The first time I visited Hebron and thereafter, I thought the Old City, with its 700 Israeli settlers living under heavy protection by the Israeli army amongst about 30,000 Palestinians, is the most insane place I have seen on earth. Until the day I walked up to Tel Rumeida neighbourhood and met Hashem. No doubt Hebron is one of the most hardly hit areas by the Israeli occupation, and H2 (the Old City of Hebron) is certainly the Palestinian city in the West Bank where a fact-finding visitor won’t miss the chance to experience life in the Occupied Territories.
Unlike each other city or town, where settlements sit on the outskirts outside the city perimeter, Hebron’s city centre is surrounded by four Israeli settlements within the city boundaries which makes it the only surviving town in Palestine to be under an occupation from within.
Israel has stubbornly maintained complete control over H2 imposing on the Palestinian population a regime of forced evictions, curfews, market and street closures, military checkpoints, frequent random searches and detentions without charge. As this wasn’t enough, Palestinians living in Hebron’s Old City suffer ongoing harassment, violence, and land theft at the hands of the settlers occupying the heart of the city and, with the support of the Israeli forces, preventing thousands of residents from leading a normal life.
On more than one occasion I have experienced something new and unexpected in the small besieged Old City of Hebron, but meeting with Hashem Al-Aza and hearing his story was a real punch in the stomach. Walking to the heart of this virtual ghost town, we crossed the checkpoint that marks the entrance to the side of Shuhada Street designated by the Israeli military for exclusively settler use. What was once the main shopping area in the city centre, Shuhada Street carried the usual look of an empty street deprived of shops and businesses, closed by military order, and their doors welded shut all along the road. It only took a short diversion on the right to climb up a little hill and enter Tel Rumeida.
Hashem promptly started off a tour in the neighbourhood explaining that Tel Rumeida traces its origins back to more than 6.000 years ago. At that time, the Canaanites who worked the pottery used to burn the ash with sand in the area. The resulting mixture had a grey colour which Tel Rumeida was named after, deriving from an Arabic word that means ‘grey hill’.
As we passed by the first bolted doors of abandoned homes and made few steps, it was impossible not to be struck by the empty streets and the ghostly air wrapping that neighbourhood patrolled by soldiers, stationed few metres away from one another. Kept under tight military control, Tel Rumeida Street is divided into two sides where Palestinians, living in the right side, have been left with a half of the original route to make their way in and out. Most Palestinian residents are prohibited from walking on this street while settlers enjoy free movement and protection by Israeli troops, who notoriously apply a blatantly different treatment to indigenous inhabitants of the area on the basis of their ethnicity.
Going a little up the hill, Hashem showed me a series of murals on the right-hand side of the street, one of which had a small map of Palestine inside the Israeli flag –a disappearing Palestine, whatever left from lands where Palestinians have lived for generations. On the wall, statements in Hebrew read ‘We love Israel’, ‘Israel is our land’ and ‘Arabs out of here or you will be dead’.
The left path off Tel Rumeida Street where Hashem was heading to seemed to be the alternative road leading to his house. On the way up, we passed by what was once the Palestinian Commission for Justice and Human Rights (a local NGO founded by Hashem himself). The office had been subjected to several attacks by both soldiers and settlers, until a few months back, which caused the NGO to shut down making it practically inoperative at present.
Guiding me along the path, Hashem stopped before the access to his house noting that, between 2000 and 2007, that passage was totally blocked by military order forcing him to go via a steep climb in order to reach his home.
While his wife was pregnant, Hashem had to carry her for a distance to put her in an ambulance that could not reach his home due to Israeli closures and restrictions.
Four years ago, the main path was opened under some interesting circumstances. At that time, Hashem’s father had passed away, and holding a funeral there or inviting relatives and friends was sadly out of question, given the obstructed access to his home. Hashem then called on internationals and media to join his family and help, some of the activists were prevented by the army, but others managed to reach the area.
After carrying the father’s body down the steep path to the main street, Hashem and his supporters proceeded to a checkpoint where Israeli troops detained him for an hour and a half, and scanned the dead body. When Hashem was then let through the checkpoint, an electronic device rang and the soldiers ordered him to turn back, so he was held up for another half an hour and his father’s body was scanned again.
One of the soldiers finally noticed the father had a watch around his wrist so, with the back of his gun, he destroyed the watch and also broke the bones of the dead body. Following that incident the Israeli army, to stop Hashem from filing a complaint against the soldier, ‘awarded’ him by opening the regular access to his home.
Climbing the every day difficult path to Hashem’s house, we went past a gate carrying a message ‘Gas the Arabs’ under the signature of the extreme right wing Jewish Defence League. As we walked further, an ugly pre-fabricated settlement lying right above the Al-Aza family’s roof hit me straight in the eye –who would miss that? The colony hosts some very extremist, aggressive settlers.
The same groups of settlers among others who have moved to Hebron, recipients of non-stop funding via US/Israel official channels, to continue their expansionist project and force Palestinians out while taking over the Old City street by street. The presence of extreme and violent settlers, coupled with the complicit violence of Israeli police and soldiers enforcing apartheid policies, make life impossible for the Palestinian community in Hebron. With large numbers of Palestinians forcibly pushed to leave the area, Hashem Al-Aza is one of the last remaining residents of Tel Rumeida, ‘the most intense place in the whole world’ as Hashem defines it.
When we approached further up the hill, Hashem pointed to his land property, directly below the colony, where I could see a cement enclosure, built over that corner of land, with a ladder left by the neighbouring settlers in a clear sign to confiscate the area. Grapes were visibly poisoned, olives had been stolen and, to make things more uneasy for Hashem, since 2000 it is highly restricted for him to harvest olives in his own grove.
Back in 2007, Hashem had made pressure on the Israeli High Court which came up with a resolution that only allowed one-hour harvesting. Even with that resolution, the settlers from above his home obstructed the olive picking attacking Hashem with some international activists, who were invited to take part and witness what Hashem had predicted would happen. When a new complaint was filed against the settlers after the attack, in a bid to obtain another resolution, the Israeli Court refused to intervene for ‘security reasons’ –the Court apparently expressed concern over further retaliatory attacks by the settlers if any resolution was granted for Hashem, hence the decision made.
Following Hashem into his garden, I was shown olive trees and vines that had been deliberately cut at the base, remains of dead trees hanging in a shaky state. The path to Hashem’s house is carpeted with rocks, broken bottles and other rubbish thrown by the settlers further up the hillside. The former front entrance looks even blocked by an old washing machine and covered in razor wire, clearly aimed to prevent the Al-Azas to pass. When he tried to move the washing machine or clear out some of the litter, Hashem was thrown stones and bottles, and once he managed to dodge a big rock aimed at him. Since those attacks, all his family now have to use the back way.
Living right next to his home, Jewish Defence League illegal organization leader Baruch Merzel and his family have so far tried to push the Al-Aza family out of the area in all possible ways. Initially, when they heard he is a non-violent activist, the settlers wanted to stop his activities. And the series of abuses just started.
First, they confiscated his land, destroyed his vineyards, and cut all his olive trees in the garden outside his home. Next, they vandalized his house several times, as the breaks in the windows and the loose handle of the front door can prove.
Then, they forcibly entered Hashem’s house, destroyed all the furniture inside, and attacked his wife and children. They beat his wife, while she was three months pregnant, to the point of making her lose the baby, and this happened a second and third time.
They also attacked Hashem and broke his some of his teeth with the back of a gun. Last but not the least, they caught his nephew just outside the house, he was 9 years old at that time, shoved stones into his mouth and smashed all his teeth with the stone.
As we went into the front room of the family home, I was invited to watch videos displaying unquestionable evidence of settler violence, some of these videos were made by the Israeli human rights organization B’Tselem. Ordinary incidents of violence including stone throwing at Palestinian children on their way to school, attacks on international activists accompanying the school pupils, destruction of property –with soldiers systematically watching at the scene and not lifting a finger.
Hashem and his family have lived in this side of Hebron for 60 years. Before 1984, when the settlement of Tel Rumeida was established, Hashem described life in the neighbourhood as ‘very pleasant’. There were no settlers, people were living together just like neighbours do, they had unrestricted access to their homes, there were shops, clinics, transportation running, cars could drive through. After the settlement was built, everything changed dramatically, Tel Rumeida came under a heavy blockade and the long-established Palestinians were divided from/in their own community.
Going back to the early days when the settlers moved in the area with their caravans, Hashem remembered: ‘the first night, when the settlers came here, they immediately threw stones at us…this was the first experience with them’. In the following days, the Al-Aza family and the other Palestinian neighbours tried to talk to them expressing their acceptance and will to live in peace. At that time, a resolute rejection came from a settler’s leader: ‘If you want peace, go to Jordan or Egypt. If you can’t go there, go to Iraq. I won’t accept you as a neighbour. Your house and your land are a promise from God to me’. The settlers were not ready to live like normal neighbours. Instead, they insulted the Al-Azas as ‘dogs’ and shouted their message: ‘Arabs, move from here or you will be killed’. Since then, verbal and physical attacks became a matter of ordinary life for the Al-Aza family.
Living side-by-side with some of the most violent Hebron settlers and among the most extrimist religious fanatics in occupied Palestine, Hashem explained that he and his family are used to them now: ‘Every day, they attack us, every day they tell us bad words, every day they attack our children’. While the Al-Azas initially expected anything from them, they still didn’t really realise what their neighbours were capable of. The settlers have gone as far as vandalizing their groves, invading their home, destroying the furniture, aggression against the whole family and threatening them with death. Hashem recalled that as the most difficult time he experienced. What he is most afraid of is to find one day his children run over by the settlers’ car, to be chased from his home, as much as to be shot dead with his family one night.
No interaction can be imagined with the settlers from up the hillside. Their mission to get the Al-Aza family to leave step-by-step proceeds undisturbed in many forms from throwing stones and garbage to attacking the children, calling Hashem’s wife and daughters ‘whores’. Jewish Defence League leader Mazen once told Hashem: ‘One day I will kill you’ ordering him to move out of his home. In the face of all these abuses, the Israeli military don’t do or say anything, on the contrary the way home remains obstructed, transportation is not permitted, there are no shops and hospitals in the area. In order to buy basic necessities, the Al-Azas have to go outside the Old City, pass through checkpoints, and carry their goods all the way home. ‘Imagine if I want to buy a bottle of gas for cooking? I must go to H1, carry the bottle on my shoulders, and go back home…this is our daily life’ Hashem sighed.
It seems to be at the very least hard, as a Palestinian, raising children in a town where you experience routine hatred and harassment from settlers, and pass by graffiti reading ‘Die Arabs & niggers’ or ‘Arabs to the gas chambers’.
Despite the horrible times he and his family have gone through, Hashem remains open to living in peace and tolerance with his neighbours teaching his children not to use violence at the settlers. From the other side, there is no slight sign of peace, Hashem explained in referring to settlers who even explicitly said they will never respect the Palestinians. He mentioned the two Halachas (Jewish religious edicts) issued by rabbis: one stating that anyone born non-Jew must serve the Jews; the other one advising Jews to carry out their one mission –to kill Palestinian children.
In Baruch Mazen’s home, Hashem went on, there are two stickers –the first says: ‘I have already managed to kill an Arab, have you?’ and the second one: ‘God gave us the right to kill the Arabs, and we love it’. You really can’t decide which message is more gruesome. But Hashem teaches his children more than (unrequited) peace, it is their right to resist and stay, they cannot accept to leave their home.
No longer interested in having respect from his neighbouring settlers, Hashem rather wants his children to respect themselves, claim their rights, and be determined to stay and live in their home.
Hashem obviously pays a high price for holding on to his home and living in Tel Rumeida. Yet, there hasn’t been a time when he almost gave up. He strongly believes it is his and his family’s right to stay and resist. ‘I will never give up, never. And I’m sure one day, the settlers will move and we will stay’ Hashem said assertively.
Exposed to continual harassment from their neighbouring settlers and facing many movement restrictions, the Al-Azas have no support to count on. The Palestinian Authority has done nothing for them, Hashem pointed out resentful: ‘the PA is really to be blamed, I said that several times…this is the most isolated place in the whole West Bank, no-one cares about us, I’m sorry, this is the truth’.
As I walked out of the house, a never felt sense of marked heaviness caught me unprepared and absolutely lost as to how such an extreme and disheartening situation leaves little to no hope. I turned my back to wave at Hashem. If there is an urgent case of human crisis to witness in the Occupied Territories, Tel Rumeida is beyond doubt the place to go. Few more steps took me down to the main street where Hashem’s tour had started, I walked on and glanced at the checkpoint up the hill, then looked away from the soldiers scattered along the street.
Hashem’s accounts came back into my mind with the countless acts of violence the Al-Azas suffered at the hands of the settlers. The incredible steadfastness and resistance of this Palestinian family living in the midst of a Hell goes well beyond human imagination. Their strength and courage in fighting for their lives and freedom in the neighbourhood leave very little to say. And Hashem’s determination for his story to be heard says that there is a big reality in Tel Rumeida that everyone should know about.