Radical Neighbours

I visited Hebron on the day two young Palestinians were killed, one by a soldier, one by a settler, and both for alleged stabbing attempts. Hebron is a glaring example of how the presence of Israeli settlements, illegal under international law, represents the main obstacle to a just solution.

I wrote this piece for Middle East Eye and you can read it here.

HEBRON, West Bank – Tensions ran high in the city of Hebron in the southern West Bank on Saturday, as the killing of two youths brought the Palestinian casualty count to 40 since the beginning of an on going uprising against Israeli military occupation. Another youth was also killed in Jerusalem on Saturday.

A general strike was called in Hebron to protest the two deaths. Endless rows of closed shutters lined the usually bustling streets. Hebron is the most populous city in the West Bank and is seen as the historical commercial centre of the South.

Seventeen-year-old Bayan Ayman Abd al-Hadi al-Esseili was shot by Israeli border guards after allegedly stabbing a soldier near the settlement of Kyriat Arba. Israeli police spokesperson Micky Rosenfeld tweeted “Female Arab terrorist stabbed border policewoman near Hebron, border police woman injured lightly. Female terrorist shot at the scene.” Maan News reported that the soldier’s hand was lightly injured.

In an earlier incident, an Israeli settler shot and killed 18-year-old Fadel al Qawasmeh on Shuhada Street in Hebron’s Old City. Local media outlets have reported that Israeli police are investigating this second incident.

Middle East Eye spoke to eyewitnesses to this second incident who saw al Qawasmeh walking down Shuhada Street early in the morning.

“My daughter saw him from the widow,” said Mufid Sharbati, whose house looks onto the street. “She saw a settler approaching him. The settler shouted curse words at him, then took out his pistol and shot him in the head.”

Upon hearing his daughter’s screams, Sharbati run up to the roof and his brother filmed the moments following the shooting. The video, widely shared by the group Youth Against Settlements, shows soldiers approaching Qawamseh following the shooting and possibly placing something by the body, which has led to speculations of a knife being planted at the scene.

Two hours after the killing, Israeli soldiers raided the Sharbati family home, where they confiscated phones, cameras and computers.

Maan News reported that Youth Against Settlement media coordinator Ahmad Amr was held by the Israeli army for five hours following the publication of the video and he too had his video recording equipment and laptop confiscated.

Abed Sharbati, nephew of the eyewitnesses, added that after the attack, settlers set up tables on the spot where Quwamseh was killed and distributed food and drinks, “as if in celebration” Sharbati told MEE. This was still going on at the time of writing.

A different scene unfolded on the other side of the checkpoint leading to Shuhada St from the East. Palestinian youth with Keffyieh tightly wrapped around their faces clashed with Israeli soldiers. A street lined with walls blackened by smoke and fire, resounded with the boom of sound bombs thrown against the stone-wielding youth.

A boy selling boiled corn to the shebab stood with his cart in the middle of the scene.

“I am not afraid, no,” he said declining to give his name. “The guys run from the tear gas and they come here, they eat the corn and they start again,” he said laughing, highlighting the fact that in Hebron, people are used to these kinds of confrontations and tensions.

Settlers and settlements

After a focus on Jerusalem, the status quo on Temple Mount and religion, today’s incidents in Hebron, shine a light on the issue of settlements, settlers and the ongoing military occupation at the core of Palestinian discontent.

As the only city in which settlers live side-by-side with Palestinians, Hebron has been the backdrop of fierce confrontations and offers some of the worst examples of settler violence. Settlers often throw stones at Palestinian children on their way to school and most Palestinian houses in the old city have metal mesh in front of their windows.

Under the Oslo Peace Accords in 1995, Hebron was to be divided between H1, under Palestinian control, and H2 under Israeli control. The H2 area is populated by between 500 and 1,000 settlers who live under the protection of the army.

Shuhada Street runs through H2 and is now a ghost street. During the Second Intifada, the Israeli army welded shut the doors of Palestinian houses facing the street so as to protect settlers’ homes and centres nearby with more ease.

Today, the street stands as a symbol of the division in the city. To many, the killing of Fadel Qawamseh on this stretch of tarmac speaks to the injustice of the situation.

“It is as if a European country placed a group of neo-nazis to live in a Jewish neighbourhood,” Hisham Sharbati, an activist with the Hebron Defence Committee, told MEE, “it would be an outright provocation”.

In Hebron, settler attacks happen daily, according to Abed Sharbati. “If you talk about verbal abuse, harassment, being spat at, stone throwing or physical violence, yes, these attacks happen basically on a daily basis,” he told MEE.

“We are afraid, of course, often we can’t leave the house because of the settlers. Take now, they are outside and there are many of them, so to keep safe, we stay in,” he added.

Institutionalised violence

Shawan Jabareen of the Ramallah-based human rights NGO Al Haq, told MEE that “settlers terrorise Palestinians”, and their attacks “aim to expel Palestinians from whole areas by making their life impossible so that land becomes available for more settlement use”.

Jabareen believes it is important to stress that settler violence is institutionalised. “Settlers feel they can get away with impunity and this encourages them to continue attacks,” he added.

Although Israeli police has vowed to investigate Saturday’s killing, Sharabati expects little will come from the investigation. As a recent report published by Yesh Din on the subject highlighted, cases of settler violence against Palestinians are usually closed for lack of evidence and only very rarely lead to convictions.

No protection

“We can’t protect our kids, the settlers have an army, the police, and state institutions behind them, but we are left to our own devices,” he said. The killings of Palestinians and Israelis and the often-graphic videos posted on social media, mean that even the family home can offer little protection to children.

“These days, we only talk about the killings, the arrests, the violence. My kids are more informed than me. My 14-year-old is constantly asking me, how many martyrs today? And when the news comes on and they show the latest killing, the kids tell me, oh we saw that video already.”

It is in this helpless context that the PLO has repeatedly demanded UN protection for its people but, as Al Jazeera reported, a Security Council meeting proposed by Jordan to discuss escalating violence in Israel and the occupied territories, concluded on Friday with Israel’s refusal to approve a UN presence, which, it fears, “would affect the status quo”.