The soldiers patrolling among the houses and olive trees demanded to see 20-year-old Khaled Abu Sh’kheidam’s identity papers. He took them out and the soldiers checked if the plastic covering bore a handwritten number that matched their lists. It did. Abu Sh’kheidam entered his house, a few meters away from where they had stopped him.
The soldiers were following orders on the Saturday just before Passover. For the last 18 months, the Israeli army has been prohibiting the entry of Palestinians who are not among the 1,200 residents of the Palestinian Tel Rumeida neighborhood in the western part of Old Hebron.
Like all his neighbors, Abu Sh’kheidam knows his papers must always be in his pocket – even when clearing out the garbage. Twenty years have passed since the signing of the Wye River Accord, according to which 80 percent of Hebron was transferred to the Palestinian Authority. Every Palestinian family that remained in the other 20 percent (labeled H2) is a testament to courage and endurance.
The Abu Sh’kheidam family lives close to an archaeological dig carried out by the Civil Administration and Ariel University. The dig has now been frozen. The family’s father, Majd, told Haaretz that throughout the Passover holiday, the Old City was full of Jewish visitors. Channel 7 reported that 1,000 Israeli soldiers and Border Policemen were protecting them. In contrast, not only are Palestinians from Jenin or Ramallah forbidden from entering the neighborhood: so are the relatives and friends of people who live there, or people who were born there.
The army issued the prohibition at the end of October 2015. Despite their initial refusal to obey the Civil Administration and register as “permanent residents,” the balance of power and nightly raids by soldiers and representatives of the administration – aimed at registering those present – forced the Palestinians to submit to this decree.
Anyone hoping this was a temporary measure has been left disappointed. Eighteen months have elapsed and the order remains in place. In order to avoid getting confused by the Arab names, the soldiers noted serial numbers that were on their lists on the identity papers of each resident. The prohibition does not apply to children under 16. However, since last July, the army has forbidden Palestinians aged 16 to 30 from entering other areas under Israeli control.
These prohibitions come on top of countless restrictions on movement and other activities, which Israel has gradually imposed on Hebron after 1994, when Baruch Goldstein murdered 29 worshippers at the Ibrahimi Mosque (known to Jews as the Tomb of the Patriarchs). The movement of Palestinian vehicles is prohibited in much of the Old City – the heart of the city, in which Jewish settlements are located. A big stretch of the Old City’s main artery, Al-Shuhada Street, is completely closed to Palestinian pedestrians. This includes all Palestinians, even the few who still live there. These residents have to leave through rooftops or back stairways. The UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) has counted 18 checkpoints manned by soldiers; 14 checkpoints that are intermittently manned; and 70 permanent blockades, such as concrete walls, blocks and locked gates, which cut off the old center from the rest of the city.
Two notices posted in Tel Rumeida at the end of March informed residents that the army was going to set up two more checkpoints for magnetometric identification, as well as revolving gates, cameras and separation chambers between soldiers and the passersby they check. The new barriers will only worsen the existing separation from the rest of the city.
The IDF spokesman told Haaretz that “infrastructure, including these crossings and other military positions, have been upgraded in response to operational needs.” The spokesman said the new barriers were erected “due to terror attacks committed over the last year, which have brought about changes in the army’s defensive conceptions.”
For Palestinian residents, a barrier manned by armed soldiers who separate their house from a grocery or health clinic is not an improvement but a humiliation and further burden.
Jamila Shalalda, who lives in an old and beautiful house on Al-Shuhada Street, says she doesn’t go to the busy part of the city, beyond the checkpoint, more than once every 10 days. The crossing is difficult for her. “We never get used to these prohibitions, even though we decided to stay here,” she told Haaretz.
Some of her neighbors joined us in the building’s covered interior courtyard, full of flower pots. Zeidan Sharbati lost an eye when settler children threw rocks at him several years ago. His brother Mufid was once badly beaten by soldiers and needed surgery in Jordan. The three of them say that over the last 18 months, at least eight families who couldn’t bear the social isolation and being cut off from their families left the H2 area. They say that over the years – the last time being a few months ago – Jewish settlers approached them with offers to buy their house for “a lot of money.” Mufid Sharbati wanted to add a room on the roof for his expanding family. He says the military commander agreed, but settlers complained and construction was halted. The concrete blocks on the roof are crumbling and the iron is rusting.
On the eve of transferring authority of H1 to the PA in 1997, there were 35,000 to 40,000 Palestinians living in H2. Some 12,000 of them lived in proximity to the settlers, in areas where travel restrictions are extremely severe and normal life is totally paralyzed. How many left under this pressure? Estimates always seem low given the underlying feeling of emptiness, abandonment and loneliness one gets when walking through these neighborhoods. The ones who remained are either the poorest or the most stubborn. In 2006, the human rights group B’Tselem found that residents of at least 1,040 apartments – 41 percent of the total – had left since 1994. A 2015 survey by the Hebron Rehabilitation Committee, meanwhile, found that 1,105 housing units had been abandoned. Some 1,800 businesses, 72 percent of the total, have shuttered; 500 of these were closed by the army, the rest closed because their owners couldn’t sustain the business absent clients, transportation restrictions, harassment by settlers and the army.
When Jamila Shalalda got married and moved to this location 30 years ago, it was a bustling street – full of stores, workshops, taxis, chattering neighbors and the laughter of children. She remembers every shop: a seamstress shop; a carpentry; the offices of a newspaper; a glazier; a grocery; barbershops; a nargila shop; a medical center; a sports club. Nothing remains of that rich economic and social activity. Only sealed iron doors remain, welded in place by the army in 2000. Above the closed shops are apartments. Behind windows protected by wire screens, children peered outside curiously. “When there is a wire screen to protect us from the stones thrown by settlers, it means people are still living here. When there isn’t one, it means the residents left long ago,” says Imad Abu Shamsiya from Tel Rumeida.
Shamsiya’s friend, Badi’a Dweik, told a Norwegian-Israeli visitor that, as a Palestinian, he cannot continue walking on Al-Shuhada Street. “You can,” he said. She broke down in tears, saying, “I didn’t imagine such a thing could exist,” referring to everything she had seen and heard: The empty houses, the silence on one side of the checkpoint and the jolly urban sounds coming from the other side; the steep stairs an old woman or disabled man have to climb; the delayed upgrading of the disabled man’s house, since workers and building materials are not allowed in; shopping carts used for carrying groceries up the street after passing through the revolving gate at the barrier; the al-Azze family’s baby, who died last winter since they couldn’t get an ambulance in time; the iron bars over the windows; the soldiers at the crossing, who were heard saying, “They’re Israelis, they can pass.”
The Norwegian-Israeli visitor was told by Shalalda and her family that the isolation and being cut off from the rest of society are the hardest aspects of living there. It upsets the children most of all. The adults are constantly depressed. There are some Palestinian social activists who have organized under a banner called “Dismantle the Hebron Ghetto.” They have set up a kindergarten in an abandoned house; they’ve set up a prize-winning competition among the worshippers at the mosque, to encourage more people to come and pray there. They’ve also set up a photography program for children, distributing a few video cameras in schools.
Sometimes they demonstrate, together with Israeli friends, against the closing of Hebron. They are dispersed by tear gas and beatings, and occasionally arrested. A month ago, they initiated an olive-tree planting in the Wadi Nassara neighborhood. This activity comes with a price: four of them, including Badi’a Dweik, were arrested after settlers reported their activities to the army. They were brought to the Ofer military court and released after three days, with bail set at 3,500 shekels ($960). They were forbidden to return to the scene of “the crime” for 10 days. The social activist Issa Amru, one of the founders of “Youth against the Settlements,” was charged on 18 counts, ranging from “illegal demonstration” to insulting a soldier, violations allegedly committed since 2010. His trial will take place this summer.
We visited the Abu Sh’kheidam family in Tel Rumeida together with Amru. There, as in 20 other buildings on top of the hill, the burning issue is sewage. The neighborhood was not connected to the municipal sewage system. The holding septic tanks need to be emptied every few months, but vehicles aren’t allowed in – only in coordination with the Civil Administration. For years, residents asked the municipality to send a tanker for emptying the septic tanks. Officials there said they could not coordinate this with the Israelis, so the families do it themselves. They use a pump connected to a small generator and a hose, emptying the contents in their yard. This takes two days instead of two hours with a big tanker truck. The Coordinator of Government Activities in the Territories (COGAT) says no request was received for allowing a tanker in, and that such a request would be granted.
Three years ago, the municipality started talking about hooking up these houses to the sewage system, after funding was found for this, says Abu Sh’kheidam. Two months ago, municipal workers and bulldozers arrived and started digging. They were supposed to return a week later, in coordination with the Israelis, but the army didn’t let them in again. Since then, the work has stopped. Amru says the municipality has checked the water in a spring nearby and found it contaminated.
COGAT says the work was stopped due to violations by the municipality, which crossed into the archaeological site, and that they must submit a detailed plan for continuing the work. Abu Sh’kheidam was told the municipality was waiting for approval by the director of the archaeological dig. The leavened goods that piled up outside the houses of the settlers before Passover were removed by trucks from the Palestinian municipality. According to the Wye agreement, garbage disposal and other municipal services are the responsibility of the Palestinian municipality.