Our tour began from Beth Sahour where after making the necessary switch from an Israeli van to a Palestinian licensed vehicle we departed for Hebron which is located 30 km south of Jerusalem in the West Bank. Upon entering Hebron you are greeted by the sights and sounds of a bustling and vibrant Palestinian city. It is home to approximately 175,000 Palestinians making it the most populated city in the West Bank. It is also the most commercially active city in the West Bank accounting for roughly one third the regions total GDP, mostly through its agricultural and stone industry, and its pottery, clothing and glassblowing factories.
However, after passing through a series of Israeli security checkpoints on your way into the old city towards the Cave of the Patriarchs, the illusion that Hebron is a seemingly normal Palestinian city is shattered. For what is truly unique about this city is its division into two sectors under the Hebron agreement: H1 and H2. The former, accounting for roughly 80% of the city, is under the control of the Palestinian Authority while the latter is under full Israeli control. Israeli citizens are forbidden from entering H1 for their own security. This division came in response to both the Oslo Accords and the Ibrahim Mosque massacre in 1994 where 29 Muslims taking part in early morning prayers were murdered by American-born Israeli Baruch Goldstein.
H2 is currently inhabited by approximately 30,000 Palestinians and between 500 to 800 Israeli settlers. The settlers live in 5 compounds guarded by nearly 3000 Israeli soldiers. Numerous Israeli flags fly over the settlements above Palestinian shops in the West Bank’s largest city. On many of the commercial streets that remain open to Palestinians in H2, residents are forced to erect wire netting overhead to protect themselves from settler abuse including the throwing of garbage, rocks and eggs on Palestinian civilians below them. One Palestinian shopkeeper we met had kept two pieces of clothing stained by eggs as a clear reminder of their harassment.
Life in Shuhada Street "Ghost Town"
In 2000, following the second Intifada the IDF closed Shuhada Street, the main commercial area in the old city, to all Palestinians in order to protect the settlers. This entailed the welding shut of hundreds of Palestinian homes and businesses that were once located here with the area now commonly referred to as the “Ghost Town” by local Palestinians. It is estimated that 1829 Palestinian businesses have closed in H2 since 2000 mostly due to military orders, curfews and the closure regime imposed by the Israeli authorities. This has led to 77% of Palestinians living below the poverty line in H2 according to a 2009 study conducted by the International Committee of the Red Cross.
What truly separates a Green Olive tour from any other is that it allows one to come face to face with the daily indignities faced by Palestinians. This was especially so near the end of the tour when we took a number of off the beaten tracks to visit the home of Hashem al-Azza, a local resident of H2. He spoke of his family’s daily struggle showing us videos of the mistreatment they suffer at the hands of the Tel Rumeida settlers. This settlement consists of a series of caravans stacked on top of each other built directly next to the al-Azza family home. Incidentally, the right wing Israeli activist Baruch Marzel lives in this settlement.
In particular, Hashem claimed that his wife has been assaulted several times by the settlers, called a whore, and on one occasion the harassment led to his wife having a miscarriage. In addition, Hashem stated that he had to carry his wife on his shoulders to get her to hospital before she gave birth as Palestinians are not allowed to use the road connected to his house. According to Hashem, high profile guests of his have suffered a similar fate with journalist Gideon Levy also being attacked at the al-Azza home.
Video evidence of settler persecution
One incident caught on tape displays the settlers preventing Hashem from harvesting his olives in his back yard. Cries of “death to Arabs” come from the crowd and despite the fact that Israeli soldiers acknowledged that this was his land he was ordered to stay off it for the rest of the day after settler intimidation. According to Hashem, incidents such as these mean that the family cannot leave their home unoccupied at any time in case the settlers come down to destroy their possessions or burn their house down.
Settler persecution extends to Palestinian children who are shown on video to be taunted and harassed by settlers as soldiers look on unwilling to prevent the abuse. International NGO volunteers literally have to take the children by the hand from school to help protect them from the abuse. The violence reaches its peak when the children have to descend down a steep set of steps only to find that they are hemmed in by settlers pushing and taunting them from above, and having stones hurled at them from below. According to Hashem, this harassment commonly leads to children suffering a broken arm or leg.
As we returned back to H1 passing through several security checkpoints guarded by dozens of machine gun clad Israeli soldiers and avoiding Muslim prohibited areas the tour guide posed a question “It is more like Iraq than Israel, no”. There was no response from the group. The extreme severity and absurdity of the occupation had been starkly revealed to all of us.