In recent weeks, I have learnt to tell the difference between the sounds that various weapons make when fired by the Israeli army: tear gas; sound bombs and plastic-coated steel bullets. Observing violent clashes, I have seen injured Palestinians – more than 200 were hurt in all – carried to ambulances, sirens blaring. I have offered my sympathy to young Israeli soldiers grieving for the loss of their friend and comrade who was shot and killed on duty. I have hugged a Palestinian mother weeping for her sons, held apparently indefinitely in Israeli prisons. I have heard the fear of an Israeli father whose daughter will soon be conscripted into the army. Both Israelis and Palestinians have told me of their desperation for peace, for an end to the conflict that blights the Holy Land and the lives of so many here.
I am in Hebron in the occupied Palestinian territory, halfway through a three month stint as a human rights observer with the Ecumenical Accompaniment Programme in Palestine and Israel (EAPPI), an initiative of the World Council of Churches. Life back home feels worlds away.
Foreign secretary William Hague says the prospect of a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is slipping away and on its last chance. This is largely due to the rate of Israel’s settlement construction and expansion on Palestinian land. It is a major obstacle to peace, being so rapid that having enough land left on which to create a viable Palestinian state will soon be impossible.
I have visited Israel-Palestine several times before, twice with organisations which focus on Israeli perspectives. My regular job is with international poverty charity ActionAid, so I have seen suffering before. But nothing can prepare you for what it is like to actually live here for a while.
My role is to monitor and report on human rights abuses and to support vulnerable communities who suffer under the Israeli military occupation. It is also to support those working for peace. Alongside dozens of Palestinians, I have met Israelis of all ages working for change. Some are young men – former Israeli soldiers like Yehuda, Avner and Shay, who want people to know the truth of what is done by their army in places such as Hebron. Others are retired Israeli women like Hanna, Tzipi and Ya’el who help Palestinians at military checkpoints.
It is these checkpoints which divide Hebron.
Hebron is literally a city of two halves. One side is a bustling Palestinian city – designated as H1 under the Oslo Accords. Then, as you step into a portacabin that blocks a street in the city centre, you find that it is actually military checkpoint 56. It’s like stepping through some kind of dystopian mirror. Exiting the checkpoint and still in Hebron, but, designated here as H2 and entirely controlled by Israel, are young Israeli soldiers with large guns. H2 is known as “the ghost town” due to its eerie, deserted feel.
In H2, Palestinians are forbidden to drive or walk on most of the main street, which used to be the heart of commercial Hebron. Some have permits to get to their own homes, some have had their front doors welded shut by soldiers. Many Palestinians have left altogether. More than 1,000 homes stand abandoned and more than 1,800 businesses have closed. But there is one group who can walk, drive and exercise their freedom – the 500-700 Israeli settlers. Their presence is illegal under international law but they are protected by 1,500 Israeli soldiers. The settlers are religiously motivated, believing that they are doing God’s work in attempting to rid Hebron of Palestinians and make it fully Jewish. They don’t shirk from using violence and harassment – I have witnessed both – and they act with almost total impunity.
The violent clashes that erupted during the Jewish holiday of Sukkot escalated when the Israeli army entered Palestinian H1 – violating international agreements – and began closing shops and roads, and demanding people leave the area. The reason became clear: 200 Israeli settlers wanted to pray at an old tomb located here.
Tensions grew and by the end of the day the centre of Hebron resembled a war zone. Later that day, an Israeli soldier was shot dead in another part of the city.
If Scotland feels far away, the US-led talks about Israeli-Palestinian peace negotiations feel even further.
Key to the settlers achieving their aim is their creation of “facts on the ground”. They already occupy four settlements in Hebron city centre and two on the outskirts. Now they plan to create two new ones.
The day the soldier was shot here, Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu said the settlers should be facilitated to take one of them, located next to a Palestinian girls’ school.
The second is a complex called the Al Rajabi building, large enough to house 40 families. Settlers call it Beit HaShalom (the House of Peace). The highly strategic location would help them expand and link existing settlements, with serious implications for the nearby Palestinians. Settlers occupied this building in 2007-8, during which time the UN documented their violence, including arson and shooting two Palestinian men.
Many here say it beggars belief for the Israeli government to encourage the creation of new settlements by violent settlers in a most bitterly contested part of the West Bank, at the same time as the attempt to restart peace negotiations.
The Israeli Supreme Court is currently considering the cases but the Israeli government will have the final say. William Hague, John Kerry and their colleagues must be uncompromising: new settlements in Hebron are entirely unacceptable.
I recently met Ismail, a 22-year-old Palestinian who has just been released from five months in an Israeli prison for writing graffiti on a refugee camp wall where he lives.
Yet he is incredibly positive and hopeful about the future. He uses social media to converse with young Israelis about their shared desire for peace.
He told me: “I think maybe one day we will be neighbours and they will say to me ‘Shalom, come in for a cup of tea.’ I think we will have peace one day.”
New settlements in Hebron devastate the dream of peace shared by Ismail and his Israeli friends. They must be stopped.
l Melanie Ward is a graduate of Stirling University and a former president of NUS Scotland.