Monday 28th October
I woke at 4.30 to the first call of prayer- such a nice way to wake and felt very peaceful. After a good sleep I felt chipper and ready to start the day.
We left at 8.30 to visit the Kindergarten that HIRN have built in the Old City of Hebron. The Old City is a very tense part of Hebron due to a history of and ongoing settler violence and occupation. Settler violence against Palestinian residents is allowed if not encouraged by the military (IDF) and border police. Palestinian businesses cannot function since they’ve been shut down by Israeli military. Palestinians who have lived for years in this area are also subject to property damage and restriction on movement through curfews and banishment from walking down certain streets.
The residents of the Old City are mostly Palestinian (35,000) with a smaller number of Israeli settlers who are mostly Ultra-Orthodox Jews and are governed by their own body, and with a heavy military presence.
We walked up a street which at its entrance had large cement blocks with words of protest such as ‘Apartheid Street’ and ‘Ghost Town’ and went through a checkpoint. Naively I thought no soldiers were there so walked through nonchalantly; only on the way back did I realise they were behind a thick screen of glass in a kind of metal tanker, which you cannot see into but they can see out, watching. Walking onto ‘Shuhada Street’, we were in the Old City, and the ‘Ghost Town’ graffiti suddenly took on new meaning. It was silent and ghostly; beautiful old buildings stood quietly with metal shops signs hanging off, Arabic script being silenced by its desecration. These buildings where once Palestinian businesses bustled, Israeli flags fluttered proudly in the wind. As we walked quietly to the end of the street, Jan, our Canadian activist guide warned us not to make eye contact with the soldiers, fresh faced boys with machine guns who were “just enforcing policy”.
We climbed some stairs in the heat to a heavily gated Kindergarten with barbed wire around the outside. The nursery was built by HIRN for Palestinian children in the Old City. Building it was a struggle with needing to get endless permissions from Israelis. Finally they completed it but needed a toilet block so built one for the children, but it was instructed to be demolished because a permit hadn’t been sought for it. Worse, the people who built the nursery were told to knock it down themselves after they had built it with their own hands! We were welcomed by the caretaker and a woman who introduced us to what the nursery was about and sowed us a mural that one of the cowboys had done. The kids were sticking their heads out of the window cages, waving and shouting harmonies of ‘hello, hello’ with a Palestinian flag wafting in the breeze in sight. Off we went in to meet the sprogs who were of course soooo cute and full of that childish spirit. Because there are few green spaces in the Old City and they aren’t exactly free to play around, the nursery got a strip of Astro turf for the children to play on which was great. However it was a bit disconcerting that when standing on the turf and looking up and right, there was a military watch tower- soldiers could watch for threats from these dangerous children.
We all shuffled into the nursery with the kids sitting on tables around the outside of the room. We were walking round giving them high 5’s when Blue said something with a tone of urgency in her voice that took a while for me to take in as it seemed in such contrast to this lovely interaction with the children. Hamed had information that a village in the South Hebron Hills, Um Al Khair, was about to be demolished. The villagers, Bedouin people, had found out earlier in the week that bulldozers were being organised and were told that if they raised 4000 shekels they could stop the demolition. HIRC knew about this and were on the way to raising the money, but the Israeli military were going ahead regardless.
We all had to decide quite quickly whether to go and I could feel the adrenalin in e, the anticipation of going to something where I had no idea about- thinking about what we were going to do there, our role and trying to comprehend what we were about to witness. A couple of us decided not to go and the rest piled on the bus. It was all quite rushed and seeing the way Hamed, Shahir and Jan responded fed into this. I’m so glad Jan was there to explain some snippets of the situation to us on the bus. Um Al Khair is right next to settlers who live in flush houses. The Bedouin houses had been demolished numerous times in the last few years. They always rebuilt. Jan had a friend who had a baby of a few months and had just built their house. She was very proud of the house with 2 rooms, basic kitchen facilities, and a small garden- she showed us pictures on the way.