For a different hebron

In Palestine, Futura D’Aprile meets the peaceful change-makers who want to create hope for their divided city’s future.

A view of Hebron from the Tel Rumeida quarter. Photos: Fabio Conti

‘We need to fight against Israeli apartheid; we as Palestinians have a lot of responsibility to challenge it, to confront it and to work hard to make things better. Change doesn’t come by itself, you need sacrifice for it.’ Issa Amro is sitting in his modest office inside the Youth Against Settlements centre, his arms crossed over his wide chest.

He is the founder of YAS, a Palestinian organization based in Hebron that pushes back against the building and the expansion of illegal Israeli settlements through nonviolent and civil resistance. ‘I live under Israeli military law,’ he says. ‘I’m a Palestinian who doesn’t have any rights in his own city; I’m not even allowed to walk in the same street with Israeli settlers.’

We document every abuse we witness, that’s why soldiers and settlers threaten us

Amro lives in Hebron, the only city in the West Bank with Israeli settlements within it. Its Palestinian inhabitants are forced to pass through military checkpoints daily, where they are required to show their identity documents and go through humiliating security controls. The city has been divided in two since 1997, three years after an extremist settler killed 29 worshippers in the Abraham Mosque.

The H1 zone is administrated by the Palestinian Authority, while H2 is under Israeli military control: here 800 Jewish settlers live in four settlements guarded day and night by soldiers. Palestinians are not allowed to walk near them and they are banned by Israeli security from using Shuhada Street, the city’s main road, forcing them to take long detours.

Even going to the YAS centre is not easy if you are a Palestinian: you have to pass at least two checkpoints, go up a hill and walk through an olive grove. From there the view of the city is breathtaking, but also heartbreaking, as you can see the military checkpoints and the Israeli flags fluttering in the air of the once most important road of the city.

A Palestinian kebab seller in the old market.

But Amro believes a better future awaits Hebron; all his work is aimed towards it. ‘We use social media; we document human rights violations with the help of families who live near the settlements, as we provide them with cameras; we do legal work, direct action – like protests or campaigns inside and outside Palestine, community work and we try to reverse [the use of] public spaces in order to take them back from the occupiers.’ As the name of the organization suggests, inside YAS young people have a leading role: ‘They will be the future of a new Palestine.’

Working with youth is also the core activity of Sharek Center, one of the few civil society organizations in the H2 area. Its manager, Omar Rajabi, shows me around with a big smile on his face, the pride he takes in his work evident. ‘I grew up with the centre and I try to do my best for everyone here,’ he says. Sharek in Arabic means participation and their aim is to get people more involved with the community and to offer an alternative to life under occupation. The first things you see entering the building are photos taken by students showing a joyful, peaceful Hebron. ‘We teach them how to take pictures and videos in order to develop their skills and express themselves, but also to document problems we all have to face here in H2.’

A youngster entering a soccer field through a broken fence in the H2 area.

Such use of media, common to both Sharek Center and YAS, is an important tool to report harassment, both physical and verbal, by Israeli soldiers and settlers. ‘We are constantly exposed to violence and this affects everyone, especially children who go to school in the old city area. Many of them were injured inside the military checkpoints and some were even killed,’ says Rajabi, a claim supported by data collected by the United Nations Office for the Co­ordination of Humanitarian Affairs.

To cope with this situation, the Sharek Center offers free courses to children already inside the H2 area who are too afraid to go through the security checks to attend school. The aim is to provide a safe environment and give them the education they need to build a different Hebron. The Center also encourages women to be economically independent, something quite rare in conservative Hebron society, by organizing courses in making sweets at home to sell online.

Nearby there is the Hebron Hope Center, which offers fee-paying tourist tours around the city, local food and accommodation in Palestinian home­stays. Its aim is to raise awareness about the Israeli occupation, but also to show people the best sides of Hebron and promote tourism in one of the holiest places in Palestine.

Trade is slow in the old market.

Ayman al-Fakhori, its founder, decided to drop out of university to make a difference by starting his own organization. ‘At first I was alone, but now a lot of international volunteers work with me,’ he says. ‘I try to create ties with other organizations to spread the change. If we want life to be different, we need to work on the social and cultural level.’

Tarteel Aljunaidi is playing her part, too. She works for Christian Peacemaker Teams (CPT), a faith-based organization that supports Palestinian-led, nonviolent, grassr­oots resistance to Israeli occupation. One of her jobs is escorting children to school inside the old city and then back home. ‘We document every abuse we witness, that’s why soldiers and settlers threaten us,’ she says. ‘We also build connections with other organizations and the local community to face the occupation.’

YAS, Sharek Center, Hebron Hope Center and CPT are symbolic of a different Hebron, made not only by occupation, killings and despair but also by hope, determination and desire to build a better future for the next generation, day by day. Despite attacks and arrests, their members persist in their work, challenging not only the Israeli occupation or the settlers’ presence, but also the idea that the only answer to violence is more violence.