Occupied Palestine: The soldiers in the night ... and throughout every day

Jessica Morrison

This year I exchanged the warmth of the Australian summer for the bitter Israeli military occupation in winter, spending six weeks with a solidarity organisation in Palestine, living in the major West Bank city of Hebron.

I was volunteering with Christian Peacemaker Teams (CPT), who have been in Hebron for over 20 years. The team is multi-faith and supports Palestinian-led, nonviolent, grassroots resistance to the Israeli occupation and the unjust structures that uphold it.

The night before I left Hebron, we were awoken in the middle of the night by a phone call from a sister organisation, the International Solidarity Movement (ISM). There were a dozen soldiers at their door demanding entrance, and ISM were keen for some back-up. My team-mate and I roused ourselves and went out into the freezing night.

We left our apartment, which stands within the ancient city streets of Hebron, and made our way along the cobbled roads. Although our destination was only a hundred metres away, our path to the house diverted around the main street of town − Shuhada Street − which has been closed off to Palestinians since a US-born Israeli settler opened fire on Palestinians praying in a mosque 20 years ago. Our path then doubled-back through an Israeli military checkpoint, where, before we were allowed to pass, the military guard demanded to see our passports. ISM is located on a hill overlooking the Old City, where particularly militant Israeli settlers have established themselves, seeking to banish the Palestinians, and often throw stones at children and torch cars to further their aims.
We arrived at the base of ISM's second floor apartment, where a dozen soldiers lined the staircase to their front door, armed with equipment to break down a door. Again soldiers demanded to see our passports and a soldier shone his bright head-torch into my face. He  continued to do this the whole time we were there. "Why are you here?" we asked the soldiers, and when they replied that they just wanted to talk with people, we wondered aloud whether 1am was the best time for a conversation. Of course we know "night raids" are common throughout the West Bank, with soldiers often demanding entrance to homes and for parents to get children out of bed. These raids frequently result in the arrest of a family member, including children, who can be placed in an Israeli prison without charge for months or even years.

The soldiers then asserted that ISM are terrorists, a ridiculous claim given that ISM, like CPT, is an organisation committed to supporting nonviolent resistance.

We continued to talk with the soldiers, asking them whether they thought this sort of action was bringing Israel any closer to peace. Their narrative, similar to so much of the dominant military narrative, was this was the only way, and that they're proud to be defending their country and its rights.

In this instance, the soldiers left the apartment and my colleague and I took a route home through the ancient olive trees that dotted the hill. Several of the trees bore scars of attacks and fires from Israeli settlers.

Hebron − an ancient city

Hebron hasn't always been this way. Hebron is an ancient city, where the Bible says that Abraham bought a plot of land to bury his wife. For many centuries this city has been a pilgrimage site and, depending on which empire was in power, the building that is believed to host the grave has been a synagogue, a church and a mosque. During the Spanish Inquisition in the 15th century, a number of Sephardic Jewish families settled in the city and by all reports the Jewish and Muslim communities co-identified as "Hebronites".

The stories told by the old people are of a close interweaving of the communities, with Sephardic Jewish cheesemaking and glassblowing taken up as important local products. They all spoke Arabic and, being a fiercely conservative religious town, which it still is, are said to have protected the modesty of each other's women, and the women wet-nursed one another's children. It is said that when the British took over the land after World War I they were worried about Hebron, as the Jewish people and the Arabs were so tight together they might join forces in revolt against the British Empire.

However, the picture changed significantly in the early 20th century, as many Zionist Jews from Europe and the USA moved to Hebron, and throughout Palestine.  Many of these Jews believed the land should be taken back by Jewish people. Because of the religious and cultural heritage of the city, it has attracted some of the most militant Zionist Jews.

In many places throughout the West Bank, the settlements were established near towns and cities. However, in Hebron, the settlements have been established in the city itself, sometimes literally on top of Palestinian houses. The violence of the Israeli settlers, and sometimes the retaliatory violence of the Palestinians, has led to a brutal militarisation of the city. The Old City of Hebron has about 40 000 Palestinians and 700 Israeli settlers living under full Israeli military control. About 2 000 soldiers are in Hebron on any day. Also under the jurisdiction of Israeli military is the adjoining settlement of Kiryat Arba, which has 8 000 settlers and is continually expanding. Adjoining the Old City is the new city of Hebron, with 120 000 Palestinians under the control of the Palestinian Authority.

Daily harassment and humiliation

There are over 120 physical obstacles (road blocks, road closures, locked gates etc) deployed by the Israeli military in the Old City, including 18 permanently staffed checkpoints. These checkpoints often include turnstiles and metal detectors as well as heavily armed soldiers.

The checkpoints are a cause of significant daily harassment and humiliation for Palestinians, who might be stopped several times a day for identity checks lasting 20 minutes or more. One of the main roles of Christian Peacemaker Teams, as well as other solidarity groups, is to monitor these checkpoints when children pass through to go to school, or when people are going to the mosque.

Many children are deeply frightened by soldiers, as they often arrest their relatives and friends. Soldiers often question young children on their way to school seeking to get information from them. Some children use this opportunity to throw stones at the heavily armed soldiers. One of the most difficult things to watch is the soldiers' responses to these children throwing stones. One option the soldiers have is to retreat into their guardhouses while this happens. But instead, they throw tear gas and sound bombs towards the schools. In the first four months of this year, at just three checkpoints, there were 108 tear gas canisters and 102 sound bombs thrown at children on their way to school.

One day I noticed boys throw some stones and soldiers go to get their sound bombs and tear gas canisters. A young girl that I estimate was five years old was walking past me and I encouraged her to move quickly through the area. However, my advice was misjudged and the first tear gas canister landed right at her feet. I tried to comfort her as she ran back towards home screaming in fear and pain. I fear that this girl didn't return to school that week.

The settlers and their militarisation lead to much more than incidents at checkpoints. One day I answered the CPT phone to a man telling me there were soldiers in his house. They had arrived in middle of night with a military order stating they had permission to take over their home. They forced his family into one room and told him if they needed the kitchen or toilet that they needed to ask soldiers. What had this man done? Nothing. His house was just a good lookout on the road between the Palestinian neighbourhood and the Israeli settlement of Kiryat Arba.

Settlers from Kiryat Arba

On Friday nights, many of the settlers from Kiryat Arba walk through the Palestinian neighbourhoods on their way to pray at the mosque/synagogue that houses the grave of Abraham. Soldiers line all the streets as they pass. These settlers, many of them fully armed, walk haughtily through the neighbourhoods.

There is also a kindergarten that is part of the mosque/synagogue compound. While I was there, the principal of the kindergarten asked CPT to accompany the children to school, as they were often being harassed by Israeli soldiers or settlers on their journey. As we accompanied them, we realised that the children were being forced off the road to walk in the gutter on the other side of a fence as the road was only for Israelis.

I went to visit an old man in an adjoining village. He had goats – gorgeous long-eared goats – which were currently birthing. The week before, just before the first big snows of winter had come, the Israeli government came and demolished his nursing shed. We visited another family who had a home demolished and a water cistern that they use for their farm was being threatened with demolition. As Amnesty International has recently reported, Israel has made it almost impossible for Palestinians to do any building on their land legally, and so homes and shelters and water cisterns are often destroyed.

There is a kind old man who has a humble shop in the Old City of Hebron. It sits in the middle of the Souk, with very few visits from tourists. He creates pictures in sand in little bottles. On my last day as I came to collect sand bottles that I'd ordered, I took the time to linger with him in his shop. He found some water and boiled us some tea, poured it into plastic cups, and we talked. We talked about his despondency about the situation, the Palestinian Authority leadership, his frustration about the decisions of so many and how they are implicated in the horror of the occupation. "A desire of every parent is for each day to be better than the last," he said, "however in Hebron, for 20 years, each day has been worse than the last".

The Israeli occupation of Palestine has now been going on for decades. The stories I've shared are part of the everyday reality of Palestinians in the West Bank. As we know from the news, often the results of living under occupation, including Gaza, are much more violent and catastrophic. The Palestinians continue to resist the occupation and work for their freedom. May our commitment to this old man and his children be that we will also join them in solidarity, so this brutal occupation won't continue on for another 20 years.

Jessica Morrison is a member of Friends of the Earth, Melbourne, and works for the Australia Palestine Advocacy Network.

To join the campaign for justice in Palestine in Australia see www.apan.org.au, or to learn more about CPT see www.cptpalestine.com

Published in Chain Reaction, national magazine of Friends of the Earth, Australia, edition #124, September 2015, www.foe.org.au/chain-reaction