Hannah Griffiths spoke about her three months in Hebron in Autumn 2015, working with the Ecumenical Accompaniment Programme in Palestine and Israel
Qusai is like any other 10 year old boy that you know. I want to tell you about Qusai’s journey to school, which is probably unlike any 10 year old you know.
First, when Qusai walks out of his front door he has to look up and down the road to check that it is safe for him to leave. After walking down the hill he comes across a checkpoint, where he sees several soldiers armed with machine guns. After another 100m or so he has to go through another checkpoint and up the stairs to his school. The soldiers sometimes check the children’s school bags for stones that could be used as weapons. This seems somewhat unfair given that many Israeli settlers are armed.
In addition to the threat of the soldiers, Qusai is likely to meet Israeli settlers either driving in their cars or on foot, and may face verbal and occasionally physical abuse from them. It is very rare for parents to accompany their children for fear of them being targeted by settlers, and questioned by soldiers. Qusai told me, “I am afraid of settlers and scared of soldiers. They try to scare us by pointing their guns at us. Settlers also drive very fast past us.”
Qusai is just one of about 150 Palestinian children, some as young as three years old, taking this route every day and walking to Cordoba School in Hebron in fear. Today I would like to tell you about my recent experiences in Hebron, but most importantly, I hope to outline why the occupation of the Palestinian territories must end, and that there is something we can all do to help bring an end to the occupation.
First a very brief introduction to the history of Israel and occupied Palestine:
· In 1917 the British Foreign Secretary Lord Balfour led a declaration in support of a Jewish national home in Palestine, provided nothing would be done to harm the population already living there.
· In 1948, the UN voted in favour of the establishment of the State of Israel and a partition, but this was never implemented. This resulted in war which Israel won leaving 750,000 Palestinian refugees.
· In 1967, the Arab states declared war on Israel, leading to the occupation of the West Bank, Gaza, Golan Heights and Sinai by Israeli forces in what is known as the Six Day War.
· Today, Israel continues to consolidate the occupation of the West Bank and the Golan Heights, annexes East Jerusalem with Jerusalem as its claimed capital, and controls the borders of Gaza. There is no effective peace process.
Now let’s look specifically at Hebron, Qusai’s home, where I spent three months. It is the second largest city in the West Bank. Hebron is of great importance to Christians, Jews and Muslims with the tomb of Abraham, the father of all three monotheistic religions, at its centre. Previously Hebron was a mixed city where Jews and Muslims lived together peacefully, but today it is a segregated city divided into Israeli- and Palestinian-controlled areas. Cordoba school, where Qusai goes, is located in the Israeli controlled part of Hebron.
This segregation happened through the 1997 Hebron Agreement following growing tension. The Agreement states that both Israel and the Palestinian Authority “share the mutual goal that movement of people, goods and vehicles within and in and out of the city will be smooth and normal, without obstacles or barriers”.
FACTS ABOUT HEBRON
· Approximately 40,000 Palestinians live in the Israeli controlled part of Hebron
· They live alongside 500 Israeli settlers in the city centre who live in five settlements – Hebron is the only place in the West Bank where Palestinians live literally next door to settlers.
· There are 1,500 soldiers
As in the rest of the West Bank, Palestinians in Hebron live under Israeli occupation. This means that every part of their life is controlled by Israel, including access to education, access to worship, ability to build, and most starkly in Hebron, ability to move freely. The checkpoints that Qusai goes past on his way to school are just 2 of the 120 physical obstacles deployed by the Israeli military in the restricted area.
Despite living in the same area of the city, Palestinians and Israeli settlers in the Israeli controlled part of Hebron live under very different rules. Palestinians are not allowed to drive cars, renovate their houses, and must show their ID when entering the area. This control – an important aspect of the occupation – is slowly forcing Palestinian people out of the area and making it a ghost town. According to Israeli human rights organisation B’Tselem, more than 1,000 Palestinian homes in this area, over 40% of the residences, have been abandoned. Some of these have been taken over by settlers, some by force.
Who are these settlers? According to the UN, there are 556,000 settlers across the West Bank. The majority of these people moved to occupied Palestine due to the economic incentives provided by the Israeli government. Settlers in Hebron, however, are particularly religiously and ideologically motivated. Some want to continue the Jewish heritage in the city, whilst also believing it is their right to live in Hebron given its Biblical importance. Many of the famously radical settlers in Hebron believe all Palestinians should be evicted. As a result, there are Stars of David on Palestinian homes and racist graffiti emblazoned on buildings in the Israeli controlled part of Hebron.
Some settlers also physically attack Palestinians. My colleagues and I witnessed several occasions when settlers threw stones at Palestinians, pushed and kicked both children and adults, and heard of countless times when settlers knifed holes in water tanks, threw Molotov cocktails at Palestinian houses. On 10th December, the attacks on the teachers and children at Cordoba School by settlers caused the soldiers to close the school for the day. They saw this as the only option to diffuse the situation, rather than holding the responsible settlers to account for their actions. Ironically, this was International Human Rights Day. In addition, during my time in Hebron settlers began to target internationals more and more, and my entire team faced both physical and verbal abuse.
Hanna Barag from the Israeli organisation Machsom Watch, told us “Hebron is hell on earth. I am ashamed to belong to the same people [as settlers in Hebron].”
ILLEGALITY OF SETTLERS
Furthermore Israeli settlements in the West Bank, including in Hebron, are illegal under international law. Article 49 of the Fourth Geneva Convention states that “the occupying power shall not deport or transfer parts of its own civilian population into the territory it occupies”.
The complete impunity of settlers in Hebron demonstrates another aspect of the occupation of the West Bank – that of discrimination. Israeli citizens in both Israel and settlers in the West Bank live under civil law, whereas Palestinians are under military law which gives them fewer rights. According to Israeli organisation, Association for Civil Rights in Israel this results in institutionalised discrimination, as I have been describing.
JUSTIFICATION FOR SETTLEMENTS à JUSTIFICATION FOR RESTRICTION OF MOVEMENT IN HEBRON
The Israeli Government claims that settlements are not illegal as the land is not occupied but is ‘disputed’. Based on this reasoning, the soldiers in Hebron are working to protect Israeli settlers. However under international law as the occupying power Israel should be protecting the occupied population, the Palestinians. The increasing restriction of movement of Palestinians, purportedly for reasons of settler security, however are gradually making life impossible for the Palestinian population, which is exactly what the 1997 Hebron Agreement stated it would not achieve.
My experiences in Hebron make me seriously question the reason of security for these harsher restrictions on movement. For example, whilst monitoring a checkpoint at the Ibrahimi mosque, the site of the tomb of Abraham, soldiers closely inspected the bags of one woman walking through the turnstile and metal detector, whilst just moments later three men walked through unhindered despite setting off the metal detector.
CLOSED MILITARY ZONE
Since 29 October, the military has imposed further restrictions of movement through the creation of a closed military zone. This means that only Palestinian residents are allowed in areas of the Israeli-controlled part of Hebron. Life is now even more challenging. It is now impossible for Qusai to have friends to visit his home. Israeli human rights organisation B’Tselem states that there has been no normal fabric of life in Hebron for quite some time, and that “Israel has created an untenable reality in downtown Hebron.”
LIFE FOR CHILDREN AND TEACHERS
The culmination of the aspects of control, discrimination and inequality of the occupation in Hebron is having significant and tangible impacts upon children and teachers at Cordoba School. The counsellor at Cordoba School told me that children are being psychosocially affected by the situation with symptoms such as lower self esteem, lack of sleep, more nightmares, bedwetting, and bad behaviour in lessons. Children also have lower concentration levels, and are achieving lower marks. In short, the situation that these children are living in with restrictions on movement and continued harassment and intimidation from both soldiers and settlers is effectively preventing them from performing at school. As a result this will affect the opportunities they have for the rest of their lives. The UN confirmed this, stating that “if no action is taken an entire generation of children and youth will be lost. Their future must be restored.”
WHAT THE ECUMENICAL ACCOMPANIMENT PROGRAMME IN PALESTINE AND ISREAL DOES
The EAPPI is an ecumenical and international programme set up in 2002 by the World Council of Churches in response to a call from the heads of churches in Jerusalem. The programme is made up of volunteers from over 25 countries, and is managed by the Quakers in Britain and Ireland. The programme is centred on the concept of principled impartiality which means that we do not take sides in this conflict and we do not discriminate against anyone but we are not neutral in terms of principles of human rights and international humanitarian law.
With this in mind, Ecumenical Accompaniers, or EAs, witness life under occupation, monitor human rights violations and provide protection through our presence, engage with local Palestinian and Israeli peace activists, and advocate change in the international community’s involvement in the conflict, urging our elected representatives to act against injustice in the region.
RIGHT TO EDUCATION
Funded by UNICEF [The United Nations Children’s Fund], an essential part of my role in Hebron was to be present at Cordoba School at the beginning and end of the school day to provide protection through my presence. Qusai told me: “when we see settlers we want to turn back and go home, but when we see EAs we feel safer and keep walking”.
Article 50 of the Fourth Geneva Convention stipulates that as the occupying power Israel must “facilitate the proper working of all institutions devoted to the care and education of children”. Even this right is not provided or enabled in Hebron.
An essential role of EAPPI is to support Israeli and Palestinian peace activists. One organisation that I got to know is Breaking the Silence. This is a group of over 1,000 ex combatants who served in the Israeli army since 2000 who expose the reality of everyday life in occupied Palestine. They organise tours in Hebron and the surrounding area.
I heard from Shai who served in the army from 2005 to 2008. He told us a story of his first day in the army when a settler asked him to come quickly. Shai took this seriously, moved his machine gun to his front ready for action, and followed the settler. It turned out that Shai and the settler followed and then chased a five-year-old Palestinian boy across the hillside. Shai told us that this was a turning point for him when he really questioned what the role of the army is. He said “we have to hold the entire Israeli population responsible for what we [soldiers] do as we do it in their name for security.”
The work of Breaking the Silence shows that Israelis also suffer from the occupation through the loss of childhood as a result of military conscription, a militarisation of society, and huge financial burdens due to the military. Organisations such as Breaking the Silence are important to highlight as they show that not all Israelis agree with their government’s actions or the actions of settlers. However, the Israeli government is increasingly cracking down on such organisations and making it more difficult for them to exist.
Breaking the Silence and other organisations which speak up about the injustices of the occupation of Palestine need support. International pressure is essential to making change happen, and that is where you come in.
There are a variety of ways that you can take action on the situation in Hebron and the rest of the West Bank and make a difference to help end the occupation. One tangible thing that you can do is to stop buying Israeli settlement goods. The EU recently passed a bill on labelling guidance which is the first step to making it possible to differentiate between goods from Israel and from Israeli settlements.
I would urge you all to ask supermarkets to adopt this labelling, and to lobby your MP asking for compulsory labelling of settlement products. The continued expansion and development of settlements in the West Bank is eliminating the possibility of a viable Palestinian state. It is therefore imperative that we all do what we can to end trade with settlements to help bring about a peaceful future for Israelis and Palestinians, and for the people of Hebron including Qusai.
FINAL QUOTE FROM QUSAI
I will leave you with something that Qusai told me: “Despite struggling and feeling unsafe, we still want to come to school”. EAPPI is working to make this possible now and for the future.