It’s Christmas: still no room at the inn

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Banksy art in Bethlehem, on the side of a petrol station

It’s quite hard, I find,  to enjoy a cup of tea at someone’s house when you can hear gunshots being fired outside. It was late in the afternoon, and I was at Hashem el-Azzeh’s house in Hebron, Palestine. My friend, Sophie, and I had just spent an interesting and moving day walking around the settler-occupied neighbourhood of Tel Rumeida with Hashem, in the heart of old Hebron, learning about the day-to-day hardship of life under Israeli occupation. Our day finished in Hashem’s simple house, where we met his lovely family for some Muslim hospitality.

February 2014, HEBRON, PALESTINE

Sophie and I were about to leave to get our bus back to Bethlehem when the frightening noise outside started. However, after walking down the street to the checkpoint manned with agitated Israeli soldiers, and after witnessing bullets being fired, rocks being thrown and tear gas filling the air, it was not hard for Hashem to convince us it was not safe to leave. Instead he invited us to sleep in his house. Sophie and I stood and watched in disbelief from the vantage point of the slope of the hill. This is the stuff you see on the news. We didn’t think we would find ourselves in the midst of it. More horrifying, this is almost daily life in Palestine  – the stuff that actually doesn’t even make the news.

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Hashem Azzeh’s family in their simple home

Ever since that day back in February 2014  I had been meaning to write about that day with Hashem. But somehow the stories were so sad, so tragic, so disheartening, I found it impossible to put pen to paper. Now, nearly 2 years later I want to write about it – for Hashem. Here is Hashem’s story, like so many other stories in Palestine.

Hashem and his family live in the the city of Hebron, which is divided into two parts. One part is called H1, it is under the Palestinian Authority control and H2, which is under the Israeli military control. Hashem’s house is in Tel Rumeida and is under Israeli control. Hebron is the only place in the West Bank where settlements have been created within a Palestinian city.  One settlement is right next to Hashem’s house with only a few meters between his family and the aggressive, fanatic Jewish settlers.

Earlier in the day, Hashem had walked us down Shuhada Street, once the main street in Hebron, connecting the northern and the eastern part of the city. When the army closed the street, 1800 shops were literally welded shut to prevent the shopkeepers from opening them. Houses were also blocked by the army, so people could not get back into their homes. Today the street is tragically deserted – I could imagine these beautiful yet forlorn, old stone buildings  once housed a thriving market. In the good old days.  At each end of the street a military checkpoint is manned by menacing Israeli soldiers, who check the bags of all Palestinians returning to their homes (they have no shops in Tel Rumeida). Soldiers with guns also pace around on nearby rooftops, staring into the streets below.

 

 

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Shuhada Street, imagine what this beautiful old building must have looked like

The atmosphere is tense.

Hashem explained about further hardships: “In 2000 they imposed a curfew on the city, which lasted for 167 days. In Shuhada Street and Tel Rumeida the curfew lasted for three years, we were confined to our houses and were given one hour a month to go shopping.  In 2004, we lived under a night curfew.   All the curfews were abolished in the middle of 2005”.

“Many Palestinians have moved for economical reasons: no jobs.  The other was because the army and the settlers attacked our houses.  350 families lived on Shuhada Street and Tel Rumeida.  Now there are less than 48 families left. There are no shops and no public transport.  If there is an emergency and someone needs medical treatment, we have to carry the patients through the checkpoint and the ambulance will wait for us behind it”. 

Daily life is beyond horrible here.  Palestinian children get harassed on their way to school, adults get searched at the checkpoint every day. Some international organisations assist the children on their way to school to observe and protect the children from settler stone-throwing and abuse.  Some streets in Hebron are now separated by a fence. The Palestinians are only allowed to walk on one side of the fence. The soldiers have the power to arrest any Palestinian who walks on the other side of the street. Hashem also showed us a youth centre, which was set up in his neighbourhood. The children’s paintings depict Palestinian flags and patriotism – children grow up quickly here – at an early age they are talking about the occupation, as that is their world.  Their lives are fraught from day one. I asked myself what anyone does for fun around here – you can’t even leave to go on holiday – life is very limited. The oppression goes on and on….the long, slow psychological and also physical terror…

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Anti-Arab graffitti

When the settlers came in 1976, they took land and houses.  The settlers harass local Palestinian residents by throwing stones, stealing from their olive trees and speeding with their cars through the streets – hoping to hit a Palestinian.

 “Children are psychologically traumatised and don’t sleep well at night, expecting  Israeli soldiers or Jewish settlers to come and attack them. Many children still wet their pants at the age of fourteen and fifteen, because the army used to conduct monthly searches of our houses at night. We would be sent outside for a few hours to wait in the cold. Once the Israelis offered us money once to leave our houses, a huge amount of money. When we refused they closed all the entrances to our house. I used to climb a six meter wall to access my home. When my wife was pregnant I had to carry her all the way, when she was about to give birth. It took us three hours to get to the hospital. At the checkpoint the army would not let us pass without checking our ID and searching us, even though they recognized that my wife was in a labour.

Another issue is that we have to get a permit to harvest our olives from the Israeli army. Settlers regularly destroy our trees and steal the olives. I personally have not been able to get any of my olives. I have fifty trees and could not harvest any of them. The olive trees are an important part of our culture. If you grow an olive tree you will have to wait fifteen years before you can harvest the olives. So when you have to watch the settlers stealing your olives or uprooting the trees, you become crazy because there is nothing you can do. The army also built a watchtower on my brothers’ house; they are everywhere all the time.

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Hashem stands amongst his olive trees – settler houses above him

The settlers who live next to me cut the water pipes that lead to my house we had to carry water to the house for three years until we were able to replace some of the pipes. Then the settlers came and uprooted all of my fruit trees. They attacked my wife when she was pregnant with our first child; she lost it in her third month. She was pregnant again but the settlers beat her when she was four months pregnant and she lost that baby as well. Later they stormed my house shooting bullets in the wall and destroying all my furniture. 

The army and the settlers have done a lot to me here. They want me to move but I will never give up, we are still fighting until we get our freedom.

Every Palestinian has close Jewish friends. We are simply against the occupation not the religion.”

Later that evening the fighting outside stopped, and we dined with Hashem and his family. We talked about Palestinian traditions, and life in the old days, trying to lighten the conversation a bit. Hashem’s wife Nisreen showed me a couple of traditional, handmade dresses, covered with embroidery. I bought one, hoping that it would contribute towards their income. I wanted so much to be able to do something for them. Pack them in a car and take them to the beach (which they will never see) – bring some joy into their lives – but in reality there was very little we could do.

Later in the evening we paid a visit to his brother’s family nearby, to see the watchtower on the roof of his house, manned with soldiers and bright spotlights beaming down on the neighbourhood. Seriously, how would you feel if there was a watchtower on your roof?! It is very intimidating. For Sophie and I it was a shocking, eye-opening experience.  It was hard to sleep that night, our heads were full of questions about this insane situation, why nothing ever changes. But the situation is complex – too much to talk about here.  It is not just Jews against Arabs and religion, it is about war and money, it is about greed, segregation, history, the Bible, genocide, being inhuman and inhumane, foreign interests and corruption – visiting Israel and Palestine opens a can of worms in your head, a mess of questions you will never untangle.

The following morning the situation was normal again, so after breakfast Sophie and I said our good byes and Hashem accompanied us to the checkpoint. It was strange to say goodbye and leave them in this depressing place. I wished I could do something. Hashem gets a lot of international visitors, his peace-work is accomplished verbally – by showing and explaining to anyone who visits what really goes on here. It’s life at the frontline of Palestine and his story has moved many people. It was a hugely profound experience to meet him and experience a small slice of life in Palestine. I am not sure how you can live with all this aggression and negativity every day. Thanks Hashem, for spending the day with us, for your hospitality. The only thing I can do to help is write this blog and keep informing people, in the way that you did, and keep opening the eyes of the world.

TABA, EGYPT

Two days later, back in Jerusalem Sophie and I parted ways. Palestine had been a real mind-opener for both of us and we were struggling to cope with it all. Sophie continued on her journey, and I returned to my winter home in Egpyt. I crossed the border at Eilat/Taba, happy to be back on safe soil. It must be one of the most beautiful borders in the world: situated on the Red Sea, the warm, turquoise waters lapping at the rocks next to the border buildings.

After entering Egypt I walked the 200m to the bus stop to wait for my bus. I hadn’t been there long and I heard a huge and frightening BOOM  – I instantly knew it could not be good, being so close to the checkpoint –  a large, grey cloud of smoke slowly billowed it’s way up into the sky. Egyptian workers from the local hotels came running out into the street to see what had happened. I decided it was wiser to stay put. Forty-five minutes later one of the other 6 foreigners waiting with me saw on her phone that a bomb had gone off on a Korean tour bus. Three dead Koreans and one Egyptian. It was bizarre to have “escaped” Palestine to then experience more tragedy close by.

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A surreal rainbow appears over the bomb scene as we pull out from the bus station and head home

21 October 2015  – HANOI, VIETNAM

I am sitting in my hotel in Hanoi, Vietnam, flicking through my facebook posts. I read the news with shock: Hashem is dead.

Hebron resident and anti-occupation activist Hashem al-Azzeh died Wednesday after inhaling tear gas fired by Israeli forces.

According to Palestinian media reports, al-Azzeh, who suffered from a heart condition, began feeling chest pains while in his home in the Israeli-controlled Tel Rumeida neighborhood of the occupied West Bank city.

“There was no chance to get an ambulance there,” Hisham Sharabati, coordinator of the Hebron Defense Committee.  Israeli forces do not allow Palestinian vehicles to drive on the streets near his home, which are reserved for Jewish motorists. Neighbors had to carry al-Azzeh down the hill to the nearest military checkpoint, where there were clashes between Israeli forces and Palestinian youth.

“There was tear gas there and the army kept them [al-Azzeh and his neighbors] for 10 minutes,” said Sharabati. “He had heart problems from before, but his situation deteriorated because the tear gas made it worse and then the checkpoint delay.”

When al-Azzeh was eventually brought to a hospital, he was pronounced dead upon arrival. He leaves behind his wife Nisreen and four children, the oldest of whom is 16.

RIP IN PEACE HASHEM. I am finally writing this for you, and with great hope that you have found peace, and that Palestinians will also one day find peace.

Hashem: “For me personally it is clear, I will never move until I die or we get our freedom. I will keep my house with my family and my resistance. We encourage the other Palestinians who moved from here to return back to their houses. This is what our association does here in Tel Rumeida, we offer Palestinians support in case they move back here. We help them find a job, we have free health services and we support and protect each other”.

For Hashem, simply remaining in his home was an act of resistance.

banksybethelem

Banksy art – the truth of Palestine today

 

 

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