After my first stint in Hebron over election day, I went back to Jerusalem to gather my thoughts, do some laundry and decide on my next move. After a few days, I decided that I would go back to Hebron for the last week of my trip as the limits of spending a day here and a day there had become clear to me. As luck would have it, the Hebron ISM group came to Jerusalem to spend the night because they had been to a nearby meeting in the afternoon, so we had a mini reunion. Far too early the next morning (the 14th of January) we headed back down to Hebron. We met one of the ISM coordinator’s downtown and headed off to Idhna – yet another area soon to be devastated by the Wall. A demonstration had been planned there and our coordinator had arranged for us to meet with some local families too.
As it turned out, there had been a recent incursion in Idhna. We visited two families whose houses had been invaded by Israeli soldiers and occupied for three days after a sudden curfew had been announced. The families had only just been allowed back in their houses that morning, so the destruction we saw was fresh. And it really was destruction. I have read soldier’s testimonies of house occupations in Hebron in which they claim that sometimes occupied houses are well looked after, and the families compensated for any damage caused. Not in these cases. Both houses were absolutely trashed, as you can see from the photos I took. Money was stolen as well – 200 Jordanian dinars from the first family and 5000 from the second.
Visiting both these houses was quite surreal. The families were upset of course, but it seemed to me that they were not as upset as I would be if my house were occupied and vandalised. In a way, this was another sign of how used to the occupation Palestinians have become. A year and a half ago, soldiers had stolen a car and tools from the second family, as well as 20,000 shekels “to pay for the occupation”. For all that, they are no less angered by it. Familiarity breeds contempt – a truism no more appropriate than in the case of a military occupation.
In the case of the first family, the soldiers had locked them up in a room on the first floor of the house while they ransacked the place. It was cold there and they were not allowed to leave to get more clothes or even to get water to wash with. The second family had been treated even worse. On the first night a young mother and her children were kept in the garden overnight while they detained her husband and kept him pinned to the ground. They were shouting “Where is the gun? Where is the gun?” at them. A female soldier searched the women; they interrogated a 10 year old child. They did find a gun in the house, which his wife told us was from when he used to work for the Palestinian Authority. The husband was taken away and they were still trying to find out what had become of him when we visited them. The grandmother broke down towards the end of our visit, cradling a framed picture of her late husband while a male family member admonished her to keep her faith in God because tears are no solution.
All this took place during a time when there was no ongoing curfew in the area. More generally, this was a period of “relative calm” according to the western media (too often this is code for ‘only Palestinians are being killed’). Both of these houses were on quite high vantage points, so that may have been part of the reason they were targeted. Detention without trial was not invented in Guantanamo Bay – it has been a mainstay of the occupation here for decades. “Administrative detention”, as it is called in Israel, is for an initial period of six months and Commanders can extend this for another six months, then another, and another, ad. infinitum. Military Order Number 1229, of 1988 does not define a maximum period, so many Palestinians have been kept in Israeli jails (such as the notorious Ansar 3 Military Camp in the Negev desert) without charge for years. According to Amnesty International there are currently around 750 – 800 Palestinians in administrative detention. The Israeli human rights organisation B’Tselem is one of the best sources of information on this topic, amongst others.
A few of the local activists (who our ISM coordinators – also Palestinians – had contacted) came with us when visiting the families. One of them pointed out a road we travelled on and said it was nick-named “Moscow street” because so many of the families on it were communists. This man was a PPP supporter (Palestinian People’s Party – the historical Communist Party) who mentioned to me that “our problem originally came from England”, echoing the statement made to me earlier by the PPP presidential campaign coordinator. He also had a pretty sophisticated understanding of the western media and how they typically portray the Palestinians. “Do you see that we are terrorists?” he asked me during our conversation the way out of the village. I replied that I had not seen one Palestinian terrorist during my trip.
Leaving the village (after the usual overwhelming hospitality from the local activists, the villagers in general and even the distraught families) we came across a new obstacle. A watch tower and nearby road block which had been empty when our taxi into the village passed them earlier were now flying the Israeli flag. A group of about 15 soldiers was blocking our exit of the village. They were also ID-checking and detaining Palestinian pedestrians and motorists entering and leaving the village. Initially they told us that we had to go back into the village, because they did not want us to get caught up with “trouble makers” at the demonstration. Eventually, they let us pass thanks to a combination of our negotiations and the public exposure a group of wire service photographers who turned up gave them (presumably they were in the area to cover the demo, but somehow they got wind of our presence). Just around the corner from the new checkpoint, we met up with one of the coach loads of Palestinians on their way to the demonstration. Palestinian hospitality applied even here as they insisted on seating us, even though the coach was already overcrowded, with many standing.
Two other bursting coaches and one mini-bus worth of Palestinians from around the locality made up the demonstration that we joined. At the front were the elders – they invited us to join them there and we were happy to accept. There were banners against the Wall, young and old men (no women apart from in our group I’m afraid to say), photographers and chanting of slogans such as “no to the wall that divides” and “with our soul and our blood we will defend you Palestine”. Israeli soldiers arrived in their jeeps and formed a blocking line before us, declaring it a “closed military zone” – a dirt road in the middle of farmer’s fields! The plan was to march to the land where the Wall is being built and pray there. When the military blocked the way, the decision was made to pray in the field there at the side of the road instead. After this, slow, calm and extremely non-violent attempts to advance down the road were made. We advanced slowly, slowly towards the line, sitting down in the road each time we stopped. The line of soldiers seemed weak, they had not formed their jeeps into a blockade and at one point it really seemed like we would make it through. Unfortunately there was division in the leadership over whether to go on or to go back. More through the loss of momentum, than because they particularly agreed with that side of the argument, the crowd eventually dissipated and started heading back to the coaches. It was a discouraging sight to see everyone heading off when we looked back. A small concession was won as four of the older men were allowed on to the site by themselves.
Despite my criticisms, the day was a high point of my experiences in Palestine. Extreme measures were taken by the organisers to make sure that there was no provocation of the soldiers. The whole thing was very Martin Luther King. An image of the Palestinians the corporate media in the UK never portrays (I challenge you to find an exception). For their part, the Israeli soldiers were surprisingly restrained. There was no tear gas, sound bombs or beatings. Rifles were brandished but that was about the extent of it. This stance is unusual for the Israeli military in the occupied territories, but it was not unusual for that particular period, so soon after the elections when so many Westerners were still around. During the Palestinian elections the Israeli government knew they were under extra international scrutiny. The US (and UK) funded killings continued to a lesser extent, but the whole period was an illustration of the concrete differences international observers and solidarity activists can make by their mere presence. In addition, it was generally an amazing experience to witness such political action, and a privilege to participate in it – and we were made to feel extremely welcome. It was a good way to build relationships between the ISM and people in the area – some of the kids in the coach on the way back had never seen Westerners before.
Click here to read another account of the house occupations by another member of the ISM affinity group that day.
Click here to see my photos of the Idhna demonstration.