Occupied Palestine: an eyewitness report

As a teenager, I became painfully aware of the Palestinian people’s oppression through television images of a 12-year-old boy named Muhammed Al-Durrah who was brutally shot down by Israeli soldiers in the Gaza Strip in September 2000. This event is what eventually led me to volunteer in Palestine with the International Solidarity Movement (ISM) in September 2013. ISM was the organisation that activists Tom Hurndall and Rachel Corrie, who were murdered by Israeli forces for standing with the Palestinian people, belonged to.

The ISM is based in two key areas of the West Bank, Nablus and Khalil (Hebron) and in Gaza. The Gaza office can never exceed two or three activists at one time due to the current blockade on Gaza that limits food imports, water, electricity and gas. Nablus is located in the north of the West Bank and, with little international presence, villages are regularly attacked by settlers. Khalil/Hebron is located in the south of the West Bank and is one of the most violent areas in the West Bank due illegal Israeli settlements being located right in the centre of the Arab city. I decided to go where internationals were most needed and that was Al-Khalil/Hebron, in H2, Tel Rumeida, home to some of the most violent settlers in the West Bank.

I knew with my Arab name that at the very least I would be interrogated. But three hours of questioning was mild compared to some of the other ‘suspiciously’ named detainees. Once released I headed to Ramallah to join the ISM.

Al Khalil/ Hebron was split into two ‘zones’ after the Hebron agreement in 1997. H1 is controlled by the Palestinian Authority (PA) with a Palestinian population of 140,000 and H2 is controlled by the Israeli authorities. H2 has a population of 30,000 Palestinians and 500 illegal Israeli settlers who are spread across settlements Beit Romano, Beit Hadassah, Tel Rumeida and Avraham Avinu. In reality Israel controls both areas. H2 is also home to the Ibrahami Mosque/Cave of the Patriarchs, sacred to Jews and Muslims, adding even more tension to the interaction between settlers and Palestinians. H1 and H2 are separated by heavily armed checkpoints with one of the main checkpoint separating the two areas being checkpoint 56. Depending on how the soldiers are feeling, checkpoint 56 can be a fairly routine check of your bag and your passport if you are an international or ID cards if you’re Palestinian. Or it could be a strip-search such as I witnessed when a fellow international happened to be wearing a Palestinian jumper: the soldier took offence and ordered him to remove most of his clothes in plain view. For most Palestinians it is detention at the checkpoint for several hours, regardless of age or health issues, as we witnessed many times. These petty bullying tactics disrupt everyday lives – preventing schoolchildren from going to school, ill people from attending hospital appointments to men and women from going to work. With 77% of the Palestinian population in H2 live in poverty, many rely on food aid. Interaction in H2 between Palestinians and settlers is daily, violent and sometimes deadly.

During my first few days in Hebron, we met local families who suffer first-hand from the army and settlers. One family which required an international presence at their property due to daily harassment by settlers, was the Abu Shamseer family. After one particular violent attack Abu Shamseer was left disabled by settlers who refused to leave his property. His daughter Marwarr had her hair set on fire by a group of settler teenagers. I witnessed his 14-year-old son being kicked unconscious by four settler youths while the army stood by. Even with witnesses and evidence on film, no charges or arrests were made, Unfortunately you learn too quickly that filing a police report is a fruitless formality for Palestinians that leads to nothing but more violence and harassment from settlers. This is just a small dip into the ocean of the violence and harassment that this one particular family continues to experience every day.

Located in the heart of H2 is the infamous Shuhada Street, aka Ghost Town. Since the second Intifada began in 2000, the once bustling Palestinian street has been closed to Palestinians, forcing over 800 businesses to shut down.

An important part of ISM work in Al Khalill/Hebron was the school run. Checkpoint 29 is notorious for child harassment that includes tear gassing and stun grenades as well as arrests. A few weeks before I arrived 28 children were arrested, some as young as eight years old. Unfortunately, child arrests are common and beatings whilst in detention are not uncommon. We worked closely with a Palestinian organisation called Youth Against Settlements and other international organizations like the Christian Peacemaker Team. Child arrests are very difficult to monitor and often after the soldiers have dished out their own punishment on the child they are released without charge and left severely traumatised.

Clashes between Shabab (stone-throwing youths) and the Israeli army are daily occurrences in Hebron, where everything from rubber-coated bullets to live ammunition are used. One of the most severe clashes occurred after the suspicious death of an Israeli soldier in H2. I was among a group of ISM members a few yards from where the soldier collapsed and eventually died. Media outlets from all over the world ran with the lie fed to them by a ‘credible’ source from within the IDF, that a Palestinian sniper had shot the soldier. The IDF never officially released a statement on his death. The fallout from the soldier’s death meant a military lockdown on the area. I and several other internationals were caught in the middle of an army out for revenge. Those of us who tried to leave the area found ourselves being detained and questioned by the Shin Bet who confiscated our cameras and passports. They, of course, deleted all footage we had of the soldier in question. The hours we spent trying to document the aftermath and the despair in finding a way out of the area was nothing compared to the nightmare the Palestinians faced. Raids on the homes of Palestinians continued for days, the arrest, questioning, detention and beating of any male aged over 16 was the immediate collective punishment, with Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu dealing a long-term damaging blow by approving more illegal settlements in the West Bank.

Every international that steps on Palestinian land in support of the Palestinians is a reminder to Israel that the world is still watching you and your apartheid and that we will not tolerate it. I came away knowing no matter how hard the occupation tries to break Palestinians and their connection to their land, they will fail and one day (insha’Allah), the ugly face of occupation will fall, along with the wall.

Amina Khan

Please remember to boycott any Israeli produce, look out for any barcode starting 729 and always read where the country of origin is on your goods.

Some of Amina’s footage from Palestine can be found here http://palsolidarity.org/2013/10/video-israeli-soldiers-fire-tear-gas-canisters-and-stun-grenades-at-school-children/

Information about the International Solidarity Movement here http://palsolidarity.org/

 

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