A town called friendship: The problem with Hebron

An Isreali soldier in Hebron

The recent ‘Arab spring’ uprisings in the Middle East have led to an unexpected turn of events in Palestinian politics. Two rival Palestinian parties – Hamas, which controls Gaza, and Fatah, which controls the West Bank – have signed a unity pact, agreeing to form an interim government.

Although some are sceptical about how these once bitter rivals can work together, many are optimistic that this development will help the Palestinians  by giving them a single, united voice in their battle for self-determination. They hope this will help them get a UN resolution in September, declaring a Palestinian state within the pre-1967 borders, with Jerusalem as its capital.

A few weeks ago, along with a contingent of students, mainly from Goldsmiths College, I visited one of the most hostile places on Earth – Hebron, in the West Bank.   Named ‘the Ghost Town’ by its inhabitants, the closed-up shop facades, rusting security shutters and faded posters are the remnants of a once thriving commercial area. Despite its desolate atmosphere it’s one of the few places where Israelis and Palestinians come into close contact with each other, living in the same area. Although the name ‘Hebron’ roughly translates as alliance or friendship, the relationship between these two communities is one of conflict.

You see this as you walk through the market on Shuhada Street. Look up and instead of seeing clear blue sky, you are faced with a massive net encompassing the market. Rubbish and unwanted items thrown onto it by Israeli settlers whose homes overlook the Palestinian market, block the light. Walking out of the claustrophobic netted area is a relief – until you look up again and realise that your every move is being followed by Israeli soldiers on the roofs of buildings, poised with their guns.

The net over the Palastinian market in Hebron

The tension between the two groups is palpable. People are constantly waiting for a child to throw a stone or for someone to make an angry comment under their breath, for an Israeli soldier to step in, for things to kick off. Nowhere is the animosity more apparent than between children – Palestinian and Israeli children hurl abuse at each other across the roads.

Around 35,000 Palestinians and 800 Israeli settlers live in Hebron, with more settlers entering the area to claim it as their home. Since 1994, around 1,829 businesses have been shut down due to Israeli policies that restrict commerce and place limitations on the movements of Palestinians. Violence and intimidation have become a daily routine for Palestinian residents. Hashem Azzeh is a lifelong Hebron resident and activist.

The once lush garden of olive trees surrounding his house has been reduced to a collection of shrivelled branches. Azzeh claims that the water from his land has been pumped off . He also says that the house has been broken into and ransacked on several occasions and that he has been attacked and lost some of his teeth as a result. Azzeh’s wife, an avid artist who paints idyllic rural scenes of a free Palestine, has miscarried twice, and they say that their daughter faces abuse and confrontation on her daily walk to and from school.

But unlike the trees that once encircled his home, the father of two is determined to stay put, despite an Israeli offer of one million Shekels for his tiny house.

Hashem Azzeh and his family

Hebron is a snapshot of what life is like for many Palestinians living under Israeli occupation. And for many across the Palestinian territories life has been like this since 1948, when the state of Israel was created. Since then, up to three quarters of Palestinian people have been displaced and thousands killed. From 2000 to 2008, 4,608 Palestinians have been killed and since the beginning of this year at least 49 Palestinians have been killed in Gaza.

However, Palestinian voices are not enough to instigate a change in Israel’s policies. In the UK we may seem completely powerlessness to determine events in the region but Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who is currently in London, knows the importance of Britain in the region. He has been using his trip and meeting with David Cameron to drum up support for Israel and encourage Britain to withhold its recognition of a power-sharing government in Palestine.

If Netanyahu can lobby Britain for Israeli support, we have the power to lobby our own government, and the EU, to make them hold Israel responsible for its increasingly apartheid-like policies that deny Palestinians their basic human rights.

The experience of Palestinians living under occupation is at the heart of the Palestine Film Festival, being held across various venues (the Barbican Centre, SOAS and UCL universities) in London, and running until May 11.

Here you can see films like Mor Loushy’s ‘Israel Ltd’, a documentary that follows a project providing young Jews with guided tours of the region. Using animation and video, the film ‘The Kingdom of Women’ focuses on the contribution of women in the survival of the Palestinian community in exile, by documenting the women of the Ein El Hiwek refugee camp which was destroyed following the Israeli invasion of Lebanon in 1982.

At a time when change is sweeping through the Middle East, these films demonstrate the need for immediate action in resolving the question of Palestinian autonomy.

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