Neil Rogall reports from Bethlehem and Hebron, where Israeli occupation continues to make life all but unliveable for the Palestinian population.
Bethlehem is surreal. At the centre there is the crowded Church of the Nativity, full of foreign tourists seemingly oblivious to the occupation. But not far away is the Aida refugee camp, with 6000 inhabitants. Originally founded in 1948 by Nakba refugees coming from 43 different villages, it grew enormously after Israel occupied the West Bank following the 1967 war.
As we enter, the names of the villages from which the people were driven are painted on the walls. A watchtower, an Israeli military base and the wall loom over the camp. There have been lots of clashes with the army here, many young boys have been killed and we can see the bullet holes. We visit the camp’s Alrowwad Centre for Culture and the Arts, which provides training in the visual arts and theatre for women and young people.
The road to Hebron seems ordinary, with lorries and cars, fields and homes around it. But there are many illegal settlements on the hillsides. And our driver, a schoolteacher, tells us that a few days ago a young man from his village accidentally hit a settler with his car. The army shot him four times.
The old city in Hebron is undoubtedly the most disturbing place I have ever been. The most fanatical settlers, numbering a few hundred, hold a city of four hundred thousand people to ransom. What was once the main shopping area, Shuhada Street in the old town, has turnstiles at the entrance and the occupying forces only allow a handful of Palestinians who have homes in the street to enter. Meanwhile the settlers have occupied many Palestinians’ homes there, driving them out.
At the entrance to the narrow bazaar streets an Israeli military outpost looms overhead. Soldiers point automatic rifles down at us. As we walk through the shopping streets there is netting hung above to catch the garbage that the settlers throw down on the local people. I ask a shopkeeper whether the settlers harass him. He replies that they abuse everyone, throwing filth or stones at them, always protected by the army. My friend speaks to a young boy, perhaps 10 or younger. He tells us that an Israeli soldier shot his classmate. He is clearly traumatised. We visit the Ibrahimi Mosque, the fourth holiest mosque in Islam, where, according to tradition, Ibrahim (Abraham) is buried. By the entrance stands an armed Israeli soldier. This is where the American-Israeli Baruch Goldstein murdered 29 worshippers in 1994. It is the prophet’s birthday, yet I am allowed inside. I feel very honoured.
As we eat burgers back in the centre of Hebron we discover from the TV that the Israeli airforce is bombing Gaza again.