I returned to Tel Rumeida today to visit my friend and her mother. While waiting to get through the Shuhada street checkpoint, I ran into a colleague who works with Human Rights Defenders. I overheard a man who was standing next to us saying wahed, wahed, or “one by one.” As my colleague explained, changes have been made to the checkpoint. “It is now more difficult to pass through,” he said. The man who said wahed, wahed then told me, “The soldiers are allowing only one person at a time into the checkpoint today.” And so we patiently waited as the line grew longer.
The entrance to the checkpoint evoked the sounds, smells and images of a prison, with its turnstiles, surveillance cameras, bright lights, metal bars and the welded wire mesh. The small narrow passage through the checkpoint is guarded by armed Israeli soldiers. To exit from the checkpoint, one must pass through an x-ray machine which is located in a small room to the right of the passage. Soldiers are seated behind a glass window to watch the people pass through the machine and then exit the room (if they are granted permission to do so). When I exited and walked through the last turnstile, I immediately noticed how eerily empty and quiet Shuhada Street was.
After my colleague exited, we walked slowly up a very steep hill hoping to visit Imad Abu Shamsiyeh, my colleague’s friend. Imad is well-known for videotaping a soldier executing Abid Al Fatah al-Sharif in Tel Rumeida. While my colleague showed me Imad’s home, a soldier who was standing across from the house suddenly appeared and ordered us to “Get out.”
My colleague told me that Imad suffers from unwarranted and arbitrary confinement and isolation, settler violence and death threats as punishment for releasing the video to the public. He said people are frequently forbidden to visit Imad. “This happens often, even though I visited him just last night.”
Imad’s safety and security are now in serious jeopardy because he dared to defy the occupier’s authority by revealing the truth. His property is barricaded by tall, thick cement blocks with a small opening leading into his property and home. His home is covered by welded wire mesh to prevent settlers from vandalizing it. “You see the porch, the one over there?” my colleague asked me. He then said, “Not too long ago the outside couch that was on the porch was set on fire. We believe it was done by the settlers.” After the soldier evicted us, we continued our uphill climb and passed through yet another checkpoint. Residents, unless they are registered and assigned a number, are not allowed to enter or exit the neighborhood. The soldiers, who stand guard at the internal checkpoints, use this to further harass the people by arbitrarily denying some the right of entry, even if they are registered.
After we passed through the second checkpoint, we parted ways. I then walked to the home of another friend, Arwa Abu Haikal, who then took me to visit her mother, Feryal. Feryal lives at the top of the hill, the highest point in Tel Rumeida and the focal point of tension between the settlers, soldiers and Palestinian residents of Tel Rumeida. Her neighbors are a military base and Admot Yishai, a settlement in which a mosque has been converted into a synagogue, a telling statement of the situation in Hebron. Her backyard, which borders the base and settlement, is filled with olive trees. The olives are ripe for picking. Arwa told me that the settlers attempt to sneak into their yard to damage the trees. Feryal then told us something of the history of Tel Rumeida.
“The Israelis claim that King David’s father, Jesse or Yishai, and his mother are buried underneath what was once a mosque,” she began. She then talked at great length about how the Israelis politicize archeology to support their historical claim to the land, using artifacts from the King David period to legitimize and justify their presence in Tel Rumeida. She believes they fabricate artifacts when they fail to find authentic ones.
Feryal then described at great length the many years of settler and soldier harassment which she and many others endured. “The settlers are mean spirited and aggressive. They make problems for all of the Palestinians who live in Tel Rumeida,” she said. The children are frequently targeted by the settlers when walking to their school. “My sons, when they were young, perhaps ten, twelve and fourteen years old, were detained and questioned by the Israeli military police and soldiers. One settler hit my son’s nose with a big stone and broke it.” Settler violence is widespread. “It affects all of the neighbors…. They [the settlers] teach their children at a young age who are the Arabs and who are the Jews. They teach them how to throw stones at us. One settler told me, ‘Every dog has its day,’ implying that one day they will kill us all.”
She said everyone fears the settlers. “The settlers carry tomatoes, dried eggs and at times soiled baby diapers which they throw at us. Several years ago, the soldiers stayed on our rooftop for two weeks to watch the city and after they left we found their discarded food in our water tanks.” Feryal said the harassment and attacks are nonstop and oftentimes terrifying. “The main purpose behind is to control Tel Rumeida and to push us out.”
Feryal’s tales of the raids and intrusions by the soldiers and the settlers led me to the realization that they exercise unrestricted power when it comes to their treatment of the Palestinian people. The Palestinians of Tel Rumeida live under a totalitarian system in which they are subjected to a brutal policy of control. Every facet of their lives fall under the ever watchful gaze of the occupation. Feryal’s stories included repeated themes of intrusion and violation of their private domestic spaces. “The soldiers used to come to our home every night, sometimes two or three times in the same night. During Ramadan the soldiers would come just in time for the Iftar, (breaking of the fast), and order us to stop eating and stand up. They actually told us we had to stop eating and to keep standing while they searched our home. We were weak from fasting all day…. One time, right after I boiled some tea and put glasses on a tray, the soldiers came and told us to go outside. We took the tea and the glasses with us but the soldier stopped us and told us we are not allowed to drink tea.” The absurdity of what was happening at times drove them to laughter. “This infuriated the soldiers,” said Feryal. “They would tell us we cannot laugh. I was detained once for five hours because I was laughing at them.”
I marveled at Feryal’s steadfastness and strength in the face of the constant threats posed by the occupation. While the soldiers and settlers can destroy her property and invade her home, she told me, they cannot crush her spirit or free will. “Inside, I am free. You can kill me but you cannot stop my laughter.” When I asked her how these incursions impacted her well-being, especially her sense of safety and security, she replied that no one feels safe. “If you send your son to the shop you are not sure he will return. When you hear a gunshot you search for your son, asking where he is.”
The soldiers’ and settlers’ actions gravely endangered their lives and jeopardized their rights, impeding their ability to protect and nurture their family members. Feryal, out of fear for her children’s lives, wanted her family to leave Tel Rumeida and go live with her cousins in another city. “I tried to send all of my sons and daughters to live with their cousins for a couple of years, but only half of them agreed to go.” And while several of her children chose to remain with her, she found comfort that children who agreed to leave assured her family legacy. “Had they killed us, my other children would return to continue the struggle.”
Feryal’s actions supports the view of Palestinian psychologist Nadera Shalhoub-Kevorkian that Palestinian women create extraordinary strategies of personal survival to alleviate the continuing pain of living under occupation. At the end of our meeting Feryal said: “We want to exercise our right to stay in our land. We will defend ourselves, we will fight with them with our hands if necessary. But we want to live in peace. We are here because we are. And the hope keeps us going.”
Tel Rumeida residents live under the constant threat of harm and even death by settlers and soldiers. The recent fatal shootings of Palestinians in Tel Rumeida, the intensified and devastating military closures and the consequent confinement of residents demand our immediate attention and action.
One action you can take is to join Feryal, Arwa and others from Tel Rumeida in their three-day human rights campaign in support of the people of Tel Rumeida sponsored by Defense Children International, Ibrahim Al Khalil Association, Defenders for Human Rights, Palestinian Union for Social Workers and Psychologists, Hebron Rehabilitation Committee and the Sharek Center. The campaign begins on December 10th, which is International Human Rights Day. For more information, contact: Riad Arar, Director of Protection, Defense Children International, +972 (0) 259 936 4414/ [email protected], or Arwa Abu Haikal, Resident of Tel Rumeida, +972 (0) 569 45 72 03/ [email protected]
Jeff Halper contributed to this article