Thursday, August 31, 2006

Tel Rumeida, redux

Since I returned to Tel Rumeida, just over one week ago, we have documented a number of substantive incidents, detailed below. When I say ‘incidents’, this doesn’t include the hourly harassment of Palestinians by soldiers and police, the unending stream of insults and threats by settler kids, the seven years-long closure of the Palestinian shops because they ‘provoke’ the settlers, the ‘Gas the Arabs!’ graffiti, the ban on all Palestinian vehicles (including mopeds and ambulances), etc., etc. There’s simply not enough time, but here are the “lowlights” so far:

On August 23rd, 2006, in the Tel Rumeida area of Hebron, the Israeli army went from house to house and forcibly entered every Palestinian home in the neighbourhood. At 2.45 two human rights workers (HRWs) were sitting in Shuhada Street when they heard gunfire coming from the direction of the Old City (which is outside of Tel Rumeida). Immediately, there was a large increase in Israeli army activity in the area. Israeli Jeeps rushed back and forth in the street, as well as ambulances (Palestinians are not allowed to drive vehicles, including ambulances, in the Israeli controlled part of the city in which Tel Rumeida lies - known as “H2″). The Israeli checkpoints that surround H2 were closed almost immediately. It is likely that that they were planning to do this anyway, due to the “tour” of Hebron organised by settlers today.

The HRWs walked up the Tel Rumeida street hill to their apartment. When they got there they saw at least 20 soldiers guarding the Tel Rumeida settlement. Ten of the soldiers ran down the hill to the Palestinian apartment building opposite the HRW’s apartment, banged on the door and entered the house to search it. This was the beginning of two hours during which Israeli soldiers went from house to house in the neighborhood, subjecting the Palestinian families to forced searches of their property. From what the HRWs could see, and from what other eyewitnesses told them, the soldiers entered every Palestinian house in the neighborhood. In a least one house they stayed for 30 minutes. As always, nothing of concern was found in any house in the neighborhood.

During all this time Israeli settlers were still freely roaming around the streets of the Palestinian neighborhood. As is common, some were armed openly with full-automatic assault rifles. Any Palestinian ever seen carrying a gun in the same manner would be instantly shot by the army. The army also came to the door of the HRWs’ apartment and demanded to be allowed entry. They left the HRWs alone after they demanded a warrant before they would let them in.

On August 25th, 2006, the Israeli army, in the course of taking over a Palestinian rooftop, beat the owner with their fists and the muzzles of their guns. I heard the family’s screams from my post down the street, and arrived while this was going on. Although I did manage to get inside the door of the house, soldiers filled the entrance way and physically prevented me from getting to the victim. Other members of our team of human rights workers (HRWs) arrived within minutes, and we again demanded that the soldiers let us see the owner, which they refused to do, accompanied by the usual threats, insults, and shoving.

Some time later the officer in command of local Israeli forces showed up with some more soldiers. Apparently they already knew a crime was being committed, because both he and they were reasonably polite, and he spent some time talking to the brother of the victim. Of course, no charges will be brought against the attackers, now or ever, and those responsible will most likely take out their embarrassment (assuming they’re capable of such an emotion) on the bodies of some other Palestinian family.

Once all the soldiers had left, we were able to interview the family on videotape. Apparently, the reason for the attack is that some of these same soldiers had stolen the family’s grapes off their vine the last time they occupied their roof, a couple weeks earlier. The doctor, forgetting his ‘place’ as an inferior non-Jew, followed them down the street, yelling that they were thieves, rather than soldiers. This was payback. We photographed the doctor’s injuries: contusions from gun strikes to his upper arm, and developing bruises on his head, arms, legs, and torso from the soldiers’ fists. His teenage daughter, who attempted to shield him from the assault, was also beaten. We were told that she had a large hematoma on her side from a gun strike, but she was unwilling to be photographed, because she would be teased at school if pictures of her were posted on the web, etc. The doctor reported that this was roughly the tenth time in eight years that he had been beaten by soldiers.

On August 26th, 2006, the settlers burned (another) massive olive tree in the small Palestinian grove near the top of Tel Rumeida. These trees are the biggest of their kind I’ve ever seen, and may be nearly 1000 years old, although nobody seems to know for sure. At approximately 12 noon, a Palestinian family in Tel Rumeida, (in the Israeli controlled H2 district of Hebron) noticed a group of settler boys setting fire to the dry grass in front of their home. This land contains many olive trees and settlers have attempted to burn down these trees on many occasions by starting grass fires. The family put the fire out with water but the settler kids returned and started a fire which spread to the center of a large olive tree. By the time the family noticed, the fire was so hot that they could not put it out by themselves. Phone requests to the DCO (District Command Office of the military) to allow firefighters from the Palestinian municipality of Hebron to enter into H2 to put the fire out were denied.

The family tried to solicit the help of soldiers who poured a white, firefighting powder on the burning tree. This attempt at putting the fire out was not successful and eventually the whole tree was destroyed. Soldiers attempted to charge the family 600 shekels ($135) for the firefighting powder and the family refused. The soldiers threatened to come back and confiscate the family’s television if they refused to pay. In addition, settlers set the ground on fire in another location next to this same family’s house. No olive trees were destroyed in this fire.

On Sunday August 27th, two HRWs were on Shuhada Street in front of the military post which watches the Beit Hadassa settlement in Hebron. At around 5 p.m. a group of six Palestinian kids between approximately 10 and 12 years of age, who had been around the area for a few hours, went towards the checkpoint and started a conversation with the soldier in the military post. After a couple of minutes, the group of kids sat down on the steps in opposite of the post and started obviously joking with the soldier, so that it was not clear if the kids were detained, or if they were just joking around with the soldier. I wanted to clarify the situation and asked the soldier what the kids are doing there. The soldier responded that the kids were detained because they tried to steal a bicycle from the settlement and that he called the police to deal with this case. I asked the soldier to let the kids leave, but he refused to do so. A short time later, some Palestinian residents started talking to the soldier.

At about 5.30 p.m. one police officer and four Border policemen arrived at the military post and started questioning the boys and talking to a Palestinian woman who was still around. After about 15 minutes, three boys were allowed to leave and the Palestinian woman left with them, giving each a cuff on the head. The other three boys were still there, and the police officer told me, that I should leave because they were “taking the kids back home”. I moved back several yards and saw the border police and the police officer take one boy after another into the military post, behind the camouflage netting, where we couldn’t see what was being done. When the first boy came out again (after about 15 seconds), we saw that he was holding his head, so we suspected that those boys were taken in there to beat them. I went quickly towards the military post while asking the soldiers and the police if they were beating the kids in there. Being closer to the post, I was able to hear slaps and see obvious motions of a larger figure striking a smaller. The Border Police came quickly towards us and tried to intimidate us while asking questions and demanding out passports. Meanwhile, the three boys left.

This behavior by the border police was particularly contemptible because they refuse to do anything to stop settler kids from stoning and otherwise assaulting Palestinians, always based on the excuse that they are powerless to interfere with children. As with everything else in the Palestinian territories, rules apply only to the extent that they ‘protect’ Jews, and subjugate Palestinians.

On August 31, 2006, settlers returned to a Tel Rumeida olive grove section that is owned by the Abu Haikl family to throw an impromptu BBQ party. The Abu Haikl men approached, told them to leave (without being attacked, miraculously), and called the police. When the police arrived, half an hour later, the first thing they ordered was that the Abu Haikls leave their own land and return to their home; only then did they tell the settlers to go away. As always, there were no fines, no arrests, and no reason for the settlers to forego a repeat performance. The Abu Haikls have, unsurprisingly, lost count of the number of similar incidents.

Also on August 31, 2006, in H1, the ‘Palestinian-controlled’ 80% of Hebron, the Israeli army was looking for a militant who had fired a rifle at one or more of the settlements (Kiryat Arba?) at some point; it wasn’t clear when. The man was in hiding, and nowhere around, so the soldiers beat his wife, instead, saying that if the husband didn’t turn himself in, they would kill her and some or all of their six daughters. Many Palestinian families have learned to manage (repress, really) their fear of Israeli soldiers, but the victim in this case was absolutely terrified, as were the daughters. She asked for an HRW to sleep in her house the following night, in case the soldiers returned, but no female HRWs volunteered for the duty; a male wasn’t an option without any men of the family around, particularly given the daughters’ presence. Not one of our team’s better moments.

At 1:15pm on September 1, 2006, in Tel Rumeida, Hebron, myself and a team-mate were approached by a young boy of approximately six or seven years, and his father, later identified as Idris Zahadi. The boy lifted his shirt, displaying a contusion on his chest, and said something in Arabic that we were unable to understand. The young boy communicated that he had been injured, but did not speak either of our languages with sufficient fluency to describe the details. With permission from Mr. Zahadi, I photographed the victim’s injuries: a small contusion with broken skin on the left temple, and a larger contusion without skin breakage on the lower left chest. The victim then described the incident to his father, who related the events to me in a videotaped interview.

About one hour earlier, Mr. Zahadi’s son was walking to his home, which requires that he pass in front of the Beit Hadassah settlement on Shuhadah Street. An adult settler with a beard and glasses, possibly in his late twenties, began throwing stones at the boy, who was very afraid. He was struck by two of the stones, in his head and his chest. Mr. Zahadi was not at home at the time, and only found out about the attack upon his return.

Mr. Zahadi was obviously upset by the attack on his son. After finishing his description, he added, “Every day is like this! The soldier can’t do anything; even if he has bullets it’s no good. You need a policeman here, not the soldiers.”

***I’m including the following report from a village outside of Hebron because I heard the details directly from Sebastian, one of the victims. Sebastian is a young Austrian with whom I’m currently working in Tel Rumeida, and in whose integrity I have complete confidence.***

A woman from Sweden, Gabby, and a man from Austria, Sebastian, were kicked, pushed, jumped on, and bitten by settlers while they walked on Palestinian farmland the evening of August 8th. The internationals live in Suseya in order to accompany farmers to their land, provide support for the community, and prevent attacks from settlers. They were living in a valley where eight Palestinian families live, and staked their tent on the Palestinian-owned land nearest to the Israeli settlement of Suseya.

At about 7pm on the 8th, two internationals and one Palestinian were confronted by two Israeli settlers, with their sheep at first. One of the settlers began yelling and charged at the internationals and the Palestinian. The settler attacked the internationals by kicking and pushing, as the internationals attempted to document the attack. The settler and the internationals both backed away, but the internationals noticed that the settler was calling for others. Soon after, six additional settlers (two of whom were armed with guns), and one Israeli soldier appeared. Three settlers jumped on the Austrian man, grabbing his camera. The settlers grabbed the Austrian man by the throat, hit and pushed him. They kicked him in the back and another settler bit him on his hand. While the Austrian man was pinned to the ground, the Swedish woman appealed for help from the Israeli soldier, who appeared to be escorting the settlers. The soldier responded in English, “I don’t speak English.”

The settlers managed to steal the video camera that contained the footage of the first attack, before retreating. The internationals called the police to file a report, and while the police initially agreed to meet, they later claimed that they were unable to find the area and did not respond. “I have to admit, I am really scared,” said the Austrian man. “I mean, there is no law here, it is just gang violence and I don’t know what those people want, or what they will do to me.”


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