Twenty-two years ago, Brooklyn-born Jewish settler, Baruch Goldstein, opened fire in the Ibrahimi mosque, killing 29 worshipers and injuring 125. Following the massacre, rather than providing Palestinians with protection from settler violence, the Israeli military began implementing a system of ever increasing restrictions, closures, and separations that subjugate and constrain Palestinian life. Shuhada Street, once a major thoroughfare and thriving Palestinian marketplace, was closed off almost entirely to Palestinians. Palestinian homes had their front doors welded shut. To this day, many residents are forced to enter their homes through back doors, rooftops, and alleyways. Shuhada Street remains a virtual ghost town.
In 1997, Hebron was divided into “H1” and “H2” zones, with “H1” under Palestinian Authority control and “H2” under Israeli military control. Around 500 illegal Jewish settlers live in Hebron’s “H1” zone. They are known for being of the most vicious, ideologically extreme, and heavily armed of the entire settler movement. While these settlers move freely, openly carry arms, and receive full protection from the Israeli military, the approximately 30,000 Palestinians in “H1,” face checkpoints, harassment, attacks by settlers and soldiers, and severe restrictions on their freedom of movement.
The past couple of months have seen further restrictions placed on Palestinian life in Hebron. On October 30, Shuhada Street and Tel Rumeida were placed under closed military zone orders. The orders have been extended each month, through today, creating a situation where no guests, journalists, human rights observers, or even doctors, are allowed to enter. The Shuhada Street checkpoint (officially known as checkpoint 56) was expanded and fortified in December. It’s turnstiles, fencing, and metal detectors exude an unmistakable aura of foreboding permanence. The ID checks, interrogations, and body and bag searches that residents going through the checkpoint face, take place out of the sight of human rights monitors, journalists, and onlookers.
Hebron’s nonviolent Palestinian activists have been targets of the increasing repression. On November 7, Israeli settlers and soldiers attacked and raided the Youth Against Settlements Center in Tel Rumeida. Settlers gathered in the front yard of the center, cheering “death to Arabs,” while Israeli soldiers confiscated and/or destroyed over $15,000 of the group’s media equipment. On November 27, settlers set up an encampment outside the entrance to the Youth Against Settlements center for the explicit purpose of harassing and intimidating the nonviolent activists. Israeli forces protected the settler encampment. They arrested 16-year old Ahmad Azzeh on false charges of welding a knife. Youth Against Settlements coordinator and founder, Issa Amro, was also arrested and detained for about 5 hours, during which time he was handcuffed to a toilet. Azzeh was held for 6 days before charges against him were dropped and he was released. On December 12, the Israeli military arrived at the center with a map showing that the closed military zone had been extended to include the YAS center. Since then, only Amro, for whom the center is also his home, has been allowed to enter.
Each year Youth Against Settlements organizes the annual Open Shuhada Street campaign to commemorate the Ibrahmi mosque massacre and demand that Shuhada Street be reopened to Palestinians. Amro says the purpose of the campaign is, “To bring life back to Hebron’s city center, stop the settlements project [from] taking over the houses and the shops, and reopen all the closed markets and streets around [the city center]. It means that settlers’ terror will not win.”
Organizations, universities, and cities around the world join the campaign by organizing events and actions in their areas.
As the seventh annual Open Shuhada Street campaign approaches, life in Hebron is as difficult as ever. With the Youth Against Settlements center under closed military zone order, activists and organizers cannot meet there to prepare for the 2016 campaign.
However, all the clamping down and increased restrictions only seem to give Palestinian activists and residents increased resilience and motivation. On January 7, Hebron activists and residents began staging an ongoing sit-in protest in front of the Shuhada Street checkpoint. On day 39 of the protest, around 100 children came to the sit-in tent. Tables were set up for arts and crafts projects and the children made posters for the upcoming campaign. According the event’s press release, 11-year-old Marwan Sharabati explained that he and his family came to the sit-in tent “to ask the international community to help them to live in peace and dignity.”
The international component of the Open Shuhada Street campaign is also robust and growing this year. Germany, Denmark, and the UK have already held Open Shuhada Street events and actions. In the US, CODEPINK and Jewish Voice for Peace have joined the campaign and are circulating petitions and planning events and social media actions.
On February 18, Youth Against Settlements began its week long campaign in Hebron with a press conference. The rest of the week includes film screenings, art exhibits, commemorations of the Ibrahimi mosque massacre, a memorial for 18-year-old university student, Hadeel Hashlamoun, who was shot dead at the Shuhada Street checkpoint in September. The campaign will culminate with a mass demonstration on February 26. Thousands are expected to attend.
After 22 years of increasing restrictions and subjugation in Hebron, one might expect that Palestinians would begin to see their resistance as futile and cede control of Hebron’s old city. It can easily be guessed that this is the intention behind the closures and restrictions. However, if this is indeed the strategy, the Israeli military and Jewish settlers failed to factor in Palestinian resilience and steadfastness. Despite continuing settlement expansion in the West Bank; despite continuous attempt by settlers to seize Palestinian homes in Hebron’s old city; and despite the ongoing and increasing repression Palestinians face, Palestinian commitment to nonviolent resistance remains strong. Nowhere can this be seen more clearly than in this year’s Open Shuhada Street campaign.