As Israel pounds Gaza by land, air and sea, we turn for a moment to the West Bank city of Hebron. In 1997, Israel withdrew its military from the majority of the city’s area, called “H-1,” which became part of “Area A,” the parts of the West Bank policed by the Palestinian Authority (PA). Israeli soldiers remained in “H-2,” the old city, where some 400 Jewish settlers live among 40,000 Palestinians and where the Tomb of the Patriarchs / Ibrahimi mosque is located. When H-2 is not under curfew, visitors can walk down Shuhada Street and see soldiers in mesh-enclosed positions above. Hisham Sharabati is an organizer with the Hebron Defense Committee, which works to expose and resist Israeli settlement expansion and army-backed settler rampages in the beleaguered city. The Committee supports Palestinian families living on Shuhada Street, and is the first response team during settler attacks. Yassmine Saleh spoke with Sharabati on July 8, 2014.
What has been going on Hebron?
The situation is always tense, because the settlers present in our city and in other settlement areas in the Hebron governorate are some of the most extreme. The settlers use any form of anti-occupation resistance as a pretext to do more harm to Palestinians.
When the Israeli operations that were advertised as searches for the three missing settler teens began, the situation got even tenser, with a marked increase in arbitrary attacks on Palestinians by both settlers and Israeli occupation forces. Homes in the villages of Tafouh, Bayt Kahil and Idhna were subjected to a series of particularly intense raids. Throughout the 20-day operation, soldiers would barge in to homes and wreak havoc as many as ten times per day. The Committee has verified reports of Israeli soldiers stealing money and gold jewelry.
In Halhoul, where there were also house searches, the army polluted wells and often sent divers down into them ostensibly to look for the missing settlers. All of these practices constitute collective punishment, though they do not depart too much from the everyday practices of the occupation regime.
The Israeli campaign in the Hebron area did not halt after the missing settlers were found dead. Instead, the Israelis behaved as they did before the advent of the PA and its control of Area A, with systematic incursions. No home, no sort of building, was safe. Many employees of the PA civil service and security forces reside in the village of Tafouh. Their homes were violated and the inhabitants subjected to full-body inspections.
Israeli occupation forces were acting under the watchful and approving eyes of the settlers, who since the missing teens were found dead have been marching daily, taunting Palestinians and demanding full-scale reinvasion of Hebron. Usually, during Ramadan, people go to pray in the Ibrahimi mosque, but the high-strung settler gangs have scared people off, and the mosque is empty.
In the town of Halhoul, homes were searched up to six or seven times per day. The Israelis place a device on the doorknob to blow the door wide open, shattering windows in the process. That’s how the soldiers enter homes: They don’t knock, they bomb their way in.
The residents didn’t bother cleaning up their homes after an Israeli raid, because they knew that another one was coming. Soldiers toss household items all over the place, rummage through kitchens, mixing the sugar with the flour, tip over cabinets, ruin sofas, and even destroy toys and decorations made by kids for Ramadan.
Israeli soldiers force a family member to escort them throughout the house. They corral everyone else so they can search uninterrupted. Often, the soldiers will confine the men in one room and the women in another. The children are traumatized by the constant threat of incursion.
The Hebron area, and particularly the Hasaka region to the north of the city, is largely agricultural. People are not accustomed to keeping their money in the bank. Instead, there are community cooperatives that people can draw upon, on a rotating basis, to pay for large purchases. So people often keep cash savings, and a lot of valuables, at home. Along with cell phones and other personal items, these valuables are regularly stolen by soldiers. We are talking about tens of cases of theft. There is a car dealership in Hebron; when the soldiers invaded the place, 65,000 shekels (about $19,000), the entirety of their receipts from the week, were stolen. The owners usually don’t keep their money at the dealership, but that night they could not take it elsewhere and they thought nothing would happen to it.
A women’s cooperative was also targeted. One woman, whose turn it was to safeguard the funds, had 8,500 shekels (about $2,480) stolen from her. A married couple had been setting aside thousands of shekels for in vitro fertilization, and was robbed of the lot.
Other families were targeted in the searches, particularly the Abu Aisha and Qawasma families. Their homes were searched every day after the settler teens disappeared. And many members of their families were also detained. Some in the Abu Aisha and Qawasma families had their apartments bombed, or even had the toilets and refrigerators destroyed.
What are the settlers up to?
More attacks. The Ja‘bari family in the old city was still awake when the settlers attacked, as it was only 10 pm. Soldiers accompany the settlers at all times, of course, to protect them. In the case of the Ja‘bari family, as in other cases before this campaign, they arrested the Palestinians who defended themselves against the settlers’ attacks. Palestinians in Hebron are subject to Israeli military law, whereas the settlers are subject to civil law, so the army never arrests them.
The old city and the southeastern parts of the Hebron governorate, especially the Yatta region, suffer the greatest number of settler attacks. Settlers attempted to break into Halhoul when the soldiers were there, but the Israeli army and police blocked them, lest they disrupt the military operation. But later the settlers attacked people in the Tall Rumayda and Rajabi quarters of the old city.
The settlers also flooded the streets of the old city to hold a riotous demonstration of incitement at the Ibrahimi mosque. What is even graver is that the settlers started building three new settlements, including one that is built over a house in the eastern part of Hebron. And there are settlement blocs near Halhoul on Road 60 (Bakaim) and on Surif lands (Kfar Etzion).
In the eyes of the State of Israel and its army, these settlement blocs are illegal, but at the same time they say that the blocs are built on individual initiative. It’s initiative that the army provides protection for, and that the state provides with electricity, water and basic infrastructure to connect the new structures to established settlements. All of this happens despite the illegality of the settlements in the eyes of the occupying state, let alone the view of the international community.
How are Palestinians organizing in response?
The Israeli operations coincided with Ramadan, which helped to produce a spontaneous eruption of popular organizing and to strengthen the sense of trust among people. People were protective of each other, particularly whenever there was news of an impending search of a house. During Ramadan people stay up after iftar (evening breakfast) through the night until suhur (pre-dawn meal before fasting recommences) and dawn prayers. This habit helped everyone to respond quickly to the Israeli incursions, which often come at night.
I don’t know if this type of organizing can or will continue after the end of Ramadan. In light of the absence of the PA, and its security forces’ failure to protect us from the settlers, I don’t know what will happen next.
What are economic conditions like now?
Hebron is a commercial city, and the Israeli army imposed a siege on June 14. So the markets have been empty, including of the ‘48 Palestinians who come from Israel to shop in Hebron and who support the local economy the most. Everyone is fearful of the siege and the likelihood of more settler attacks. Hebron has two of the biggest dairies in Palestine, Jabrini and Junaydi. These two facilities suffered in the siege, as they could not supply areas outside Hebron, since trucks could not leave the city through “the container” checkpoint. Civil servants and those working in civil society organizations outside Hebron also could not go to work, and workers with permits to enter Israel had them revoked. Many of them dared to approach the checkpoint with their permits, but the Israeli soldiers tore up their papers and ordered them back home. The workers without permits did not dare to try crossing the checkpoint. And, of course, no one carrying a Hebron ID could travel abroad.
In addition to the obstruction of commercial life, the agricultural sector in the Hebron governorate suffers. Areas such as Halhoul and Tafouh, for instance, were dealt a heavy blow when farmers could not reach their plots to gather the harvest of fruits and vegetables, particularly peaches and faqqus (Armenian cucumber). I know of a farmer in Hasaka who could water his faqqus only once in a span of 13 days.
After the missing settlers were found dead, things have become a little less tense although ’48 Palestinian shoppers from the inside are still afraid to come. The flare-up in Jerusalem and among Palestinians in Israel is making them afraid to leave, especially in light of the killing of Mohammad Abu Khdeir.
How have current events affected the standing of Hamas and other factions in Hebron?
The attacks on Hebron coincided with the longest hunger strike waged by the administrative detainees, people in Israeli custody who have not tried or indicted. Hamas had widespread popular support, particularly in light of the targeting of Hamas cadres, including members of the Palestinian Legislative Council. Hamas organized demonstrations in support of the hunger strike; Israel still refused to negotiate with the hunger strikers.
The issue of administrative detainees is crucial in Hebron because there are many who hail from the area and have been in administrative detention for ten years or more. Mazin al-Natsha, for example, has spent between 12 and 13 years in prison, without trial, as has Muhammad Jamal al-Natsha.
With regard to Hamas, the attacks against its members may have weakened its political structure, as I said due to the large numbers of detainees affiliated with Hamas. But that has not reduced their popularity — particularly because the PA suppressed two demonstrations organized by Hamas, one in solidarity with the prisoners, and yesterday’s in solidarity with Gaza. The current onslaught by the Israeli army increases popular sympathy for Hamas.
As you may know, the other factions and parties have become marginal over the years due to the structural framework of Oslo, which I could go on and on about. Oslo also enervated the national struggle. People have developed an aversion to active participation. The popular committees don’t attract widespread involvement, but those of us who are active continue to show, through our work and our words, that popular struggle is fruitful.
Image: Hebron and immediate environs in 2000 (Foundation for Middle East Peace / Jan de Jong)