H2, The Belly of the Beast

By Pam Letsche

November 5, 2017

Shuhada Street in bustling in the H1 section of Al Khalil. Photo: Pam Letsche

The first thing you notice is the smell.  A tart, dung-like odor caused by raw sewage rolling down the street outside Checkpoint 56 (56), also known as Gilbert, rolls down the street towards us.   A sewage pipe broke weeks ago and remains unfixed; Israeli permission required.  The people, including the elderly and small children, jump over it without batting an eye.

Welcome to H2, the Israeli controlled section of Al Khalil (aka Hebron) established by the Hebron Protocol of 1997 which divided the City into two sections; H1 includes 80% of Hebron’s population and is administered by Palestinians and H2 which is under Israeli control and includes the rest.  This division was justified as “security measures’’ after in 1994 Baruch Goldstein entered the Ibrahamini Mosque (one of Islam’s most holy places) and killed 29 Palestinians and injured 125 as they prayed.  Violent protest broke out.  (Baruch Goldstein was beaten to death by the survivors after the shootings and today many H2 Settlers consider him a hero.)

The 1994 Hebron Protocol also established an international presence in the form of a group called TIPH (Temporary International Presence in Hebron).  Although proposed to be “temporary”, TIPH is still walking the streets, along with EAPPI (Ecumenical Accompaniment Program in Palestine and Israel), CPT (Christian Peacemaker Teams), and ISM providing presence, monitoring and documenting the abuses of the IOF (Israeli Occupation Forces), Israeli police and border patrols.

Shuhada Street is desolate in the H2 section of Al Khalil. Photo: Pam Letsche

The current population of H2 is difficult to ascertain but is estimated to be between 600-800 settlers and over 30,000 Palestinians (per 2013 statistics).  Many of the original residents in 1997 have abandoned their homes (they are prohibited from selling them) due to the continued harassment and danger in the area.  The current residents remain resolute in their determination to stay.

H2 borders on the city’s casbah, or Old City.   The traditional commercial street of Al Khalil is Shuhada Street and in 1997, the part of Shuhada Street which runs one block parallel to the Casbah was placed in H2.  It included the City Center.

Working with ISM, I do morning “school patrol’’ which means sitting outside checkpoints or barricades watching and counting the people going in and out of the checkpoints.  We count men, women, children, schoolteachers (apparently they dress better than the other adults and carry briefcases).  Backpack and body searches are noted.  Just part of a normal day for a child in H2.

Children scurry along with friends, heaving heavy back packs.  They naturally go through the checkpoints including the ones which require them to wait for a green light, go alone through an enclosed box, place their backpacks on a table for search and if lucky, are allowed to proceed without further intrusion.  If you are a teenage male, additional search and delay are common.  Young boys slam the outside metal door as they leave; it’s their only form of rebellion.

Children waiting to go through a checkpoint on their way to school. Photo: Pam Letsche

Working with CPT and EAPPI in order to cover as many points as possible, the daily school counts are then presented to some UN organization.  Whether or not anything is actually done or accomplished with these figures remain unclear.  A man I know who has been coming here for the past five  years for three month stints, tells me TIPH is limited to merely writing reports about what they personally witnessed.  The reports go to both a representative in the Israeli and Palestinian governments.  No action is recommended.  No accountability is ordered, no follow demanded from what I am told.

After school patrol and being denied entry back into H2 as I left my passport back in Nablus and having to walk around the northern boundary, I finally get back into H2 on the northwest side.  I walk the streets, empty but for the passing of a few Israeli cars heading to Kiryat Arba for shopping, errands or socialization (Israeli settlers are not allowed in H1).  A few Israeli military vehicles, armored and armed, create a distinct feeling of being in a war zone.  Allegedly there are over 1,000 IOF (Israeli Occupation Forces) soldiers providing “security’’ for these 800 settlers.

As I leave H2, the contrast between the bustling activity of Shuhada Street in H1 and the quiet, deserted part of the street I’ve just left could not be more stark.  Inside once bustling merchants stalls have been shuttered; windows stand empty of any signs of humanity; the only sound coming from the liberally placed tattered and shiny new Israeli flags, flapping in the breezes.  One can walk from block to block, soldier patrol to soldier patrol without having passed or seen another person.  The soldiers of the IOF stand bored and restless; some smile, others glared.  “Peace and love’’ one soldier insincerely says to me, their way of mocking us.

Illegal lsraeli settlement in Al Khalil (Hebron) . Photo: Pam Letsche

I had the opportunity to speak with several people, children and adults, both Israeli and Palestinian during my daily forays into H2.  All the Palestinians said the same thing:  life in H2 is “difficult”; “more than difficult”; “very difficult life for us”; “there is no future here for us here”.

When asked what is most difficult part of living in H2, 13 yr. old Marwa Abu Shamsiya, the teenage daughter of Imad Abu Shamciya, a founder of Defense of Human Rights (a Palestinian organization which documents the ongoing harassment by the IOF and Settlers in H2 where he lives with his family) said “everything’’ but mostly points out the difficulty in not being able to have extended family and friends visit due to the restrictions established in 2015.

(Due to attacks and alleged attacks by Palestinians in 2015, Israel initiated further limitations and restrictions to the movement of the residents and those living outside H2.  It required all families living in H2 to register and given a number and only those with a number could enter.  I’ve been told by some, including an Israeli soldier, special permission can be obtained to allow family members or friends to enter but must be done via an application process and often these requests are denied.

Despite such restrictions, one long time resident of H2, Islam Fakhouri, said you can apply for permission to allow family members in advance however, such requests can easily be denied.  Islam Fakhouri, a 20 something father and husband and local tour guide in H1, says no matter the exact limitations, no family members or friends wish to enter H2 believing it too dangerous.  Hence the residents are restricted to socializing with only other families in their neighborhoods.

Also, it is very difficult, he tells me for a man living in H2 to marry a woman living outside H2 as families of potential partners are hesitant to allow marriages which would require their daughters to move there.

I visit Nisreen Azzeh and her lovely family living in Tel Rumeida, the hill above Shuhada Street, in H2.  She is the wife of notable activist Hesham Azzeh, who died two years ago from complications of inhaling tear gas at a demonstration in Babal Zwiya, the area in H1 outside 56.  After returning home the tear gas wafted up into their home; Hesham collapsed and fell into a coma.  Men carried Hesham down to 56 where they waited over 10 minutes for permission to leave the checkpoint.  He died on the way to the hospital.  (After 2015 Palestinian residents were denied the ability to drive their cars in H2 forcing them to park outside in H1.  Ambulances going to Palestinian homes must get special permission to enter resulting in delays of vital treatment.  Here it contributed to Hesham’s death.)

Tall, gangly, Yunis Affeh, who looks older than his 14 years, sits and speaks with me quietly; his intelligence notable, his sadness palpable.  He was 12 when his father died and is now head of the family.  His English is good; looking up words on his Smartphone when need be.  We speak as we await his mother’s return from shopping.  Yunis tells me his backpack is searched every time he goes in and out of a checkpoint.  He had pepper spray sprayed into his face by an Israeli boy his same age.  When his uncle reports it to the Israeli police, they claim Yunis had thrown a rock.  He had not.  He also relays stories of  his 14 year old friend being beaten by 4 IOF soldiers, settlers attacking Palestinian children on their way to school and teachers being detained at checkpoints causing delays or cancellations of classes.

His mother, Nisreen, returns home out of breath, hurrying as to not have me wait too long.  She had to walk from the border of H1 hefting heavy bundles, as even taxis carrying Palestinians are not allowed to enter H2.

We discuss the harassment their family has had to endure.  Settlers would pour liquids into their windows, cut and poison their olive trees, barricaded their front door entry requiring the family to climb a dirt path 50 meters from the street to their house.  The path also requires them to pass the apartment balcony of Baruck Marzil, an internationally known leader of the Settlers, who consistently harasses the family.  After Hesham’s death, he taunted Nisreen asking “Where is Hesham, Nisreen!”, “Where is your husband now?’’.

Nisreen is a gentle, intelligent woman who is steadfast in her determination to remain in H2 despite its difficulties.  At the conclusion of our talk she tells me “I hope all don’t forget my family and the families of all the others.’’.

When i return to Nablus, my home base, after five days in Al Khalil, I sleep to noon the next day.  My time there was exhausting, emotional, painful and inspiring.  The stress there is intense and constant. Unlike the Palestinian residents of Al Khalil, I will not have to live the experience of occupation tomorrow or the day after. I have nothing but admiration for their steadfastness in the face of so much oppression and indignity.

Pam lives in Marin County. She is a retired lady looking to fight injustice if even in a small way and having adventures along the way.