Hebron is the largest city in what is known as the ‘West Bank’, one of two discontiguous zones between which ethnic Palestinians are geographically divided. 1.8 million Palestinians live in Gaza, one of the most densely populated areas in the world, whilst 2.1 million live in the West Bank, where political tensions have been running high since 1967 because of the continued construction of Israeli settlements. In November of that year, the UN Security Council passed a resolution for all settlements in the West Bank to be dismantled, but this resolution has yet to be implemented. There are currently over 500,000 Israeli citizens living in what is, strictly speaking, Palestinian territory.
Hebron is the only city in which settlements have actually been built inside an existing Palestinian city, rather than simply as part of an Israelis-only village or town. Settlers in Hebron are defended from Palestinian locals by soldiers from the Israeli Defence Forces, heavily present throughout the city. There are four times as many Israeli soldiers as Israeli settlers in the West Bank.
On June 12th of this year, three Israeli teenagers were kidnapped near Hebron, and in the following eleven days, Israel launched Operation Brother’s Keeper in the hope of a rescue, an operation in which the IDF arrested 350 Palestinians, killing five. On June 30th, the bodies of the Israeli teenagers were recovered. The Israeli Prime Minister, Binyamin Netanyahu, accused Hamas officials in Gaza of ordering the murders and vowed that Israel would take a “tough response”.
Mahmoud Khan and Ahmed Khalek are two twenty year olds both living in Hebron. After the June kidnappings, violent clashes began to erupt in the city, and fighting between IDF forces and the local population broke out on a daily basis. This intensified after the Israeli invasion of Gaza. We spoke to Mahmoud and Ahmed to find out about student life in such a deadly city.
On June 12th, the checkpoints were closed, and only reopened last month. For Mahmoud, it’s been a bad summer. “I couldn’t get out [of the West Bank]. They’ve closed the borders. From June, up until now, nobody was allowed out of Palestine.” Aged 20, Mahmoud studies Business Administration and Accounting at Bethlehem University. “After 5 pm, we couldn’t go out even from Hebron because of the checkpoints. They set up checkpoints at every entrance to the city after the kidnapping happened, [and they had] around 50,000 soldiers just in Hebron. They were searching every area.”
Ahmed believes the settlements in the West Bank are the biggest part of the problem. “I don’t think there will ever be an independent state [of Palestine] until the settlers leave. Hebron is different [to other cities in Palestine] because there are settlements inside the city. If you want an independent state, how are you going to do it when you are having settlements of another country in the middle?”
We asked him if he thought the settlements should be destroyed, but as they are built from Palestinian houses, it would be counterintuitive. In many settlements, houses belonging to local Palestinians are taken over by the settlements, who move in and create settler enclaves in the West Bank. “It is not their fault because they were forced to come here”, he tells us. “The Israeli state, they brought them here, and they are giving them houses. It’s the same for people living all over the world. If they came to you, and they say we have a house for you, and they say we have a car for you and lots of money every month, what are you going to say?”
The settler programme is highly subsidised by the Israeli state, and those who volunteer to live as settlers in the West Bank are typically from the poorest communities in Israel. In the US, a number of charities subsidise the travel costs of the birthright journey to Israel, to which everyone professing the Jewish faith is entitled.
Once in Israel, anyone professing the Jewish faith can automatically claim citizenship. What is often overlooked is the effect that these open-door policies have on the existing residents of the area. “Every Jewish person in the whole world is allowed to come to Palestine. They give them the ticket for free. There are Jews all over the world and they are suffering, in Europe or in the US, and they are treated bad maybe over there, and they come here and they are treated well. So they will come. So it’s not their fault that they are coming.”
Most telling is the way the difficulties in the region affect the everyday lives of those living in the middle of it. At University, it takes students around an hour to get through the checkpoints, as the authorities are so rigorous in checking the identities of all the students. Mahmoud passes through three checkpoints every day. “[At] the first checkpoint they stop me and they ask for ID. If you’ve been in jail, even for one day, they’ll stop you. They’ll take you out of the car and let the car go. Then they will make you stand for three or four hours in the sun, and then they will let you go, but if they suspect 1% that you have done anything bad, or anything related to the Israelis, they’ll take you to jail for a week.
“[The Israelis] say they can take people and lock them up for three months without charges, for security reasons. About half of my friends have been in jail. They get used to it (laughs). They go there every week or every two weeks. Worst of all is when they go to the ‘investigation centres’. They sit there in dark rooms. And then after a week, or ten days, or three months, they get sent to Jail.”
If the Palestinians respond violently to the Israelis, they get shot. Even if Palestinians have nothing on them, and are only speaking out against authorities, they will be beaten. Hebron has seen many of the riots and demonstrations against the war between Israel and Gaza this summer that have divided opinion across the globe. Mahmoud saw the demonstrations come by every day in front of his house.
“First of all they all just walk. Some are carrying flags for Fatah or for Hamas, and they are all walking and saying ‘Free Gaza’. When they arrive at the checkpoints, people start throwing tear gas bombs (at the Israeli troops). Then the clashes happen.
“I volunteered to work in an ambulance in some of the clashes, and we took over 150 guys to the hospital, who had been shot [by the Israelis]. One of my friends, who was volunteering with me in the ambulance, got shot in the hand. I was right next to him.
“We were holding someone who had been injured, and he got shot while we were holding the guy. And even though we were wearing t-shirts that said we were working for the ambulance, they shot us. The guys who go on demonstrations, they only throw stones. We have stones and they shoot M-16 rifles.”
Uncertainty is a governing force in the lives of both Mahmoud and Ahmed. We asked Ahmed whether he thought there would be more conflict between Israel and the Palestinian Territories in the future. “This is the question that you will never know or that nobody will ever know. Because one day, everything is fine, and another day there is a war coming up. Nobody knows. Like yesterday, we were sleeping. We woke up when they bombed the house.” The Israeli Defence Force carried out bomb strikes on the home of two terror suspects on the night of Sunday 28th. Those suspects lived in Ahmed’s neighbourhood in Hebron, not far from his house.
“There is a day to day uncertainty living in the West Bank. I don’t know if tomorrow I’ll get shot. I have absolutely no idea what the future is [for] Palestine. Even for tomorrow, I don’t know.” Ahmed and his friends hear news of anti-war protests in the UK and other countries against the actions of Israel in the Gaza strip. For him, it is good for him to see that countries outside of Israel and Palestine understand who is responsible. He says it is “hard to know what Israel wants [because] they say they want to end terrorism but then we are not sure who are the terrorists. If Israel kills 2,140 Palestinians while the war is on, and they were women and kids, and they are wives and old people, and they are saying Hamas are the terrorists – in your view, who are the terrorists?”
Ben first met the Palestinian students in July 2011, when they were all working as volunteers, on a program to help the area’s sizeable refugee population. At the AIDA refugee camp where they worked, clashes between the refugees and the authorities are an everyday occurrence, and the vast majority of them end up in jail at one point or another.
Amazingly, students like Mahmoud are still able to attend University in spite of the continuing violence and unrest in the region, though there are inevitable disruptions. “Some of my classmates [sometimes] have to miss a semester because they’re in jail.” Students enrolled at the University can find themselves in jail, and missing entire sections of their course simply because they don’t have their identification documents on them when challenged by the Israeli authorities.
Amongst the Palestinians, even, there are divisions between the main political parties in both the West Bank and Gaza – Fatah and Hamas. Both parties have their own militias and bitter rivalry has existed intermittently between the two since Hamas’ victory in Gazan elections in 2006. For Ahmed, who describes himself as “not that big into politics”, there is too much made of the divisions amongst Palestinians. “You need to forget about the differences. We are all Palestinians, whether we are Fatah or Hamas, we are all brothers. We are all together against one thing. We are all brothers. We are all helping each other.”
While Mahmoud reassures us that day-to-day life amongst the Palestinians in Hebron is not especially dangerous, his account of a recent incident is alarming. “They caught the two boys who kidnapped the Israelis. They bombed the house. One of them they killed in the explosion, the other they shot in the head ten times. There was a big demonstration the next day.
“[These demonstrations are] dangerous. Even if you are not doing anything, even if you are just sitting in the street watching, you might get shot. I’m working with the Ambulance. If I get shot, I’ll get straight in the Ambulance. I’ll be fine.”
He laughs. Even in the face of such sheer adversity, the good spirit he shows is striking. These may be students lambasted with tear gas bombs, sporadic and unjustified jail stints, and all-too-frequent run-ins with gunfire, but one thing is certain: these are students with an indomitable determination to persevere. Suddenly Michaelmas doesn’t seem quite so daunting.