On day seven of the September Freedom Ride, we headed to Hebron, one of the biggest cities in the West Bank and historically a trading centre. These days, however, the central market places of Hebron are silent. The shops are closed and Palestinians are constantly threatened with attack by the extremely hard-line settlers that have taken up residence in the top stories of Palestinian homes. Around 90 Jewish families live in Hebron, protected by hundreds of Israeli soldiers. As Der Spiegel puts it, “For the benefit of 800 Jews living in Hebron, a city of 170,000 people, Palestinian life in the city center has come to a standstill.”
The centre of the city has been divided into sections, some of which can only be used by settlers. Describing the situation, Ulrike Putz writes that, ” along Shuhada Street, once a main arterial through the Hebron market, all Palestinian shops are shuttered. The Israeli military ordered them closed due to security concerns. More than 1,800 Arab families lost their livelihoods as a result.”
The actors of the Freedom Bus performed in the Friendship Garden in the centre of the Old City. From the rooftop of an adjacent building we could see a heavily armed Israeli outpost surveying the city. We could also see the lights of settler houses. Many of the houses in the Old City have been vacated. “Welcome to the ghost town,” one little boy said to us.
A younger man called Akhmed came forward to share a story about his experiences demonstrating in Hebron. “On 25 February,” he began, “we held demonstrations to demand that Shuhada Street be opened. I came with a group from Bethlehem University to Hebron to join the activities During the protest the soldiers shot tear gas at us. I have asthma and as I breathed in the gas I became sick and eventually became unconscious. In the hospital I needed thirty shots of Cortisone Later we found out that the kind of gas they used is illegal under international law because it contains ingredients that attack the nerves. We only found this out from international journalists.”
An older woman called shared a story about harassment from the Israeli army. One day the army raided her house. It was very sudden, with no reason or warning. They searched the house violently, claiming there were looking for weapons. While they were searching they discovered a back door that provided another exit for the house. The soldiers demanded that they seal the door to stop access. They claimed the door was a security threat because it was near the Abraham Mosque. She refused. She said, “Show me the piece of paper that says I have to seal this door!” The soldiers forced the entire family into the street.While they were outside the family made fun of the soldiers, asking them to get them lemonade and popcorn from the nearby cafe.
When they tried to arrest her twenty-year-old son, all the women made a little demonstration. They were shouting and made a circle around him so the soldiers could not reach him. In the end, they made it impossible for the soldiers and they gave up and did not arrest him.
She finished the story with a profound point; “It is important that we tell these stories so that the young people can learn from them. They must know that they do not have to surrender to the soldiers.”