Hashem Younes Azzeh is a 50-year-old resident of Tel Rumeida, he is married with 4 children and is a graduate of Hebron and Jordan Universities.
Can you tell us about the situation in Hebron in general and why it is unique in the West Bank?
The city of Hebron is divided into two parts. One part is called H1, it is under the Palestinian Authority control and H2, which is under the Israeli military control. And here in my house we are in Tel Rumeida. Tel Rumeida and Shuhada Street are under Israeli control. This was agreed on in the Hebron agreement 1997. The other unique thing about Hebron are the settlements [Hebron is the only place in the West Bank where settlements have been created within the city]. There are four settlements around the area where we are here. One of them is right next to my house (Tel Rumeida). There are only two or three meters between me and the settlers. The second settlement is called Beit Hadessa. The building used to be a boys school before it was confiscated and turned into a settlement. The other one is Beit Romano. Like in the case of Beit Hadessa they took a school building which was controlled by the Palestinian Authority before.
The next settlement is called Avraham Avinu; it is in the middle of the city. The Palestinians used that space as the main vegetable market in Hebron, the old market. It was confiscated in the year 1994, after the Ibrahimi mosque massacre [In 1994 a settler named Baruch Goldstein, entered the mosque and started shooting. He killed 29 and injured over a hundred Palestinians before he was shot. Today in the settlement of Kyriat Aba, there is a memory stone for him, saying that he died fighting the enemy. He is celebrated as a hero.]
Can you tell us a bit about the development in Hebron, especially in H2 over the last years?
I will talk about Shuhada Street first. Shuhada Street was the main street in Hebron. It connected the northern and the eastern part of the city. When the army closed the street, 1800 shops were blocked. 500 shops were closed through military resolutions. The army blocked the shops with metal, to prevent the owners from reopening them. Though not only shops, also houses were blocked by the army, so people could not get back into their homes.
In 2000 they imposed a curfew on the city, which lasted until the end of 2003. The official statements state that the curfew lasted for 167 days. That is correct but only for the old city. It is not the case for Shuhada Street and Tel Rumeida. There the curfew lasted for three years in total. No one could get out of his house. The army gave us one hour a month to let us do our shopping. After the end of 2003 they started to soften the curfew. We now had one hour every two weeks. In the whole year of 2004, we lived under a night curfew. That lasted until the middle of 2005. When I say night curfew I mean from 6 o’ clock in the evening to 6 o’clock in the morning. After 6 o’clock in the evening you could see no one on the streets, it was completely empty. No one could go out of his house, no one could go to the hospital, no one could do anything. They finally abolished all the curfews in the middle of 2005.
At that time the International Committee of the Red Cross decided to help the Palestinians who are living here, by distributing a box of food for each family once a month. They stopped it in the late 2012. They thought the situation was much calmer and the assistance was not needed any more. That led to many Palestinians moving from here. They moved for two reasons: The first one is an economical one. They couldn’t survive because everybody had lost their jobs. The other was for security reasons. The army and the settlers, particularly the army came all the time and attacked the houses and their inhabitants. The Palestinians wanted to save their lives. That is why they moved. 350 families lived on Shuhada Street and Tel Rumeida. Last year, there where only 48 families left. Also the school in H1 has changed. It used to be a school for just girls. There used to be over four hundred students, who attended this school, but over time the number dropped to seventy. We, as the popular committee of parents, decided to talk to the Ministry of Education to turn it into a mixed school, to increase the number of students and therefore save the school. That is what happened. It is now a mixed school, with 171 students.
How is the daily life of Palestinians who live in H2?
The situation in Hebron is extremely tense, especially in Tel Rumeida. There are no shops open and no public transportation. We don’t have any clinics here and no ambulances can reach us. If someone needs to go to the hospital, we have to carry the patients by hand through the checkpoint and the ambulance will wait for us behind it. There is no way for them to come to the patients directly in H2.
The Palestinians who live here, have to go to H1 to buy their goods. In order to get there, they have to pass the checkpoint at Shuhada Street, which is called checkpoint 56. The soldiers check every bag that we carry.
In general the daily life is really horrible. Our children get harassed on their way to and back from school. We get controlled and searched at the checkpoint every day. The army drew red lines in front of some of the checkpoints. We have to wait behind this line until we get called by the soldiers one by one to pass. Some streets in Hebron are now separated by a fence. The Palestinians are only allowed to walk on one side of the fence. The soldiers have the power to arrest any Palestinian who walks on the other side of the street.
What experiences have you had living door-to-door with the Israeli settlers?
Well, about the settlers. When they came in 1976, they started confiscating land and houses. Since then the amount of settlers increased constantly and still is. The settlers harass us by throwing stones, garbage and sometimes human shit.
The settlers are the commanders in charge here. They even have power over the soldiers, they will do whatever the settlers will tell them to do. They abuse our children on their way to school. That is why we invited internationals to come here. EAPPI [Ecumenical Accompaniment Programme in Palestine and Israel] has been here since 2003. We also started contact with ISM and CPT [Christian Peacemakers Team] after that. We wanted them to observe what is going on here. We used to have daily harassments from the settlers towards our children. A lot of them suffer from psychological diseases. The children here, including my own, can’t sleep well at night. The light has to be on all the time. If we turn it off they get scared. They can’t fall asleep if we don’t stay with them until they fall asleep. They always expect soldiers or settlers to come and attack. Many children still wet their pants at the age of fourteen and fifteen. We treated these problems with the doctors from Doctors Without Borders. But that is not enough; we want to treat these troubles more in the association that we created in Tel Rumeida.
In what way does the constant presence of the Israeli army affect your daily life?
There used to be monthly searching in our houses. The army came at night with big dogs. They stormed the houses, woke up everyone- even the children are not spared. We have to leave our house, even when it was cold outside. These searches can take up to three hours or more, all the while insulting us and our children. Sometimes they write graphite on our doors for example “gas the Arabs”. The Israelis offered us money once to leave our houses, a huge amount of money. When we refused they closed all the entrances to our house. I used to climb a six meter wall to access my home. When my wife was pregnant I had to carry her all the way, when she was about to give birth. It took us three hours to get to the hospital. At the checkpoint the army would not let us pass without checking our ID and searching us, even though they recognized that my wife was in a labour.
Another issue is that we have to get a permit to harvest our olives from the Israeli army. [Without having to give a reason, the army can refuse these permits; many farmers are unable to access their land throughout the West Bank]. Settlers regularly destroy our trees and steal the olives. I personally have not been able to get any of my olives. I have fifty trees and could not harvest any of them. The olive trees are an important part of our culture. If you grow an olive tree you will have to wait fifteen years before you can harvest the olives. So when you have to watch the settlers stealing your olives or uprooting the trees, you become crazy because there is nothing you can do. The army also built a watchtower on my brothers’ house; they are everywhere all the time.
What is your personal experience with the illegal settlers and the Israeli army?
The settlers who live next to me cut the water pipes that lead to my house. I lived without water for three years. I therefore got in contact with international and human rights organizations. At least we were able to replace some of the pipes. Then the settlers came and uprooted all of my fruit trees. They attacked my wife when she was pregnant with our first child; she lost it in her third month. She was pregnant again but the settlers beat her when she was four months pregnant and she lost that baby as well. Later they stormed my house shooting bullets in the wall and destroying all my furniture. These are just examples from an endless pool of incidents.
I am next to the settlement. All of the settlers here are extremists. They closed all of my accesses to my house. My neighbour is the leader of the Jewish National Front. He has two stickers posted to his wall. One of them says “God gave us the right to kill Arabs and we love it”.
Once the army came to my house arrested my son, who was five years old at that time. They accused him of throwing stones. When the soldiers came to take him, my son was playing on his computer. The soldiers just laughed while arresting him. When I asked him, if there were sure that they actually saw my son throwing the stones they said no, the settlers told them it was him.
The army and the settlers have done a lot to me here. They want me to move but I will never give up, we are still fighting until we get our freedom.
What kind of hopes and expectations do you have for the future? Or what solutions do you see?
Actually as Palestinians, we accept many solutions. The PLO accepted the two state solution. And after that the Palestinian Authority also came to agreement with Israel to approach a two state solution. But even after 20 years of negotiations nothing has happened. On the contrary, the Israelis started confiscating more land and more houses to spread the settlements, they want to control everything. The Israelis were rather open with their demands; they want to keep the wall in Jerusalem and the natural resources. They also won’t give up the settlements, the army and the borders that they created. Another issue is that they still refuse to accept the right of return for the Palestinian refugees. So how is a two state solution going to work, if all these demands have to be met? For me there is a logical and acceptable answer, for us Palestinians, if Israel removes their troops and the borders from 1967 and they remove the wall and leave East Jerusalem as a capital for us, if they give us our borders, the airports the two state solution is a possibility. But that is not what Israel wants. They are talking about a pure Jewish state. A pure Jewish state will have a huge impact on us, it means that they want to cleanse this land from all the Palestinians, Christian or Muslim. I believe they wanted to cleanse the Christian Palestinians first to show that this is a conflict between Judaism and Islam, but that is not true. We are not against Judaism; we are only against the occupation. Every Palestinian has close Jewish friends. We are simply against the occupation not the religion. But the Israeli plan is to dismiss everybody from here. At times we had lots of discussions with Israelis. I said to someone before if you want to keep all of these things, let us think about one democratic state. Let us live together in harmony. I think that will be the best for everybody. You will see how peace will come.
What about your plan for the future?
For me personally it is clear, I will never move until I die or we get our freedom. I will keep my house with my family and my resistance. We encourage the other Palestinians who moved from here to return back to their houses. This is what our associations does here in Tel Rumeida, we offer Palestinians support in case they move back here. We help them find a job, we have free health services and we support and protect each other.
(Source / 18.12.2013)