Every year when I return to Hebron I have come to expect that I will find the Israeli Military Occupation more entrenched, the people more battered, more resigned. I expect that the Christian Peacemaker Team I have worked with since 1995 will have new challenges to meet. When I rejoined the team in early March, however, the extent of the restrictions on team’s monitoring work at checkpoints during school hours frankly shocked me. Border Police no longer permit us to exit the Old City near our apartment and make the five-minute walk to the Qitoun checkpoint to document how the soldiers treat schoolchildren and teachers passing through. Instead, we must take a fifteen-minute taxi ride over the hills and around to reach a location we can see from the roof of our house.
Once we are there, we must stand on what my teammate Stephanie calls poetically “the teargas side of the checkpoint.” Occupation forces have built up the checkpoint considerably since I left and from where we stand, we can see only from a distance the interactions between soldiers and children. We can no longer hear what happens or ask the children what soldiers said to them. The situation is worse for the children at Qurtuba School. Our colleagues with the Ecumenical Accompaniment Programme (EAPPI) were intended to be present for students as they passed through Checkpoint 56 and the settlers on Shuhada Street who have a history of attacking them. Now they must remain on the H-1 side of the checkpoint, where they can do nothing if something happens to the children on the other side.
The Occupation’s restrictions on international monitors in the H-2 area of Hebron are of course falling more heavily on Palestinians, and nowhere is this more the case than those living in Tel Rumeida. Last fall, the military began assigning numbers to Palestinians living in Tel Rumeida. Hani Abu Haikel showed us two numbers written on the outside of his green ID case when we brought a visiting CPT delegation to visit. If you don’t have that number, you are not legally allowed to be there. It doesn’t matter if you are a relative or a friend. (Relatives and friends of settlers living there are of course, allowed to visit them.) Three days earlier, Hani had workers pruning his grapevines, and settlers “reported” them to the soldiers, who told Hani he had to get special permission to have his grapevines pruned. The morning we visited, his wife Rheem and daughter Bashaer had been walking to a dentist appointment and a settler boy told the soldiers they didn’t live there, so the soldier made them wait in the pouring rain for twenty minutes while he checked their IDs.
Last month, as Hani was arguing for his right to pass through the checkpoint, a soldier called his commanding officer and asked if he could shoot him, and he overheard the commanding officer say on the radio that Hani was “too old” to shoot. Last fall, when killings in the Tel Rumeida area of Hebron were an almost daily occurrence, the Israeli military authorities evicted the International Solidarity Movement volunteers from their apartment just outside of the Gilbert checkpoint. That was when the neighborhood felt at its most vulnerable, an international married to a Palestinian resident told me after when I ran into him after our Friday afternoon mosque patrol. INTERNEMENT
“They want to make us afraid,” Hani said. Many of his neighbors have moved now. He says the intention of the occupation authorities is clear: to make life so unbearable in H-2 that Palestinians will leave. And of course, that is why they have placed the restrictions on international volunteers as well. They want to make us afraid, too—afraid of deportation, afraid of making the situation worse for our Palestinian partners, afraid that our work is becoming pointless, because we cannot reach the areas that where we need to do our documentation.
Listen to us carefully. If all of H-2 from Tel-Rumeida to Kiryat Arba becomes a settlement corridor, do not say you were not warned, because right now, the Israeli settlers here in Hebron are winning.
An Editorial Note—by Peter Eisenstadt
Kathy Kern is one of the bravest persons I know. As she mentions in her article, she has been going to Hebron as a member of the Christian Peacemaker Teams (CPT) for over two decades. CPT is a Christian pacifist organization, with its roots in the traditional peace churches, the Mennonitesand the Church of the Brethren, , though it is broadly ecumenical in its outlook. To quote from its website, CPT “ places teams at the invitation of local peacemaking communities that are confronting situations of lethal conflict. These teams seek to follow God’s Spirit as it works through local peacemakers who risk injury and death by waging nonviolent direct action to confront systems of violence and oppression.” They do not go into war zones, but areas, like Hebron, that are what might be called “near war zones,” areas of great tension between the oppressors and the oppressed, between the occupied and the occupiers.
Working in Hebron is hard and dispiriting. CPTers try to help Hebronites in their conflicts with settlers, soldiers, and Israeli officials. They document the daily indignities meted out to local residents. The team in Hebron is currently short-handed, in part because Israel sometimes does not allow CPT members to enter the country. (Kathy was once denied entry at Ben-Gurion airport.) And in the recent years, its work has been pervaded by the sense that Israel and the settlers are winning; and that it will win its long, slow war of attrition against the Old City of Hebron; as Palestinians are either forced out or leave because living conditions have become impossible.
I was privileged, in December 2014, to spend a day with Kathy and her husband, Michael Argaman, at the CPT apartment in Hebron. It is utterly chilling to think that however bleak things were at the time, the situation has radically deteriorated. As Kathy notes, the Qitoun checkpoint, which was a twisty-turny five minute walk from the CPT apartment is now inaccessible by foot, and unlike when I was there, the CPT team is now limited to the Palestinian side of the border, so they cannot see the interactions of the school children with the IDF soldiers. I accompanied the CPT team early one morning to watch children crossing the checkpoint on their way to school. I can still smell the tear gas. Hebron has been, in recent months, even more explosive. At the Quitoun checkpoint recently there was an incident when the IDF killed a Palestinian youth in an alleged stabbing incident. The Old City of Hebron for many decades has been the site of the hottest of cold wars, requiring little in the way of additional kindling to burst into flames. The Israeli occupation of the Old City of Hebron is where the occupation of the West Bank began, and if it ever ends, it will make its last stand in Hebron. All I can say is that Kathy and her CPT colleagues, trying to salve the half century old open wound of Hebron, are truly doing God’s work.