(All images © 2016 Arij Limam)
City: Hebron (Al-Khalil الخليل)
Location: West Bank, Palestine
Population: 215,452 Palestinians (850 settlers)
Governance: – H1: Palestinian Authority; – H2 (20%): Administered by Israel
After a long journey consisting of the bus we were on breaking down (twice), leaving us at one point stranded on the side of the road until reinforcement came, we finally reached Al-Khalil. We were dropped off in the bustling city centre, the Palestinian H1 area, in front of a fairly modern looking shopping centre. People were going about their daily routines, and window-shopping on this high street littered with English named fashion stores and restaurants. But this city already felt different to Ramallah, I felt an authenticity about it which I immediately warmed to. It felt traditional yet modern, tense yet peaceful. And soon enough, the calm atmosphere was replaced with the sound of screeching sirens cutting through the air, followed by army tanks speeding through the busy street. This was normal in what is known as the West Bank’s most troubled city.
We were taken to see the Old City, which is situated in the Israeli military controlled area of Al-Khalil, H2. This part of Al-Khalil contains Israeli settlements where roughly 850 settlers reside, protected of course by as many, or probably more, Israeli soldiers. We strolled through the old markets and walked around the stalls laden with trinkets and traditional Palestinian ornaments. Beautiful thoubs in all sizes with intricately embroidered designs and stunning colours hanged on every stall.
Traditional markets are my favourite part of visiting a new country; they’re almost like a screenshot of the entire history and culture of a place. Each stall has its own story and each ornament its own character. But this market felt different. The first thing I noticed as we went deeper into the alleys, was the hideous metal wire mesh hanging above our heads that felt like an unnatural ceiling. This fence-like infrastructure covered the majority of the market stalls, and gave off the unnatural feeling of entrapment and claustrophobia that you would not expect in outdoor markets. I was soon informed of the grim reason for the existence of these fences, and my trepidation increased.
I was well aware of the fact that Hebron was a hotbed for incursions and run-ins between Palestinians and the Israeli forces as well as settlers because of the large concentration of (illegal) Israeli settlements. Yet, I had not considered that these settlements were of such close proximity to the Palestinians that they were, quite literally, on top of their heads. I was shocked to hear that Israelis would forcefully take or devise cunning plans to purchase Palestinian homes located in these markets, and build (illegal) extensions upwards so that they had homes that towered above the busy markets. And the purpose of the netting put up by Palestinians was to protect themselves from the various objects, including rubbish, bottles and sharp items, thrown by settlers from their conveniently high windows. We were also told of stories where the settlers would resort to throwing liquids like bleach or dirty water onto the Palestinians when tensions were high. The makeshift barrier, in these cases, not providing sufficient protection from such horrific acts. Yet unfortunately, these were the daily struggles that Palestinians living in Hebron, and the West Bank in general, had to face.
It was because of the repetitive occurrence of incidents such as this that led to Hebron being given the name ‘Ghost Town’. According to humanitarian groups, thousands of Palestinians have had to move or relocate from their homes in Hebron following its division and the expansion of illegal settlements. We’d been told that this was due to the fact that Israeli settlers would do all they could to ensure they disrupt the daily lives of Palestinians so much that it would cause them to move, leaving more space for Israeli settlers to expand. There were constant provocations of market stall owners, including IDF soldiers at any given time coming in and turning over stalls or taking stock, which resulted in many Palestinians, afraid for their safety and for their income and livelihoods to close up their shops and move elsewhere. The scene that remained was that of locked shutters and vacant alleys where the bustling markets once stood.
We continued weaving our way through the market until we reached a large open area, and behind all the hanging clothes I could see a street that was closed off with cement barricades, barbed wire and fences. As I approached for a closer look and prepared my
phone to take photos, an elderly man who was sitting behind a stall nearby said ‘ديري بالك’ and motioned with his head upwards. I looked up and saw that he was warning me about the CCTV cameras that were perched above the metal barricade. Graffiti on the wall indicated that this was the road known as ‘Shuhada Street’. ‘Martyrs Street’ as it is also known, used to be a main street that led from the markets to Al-Ibrahimi Mosque. Many Palestinians used this street to access the vegetable markets for their daily shopping, as well as other necessities, and several homes were also located on it. After the 1994 massacre in Al-Ibrahimi Mosque (which I will go into detail about further down), this road was completely closed off by Israeli soldiers, their reason for this being ‘to protect Israeli settlers’. No Palestinian cars were allowed to drive through, no one allowed to enter, and the shops on this road were all forced to shut. Palestinians living on this road were forced to access their homes through back doors, or even from roofs that could be accessed using neighbours houses. The street was opened briefly, and restrictedly, in 1997, but after the second intifada, and to this day; it remains inaccessible to Palestinians, while settlers continue to use it with the protection of Israeli soldiers. (Read this for more)
After this, we were taken to visit the Ibrahimi Mosque, or the Cave of the Patriarchs. This site holds religious significance in Islam, Judaism and Christianity, and was historically used by all three faiths, but today, and ever since the Zionist occupation of Palestine, it has become a site of struggle and resistance and has been witness to bloodshed and discrimination. Prayer spaces are also one of my favourite places to visit when in a different country, as they are spiritual sanctuaries and always provide me with a feeling of peace and serenity. Yet even before entering the grounds of this mosque, I felt uneasy as we were faced with an Israeli checkpoint that we had to pass through to enter the mosque. This was the first checkpoint I had experienced, on foot, since my arrival in Palestine, and it was not one I would like to repeat.
As I stood there, facing me was what I can only describe as a hideous, grey, rusting metal contraption, resembling prisons I had only seen in movies. Standing in a single file line, we walked, one by one, up to the rotating metal bar gate. I stepped up to the gate and pushed on the metal bars expecting them to rotate, allowing me to pass through. The gate did not open the first time I pushed and at that moment all I remember feeling was claustrophobic (even though it was not a completely closed space), and anxious as if I had done something wrong and was being punished. I then heard the horrid sound of the buzzer, indicating that the soldier controlling the gate had unlocked it, and sure enough, my next push of the bars spun them around setting me free. On the other side stood the makeshift control room where Israeli soldiers were stationed, armed and watching the gates, two soldiers were also standing outside to check passports of anyone entering. After we’d passed the checkpoint and the soldiers, I couldn’t help but feel angry at the entire situation. I knew that crossing checkpoints such as these were a daily occurrence for many Palestinians across the West Bank, with even worse experiences in Gaza, but what angered me most was that this checkpoint was put up in front of a place of worship, a ‘sanctuary’. It made me angry that worshippers seeking to find peace and tranquillity in prayer were required to experience this horrible checkpoint in order to access what is meant to be a safe space.
Once inside, the familiarity of the mosque, with its pillars, domed ceiling, colourful mosaics, beautiful Arabic calligraphy, and symmetrical Islamic art designs eased my angst. I was overcome with the familiar feeling of serenity and tranquillity that I was accustomed to in places of worship, but, yet again, this was short-lived as we were taken on a tour of the site and informed of some of its painful history. The first thing we visited was the cenotaph of the prophet Ibrahim (peace be upon him), I immediately noticed a glass barrier near the window on the opposite side of the room containing the crypt. We were told that this was bulletproof glass, and that just on the other side of the window was the rest of the mosque, which was only for Jewish worshippers, and access for Palestinians was forbidden. Al Haram al Ibrahimi was divided into an area for Muslims and an area for Jewish Israelis after the Ibrahimi Mosque Massacre, which took place in 1994. In Ramadan of that year, American-Israeli settler Baruch Goldstein stormed the mosque during morning prayers, opening fire on Muslim worshippers and murdering 29 people (including children as young as 12), leaving 125 others wounded. Chips and cracks in the walls and ceiling are still visible to this day.
Following our tour of the complex, we were invited to visit the village of Sa’ir, which is in the Hebron governorate and not too far from the Old City. After a short journey, the taxi we had taken from the Old City stopped some distance away from the entrance to Sa’ir itself. As we disembarked, it became clear why we could not be taken into the village by car, as there had been large cement blocks forming a barrier on either side of the roundabout which leads from the centre of Al-Khalil to the towns and villages nearby. This roundabout is known as the Beit Einun junction, and it was evident not just from the blockade, but also from the Israeli flags that were spray-painted on the cement blocks, that this site was one that had witnessed several clashes. The reason for this was that both Palestinian and Israeli settlers share this junction, as the bypass road leads to Kiryat Arbaa, an illegal Israeli settlement with heavy military protection. We were told that there was usually a heavy Israeli military presence with armed soldiers and military vehicles at the junction, for the reason of ‘protecting the settlers from knife attacks by Palestinians’. A google search on the Beit Einun junction brings up very recent articles, including from early 2016 through to Ramadan just before I had arrived in Palestine, of horrible events taking place here. Children as young as 15 being shot by soldiers at this junction, as shocking at it is, we were told, was a common occurrence.
We were told many stories while in Sa’ir, some more painful than others, but one story in particular struck me, as I felt it embodied the spirit of resistance and strength that was at the root of the Palestinian cause. I was told this story by a man – whom I shall call Yusuf – while he showed us onto the balcony of his home, which provided a direct view of the Beit Einun junction. “I see everything from this balcony”, Yusuf said in Arabic, “but there is one thing I witnessed here a long time ago that has never left my memory”.
“It was during the second intifada, which took place in 2000, that Israeli forces raided and closed the entrances to several towns, villages and camps in the West Bank. They had ultimately partitioned and created sieges around many of these villages and camps, making movement between these areas and the centre of Al-Khalil and other major cities almost impossible. It was as though we were living in giant prisons. This was when the Beit Einun junction was closed off and guarded by Israeli soldiers and army tanks prepared to shoot on the spot anyone who they saw trying to cross. For many Palestinians, this junction was the only route into Al-Khalil from the surrounding villages, and we used it to get to work, for shopping, for our children to get to school, to reach the nearest hospital, and so on. So we had to find a way to cross, and many did this by crawling through the grape vines that were near the road, as far from the soldiers as possible, trying to avoid being seen by soldiers. Many young men and children were shot and even killed while attempting this treacherous feat. But one day, as I was looking out from my balcony, I saw a father with 3 children, the eldest looking no more than 10 years old, and they were all carrying what looked like school bags on their backs. They were attempting to cross the junction into Al-Khalil, as I could see them crawling through the grape vines. As they reached the end of the field, they were faced with the dangerous part of having to run as quick as they can across the part of the road that was open and in direct view of the soldiers. Sure enough, they made a break for it, running to reach the other side, but at this moment, they were spotted by the Israeli soldiers at the far end of the road, who did not wait a second before opening fire directly at them. But thanks to God, the father covered his children as they ran and made it to the other side taking cover behind a hill. I didn’t see that any of them had been injured, but I noticed that there was a bag lying in the middle of the open road where the soldiers were still shooting. One of the boys must have dropped it. I looked back at the father and his sons taking cover and checking for any injuries, when suddenly one of the young boys realised that he no longer had his bag and upon seeing it in the middle of the road, he did the unthinkable and ran back in the line of fire to retrieve it. He ducked his head and he ran, crouching low, grabbed his bag, and miraculously made it back to his father and brothers.”
“I was in complete and utter shock at that moment, with so many thoughts going through my head and so many feelings towards this young child. I realised then that this young generation of Palestinians will not and will never give up or back down on their rights, even if it costs them their lives. For this young boy, it was his right to an education. Will power, strength, determination, daring, and making quick decisions, these are the characteristics of the children of Palestine. The children who have had their rights unjustly stripped away from them, but who will never give up and never back down, and will someday take back what is rightfully theirs.”
It took me a while to take in what Yusuf had said. His story had stirred up so many emotions within me, and for the first time since my arrival in Palestine, I experienced the feeling that I was told to prepare myself for emotionally before coming here. Although this story in particular did not end in the death of the child, alhamdullilah, I couldn’t help but feel choked up and tried to hold back my tears, because for me, this story put everything into perspective and materialised the Palestinian cause in my mind. The Palestinian cause was one that my parents had instilled in me from a young age, as an Arab and as a Muslim, I had grown up attached to it, and this attachment grew the older I got and the more I studied about the conflict. But it was only at this moment, hearing Yusuf’s experiences, and seeing the occupation through his eyes – as he relayed to me his fears for the safety of his two young daughters who had to cross the junction daily to reach their school – that I felt the physicality of it. The universality of it. It was a Human cause, not just a Muslim or Arab one. I felt the weight of the cause on my chest… the brutality of the occupation… the injustice…the oppression…the anger, and it is a feeling and weight I carry around with me to this day.