Lines In The Face oF Hebron
By Hadeel Wahdan
"Much can be read from the wrinkles on the face of an old man or the tears of a child." This is one of the first rules of journalism in a country like Palestine. But the so-called Wadi Al Nar road that circumvents Jerusalem to connect the central and southern West Bank has so much more to say - it tells of a city's history and the suffering of a people.
My journey through Wadi Al Nar was to Hebron, south of Jerusalem. Entering the city was next to impossible.
"The road is completely closed, there are no passengers. I cannot help you," said the taxi driver apologetically. "Even Wadi Al Nar was closed yesterday [by Israeli soldiers] after clashes on Shuhada street," he continued.
I had set a full schedule of interviews that day. My plan was to finish by 5 pm at least, the time that Israeli shelling usually begins in the city. After that, it would be impossible to leave Hebron. So I offered my taxi driver a handsome fee to start the journey.
All along the road, we were met by Israeli military checkpoints and roadblocks. Every so often, we would pass Israeli bulldozers sealing off a road or an entrance to the city. More than 13 paved roads and hundreds of dirt roads between agricultural land and houses were sealed with cement blocks or been dug up so nothing could pass. A trip that would normally take no more than half an hour now would take more than three.
The car practically leaped in midair, then settled back down on land, its passengers bouncing with it. "This has been the situation for more than three months," says Mahmoud, my taxi driver, trying to start a conversation that would somehow make the bumpy trip more tolerable. "I have to fix my car almost twice a week if not more." He had hardly finished his sentence when an Israeli soldier hailed to us to turn back. The road was closed.
My only remaining option was to enter the city on foot through the village of Halhoul and then find a car to take me to the city center. This of course meant that I had to walk at least three kilometers to get to the main street in the town. From there I would take another car to Bab Al Zawiyeh in the heart of Hebron. And so I set out.
My adventures on the road were only the beginning. Once I reached the city, I was bombarded with hundreds of stories from eager residents. It was only a few days since Areej Al Jabali had joined the rank of martyrs, those Palestinians who have given their lives in the uprising for land and faith. The 18-year-old was shot on the balcony of her home in the Dahiyet Al Baladiya quarter of the city with a bullet at least thirty centimeters long. The fatal shot came from the Hagai settlement a few kilometers away. The Israeli justification was that gunfire was heard in the area. It later became apparent that the sounds came from fireworks, set off by a Palestinian man who was later arrested.
"She was the flower of our home," said her mother, her voice choked by the tears streaming down her cheeks. "She was eagerly waiting for Friday [the day after she was killed] to meet her bridegroom. But her rendezvous with death came sooner," her mother went on, kissing a photo of Areej in her high school graduation gown. One of the relatives told me later that she had been carrying the picture ever since Areej's death.
As Areej's mother mourned, on the other side of town in a neighborhood known as the Baqa'a quarter, I am told another story - this one full of sadness, pain and rage. The settlers of Kiryat Arba were not satisfied with taking over the home of Ata Jaber and the surrounding land of more that 400 dunams or 100 acres. They also seriously injured the son Sami, 12, in the chest and stomach.
"I don't know what is worse," says Jaber. "Sami is lying in the hospital fighting for his life and only God knows if he will make it or not. And my house, my land, my money and my family are scattered, finding shelter in other people's homes."
On December 16, a group of Kiryat Arba settlers, including the head of the settlement municipal council who shot Sami, went to the Jaber house carrying furniture, an Israeli flag and a group of religious books.
"They opened fire on us without warning. I would at least have gotten the kids out of the house," says Jaber. He added sarcastically, "They said they shot in the air. I didn't know that my son had wings or that he could fly."
Hebron has a status different from all other cities and villages in the West Bank and Gaza Strip. It is surrounded on all sides by Israeli settlements, the largest being Kiryat Arba, which stretches over more than 5,000 dunams [425 acres] of Hebron land. There are over 6,000 Israeli settlers living in Kiryat Arba of the 10,000 settlers distributed inside the Hebron district and on its borders.
This situation forces a difficult reality on the residents of Hebron, in the name of "The redeployment protocol in Hebron" signed between Israel and the Palestinian Authority on January 15, 1997. The agreement has divided the city into two parts. One part falls under full Israeli control (H-2) and includes the Ibrahimi mosque area, the Old City, the Dabouya area, Tel Rumeida, the Abu Sneineh neighborhood, the Masharqa neighborhood, Wadi Al Qadi, the Kasara neighborhood, Jabal Takrouri, Al Karnateena, the Zahed neighborhood and Jabal Jawhar overlooking the entire city from its four sides. The Palestinian Authority is supposedly in control over the remaining areas of the city (H-1).
"There is no such thing as H-1 and H-2," says Ali Sharabati, a shopkeeper in Hebron's old city. "Israel controls the whole city. If this were not true than why does life stop in all of Hebron when there is a siege and curfew?" Sharabati is one of the hundreds of merchants harmed by the tight siege and curfew imposed one part of Hebron for the past three months. Citizens are not allowed to leave their homes except for no more than three hours every two or three days to get food and basic goods.
"Since the start of the Intifada I haven't earned one shekel. My shop has been closed and I am not allowed even to leave my house. And even when I can leave I cannot get back. This is what they want - for us to leave our homes and give them the opportunity to occupy them. But that will never happen," Sharabati said, waving his finger threateningly in the air.
The Hebron municipality is responsible for providing basic services to the divided city's citizens, including sanitation and health services or the distribution of Red Crescent and other food supplies.
"This siege is destroying the economic and social life in Hebron," says Mayor Mustapha Al Natsheh. "There is daily shelling of the city concentrated in highly populated Arab areas. Shelling usually takes place from rooftops and mountains in the Israeli controlled H-2. This results in major losses in lives and properties, not to mention the psychological trauma felt by children."
This psychological trauma or terrorization is not only felt by children. In Tel Rumeida in H-2, lives the 13-member Abu Haikal family in an endless nightmare. Settlers and Israeli soldiers surround them from all sides.
"We have lived like this since 1984," says Arwa Abu Haikal. "But the situation has gotten worse since the Intifada. We are not allowed to go to work because of the curfew, which we never know when will be lifted or imposed. We live in fear and caution. We are not even allowed to use our own private road to our house. We only use it because we have to."
The family's closest neighbor is Baruch Marzel, head of the extremist right-wing Kach movement and leader of the Hebron settlers. He lives in a large house built on land confiscated from a Palestinian citizen only a few meters away from the borders of the Abu Haikal house.
"This family is our biggest nightmare. The hit us, curse us and insult us almost every day. Meanwhile an Israeli army patrol guards them and does not allow anyone near them," says Arwa, pointing to Sarah, Baruch's wife. "She takes advantage of the fact that she is a woman in an Arab society. She even hits and insults men passing down the strbecause she knows that they will not strike back."
The number of settlers in the heart of Hebron does not exceed 400. They live in homes confiscated from Palestinian owners over the past 10 years. They are protected by thousands of heavily-armed Israeli soldiers. Not only have the settlers taken over homes, but soldiers man elementary schools in the city. At the beginning of the Intifada, Israeli soldiers turned two girls' schools and one boys' school into military camps, depriving students of their right to education.
"They cannot be considered human," says Firyal Abu Haikal, principal of the Qarbata Girls' School in Tel Rumeida. "They are depriving our children of their most basic rights as humans - their right to education, not to mention the terrible psychological conditions our children are living under that negatively impacts their academic achievement. They have been out of school for more than 100 days."
Firyal's story about local education is not much different from her experience with her Israeli neighbors. Qarbata school is right near the Deboya settlement. The only way its students can get to school is by taking the Shuhada road, which divides areas H-1 and H-2. "They do not allow us to get to the school. They have even run after some of the girls with sticks and stones. Now we are trying to make up for the lost school days by taking a path around the school. We use old broken down stairs that are very dangerous."
Even leaving Hebron is hard. A West Bank resident riding in a car with a Jerusalem license plate, I was stopped by a soldier at the exit to the city. Because I was a Palestinian in a place that I was not supposed to be, the soldier wanted me to go back to Hebron. "But she is a girl," the woman next to me said. Slowly, the car moved on.
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