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Rally Renames Hebron’s Shuhada Street as ‘Apartheid Street’

copied from my Alternative Information Center article here

 

On Wednesday 14 September, a rally was held in Hebron to officially rename downtown Shuhada Street ‘Apartheid Street’, in protest against the Israeli  occupation that for nearly 20 years has shut down the once-thriving town center,

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Israeli soldiers gather around demonstrators, who explain to them that the ceremony is a non-violent action (Photo: Heather Stroud)

 

severely curtailed freedom of movement and caused for the Palestinians of Hebron humiliation, harassment and persecution at the hands of settlers and Israeli soldiers.

 

The rally and renaming ceremony were organized by Youth against Settlements, a committee that since 2009 has organized non-violent demonstrations and actions to raise awareness of the occupation that plagues the over 165,000 Palestinian residents of Hebron.  A crowd of Palestinians, internationals and journalists gathered at the heavily guarded checkpoint entrance to Apartheid Street at 1 p.m.,waving signs and placards and emblazoning, with stencils and spray paint, the walls of the area with the proclamation ‘Welcome to Apartheid Street’. Despite the explicitly peaceful nature of the protest, a crowd of 20-30 Israeli soldiers immediately assembled across from the protesters and on the rooftops surrounding the site. Rifles loaded with tear gas canisters and stun grenades, they quickly strung up razor wire to block the path of the protestors, though the latter incessantly repeated their peaceful intentions.

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Israeli soldiers placed barbed wire to prevent the demonstrators from moving forward (Photo: Heather Stroud) 


At a press conference, Youth against Settlements member Issa Anmo told a gathering crowd of Palestinians and journalists that “on behalf of all the Palestinian residents of Hebron we have one simple demand- open Shuhada Street and end the occupation. We are changing the name of this street to Apartheid Street for many reasons. The reasons are- only Israelis and foreign tourists are allowed to access Shuhada Street. It becomes as a ghost town. The street is closed to the Palestinian residents of Hebron…Palestinian residents who live on the street are prevented from going on the street, and to enter and exit their homes, and to get to their businesses. Some families are using back roads, and some other families are using the roofs to get to their homes. Shops have been closed by many military orders, [and] it’s forbidden for many Palestinians to drive on the road. Imagine that you are living on a street and it’s illegal for you to drive on the street!”

 

At the beginning of the 1990s, Apartheid Street was still the booming downtown marketplace of Hebron, and the commercial center of the entire southern West Bank, as it had been for centuries. Center of a vibrant community economy where Palestinian residents and farmers maintained small shops to sell fruits, vegetables and other goods, it was also the home street for thousands of Palestinian families who lived in apartments overlooking the bustling town centre. The May 2007 B’Tselem report ‘Ghost Town: Israel’s Separation Policy and Forced Eviction of Palestinians from the Center of Hebron’ paints a bleak picture of the desolation inflicted upon Shuhada Street by the occupation in just two decades: “at least 1,014 Palestinian housing units in the center of Hebron have been vacated by their occupants. This number represents 41.9 percent of the housing units in the relevant area. Sixty-five percent (659) of the empty apartments became vacant during the course of the second intifada. Regarding Palestinian commercial establishments, 1,829 are no longer open for business. This number represents 76.6 percent of all the commercial establishments in the surveyed area. Of the closed businesses, 62.4 percent (1,141) were closed during the second intifada. At least 440 of them closed pursuant to military orders.”

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Hebron’s bustling fruit and vegetable market in 1990


Israel’s occupation in Hebron has a turbulent history and over the past 40 years, one can discern familiar pattern: The one-sided domination of fundamentalist Zionism and its colonialist impetus, with the military backing of Israel trailing in its wake. In 1968, religious Jewish settlers rented a hotel in Hebron for Passover and barricaded themselves inside, refusing to leave; eventually, the Israeli army coaxed them out and established for them the nearby settlement of Kiryat Arba to appease their desire to reclaim ‘Judea and Samaria’. In 1979, 40 women and children from Kiryat Arba repeated this brazen gesture, sneaking into an abandoned building on Apartheid Street in the middle of the night and, despite a lack of electricity, food and water, refusing to leave the next morning. This time, the Israeli army eventually allowed these squatters permanent residence in downtown Hebron, with full military support.

 

The fundamentalist settlers of Hebron are guided by the religious conviction that they are reviving a Jewish presence in Hebron that dates back 4000 years ago to the days of Abraham, who, along with most of the oldest patriarchs and matriarchs of the Old Testament, is buried at the nearby Cave of the Patriarchs/Ibrahimi Mosque, which today is a half-synagogue, half-mosque structure, heavily guarded by the Israeli army. They are also determined to maintain their community in memory of the 1929 Hebron massacre which 82 years ago, in the midst of a tense political climate and rising animosity in Palestine, resulted in the deaths of 67 Hebron Jews and the evacuation of the entire Jewish community from the city.  This massacre is contrary to the history of the two communities in the city, as Jews and Arabs had coexisted peacefully in Hebron for centuries, a peace attested to by the fact that several hundred Jewish lives were saved during the massacre by Palestinians, who hid Jewish families in their homes at considerable personal risk.

 

Since downtown Hebron was settled by Israelis in 1980, Apartheid Street and a small surrounding area have gradually become occupied by approximately 500 Jewish settlers (the term ‘Israeli settlers’ would be misleading in this case, as many of the settlers are recent arrivals from the east coast of America), guarded by at least four times as many Israeli soldiers. The process of apartheid over the last 20 years has been complex and gradual, but unmistakable in its intentions. After a massacre at the Ibrahimi Mosque in February 1994, in which 29 Palestinians were killed and over 100 wounded by an Israeli settler from Kiryat Arba, the Israeli military began to pursue an official separation policy that closed the shops of Apartheid Street, blocked off the Jewish area, already heavily guarded and controlled, from the rest of Hebron, and sought to remove most Palestinian presence from the settler enclave.

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Hebron’s fruit and vegetable market in 2007, closed by the Israeli army 


In 1997, Hebron was officially split into two areas- H1, 18 square kilometers, under Palestinian control and containing most of Hebron’s Palestinian population; and H2, 4 square kilometers in the absolute center of the city, encompassing Apartheid Street and much of Hebron’s Old City, under Israeli control and enclosing the settler population alongside a handful of Palestinian families who could not be coaxed or forced to leave. The Second Intifada in the early 2000’s brought, according to B’tselem, “unprecedented restrictions on Palestinian movement in the city, primarily a continuous curfew and closure of main streets to Palestinian residents…during the first three years of the Intifada, the army imposed a curfew on H-2 for a total of more than 377 days, including a curfew that ran non-stop for 182 days, with short breaks to obtain provisions. On more than 500 days, the army imposed a curfew that lasted for a few hours up to an entire day.”

 

In response to the military crackdown, which began in the 1990s and reached a feverish pitch in the 2000s, the vast majority of Palestinian apartments and storefronts in Apartheid Street have either been voluntarily abandoned or forcibly emptied out. Today, what was once a booming marketplace is now, indeed, a ghost town, traversed only by settlers, Israeli soldiers, and the occasional Palestinian who holds the proper permit.

 

“I was born just 50 meters from here”, says Issa Anmo, sitting in the office of the Christian Peacemaker’s Team on the border of H-1, “and I am not allowed to visit the house where I was born, I am not allowed to go back to my neighborhood to smell my flowers. At the same time, the settlers can do what they want inside my house!…why are they allowed and I am not allowed? They are civilians and I am a civilian! Why am I not allowed? Is their blood blue and my blood is dark, is black?…This is apartheid. Nobody can argue [with] me if it is apartheid or not.”

 

The 14 September rally, like many others held over the years, was meant to highlight this unjust and oppressive state of affairs and indeed, the disproportionate Israeli army presence at the explicitly peaceful rally itself highlighted the reality of everyday life for the Palestinian population of Hebron. “It was just a rally to explain what is happening in Hebron. At the beginning we were afraid we could not send out the message to explain what we were suffering from, but then the army and the Israeli police came and they put up the barbed wire and detained us, and prevented us from doing a civil right. They showed exactly what it means, that we are suffering from the apartheid and inequality in Hebron…I’m not happy the police came, but they showed the real face of the occupation, this is a reality.”

 

The rally also intended to highlight the resolve of the Palestinian people, and the fear of the Israelis, toward the upcoming September initiative at the UN. Says Issa, “it’s very connected to September…the Palestinians are suffering from occupation, from settlements, and from apartheid. And this activity was concentrating on apartheid, to tell the world look, there is a problem here! We do not want you to stand against Israel, we want you to stand against apartheid, against occupation, against the settlements. We are not asking people to stand against Israel or say anything bad about Israel, we are just asking them to stand with us against the occupation, against apartheid and against the settlements which are destroying our own lives and violating all our human lives.”

 

Not all Palestinians at the rally, however, were pleased that Apartheid Street was officially receiving a new name. Said resident Azmi Ah- Shouki, “I don’t want to change the name of Shuhada Street, because this name has a relationship with the history and suffering of the Palestinian people. We want the occupation to end and we are here always. The cccupation makes apartheid, but we are Shuhada Street.” Shuhada Street means ‘The Martyr’s Street’ in Arabic, and recalls the memory of those murdered at the Ibrahimi mosque during the massacre of 1994. A small faction of Palestinians showed up at the rally to oppose the decision, and later in the day the group partially covered many of the ‘Welcome to Apartheid Street’ wall stencils with black spray paint.

 

Issa, however, along with other members of Youth against Settlements, remains steadfast. “[These people don’t] know what apartheid means, that is the point. We need to educate the people more about apartheid. We are not changing the name really, we are just explaining, giving a description for the street, that it is an apartheid street. [The name is] officially changed, but it’s not a big change. Finish the apartheid, then it will be the same name [Shuhada Street] again”.

 

Walking away from the entrance to Apartheid Street as the rally dissipated, passing the endless storefronts of the Palestinian people of Hebron as he made his way through the crowded, narrow corridors of the Old City, Badia Dwaik, Deputy Coordinator of Youth against Settlements, expressed perfectly the prevailing feeling of the day- “We did many protests and demonstrations before, but it is important to get attention from the world media. I am happy because we announced this to raise awareness that it is now Apartheid Street. The message is rich, so I am happy.”

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Wednesday September 21st, Hebron March for Statehood

Today- crowds surging through the streets of Hebron with Palestinian flags waving, running through traffic in the middle of the morning, yelling and chanting, swarms and swarms of people. as the taxis rolled, as the shops baked bread, as grocers arranged and cut their meat, as mothers went shopping, as kids were walking to school, as cars were honking. Gathering and expanding on the street, surging forward, the crowd with flags and fists and chants- the PA came and blocked them, a resounding ‘boooooo’ through the crowd, yelling, chanting, children looking up at me- i had a camera, i was white, everyone swarmed around me, ‘take my picture!’, kids with palestinian flags and UN 194 banners posing for me, grabbing their brothers- the crowd surging forth past the PA guards, down the street, resounding cheers- then BOOM! BOOM!, the crowd doubled back, bodies turned to run towards me, surging mass pushing towards me, panicked faces running, I turned and ran as well, ran past old women trying to get bread and tomatoes from the market at 10 AM, ran past men in business suits, ran past taxi cabs with doors half open, and shopkeepers who looked startled, ran and jumped over boxes, tumbled over crates and skipped over tire tracks in the middle of the road- smell of tear gas began to hint in the air- BOOM! BOOM! children yelling, ‘allah hu akbar’ as we ran as one mass. Then stopped, panting, out of breath, doubled back to take pictures, people streaming onto side streets. The protest dissipated, PA and IDF standing by the checkpoint, looking guarded and bored and riled up and tense and at the ready. kids walked back together with rolled up palestinian flags, looked down at the ground, looked up and smiled again.

then baladayi square- huge billboards of hebron, UN 194, OCCUPATION OUT, PALESTINIAN STATE- thousands, thousands jumping and screaming and cheering. marching bands full of 10 year old kids in regal uniform. huge mobs of schoolgirls swarming past me, chanting and clapping, backpacks bouncing off their backs. mothers holding children, teenagers pouring water on each other, crowd surfing, pumping fists in the air, old men standing off to the side with their arms crossed, smiling. i was with a girl from ISM, the young palestinian men swarmed around her asking whatsyrname, ‘they are from a village and have never seen a foreigner’ an old man explained to us. shouting jumping crowds, thousands more marching past every minute with enormous banners with mahmoud abbas’ face, slogans. the hope! joy and optimism as trucks came up to give free water. the drums! happy crowds under the sun, everyone waving cheap palestinian flags, running up to you smiling hello! take my picture! singing and clapping, the cheer! even though the US will veto! the hope!

then the market. old old city, ancient market, cobble stones, narrow windy pathways. IDF soldiers standing in a line, firing tear gas, running, huge crowds running, screaming. whirlwind, stampede, like gazelles, we duck in an alleyway and see the kids and adults running, running, and then a moment later the soldiers, running, running after them. all the screaming. here, at two in the morning before i go to bed, with mosquitoes kissing the screen in front of me, i can only remember the BOOM, and the screaming. some palestinians took us up on a roof to watch- six fresh faced young IDF soldiers on an adjacent rooftop, crouching, looking down below. Down below, in an alleyway, young shebab with kafiyas on their faces, throwing stones and running. not more than ten years old, they peep out from behind an alleyway, chuck a stone up at the roof, or down the alley, then disappear again. some have fancy home made slingshot, they whirl it in the air and launch the stone as a projectile that, if it hit at the right spot, could be mildly frightening, even for a heavily armored and armed soldier. then the tear gas hits the ground beside them, and they run. battle like this for an hour, the kids never give up, for what? to resist. alleyways littered, covered with stones. battered street, marketplace closed. how could you continue to sell falafel as tear gas canisters roll on the street outside your shop? and yet they do it, life goes on for a city under siege, used to it, though battered, bruised city, marketplace closed by three pm. ghost town. bruised, licking its wounds. tomorrow morning the shops will open again. i remember, in the midst of the old city tear gas, a young boy runs up to me- you understand? he yells with frightened face, reddened and teared from gas. do you understand?!?!?

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Occupation in Kufr Qaddum

We just got back from the weekly demonstration at Kufr Qaddum, a small town in the North West Bank that since 1975 has suffered from the nearby (illegal) Israeli settlement of Qadumim, and the expansionist, colonialist projects that have trailed in its wake. The Popular Committee at Kufr Qaddum has held weekly demonstrations in the town since early July to protest, among other things, the nine-year partial closure of the town’s main road, the uprooting of 3,000 olive trees, the building of an Israeli military base in Kufr Qaddum, and the establishment, around the settlement, of several colonial neighborhoods which further steal Kufr Qaddum’s land.

In 2003, a crucial section of the main road that links Kufr Qaddum to the nearby large town of Nablus (from where I write this article) was illegally obstructed by Qadumim settlers, and later officially closed by the Israeli military, turning a 15 minute commute into a 1 1/2 half detour. This significantly increases travel expenses, makes study difficult for those en route to Nablus university, and endangers the lives of those trying to reach the Nablus hospital (two Palestinians have died in recent years for this reason). After years of legal protest in the Israeli High Court, Kufr Qaddum received a (rare) legal ruling in their favor, but the Israeli military delayed re-opening of the road until 2012, citing (absurd) safety reasons. Thus, the protests began in July.

We hatched a plan last night to use wire cutters to cut the waist-high razor wire fence that stretched across the main road, in plain view of demonstrators and soldiers. The purpose of this act, we reasoned, was public action- whereas the protest last week just petered out and fizzled away, with the townspeople returning to their homes in a half-satisfied Ramadan daze, we felt that this week people needed something to cheer about, a sign behind which to rally. We assigned roles- folks to cut the fence, folks to pull the fence back, folks to videotape, and folks to watch the actions of the soldiers, who were standing beyond the barbed wire fence, on the closed-off road, between Kufr Qaddum and Qadumim. It was important for internationals to carry out this action, at the front of the demo and in full view of the soldiers, because when internationals are present, soldiers hesitate to fire rubber bullets, and instead settle for the less dangerous tear gas.

The crowd, of about 100 Palestinians and 15 international activists, chanting and clapping, walked up the road towards the razor wire fence, and we saw the 20 or so soldiers standing ominously, 50 meters beyond the fence.

(you can see the fence in the two pictures above, before we cut it)

Many of us sat down crosslegged behind the fence, in a peaceful sign of protest. When the crowd had gathered at the fence, we made our way to the front; someone gave me a camera, and I began to film. In a matter of seconds it was done- we cut the fence and moved it off aside, and the crowd erupted in ecstatic cheer! To our surprise, the soldiers stood in place, without a motion. We were hesitant- should we move closer towards the soldiers, in the now-freed road space, or should we stay put? We had accomplished our mission with flying colors- in front of the soldiers, we had cut their fence; in front of the Palestinians, we had performed a potent symbol of nonviolent resistance that inflamed the crowd with hope. It is incredible to be part of such a powerful public performance, planned and carried out with intent, to achieve a specific purpose, in such a high-intensity situation. Of course, it was not the practical purpose- they could’ve cut the fence in the middle of the night- but the symbolic import of the act, which illuminated the moment with significance. To open the space for, and to enact, such a symbolic Event

Then, after about 20 seconds, came the tear gas.

Instantly I was running- I have never experienced tear gas like that before. It is like you are an ant, flailing to death in the middle of a fizzling can of Sprite; instantly, tears fill and overfill your eyes, and your throat is scorched with a pepper-like ferocity. You cannot breathe, a thousand burning pebbles prick every inch of your skin, red tingly heat claws at you from all sides, a flaming fist of cayenne pepper and chili powder punches you in the gut. Your face instantly collapses into a puddle of tears and runny snot. Thankfully, some Palestinians rushed up to me and sprayed perfume at my nose, to remind my body that it could breathe. Then the shebab (young guys) began throwing stones at the soldiers, in the thick of the clouds of tear gas, which of course, after a lull period of two minutes, prompted another volley of tear gas, which stimulated another mass run further down the road, which in turn inspired another round of stone throwing, which called forward another volley of tear gas in response….one part of my brain wanted to question ‘why do the shebab keep provoking them?’, and that part of my brain wanted to yell at them ‘stop throwing stones! i dont want to be teargassed anymore!’ but the whole point of our mission here is to support the palestinian effort; and while objectively it is obviously futile, and merely provocative, to throw stones, on the ground it is a supreme expression of will, triumph and resistance. extremely moving it is to see a palestinian teenager, completely swamped by tear gas and without even a kafiya to protect his face, throwing a stone at an advancing israeli soldier in gas mask and full combat gear. and after the demo was over, the cheering and hollering that gripped us in spasms of applause was completely electrifying! the feeling of collective accomplishment put a bright smile on everyone’s faces; we all stood in front of two soldiers positioned on top of the hill, jumping and waving, screaming in joy, flashing peace signs in their faces.

I hope, as it approaches midnight, that there are not Israeli soldiers raiding the village in retaliation as I speak…

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