Herbs and ceramics in an apartheid city

A guest post by John Austin 

Early Palestinian breakfast – flat bread with olive oil, za’atar, olives, labneh, fresh cucumber, capsicums, tomatoes, cheese and hard-boiled eggs – a good start to the day! On the bus by 8am for the journey to Bethlehem.  The direct journey should take only half an hour but we were travelling on the route which Palestinians are forced to take circling Jerusalem.  After a long winding journey on hilly roads we arrive at the Nativity Church in Bethlehem and are given a rapid tourist tour before departing by our bus for Hebron.

We stop on the outskirts of Hebron as we are about to enter Area A, that tiny part of Palestine supposedly under Palestinian control.  An Israeli notice on the boundary warns Israeli citizens that they are forbidden by law from entering the area and that it is not safe.  We are soon to discover what “under Palestinian control” means.  Under the Oslo accords, the designations of Areas A, B and C* were to be temporary, lasting no more than 5 years whilst meaningful negotiations were supposed to take place. The status of Jerusalem was to be determined in final status talks but in the meantime East Jerusalem has been annexed by Israel and almost all of Palestine is still under Israeli control.  Hebron is a prime example of how the Palestinians were deceived by Israel, as we were about to discover.

(*Following the Oslo accords 3% of the Occupied Palestinian Territories were placed under Palestinian control. 25% was under shared control, with Israel being responsible for security and 72% was under full Israeli military control.)

Special arrangements were made for Hebron in the Oslo agreements. Hebron is home to the tomb of Ibrahim/Abraham and sacred to both Islam and Judaism.  Prior to 1967, under Jordanian control, Jews and Muslims had shared and had equal access to the Al-Ibrahim Mosque, which it is believed also contains the tombs of other figures revered in both Islam and Judaism.  Now the building has been divided with the Hall of Isaac forming the Mosque and the Hall of Jacob the Synagogue, and Palestinians now have only restricted access.

Under the Oslo accords, a small Israeli settlement was allowed to remain in Hebron.  This settlement has since expanded and now numbers some 800 settlers protected by an occupying Israeli Defence Force of more than 1,400 soldiers.

On arrival in Hebron we meet the Governor of Hebron Governorate, Mr Kamel Hemeid.  Mr Hemeid is a direct appointee of President Abbas.  He explains that although we are in a city supposedly under Palestinian administration, the Palestinians are still living under occupation.  Even as Governor, if he wishes to travel from the Palestinian-controlled part of Hebron to visit or do anything in Area B or C, which is 80% of the Hebron Governorate area, he needs permission from the Israelis. Even President Abbas needs Israeli permission to travel!  A UN resolution recognising Palestinian statehood has not changed this.  It is unbelievable that the elected President of a state recognised by the UN (although not yet a full member) should need the consent of an occupying military power to move freely in his own country. One has to ask the question, “Where else in the world would this be tolerated?”

The Governor explains that apart from the surrounding villages which are all under Israeli control in areas B & C, the city itself is divided into H1 and H2, Palestinian and Israeli administered areas.  Hebron has a population of a quarter of a million people.  In H1, supposedly under the Governor’s control, live 120,000 Palestinians.  In H2, under full Israeli military control there are app 800 Israeli settlers, with full Israeli citizenship, and around 30,000 Palestinians.  The number of Israelis is growing but the number of Palestinians is rapidly falling as they are continuously harassed, attacked and shot at; some are killed and others are forced from their homes. The Governor paints a bleak picture but still puts faith in the international community and holds to the President’s view that a negotiated 2 state solution is possible.  Few of us share his optimism.

The Governor presents the delegation with an ornate hand-crafted glass vase as a memento of our visit.  Hebron is a centre for production of high quality glassware and ceramics.

From the Governorate offices we travel to the City Hall for a meeting with the Mayor of Hebron Dr Daoud Zatari.

Dr Zatari heads a council of 15 elected members, 10 of whom ten support Fatah and five are independents, including Hamas. It is difficult to comprehend how a city under such external duress and hardship can function and we are amazed by the resilience of those who go about their daily lives, believing in democracy, voting for local councilors who try to serve their people by providing everyday basic services. Our delegation includes councilors from England and Wales who are interested to know how the city functions.

The Mayor tells us that, despite the city’s division, the Council provides normal municipal services such as sewerage for the whole of the city, including the Israeli settlement, but the municipal taxes for the settlement are collected by the Israeli army.  If sewage pipes running under H2 area need repair, the council has to get permission from the Israelis to carry out the work.

Vital services such as water, electricity and communications are wholly controlled by the Israelis. The Mayor tells us that, under the Oslo agreement, Palestine has the right to generate its own electricity but the Israelis have made this impossible and Palestinians are forced to buy their electricity from the Israeli grid.

Most Israeli settlements are outside of towns and cities, often cutting towns off from their surrounding Palestinian neighbourhoods, but the settlement in Hebron is right in the heart of the city, which the Mayor says has been “sterilized” to enable free movement of Israelis.

The Mayor says that even after 1967 Jews and Muslims had relatively free access to the Ibrahimi Mosque, but that following the 1994 massacre, when Baruch Goldstein, an extremist Orthodox Jew, shot and killed 29 Palestinian worshippers in the Mosque, the building has been divided. Now, Muslims have access to the whole Mosque on only 10 days of the year for specific religious feast days.

After our meeting with the Mayor we went on a walking tour of the city centre.  Right in the heart of the centre there were Israeli check-points and armed look-out posts, one actually positioned on the top of a Palestinian house. To get to the Mosque, Palestinians have to go through two sets of turnstiles with a “no-man’s land” between.  Although we were politely allowed through as a group, the treatment of Palestinians in their own city was markedly different. Moving from the Palestinian side to the Israeli side the first turnstile is controlled from an armed control post on the Israeli side.  We observed a mother and her ten year old child going through.  The child was let into the “no-man’s land” and then the turnstile locked against his mother.  The Israelis would not open it until the unaccompanied child was through the second turnstile, alone in a hostile environment.  The child’s mother said that they did this all the time. It was just another method of humiliation of Palestinian people by their occupiers.

A brave group of Israelis, mostly former soldiers, has formed a group “Breaking the Silence” which has detailed some of the human rights abuses and ways in which the Israeli forces deliberately make life difficult for and humiliate Palestinians.  http://www.breakingthesilence.org.il

On the Israeli side of the turnstile we see that half of the Mosque has been turned into a Synagogue and a Jewish Cultural Centre and tourist shop built next to it.  We visit the part of the Mosque open to Palestinians. We return to H1 through the same checkpoint and follow the route through the old souk/market street, but there is little activity and most shops are closed.  Several access routes to the souk have been blocked off. On one side, the old market shops are built against the rock and Israeli homes have even been built on top of Palestinian shops and homes, with entrances on the other side.  Overhead in the market street there is wire mesh netting to catch the rubbish which Israel settlers throw out from their homes into the Palestinian area.

We visit a Palestinian home which is accessed up several flights of stone steps from within the old souk.  From the roof-top we look out towards a Palestinian cemetery but between us and the cemetery are fences and an armed Israeli soldier. Our Palestinian guide tells us he can see his father’s tomb but to visit he has to leave the town and make a long circuitous journey because of Israeli blockades.  The house we are in has previously been set on fire by Israeli settlers and the water butt on the roof is full of bullet holes. An illegal Israeli home is within feet of theirs and an armed Israeli look-out post is perched next door.  The family says that Israeli settlers try to drive them from their home but they say it is their home and their land and they will not leave.

Shepherd at Tal Rumeida, Hebron
Further down the street we see a derelict Palestinian school.  The Israelis built a theological college actually on top of the school with separate access but then forced the closure of the Palestinian school for “security” reasons.

Almost parallel to the souk runs Shuhada Street, once the thriving main street of Hebron through the heart of the city.  It is now closed at one end by yet another check-point and Palestinians cannot walk down their own main street which leads back to the Ibrahimi Mosque.  We are allowed through the check-point and walk down the street.  An orthodox Jewish family walks freely in front of us.  At the other end, Israeli security forces menacingly film us and take photographs of us.

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There are a few remaining Palestinian families who can only visit their neighbours by clambering over roof-tops. We return back to the Palestinian side. A Palestinian child sits on top of one of the concrete blocks placed as a barrier by the occupying Israeli army.  It bears graffiti saying “Apartheid Street”.  An earlier visiting ANC delegation from South Africa had remarked that it was worse than apartheid.

The Israelis say that they closed Shuhada Street in 1994 as they feared reprisal attacks following the mass murder of the 29 Palestinian worshippers by Baruch Goldstein. Almost 20 years later the street remains closed. The Palestinians hope that there will be international support for their campaign to reopen Shuhada Street. (This campaign, which was launched on 25th February, after our return to the UK, marks the 19th anniversary of the street’s closure and was met with tear gas and violent retaliation from the Israeli forces)  http://openshuhadastreet.org

We have a quick lunch with the Governor and meet a Fatah MP, Mr Abu Ali Yatta , who had been imprisoned by the Israelis for 27 years – longer than Mandela!

In the afternoon the delegation travels outside the city into the Hebron hills.  I am invited to join Fatah’s head of protocol in an accompanying car.  I subsequently learn that I have missed an interesting discussion on the bus where our Hebron guide expressed his own strongly held views about the damaging consequences of Oslo and the unlikely outcome of a 2 state solution.  Fortunately that conversation and a subsequent one on the journey back into Hebron is recorded in Cllr Martin Mitchell’s blog of 3rd February, posted on the Labour2Palestine site on 14th  February.

Along the main highway, just outside the city, we see many roads blocked off with earthmounds or concrete restricting entry to and exit from the city.

These south Hebron hills are traditional Palestinian agricultural lands but the Israelis have plans to demolish eight Palestinian villages, supposedly to provide a rifle range for the occupying Israeli army.  Our Palestinian hosts, however, believe that the land is being taken to build more settlements.

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We visit one of the villages at Susiya.  Some of the 45 families had previously been removed from their homes in a nearby area which was appropriated by the Israelis for an illegal settlement.  They were then moved again as they were seen as a “security threat” to the new settlement. Some of the homes in Susiya are makeshift huts and tents, others more substantial.  The Village Council tells us that the Israel Supreme Court has given them 90 days to prove ownership of the land or leave.  We can see Israeli settlements on the nearby horizon.  Settlers have killed the Palestinians’ livestock and Israeli forces harass their young people, almost all of whom are unemployed. They tell us that Israelis destroyed the wells which they relied on for water and that they now have to buy water, which is imported from Israel, at many times the cost.  They say that it is increasingly difficult to sustain their agriculture as the Israelis have stolen the most fertile land as well as the water. It is a beautiful landscape as the sun sets over the Hebron Hills and there is a glorious smell as we tread on wild herbs – thyme and sage. A villager gathers a bunch of herbs and hands it to me. “Za’atar” he says proudly and smiles. This is a gift from his land.


With the sun-setting over stunning views we head back to Hebron where we visit the glass and ceramic factory.  We watch some traditional glass blowing and are given an opportunity to shop. Hebron was once a tourist destination with many historic sites and buildings. Glass and ceramics an important part of its economy. Sadly the tourists are few and far between and those who do come, particularly those who come to visit the religious sites, are not encouraged to visit the Palestinian areas.

Fateh plate presentation

Apart from our purchases we are all presented with a porcelain framed plate as a gift from Fateh with our names inscribed.  We wonder how we might be able to get these home as they would almost certainly be confiscated at Tel Aviv airport.  Fortunately the inscription is printed on paper behind glass and the back of the plate is removable so the inscription can be removed. The printed inscription can be posted back to the UK and we will be travelling with an empty ceramic frame that supposedly could have been bought in Jerusalem!

It is late when we arrive back in Ramallah and some of us venture into town for some shawarma and falafel from a street café. Later, back in the hotel, the aroma of za’atar fills my room as a reminder of what could be a rural paradise but which for Palestinians is a living hell.

John Austin

March 2013

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