Hebron is a town that is welcoming to outsiders. Locals greet tourists walking along the streets by softly saying ‘welcome’, almost on reflex when encountering a curious stranger. They also want to chat to you; they want you to understand what it is like to live under Israeli occupation.
The small city, nestled in the hills of the West Bank, is also one of the epicentres of Palestinian-Israeli tensions. The town is home to 200,000 Palestinians and less than 800 Jewish settlers, who, despite breaching international law by annexing parts of Hebron, are guarded by a battalion of Israeli Defense Forces (IDF) soldiers. Hostilities often boil over into violent clashes.
These clashes have increased in frequency on recent months, ever since president Trump’s announcement to relocate the Israeli US embassy to Jerusalem. In doing so, he declared the city as Israel’s capital, much to the dismay of the Palestinians, who also claim it as their own. The embassy opens today, 14 May, on the 70th anniversary of the creation of the modern state of Israel. Tomorrow, Palestinians have their own anniversary, one they call Nakba – Arabic for catastrophe.
‘Opening the embassy at the same time as Nakba is just vindictive,’ says Fadi, 36, a Palestinian businessman. ‘They are choosing this time to remind Palestinians that we control you, we are occupying you. We can do what we want and you can’t do anything.’
On the West Bank, life is overshadowed by occupation. People cannot move freely, with more than 200 km of walls weaving through the land, encircling towns and villages, and separating Arabs from the Jewish settlements.
‘This decision, we didn’t get it from the Israelis themselves, it was from Trump. Imagine some person, that doesn’t have any relations with the Palestinians or the Israelis, saying Jerusalem is the capital of Israel. They don’t have any right to say any of this,’ says Fadi.
Signs of conflict in Hebron aren’t easily missed. Wandering through the Arab market in the centre of the town, you feel the imposing presence of metal grate canopy overhead. Its purpose? To prevent Jewish settlers who have set up home in apartments overlooking the market throwing rocks and garbage on the Palestinian traders.
Impeded by the grate, the settlers have turned to throwing acid over the Palestinians in the market below, Hebron resident Said, an 11-year old boy who works with his uncle at one of the market stalls, says.
Shadi Sider, 34, lives with his wife and six children in a home that is surrounded by those of settlers. Looking out of his living room window, on the second floor of the house, you will often see an IDF soldier patrolling the rooftops of the neighbouring buildings.
He is jobless, after his market shop was among many that were forcibly closed by IDF soldiers. His house is often under siege. One incident a couple of years ago almost ended in tragedy when settlers threw a glass whiskey bottle through a window that hit his two-year old Daughter Dalal in the head, leaving her fighting for her life in hospital.
Now, they’ve covered the windows with wire mesh to prevent further attacks, but they also have to make sure that at least one adult is at home at all times, to fend off attempts by the settlers to seize the property, Shadi says.
Shadi says he’ll never leave his home. ‘They throw acid, stones and garbage, and if I fight back or even complain the soldiers could arrest me.’ He is concerned that the embassy relocation could embolden the settlers even more.
Further north, Bethlehem has also felt the impact of the embassy announcement. Over past months, protests have intensified to violent clashes with Israeli soldiers. The little town’s economy is fueled by tourists, who flock to the church of the nativity, museums and the famous Banksy murals on wall. The rising tensions have made travellers nervous.
‘In our area here, there were huge clashes for months. The businesses and shops were closed. If there are any political problems, everybody cancels,’ says Mustafa Al Araj, 32, a co-founder of Volunteer Palestine, a community outreach organization.
Mahar, a grandmother from Bethlehem, constantly fears for her family’s safety. Her youngest son is training to be a nurse, and has to make regular trips through checkpoints to reach Jerusalem for training.
‘I’m scared all the time because the Israeli checkpoint, if there is any small mistake by his movement, they don’t talk they just shoot,’ she says. ‘We have heard many stories of people being killed in Jerusalem, or at the checkpoint. I’m scared from when he leaves the house until he comes back.’
She is also angry at Trump’s embassy move. ‘He had no right to delete us and give Jerusalem to the Israelis,’ she adds. ‘Life is getting harder. What we are looking for is to live a normal life, just like any other country. We live in a big jail.’
Known as ‘the separation barrier,’ the wall, is more than 25 feet tall in sections, formed of long slabs of concrete blocks, and punctuated with ominous grey watchtowers. Large sections are covered in political graffiti, with famous artist traveling to the West Bank to paint their creations. One of the newest subjects to feature is Donald Trump, who is depicted in one painting in Bethlehem kissing the wall.
‘This is because Trump loves walls,’ says Marwan, 48 who grew up in Bethlehem’s Aida Refugee Camp.
‘After Trump’s announcement, a big group of people walked in a peaceful, non-violent demonstration. We reached here [he motions near the Trump mural], and maybe 50 soldiers, started shooting. Shooting teargas, sound bombs, blasting rubber bullets,’ he adds.
Around the corner is the holy site of Rachel’s Tomb, in a cemetery that is also the resting place of Marwan’s parents.
He points out to the New Internationalist the empty food packets, bottles containing urine, and other litter strewn over the graves, which he says is a constant problem. He blames the IDF soldiers that stand guard in a tower overlooking the cemetery, citing the Hebrew writing on the packaging. He calls up to the soldier.
‘God bless you, habibi…I need to request something, please. Here, are a cemetery and graves. You know who’s buried here? I swear my parents. My father, my mom, my aunt, my uncle…[When] I see this garbage and this pee from the bottle, from the soldier thrown here, it’s breaking my heart. I swear. I’m sure you wouldn’t like anyone to do this on your family’s graves.’
The soldier responds. ‘You’re right. It’s not respectful…There could be rules about how the army deals humanely…About the urine, we’re trapped in here. There’s no bathroom. This is why they pee in the bottle, but they shouldn’t throw it out there,’ he says. ‘I apologize.’
With that, Marwan thanks him and we walk off.
‘The conflict here, it’s not religious, it’s not between Muslim and Christian and Jewish. No, it’s a result of the Zionist movement. There was no conflict here before 1948. Everybody living here was equal,’ says Marwan.
‘We need to bring change in the future, and all over the world we need to treat people with dignity and respect. We need to remember we all are human.’