council of Churches that its own observer mission, the EAPPI (Ecumenical Accompaniment Programme in Palestine and Israel) would also be withdrawing because of security concerns. Christian Peacemaker Teams, which also sends observers to Hebron, is down to two people, due to the Israeli authorities blocking numerous volunteers from entering. Observers from the International Solidarity Movement face an equally uphill struggle; it is commonplace for activists to be arrested and detained by Israeli authorities for many hours on unsubstantiated charges before being forced to sign injunctions banning them from central Hebron. This happened most recently just a few days ago after a notoriously strident settler called the police after an altercation with some ISM volunteers.
The settlers in Hebron are now emboldened to the point that to us they feel like a second occupying army, with the only difference between them and the troops being that one lot wears uniforms and the other doesn’t. But as much as they may fantasise about expelling us from our city with the same ease they have dispensed with international observer teams, this is our home and we are as determined as ever to organise to defend our communities.
Palestinians in Hebron now have long experience of being their own international observers, and we are intensifying this activity. We have created local committees in each neighbourhood responsible for observing the settlers’ movements and providing early warning of violence – just as Emad did for us this evening. My organisation, Human Rights Defenders has long been running a camera project, distributing video cameras and providing training to families in the most vulnerable area – the thin line from Tel Rumeida down Shuhada Street to Kiryat Arba. Meanwhile “Dismantle the Ghetto” our campaign against no-go area for Palestinians in Hebron which has brought together a coalition of numerous local civil society groups continues to run. On 25th February we will be holding a torchlight procession to commemorate the 25th anniversary of the Ibrahimi Mosque massacre. Now as then, we won’t back down in the face of violence.