This is the fourth dispatch from Gill Swain, a local writer who has traveled to Palestine to work for peace with the World Council of Churches .
Our team’s main task as Ecumenical Accompaniers in Hebron is to watch over Palestinian children as they go to and from Cordoba school on Shuhada Street. Every morning at 7.15 two of us stand at the bottom of a steep flight of stone steps which leads up a slope to the school.
Directly opposite there is the settlement of Beit Hadassah, home to 30 or so Israeli families, an infant school and a museum. And almost every morning we arrive to find a car belonging to one of the settlers parked as close as it is possible to get to the bottom of the steps, forcing the Palestinian children to squeeze past it one at a time.
This is just a mean and petty gesture compared to the stone throwing, spitting and screams of abuse which the children often suffered from the settlers over the years but it is a little bit of daily harassment nonetheless.
Some of the Palestinian children have to pass through Checkpoint 56, a sort of Portakabin housing a metal detector which blocks the entrance to Shuhada Street, on their way to school. As they step through it, watched by two soldiers, they leave behind a lively, colourful, noisy, messy part of the Palestinian city and enter the part which is a silent, oppressive ghost town.
The children may only approach the steps from the right side, their footsteps echoing in the empty street. No Palestinian is permitted to drive here and the school steps mark the boundary beyond which only the few remaining residents are allowed to walk.
Meanwhile Israeli settlers arrive by car, bringing their children to the Beit Hadassah school. Quite often we watch a man drive up, take a large, American-made M16 automatic rifle from his car boot (all settlers are allowed to carry guns), sling it over his back and stroll into Beit Hadassah while small children to the right of him and to the left of him chatter their way to school.
As well as our team watching the Cordoba school steps and Checkpoint 56, there are often a couple of young men from the International Solidarity Movement patrolling the street and two members of TIPH - Temporary International Presence in Hebron (a civilian observation mission provided by six foreign governments) - on the path to the school. Plus an Israeli soldier is stationed by the steps and often the police come along too, all of us watching over just 116 children and a dozen teachers.
Since we’ve been here, things have been quiet and all this presence feels a bit disproportionate. But then, everything in Hebron is disproportionate. And the most disproportionate thing of all is that the whole of the area where the school is situated, which is the most attractive, historic and interesting part of the city and was once the heart of its extremely busy and successful commercial life, has been suffocated, imprisoned and ruined for the sake of about 500 settlers planted in four small settlements in its midst.
Lots of foreign tour groups come to Hebron and find it fascinating because what has happened here is like a microcosm, or a condensation, of the situation in the whole of the West Bank. In most places, settlers have built their towns on the tops of hills while Palestinian villages are usually on the lower slopes. Here, the settlements sit literally on top of Palestinian homes in places.
Throughout the West Bank the two populations inhabit entirely different worlds - the settlers even have their own roads, barred to the majority of Palestinians. Here, they live on the same street, even walk alongside each other, and don’t even look at one another unless one group is attacking the other.
Most settlers claim a historical right to live in Palestine. In Hebron, where they are notoriously extreme, their avowed aim is to drive all Arabs out of the country and they are determined to start by completely taking over Shuhada Street and the Old City.
When the first of them - most of whom we are told are American - started squatting in Beit Hadassah in 1979, Shuhada Street was the city’s main shopping thoroughfare, so crowded with vivid market stalls, noisy traders and throngs of customers that it was nearly impossible to drive along it. Scores of narrow alleyways linked it to the heart of the Old City where thousands of little businesses made Hebron one of the wealthiest cities in the West Bank.
The Oslo accords in 1993 divided Hebron - home to about 170,000 Palestinians - into H1, ruled by the Palestinian Authority, and H2 which includes all of the Old City and the four Israeli settlements and is controlled by the Israeli Defence Force. One dividing point is Checkpoint 56 at the end of Shuhada St.
Looking down the street from the school steps, I sometimes try to picture it as it would be if it were in any other city, and could be here. There are turquoise awnings, stone arched windows, pretty balconies and ornate street lamps, all the result of a multi-million dollar refurbishment by USAID - the United States Agency for International Development - in 1997. I imagine cheerful people sitting at café tables, drinking coffee and chatting in the sunshine.
But the Israelis started closing down the Old City in 1994 after a New York born doctor, Baruch Goldstein, who lived in a big settlement on the outskirts of the city, machine gunned Moslems at Friday prayers in the mosque, killing 29. (Imagine Omagh being closed to Protestants after the Real IRA killed the same number there).
After the second intifada began in 2000 Shuhada Street and the rest of the Old City were closed down by degrees. All the connecting alleyways were blocked off by ugly concrete blocks or mounds of earth and the front doors of the houses in Shuhada Street were welded shut. In the words of the IDF, the street was “sterilised.”
There are about 100 road blocks and closures around the Old City now. Over 1000 families have moved out, more than 1800 shops and businesses have been closed by military order or because of lack of customers and 13,000 Palestinians are dependant on international food aid.
Around 35,000 Palestinians live in H2 but the rest of the population rarely ventures into it. They are scared, they say, or they just don’t like being stopped and searched and sometimes detained for hours while their IDs are checked by teenage soldiers.
Those that have stayed, however, are as determined as the settlers to hang on. Usually the only kind of Palestinian resistance we get to hear about in the West comes in the form of rockets and suicide bombers but since being here I’ve discovered most of it is actually, low-key, non-violent, stubborn persistence.
Last week I met Zleikha Muhtaseb who lives with her 69-year-old mother, Ratiba, in Shuhada Street. A year ago Zleikha, 45, had a wire “cage” erected over her balcony to prevent stones thrown by settlers from smashing her windows.
Six families still live in her part of the street despite being unable to use their front doors for four years - one family could only get into their house by climbing a ladder and crossing the roof. Then the IDF discovered that welding the doors had been a “mistake” and in December the Israeli High Court ruled that the street should be opened for everyone to walk on.
“That lasted about two weeks, then the military governor of Hebron decided that for ‘security reasons’ he was going to close the street again,” said Zleikha. Residents were then given special permits to walk in the street and in April her door was opened.
“I have enough spirit to use my front door but a lot of my neighbours are too scared because we often face settlers who don’t want us on the street.
“Last Friday my mother was going to a wedding when she was faced by a big crowd of settlers, men, women and children, who told her she did not have the right to use the street. She showed her permit to the soldiers who said that, even though it was valid, she still could not pass. She got through eventually after a big argument but it made me very afraid for her.
“It’s my dream that one day this street will come to life again, but I am not optimistic. This is my city but I am helpless and I feel worried all the time. It is not easy to live with this feeling.”
In the living death that is Shuhada Street, the school is the liveliest spot, and head teacher Reem Alsharif is more defiant. She has just finished repairing the smoke damage from when settlers tried to burn down the school in August and is feeling happy that she kept going throughout the Jewish festival season in September for the first time in many years, largely thanks to us.
A group of journalists visiting from Sweden the other day asked her why it was so important to her to keep going. “If we close, it means we are handing this area to the settlers on a plate,” she said.
“This is our place, it is our school, it is our street. One day the settlers may go away because they have no roots here. We have our roots here, and we are staying.”
_I work for Quaker Peace and Social Witness as an Ecumenical Accompanier serving on the World Council of Churches’ Ecumenical Accompaniment Programme in Palestine and Israel (EAPPI). The views contained in this e-mail are personal and do not necessarily reflect those of my employer (QPSW) or the WCC._