Sunday, September 10, 2006

A Tel Rumeida Story


Haji, as she is politely called, is a 70-something Palestinian woman living on Shuhada Street, between the Tel Rumeida checkpoint and the Beit Hadassah settlement. Her house is similar to many others on the street, with a couple of exceptions of great interest to human rights activists working in Tel Rumeida. First, she is on the shady side of the street. Second, she has a small, concrete stoop just in front of her doorway, with exactly enough room for two international activists, a camera bag, and bottle of water. Because of these virtues, Haji's stoop is the location of choice for the activists on watch at Shuhada Street, the most active spot for violent settler activity in Tel Rumeida. Each day, a couple of scruffy internationals make their way down from the "top of the hill" and settle their tender behinds on the stoop, which, while rock hard, is still considerably smoother and more comfortable than anything else around.

Haji lives alone, now; presumably her husband has passed away, since divorce is almost unheard of in Hebron. She does have one grown son who comes to visit every few days, sometimes with a grandchild, or two, but Haji loves to talk, and this isn't nearly enough company for her liking. So, each afternoon, she brings tea out to the activists sitting on her porch. A silver tea setting is used: three cups (one for Haji), a small platter, and a strainer to filter out all the spices that make Arabic tea so delicious. Haji has a hard time bending very far, and, after a few days of protests, she now lets an activist take the tray from her and set it on the stoop, once the glasses are full. Although her hands shake a good deal, no one has yet managed to pour or strain the tea for her; Haji isn't yet so old that she can't serve her guests properly.

During this whole time, Haji maintains a near-constant stream of Arabic chit-chat, of which we activists catch around one word in one hundred. Haji knows we can't speak Arabic (largely because "la Araby", or "no Arabic", is one of the few things that we can say), but it doesn't seem to bother her. Having guests to talk to doesn't necessarily require that they understand what you're saying. We reciprocate as best we can: frequent repetitions of "shulcran" (thank you) and "quais" (ok), with exaggerated facial expressions which we hope convey that the tea is much better than just ok, but that we've once again forgotten the Arabic word for "great". Saying "very, very quais" has become something of an in joke shared between activists and members of the local community.

After the tea, Haji almost always brings out a couple clusters of grapes, or sometimes a piece of flatbread. This is sufficiently predictable that I've taken to bringing a couple of used plastic bags in my camera bag when I'm working Shuhada. Before the bags, we had to figure out what to do with a bunch of grapes, sans plates or utensils, when faced with marauding settlers.

At some point on most days, Haji goes out for a couple of hours, probably shopping in H1, outside Tel Rumeida. For many weeks, activists watched her spend several minutes testing the lock on her door each time she went out. She would tur her old-fashioned key in the lock, and then push and pull it in various directions, tugging fiercely on occasion, until she was satisfied. In my last couple of days in Tel Rumeida, however, I noticed that these lock-testing bouts had tapered off almost completely. There are of course, any number of explanations, but I like to think that our daily presence on her porch ("just like her children", as Haji loved to tell us when we had Arabic-speakers to translate) helped her feel less threatened by the settlers, and made her ritual less compelling.


At approximately 2pm on September 9, 2006, six young settler men, between the ages of 16 and 19, moved down Shuhada Street, in Tel Rumeida, from the neighborhood checkpoint towards Beit Hadassah settlement. Lena (another activist) and I were watching the street at the time, and we saw that the young men were being very loud and looked likely to be dangerous. The risk was particularly high on Shabbat, when the settlers typically celebrate G-d's creation of the universe by attacking Palestinian women and children, destroying Palestinian property, etc.

When the settlers appeared, an elderly Palestinian woman {Haji, above} was cleaning her stoop across the street from us, and slightly closer to their position. Fearing for the woman's safety, I crossed to her position, pointed out the settlers, and tried to suggest that she go inside her house. She either didn’t understand, or chose to continue cleaning, and I moved to the opposite side of the street, in order to avoid drawing the settlers’ attention to her. Lena remained several meters further down the street, holding my video camera (still in its bag), and prepared to document any aggression by the settlers.

Moments later, the settlers drew within roughly ten meters of the elderly woman’s stoop, and veered towards her, shouting at her in Hebrew. The woman slowly started to withdraw (she doesn't move easily, regardless of circumstance), clearly not comfortable with their behavior. I moved quickly back across the street, and placed myself between the settlers and the woman, hoping to give her time to get inside and lock the door. The settlers started yelling at me to get out of the way, which I refused to do. All six settlers then attacked me, kicking, punching, and at one point shoving me against the wall of the house.

At this point, Lena, about eight meters away, took out a video camera in order to record the attack. The settlers quickly peeled away from me and rushed her, shouting at her, trying to grab the camera, pushing her, and eventually tearing the video camera out of her grip. They then hurled the camera to the ground, and proceeded to kick it along the street down towards Beit Hadassah settlement. We followed them, shouting at them to stop it, and to give back the camera. The settlers, however, kept kicking the camera all the way past the nearby IDF post and into the first section of the settlement. One settler then picked up the camera and ran into a settler building, while the others continued down Shuhada Street, further into the settlement.

This entire sequence of events took place within 25 meters of the manned IDF post mentioned above. The soldier at that post took no action at any time, despite our calls for help, and the passage of the camera-kicking settlers less than two meters in front of his post. When I asked the soldier why he did nothing to help, he replied that he couldn’t do anything. This was patently absurd, given that the soldier was armed with an M-16, while the attacking settlers were unarmed, and clearly in their late teens, rather than small children who may be immune from military detention. I then demanded the soldier call the police, which he appeared to do.

After describing the attack to a series of soldiers, including a 1st lieutenant with some command authority, we repeated the procedure with a number of police officers. The first policeman with whom they spoke attempted to blame the HRWs use of a camera on the “peaceful holy day” of Shabbat. I took an extremely dim view of this interpretation, and pointed out that Lena only removed the camera from her bag to document an unprovoked assault by a violent gang. Eventually, the police took us to view two suspects who they had detained (a remarkable occurrence, in and of itself). Unfortunately, neither of us could be absolutely certain that the detainees were among the attackers, so the suspects were released, and we were taken to the Kiryat Arba police headquarters to file complaints for the assault and for the robbery of the camera.

Would arrests have been made if we had been able to positively identify the attackers? It's impossible to know with absolute certainty, but consider this: over the past year, the Tel Rumeida Project (together with the ISM) has recorded video footage of more than 100 attacks on Palestinians and internationals. To the best of my knowledge (which is rather good in this regard), not a single settler or soldier has been arrested, much less prosecuted, for any of these crimes.

Approximately half an hour after the attack described above, a third international activist observed an Israeli soldier, who was jogging down Shuhada Street, turn briefly aside to kick a small Palestinian boy (probably between seven and 10 years of age) squarely in the chest. The boy was standing in the doorway of his own house when he was attacked. The entire incident took only a few seconds, meaning there is no video record, and no chance of the soldier receiving even a reprimand.

Around three hours later, a number of settler girls strung themselves across the path leading from Shuhada Street to the Palestinian homes higher up the hill, behind the Cordoba school. At the direction of Anet Cohen (one of the most consistently evil settlers), they stood with linked hands in order to prevent a growing number of Palestinians from reaching their homes. A fourth international activist, hands carefully kept at her sides, pushed through the line of girls and led the Palestinians through the blockade. Along the way, she was kicked in the leg by Anet. A little while later, Ms. Cohen called the police and accused the activist of squeezing and/or twisting the arm of one of the settler girls. The activist was arrested and taken for interrogation. When she was finally being released without charges, she asked why the police didn't arrest Anet for kicking her. The police officer responded: "To arrest Anet Cohen, we would need an army." Apparently, it skipped the officer's mind that Israel already has around 5,000 soldiers stationed in and around Hebron, within 15 minutes of Tel Rumeida.


Blogger Nizo said...

Thanks for the story, I can particularly relate to it as the two people in my family who suffered the most from the conflict are my grandmothers. My paternal mother got hit by a bullet for violating a curfew during the 1982 invasion of Lebanon. My maternal grandmother left Palestine in 1948 under the worst of circumstances. Here is her story if you care to read it:

If I can just ask you to confirm if the woman you're talking about was referred to as Haji (masculine for those who perform the pilgrimage) vs. the correct term Haji-yeh (for female pilgrims)

G-d bless you.


6:44 PM  
Blogger Aaron Levitt said...

My apologies for not replying to this comment months ago. I had just turned on the comment functionality, and never thought to check back. Nizo, if by some chance you see this, I will most certainly read your grandmother's story.

Regarding your question, it's a pretty safe bet that any errors in Arabic are my own (I know about eight words), and not my Palestinian hosts'. :)

3:34 PM  

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