02 January 2020

"The unity of the city of Hebron"

Checkpoint turnstile. Hebron, Palestine. (My photo.)
Everyone has the right to freedom of movement and residence within the borders of each State. (Article 13, Universal Declaration of Human Rights.)

Many years ago my father told me stories of what it was like to grow up in an occupied city -- Oslo, under German occupation. Those stories came back to me during my three months' stay with Christian Peacemaker Teams in Hebron's Old City -- in the district known as H2, where the Israeli military exercises direct control.

Source. Credit.
In 1997, when these zones were created, the majority of Hebron was designated as H1. In this zone, Israeli control is nearly as absolute as in H2, but usually exercised indirectly. Most of the signs of occupation that I saw daily were within H2 or at the boundaries between the two zones. At the fixed checkpoints controlling those boundaries, soldiers or border police forces assess each person entering the zone. The worst that happened to me at a checkpoint was being asked to submit my passport for inspection, or being told that my camera and I were located too close to the checkpoint.

My magic didn't extend to Palestinians I might be walking with. Sometimes they got no more attention than I did. But sometimes, especially if they were young men, they were required to empty their pockets, submit their ID, take off any headgear, hand over their bags, raise up their shirts, and lift up their pantlegs.

Those fixed checkpoints were just the beginning of the story. Flying checkpoints and unannounced patrols, home searches, and car searches by Israeli forces -- inside and outside H2 -- also reminded me of my father's stories. On one occasion, I photographed a young man being body-searched. A few minutes later, my CPT partner and I encountered another goup of soldiers near the old municipal square just outside the Old City. I had not even raised my camera before an officer told me to turn around and get lost. "I could arrest you," he warned. My companion asked, "Even if he doesn't use the camera?" "Yes!" confirmed the officer. In our files we had a legal document specifying the two occasions on which Israeli forces were entitled to prohibit photography: in the presence of military secrets, or if photographers would hinder a military operation. We decided not to press the point.

Both the fixed checkpoints and the spontaneous blockages seemed to me to violate the Israeli/PLO agreement that had had set up the two zones -- the 1997 Protocol Concerning the Redeployment in Hebron. According to Article 9 of that document,
Both sides reiterate their commitment to the unity of the City of Hebron, and their understanding that the division of security responsibility will not divide the city… [B]oth sides share the mutual goal that movement of people, goods and vehicles within and in and out of the city will be smooth and normal, without obstacles or barriers.
What follows is part of the commentary I drafted for a "restriction of movement report" that was edited and published by Christian Peacemaker Teams. "Restriction of movement" is just one category of human rights documentation by CPT and similar groups -- others include arrests, use of violence against civilians, home demolitions, the effect of occupation on education, and harassment of human rights observers. I was interested in this specific topic, the restriction of civilian movement in their own city, because it was the most routine, constant, everyday aspect of living under occupation that I personally witnessed and experienced, while remembering what my father told me about life under the Germans.

Report: Palestinians today do not experience “the unity of the City of Hebron.”

Of the 200,000 residents of al-Khalil (Hebron), over 99.5% are Palestinian, including the 33,000 Palestinian residents of the H2 district that remains under direct Israeli control. Despite the commitments of the 1997 Protocol Concerning the Redeployment in Hebron, the movements of Palestinian people, goods, and vehicles within H2, and between H2 and the rest of the city, are not “smooth and normal.”

Body search, Old City. (My photo.)
To secure the several hundred Israelis living in settlements within H2, and to provide for their convenience in entering and leaving H2 and touring Palestinian streets and markets at will, Israelis have constructed a system of barriers, heavily-armed checkpoints, supplemented by temporary choke-points during armed operations. These arrangements present Palestinians with constant and unpredictable challenges ranging from minor delays to a complete inability to reach home or work. Each Palestinian contact with an Israeli checkpoint or barrier or tour or police action also represents a risk of search, detention, arrest, or violent incident. Cumulatively the Israeli controls take an enormous economic toll as Palestinian residents, merchants, customers, and their guests, are discouraged from building, trading, or raising children in H2.

Ideally, CPT and partners would be able to monitor all of those potential points of contact, to verify freedom of Palestinian movement and document its denial or delay. The examples of interference presented below must be regarded as a sample -- occurrences CPT has documented -- but Palestinian community members vouch for the constant interference, indignity, and the psychological burden of living under armed occupation, to which these samples bear witness.

* * *

Restriction of movement can take many forms. CPT documents them as follows:
  • ID checks
  • Body searches
  • Vehicle stops / searches
  • Delays at checkpoints
  • Checkpoint closures
  • Religious restrictions
Any given incident, of course, can combine several of these infractions of freedom of movement. Here are extracts from the statistics CPT gathered during the first half of 2019, followed by examples of the incidents that generated these numbers.

These statistics do not include the incidents that we observed during school hours, involving the movement of schoolchildren, teachers, and others through specific checkpoints. [CPT publishes separate reports on incidents occuring on the way to and from schools, or during school hours.]

ID checks, January-June, by location
  • Abed store checkpoint (at the entrance to the sidestreet leading to the Ibrahimi Mosque): 36 men, 6 women - 42
  • Ibrahimi Mosque checkpoint: 228 men, 4 women, 2 boys - 234
  • Court checkpoint: 1 man - 1
  • Old City: 6 men - 6
  • Shuhada Street / Checkpoint 56: 4 men - 4
  • Bab al-Baladiyeh (old municipal square): 154 men, 1 boy - 155
  • Checkpoint near the kindergarten (Mosque complex): 2 boys - 2
  • Checkpoint 55: 8 women, 6 men - 14
  • Mafia checkpoint: 2 men, 2 women - 4
  • Salaymeh checkpoint 209: 5 men, 5 women - 10
Body Searches, January-June, by location
  • Ibrahimi Mosque checkpoint: 446 men, 9 boys - 455
  • Abed checkpoint: 17 men - 17
  • Shuhada Street / Checkpoint 56: 2 men - 2
  • Checkpoint near the kindergarten: 2 boys - 2
  • Bab al-Baladiyeh: 40 men, 1 woman, 5 boys - 46
  • Mafia checkpoint: 4 men, 1 girl - 5
Incidents that illustrate these statistics:

Freedom of Religious Movement

22 March, en route to Ibrahimi Mosque:

Waiting to exit the Old City at the mosque checkpoint.
(My photo.)
Owing to the Purim holiday, Israeli settlers were moving freely about the streets leading to the Mosque checkpoint. All Palestinian adults going to the mosque for Friday prayers were subjected to ID checks. Israeli forces conducted many bag searches and body searches. Palestinian men spoke of up to a two-hour delay getting from their homes in H1 to the Ibrahimi Mosque and up to three checks at three separate checkpoints before entering the mosque for worship.

Vehicle Stops / Searches

8 January, Old City

Five Israeli soldiers stopped and searched Palestinian cars in the area up the hill from the Al Natsheh Olive Press. Soldiers stopped every car that drove along the street in both directions, opening the drivers’ doors, looking inside the cars and making the drivers open the trunks of their cars so the soldiers could search inside. Soldiers also frisked and searched Palestinian men who tried to pass the soldiers to reach their destinations.

11 March, Old City

Soldiers conducting a shop-to-shop ID check blocked stairwells and held back Palestinian pedestrians. Palestinian vehicles were stopped until each man could be checked one by one and released. Questioned by a CPTer, a soldier explained, “This is a routine check, normal day.”

Bab-al-Baladiyeh blocked. (My photo.)
22 April, Bab al-Baladiyeh (old municipal square), north entrance to Old City

All Palestinian movement -- pedestrians and cars -- was called to a halt by ten soldiers from the base at Bab al-Baladiyeh. After five minutes, pedestrian traffic was permitted to resume, but vehicles continued to be blocked for another hour and a half.

Checkpoint Closures

22 April, Bab az-Zawiyeh, Checkpoint 56 (controlling a large intersection between Shuhada Street and Hebron's commercial center)

Eighty Israeli soldiers and border police, and four armored cars, blocked all Palestinian traffic for six hours to give settlers exclusive acess to the area. During Passover Festival activities. Palestinians living in the area, and in the Tal Rumeida community, were not allowed to access their neighborhoods. On three separate occasions Palestinian men were violently grabbed and detained by Israeli soldiers by the road barrier.

Checkpoint Delays

18 March, Mosque Checkpoint

Around 40 tourists and shoppers from the old market were stopped at the mosque checkpoint without explanation. Two rumors were circulating: “One man was arrested for having a knife in his backpack which resulted in his arrest and subsequent full checks for each person one by one” and “There was a school group of boys on a field trip to the mosque which needed to checked one by one so the CP was closed until they were all cleared.” More than 20 minutes.

These statistics dated from the first half of 2019, so I drafted these examples from data collected by others. However, I saw examples of each of these blockages myself. Whoever writes the reports for the last half of 2019 will use some of my documentation.

Not every Israeli military operation at the zone boundaries resulted in total restrictions of movement. For example, during the Day of Rage clashes at the major Bab-az-Zawiye intersection, with stones flying through the air at soldiers, those soldiers firing tear gas and percussion grenades at the kids throwing stones, the smoke of burning tires dramatically reducing visibility, I was amazed to see vehicle traffic flowing more or less normally on the H1 side. Taxis sped their way around obstacles, stone-throwers, journalists, and gawkers, somehow managing to avoid hitting anyone. (However, pedestrian traffic through checkpoint 56 was blocked in both directions.)

(More about the Day of Rage, November 26, on CPT Palestine's Web site.)

The Israeli justification for the checkpoint and other enforcement measures is simple: to protect the Jewish population from terrorism. It's a fact that both sides in the long-standing conflicts over control of the Holy Land have used terrorism. However, as a present-day justification for the restrictions of civilian movement, I have problems with this reasoning.

First of all, there's the very fact of occupation. Whatever its legal status, the situation is clear: there are two sides with conflicting claims to a territory, but one side exercises coercive control over the whole territory, even though the residents of that territory nearly all identify with the other side. This reality can only be maintained through constant threat and application of violence. All possibility of negotiations (for example, to resolve the status of disputed claims to specific properties once belonging to Israeli Jews) are adjudicated by that superior force. Naturally, representaves of that force (such as those provocative checkpoints) end up serving as natural targets for anyone in the occupied population whose rage boils over, thus constantly "proving" that the force is needed, even when that boiling rage consists of nothing more than children throwing stones.

If Hebron and the rest of occupied Palestine were under some kind of normal administration (whether within Israel or in its own country), violent crime and terrorism would still be a threat, as it is elsewhere in the world. However, its control would be a police matter. Police forces in any democracy are accountable for their methods and proportionality. They arrest actual suspects; they don't shoot tear gas at children; they don't punish families and whole neighborhoods for the actions of a few; their every action is subject to independent court review. The exact same laws apply regardless of religion or birthplace. Except in catastrophes, riots, insurrections, and invasions, military forces have no role in policing the population.

Not so in Palestine ... and for a clear reason: This highly irregular situation works to the evident advantage of the occupying power. The violent face of occupation makes life difficult for a population that a significant part of Israel's leadership actually wants to remove from its ethnically cleansed vision of Judea and Samaria. Many Israeli Jews have a different vision -- some kind of mutually respectful coexistence with Palestinians, whether Muslim or Christian -- but those voters are far from gaining power in today's Israel. In the meantime, as long as the occupation grinds on, those in power in Israel can nibble away at Hebron and other places with no incentive, either internal or external (at least in the current state of USA politics) to conclude a just peace.

One of the iconic images of the occupation in Hebron that lingers in my mind is Shuhada Street, once part of the commercial core of the city, now off limits to most Palestinians. This article is a typical description of the situation from an Israeli viewpoint -- Shuhada Street is (1) not as closed as Palestinian sympathizers say; (2) restricted as a result of Arab violence and Palestinian terrorism; (3) really no big deal -- Palestinians' new commercial center is just a short distance away anyway; (4) ... and, anyway, the real apartheid is against Jews.

1. In practical terms, most Palestinians, whether or not they live in H2, are turned away by soldiers at both ends of the street. A few who live in a neighborhood for which Shuhada Street is the only access road are allowed through, but their guests often cannot enter. Those Palestinians who actually live on the street must use back or roof entrances to get into their homes.

2. Accounts of who attacked whom are usually biased in favor of the speaker. In Steve Frank's article, the complicated history of the first contemporary Jewish settlement in Hebron is completely passed over as if there had never been a raging dispute.

3. The closure of Palestinian shops on Shuhada Street is a big thing for those hundreds of shopkeepers and for the whole area that benefited from visits by shoppers and tourists. Kathleen Kern's history of CPT, In Harm's Way, documents the efforts Hebron's citizens and their allies made to keep Shuhada Street alive and viable. While I was in Hebron, we were part of an international team that helped restore Hebron's historic Turkish bath, which had been closed since its entrance on Shuhada Street was sealed off.

All of this is separate from the more general harm to the Palestinian economy caused by the occupation.

4. It is Israeli law that bans Israeli citizens from Palestinian towns. In Hebron, there are no controls -- at least no Palestinian controls -- preventing Jews from leaving Shuhada Street and passing into Hebron's commercial area. Israeli activists routinely show up in Hebron, Ramallah, and other places where Israeli citizens are supposedly prohibited by law.

Given the decades of tension, it's sad and true that Israelis who are not traveling with Palestinians may run into hostility in Hebron's H1 zone or in other parts of Palestine. Each side has built up enemy images of the other, which is part of the tragedy of enforced separation. But I never saw any evidence of Palestinian authorities blocking Jewish visitors.

The opposite, of course, is not true: Israeli authorities do block Palestinians from entering any place under direct Israeli administration without approval. For example, Palestinians from Hebron cannot visit Jerusalem, 20 miles away, without getting permits first.

More on Hebron and its Shuhada Street:

The Story of Shuhada Street (from EAPPI, another organization that monitors human rights in Hebron; The Shame of Shuhada Street (in The Atlantic); Hebron Is Still Hurting (in Times of Israel).

An interactive map of Hebron's occupation infrastructure.

And a couple of sources on occupation in international law: Medecines sans Frontieres; International Committee of the Red Cross.

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New Year's resolutions for pastors from Brian McLaren. (Hmm, number 3 is "get political.") Thanks to Bob Henry for the link.

At the very time the Russian government threatens to withdraw accreditation from seminaries, it's interesting to see what's going on in another university.

Ron Sider is still evangelizing the evangelicals.

Hans Theesinck and the Valentinos in Austria ...


Margaret Katranides said...

Johan, thank you for going. I'm grateful for your courage and caring.

Johan Maurer said...

Not sure about courage, but the caring is definitely there. Thanks for your kind comment, Margaret.