by Hugh Cullen, SSP member • I spent September in Al-Khalil (Hebron) in the occupied West Bank, Palestine. I was working with International Solidarity Movement (ISM), a Palestinian-led organisation that uses non-violent direct action to assist Palestinians and protect human rights.
Most of the old city of Al-Khalil is directly controlled by the Israeli army. They have erected large checkpoints which Palestinians are forced to go through on a daily basis—to go to work, worship, visit friends, or go shopping.
Several of these checkpoints are strategically placed beside schools, so hundreds of children and teachers have to pass through them each morning.
Each morning we would monitor the checkpoints, at the request of teachers, to provide an international presence and challenge abusive behaviour and violence from the soldiers.
I saw several incidents where young Palestinians (including girls as young as 8) were remotely locked inside the room of the checkpoint while soldiers shouted at them, often in a language they didn’t understand, over the loudspeaker.
The heavily armed soldiers hiding behind bulletproof glass would aggressively ask “where are your knives?” and make them empty their schoolbags. Some of the children were visibly frightened, but for others this has become a normal part of life in Palestine.
Often at the checkpoints teachers were harassed via body searches and intense questioning. They were intimidated and verbally abused in front of the children that they taught in classrooms an hour later.
One morning, a supply teacher was denied entry to a school because the soldiers said they didn’t believe he worked there.
These cowardly tactics that the Israelis deploy are all to reinforce the apartheid. The checkpoints are not about security, as there are ways around them- long detours that some Palestinians who do not have permission to cross the checkpoints have to take.
Yet on days where the soldiers couldn’t be bothered, you could walk through the checkpoint without any ID checks or searches, it just depended on what mood they were in.
The harassment is all to try and get Palestinians living in the closed area of the city to leave their homes to make way for more Jewish Settlers. On Shuhada Street, formerly the busiest shopping street in Al-Khalil before the annexation, all of the Palestinian stores were welded shut in the middle of the night.
The area is now a ghost town. The few resilient Palestinians who remain are numbered, not allowed to drive and some streets have walls down the middle to segregate the ‘Arabs’ from the Jews.
It’s no wonder then, that Palestinians attempt to resist the occupation. A young Palestinian boy would run up the street and throw a single stone at the heavily militarised, bomb-proof structure.
The reply from the soldiers was a volley of a dozen tear gas canisters and stun grenades indiscriminately thrown at any child in the vicinity. Landing at the feet of innocent children trying to get to class. In some cases, the soldiers shot rubber-coated steel bullets at the young Palestinians.
One morning we were targeted by the soldiers shooting tear gas, we were hurried into a girls school by the teachers to take shelter. Inside, the tear gas was creeping in the windows, burning your eyes and slowly chocking you. The teachers asked us, “how can we teach with this every morning?”
These ‘clashes’ happened more often than not, and school attendances were visibly lower the following day. One weekend, seven Palestinians were shot by soldiers in the city. Including a 15-year-old boy who was the victim of an extrajudicial street execution.
The Israeli army alleged that he had a knife but with so many proven cases of soldiers planting knives it’s unlikely that we will ever know the truth. We arrived at the scene shortly after and found a Palestinian ambulance being denied access to treat the boy.
The resistance I witnessed was from young Palestinians. Locals told me that the crippling economic situation in the West Bank means the adults are focussed on merely surviving.
Moreover, adults who peacefully protest the occupation face live ammunition or beatings in prison without a trial. The occupation is so established in Al-Khalil that it has become largely normalised.
This makes it clear to me that change will have to come from outside the country. BDS and our international activism are a start, but serious political pressure needs to be levied on the Israeli government.
If the inhumane principles of illegal occupation and racist apartheid are not enough to rise our governments into action, then perhaps focusing on the daily struggle that the children of Palestine have to endure, simply to go to school, just might.