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Hebron: A city divided

Hebron, a city of about 150,000 in the south of the West Bank, is a city unlike all others in Palestine; it is the only city where illegal Israeli settlements are actually located in the city itself. About 20% of the city is designated as “H2,” which means it is under the control of the Israeli Army. The rest is controlled by the Palestinian Authority. Palestinians cannot drive cars in H2, but Israelis can, and certain roads are closed even for walking to all but Israelis. Settlers have been in Hebron for 40 years, and they have created a particularly hostile environment, especially for Palestinians living near the settlements.

Settlement placed directly in Palestinian community of Tel Rumedia.

Until recently, settler violence and incidents were particularly violent and vicious. Former MPT team members, as recently as November 2007, report being called names and spit on by settlers. However, B’Tselem, an Israeli human rights group, has distributed video cameras to some Palestinian families (visit: http://www.btselem.org/english/Video/Shooting_Back_Index.asp), and after some incidents caught on tape appeared on Israeli TV and sparked much conversation and controversy, settlers seem to have become more wary of how they act when internationals and/or video cameras are present.. Even so, just last Wednesday, members of the German parliament were threatened and attacked by settlers while touring Hebron. Locals say they saw large stones being thrown at the caravan, though MPT could find no reports of this in the media (see http://www.thelocal.de/11369/20080417/ and http://www.haaretz.com/hasen/spages/976056.html).

Wire barriers hung up to protect Palestinian merchants and shoppers
hold debris thrown by settlers living above the market.

On Saturday, Sunday, and Monday nights, Eric and Walt slept in Qurtuba School, a school for about 120 girls located directly across the street from a settlement apartment building and school. In August 2007, the school was burned by a large mob of settlers during a holiday celebration, but the building was refurbished and reopened in November. In March of this year, during another holiday, another group of settlers came to the school looking to damage or burn it, but internationals staying there were able to call police who came and dispersed the gathering before any damage was done. The principal was hesitant to add taller walls and make the building feel more “like a prison,” but taller walls were added after the continued threats. Also, because of the school’s proximity to the settlement, Internationals daily monitor the children going to and from school to prevent attacks by settler children. Even so, according to the principal, 8 girls from the school were attacked last week alone. The principal voiced her concern about the girls ability to concentrate with this uncontrolled hostility from settler children.

Qurtuba School

MPT team members accompany children home from school.

There are many horrific stories that could be told about the situation in Hebron that the team has witnessed and heard during their stay:
-- a local Palestinian activist detained and searched for no reason by a group of soldiers, only to be released 20 minutes after MPT members arrived and began to observe and video the scene.
-- a settler child chasing Palestinian children walking past “The Occupied House,” a home owned by Palestinians that was being built when settlers illegally moved in one night and have been staying since.
-- Palestinian boys and men are often stopped at multiple random checkpoints, merely causing another hassle for their movement in the area.
Soldiers surround and detain Palestinian without cause.

Soldiers go through the bag of a boy on his way to school.

Sunday morning, after their first night in the school, Walt and Eric met with the principal in her office to check in. (Qurtuba school runs Sunday – Thursday. In Palestine, Friday is the day of rest, but this school recently decided to also take Saturday off because of attacks by settler children. Settler children do not attend school on Saturdays, and so they are free to take up other pursuits.) A girl of maybe 8 came to the office and shared a story in Arabic with the principal and then began to cry. The principal explained to MPT team members that the girl wanted to go home to be with her mother because the girl’s 13- and 14-year-old brothers had been taken away by police the night before after some settler girls had told soldiers the boys had been throwing stones at them.

Later that night, Walt, Eric, seven other Internationals, and three Palestinian organizers were invited to the family’s house to talk with them and the two boys, who had since returned. Their story, as told by the younger boy, was that the boys were collecting wood for a fire when the settler girls came up. The boys ran away and soon were detained by soldiers and then taken from one checkpoint to a second checkpoint where they were detained for an hour until the police arrived.

The two boys were then taken to the police station (which is located in a local settlement) where they were handcuffed and blindfolded from midnight until 6AM, at which time they were transferred to a jail in the northern part of the West Bank. In the morning, the father went to the ICRC (International Committee of the Red Cross), trying to get his sons released. In the afternoon, a call was made to return the boys to Hebron where the family then had to sign a paper promising to pay 1500 Israeli Shekels (about $430 US Dollars, or a month’s wage for the boys’ father) for their release. The boys had to return to the police station the next morning for questioning even though no formal charges or a complaint had been filed. According to locals, the large fee is assessed in an attempt to drive families out of the area (even to the point of bankrupting them), thus making way for settler expansion.

Boys detained without charges (with parents).
Even amidst all the horrors, on Friday night Walt and Eric were able to witness 6 Palestinian boys playing soccer on a street corner near a checkpoint, in sight of a settlement, where a soldier stood by and kicked the ball back to the boys if it came his way. One must take solace in the small things that make one believe that peace, even amidst the current situation, is still possible.

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