Friday, March 17, 2006
Village of the Damned- Comes to life in Hebron Settlments
Hebron or Al Kalil (Arabic name), is the second largest Palestinian city (the largest being Jerusalem even if you were to just count its Arabic population).
The city is amazing its hills provide an amazing mosaic and it has some of the best savory food in the West Bank (Nablus still has me for sweets), even if the vast majority of food outlets close by 8pm. But there is a major problem in Hebron an extremist settler population that believes the whole of Palestine should belong to Israel.
Hebron is divided into two sections H1 and H2. H1 like most other major Palestinian Centres is meant to be under the control of the Palestinian Authority. In reality the Army can enter H1 whenever it likes, however H1 Hebron is rare according to locals in that Israel hasn't put a curfew on the town for more then 3 day since the start of the occupation. The reason for this is that Hebron has for a long time been a major business centre with links to Israel and any sustained lock down on Hebron would severely hurt the Israeli economy (business comes first).
The Settler population occasionally illegally enters H1 from H2 (will discuss H2 later). Waving their guns around. Harassment in the Old City markets caused the shops to close. Now a few shops have started to re-open but without the traffic it used to get, the shop owners in the old city barely manage to make ends meat.
Some of the settlements border H1 and rubbish is frequently dropped on the street. Today wire mesh covers those streets to prevent rubbish and random items like bits of concrete from hitting people on the head.
But H1 is a fairly nice place compared to H2 (20% of the city). To get from H1 to H2 you have to walk through a little train carriage looking checkpoint, stepping through the looking glass. H2 is where 3,000 soldiers guard 500 settlers, some of them armed.
These settlers aren't just standard orthodox like those in Modi'in Elite (one of the settlements near Bil'in) these people are rabid in their attempts to scare Palestinians from their homes.
5 year old settler children throw stones and bricks at Palestinians and internationals who are trying to defend the Palestinians right to be there. I have even seen a couple of them attack soldiers who tried to tell them what to do. Stone throwing and other settler violence is usually the domain of the kids 5-13 who can't be charged for their actions. As an ISM activist who works for child protection in Canada points out in the West such children would be classified as juvenile delinquents and be taken away from their parents.
The parents fully support there kids though attacking Palestinians laughing behind lines of kids (and even attacking when no one is looking). They will do all sorts of things to intimidate foreign activists such as taking pictures of them with telescopic cameras and telling them that they "prey each day that the Arabs will come and kill them."
But the people who continue to intimidate and commit violence are the settlers and here just getting Palestinians to school each day is a challenge. The staircase in this photo (right) is the single largest point of contact between settlers and Palestinians. This photo is of two internationals taking some kids down the stairs when some of the older settler girls were hanging around outside the school tormenting the kids.
The settlers kids appear like they are possessed and the most innocent looking kids (of all ages and both genders) will attack you without saying a word the second you say hello. They are also fairly indiscriminate in who they attack with their victims ranging from a Palestinian 10 year old who was stoned and fell down a hill breaking his arm, to a 75 year old women from Melbourne who was kicked last week (second time she was attacked).
The soldiers in H2 play a real contradictory role. Some soldiers will tell you that there job is just to protect the settlers. Other soldiers just want there to be peace in the neighborhood and will intervene and stop the settlers from acting up. Part of our job was trying to convince the soldiers and police to do what should be their job, and to work with the best soldiers against those who stand idly by whilst settlers attack people and then deny it later.
The soldiers often accuse the international activists of provoking the settlers, saying that aggravate them by filming when they do something wrong, especially if it is Shabat. Settler kids will be preventing Palestinian kids from getting home and vandalising their houses and six soldiers in one incident I was involved with would rather stick their guns into an internationals chest and tell them to stop filming rather then do something about the settlers. Even though we never film the settlers unless they are doing something they shouldn't
But then the soldiers often have a funny idea of provocation shutting down the Palestinian shops on Shohada street, because they are too close to one of the settlements. Palestinians, but not settlers are frequently asked to have their ID's checked for half an hour. But the settlers and their visitors are never checked. And some of the settlers are allowed to carry guns. According to the soldiers the settlers with guns are only a "select trusted group," the question that needs to be asked is why do 500 settlers with 3,000 soldiers to protect them from a disarmed Palestinian population need guns?
Most of the settlers are only there for about 6 months as the small transient population is unable to sustain an economy despite heavy subsidisation. The question needs to be raised, in a country with one of the highest rich poor divides surely there has to be a better way of spending money then defending a colony of extremists.
Looking through some of the Palestinian houses where the inhabitants had been scared off by settlers I found a lot of racist graffiti. Amongst the Cartoons of Arabs hanging and graffiti saying Mohammad is a Pig I found this particularly disturbing logo (see below). It is the logo of Kahane Chai a Jewish Terrorist group that is even considered terrorist by Israel and their ally the United States. The group seeks to purge what they consider Israel of Arabs and they have been connected to several terrorist attacks including the gunning down of 29 Palestinians in a Hebron mosque 12 years ago. Their website and their philosophy can be found at http://www.kahane.org/philosophy.htm . This is the sort of hate message that drives these extremist settlers who are propped up by Israel.