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From the field

Collective punishment continues in downtown Hebron: Neighborhoods and shops closed, frequent checkpoint inspections

The city center of Hebron used to be the commercial hub for the entire southern part of the West Bank. However, over the years, Israeli governments have allowed the establishment of several small settlements there, in the heart of the Palestinian population. In this area, defined as H2 in the Oslo Accords, the military has for years imposed draconian restrictions on the movement of Palestinians. This has led to the large-scale abandonment of the area by Palestinian residents and to the paralysis of commercial life there.

A-Sahla St. in Hebron, now another ghost street. Photo by Musa Abu Hashhash, B'Tselem, 3 Jan. 2016
A-Sahla St. in Hebron, now another ghost street. Photo by Musa Abu Hashhash, B'Tselem, 3 Jan. 2016

As B'Tselem reported in early November 2015, further restrictions have been imposed on Palestinians in the area since October 2015, following the increase in attacks and attempted attacks against Israeli security forces and civilians. Among other steps, the military has installed concrete blockades at the entrance to some streets in the Old City, closed off the Tel Rumeidah neighborhood to non-residents, and introduced lengthy inspections at checkpoints, as well as erecting flying checkpoints with no prior warning. These new restrictions prevent residents from maintaining any kind of reasonable routine – on top of the daily challenge already posed by existing limitations on movement.

The following are the new restrictions:

  • The security forces have closed off the neighborhood of Tel Rumeidah, home to 209 families, and are allowing residents alone to enter it. While the security forces used to regularly inspect anyone entering or leaving the neighborhood before October, they now also keep lists of the residents’ names at Bab a-Zawiya Checkpoint (Checkpoint 56) and attach serial numbers to their identity cards to easily identify them on the lists. Several residents of the neighborhood have refused to add their names to the list and to attach numbers to their identity cards, protesting against the requirement to secure permission from the military in order to enter their own homes. In response to the residents’ protests about the numbering policy, the IDF Spokesperson announced on 5 January 2016 that Tel Rumeidah had been defined a closed military zone due to repeated attacks by Palestinians in the area. The Spokesperson added that “numbering the ID cards is a local initiative meant to ease and speed up the inspection procedure for Palestinians,” but that “upon learning of the event, commanders decided to immediately remove the stickers, and alternative solutions will be examined in the coming days to streamline the checking process.”

    However, B'Tselem’s examination found that the numbering method is still in use. Moreover, residents whose names do not appear on the lists – whether because they protested or due to a mistake on the part of the security forces – have been detained for many hours and only allowed to enter the neighborhood and reach their homes after intervention by the Red Cross and other bodies. Even residents whose identity cards are numbered face protracted delays of an hour or more due to inspection. The only way to reach the neighborhood without going through the checkpoint entails a long detour. Members of the security forces threaten anyone caught attempting to enter by this route with arrest, particularly if they are not residents of the neighborhood. International volunteers, Israeli anti-occupation activists, and human rights workers are not permitted to enter the neighborhood, though their presence is vital for documenting the harm caused to the residents.
  • In the area of the Old City and Al-Haram al-Ibrahimi (the Tomb of the Patriarchs), 16 checkpoints are continuously staffed by Border Police officers and soldiers who meticulously search anyone crossing. Before October, only some of these checkpoints were staffed. Since then, some of the checkpoints have been further equipped and inspections carried out there have become stricter and more protracted.
  • The security forces have established three more checkpoints in Hebron by means of drawing a stop line on the road and adding a written order that passersby halt for inspection. Palestinians passing through are required to place their bags or any other items they are carrying on the ground and step back. The soldiers inspect the items and only then permit the residents to continue on their way. At some of these checkpoints, passersby are also subjected to body searches by means of a handheld metal detector.

All Palestinian residents of these areas are subjected to these inspections, undergoing not only harassment and occasional degradation but also repeated delays. The elderly, women and children are not exempt, and schoolchildren are examined on their way to and from school.

On 3 Jan. 2016, B'Tselem field researcher Manal al-Ja'bri documented the inspection of her bag at al-Mahkama Checkpoint, one of the new checkpoints in Hebron. 

Due to these restrictions, some 20 shops near the Tomb of the Patriarchs closed down already two months ago, as a result of Border Police orders to close up for one to three weeks after every security incident that took place. The lengthy inspections also deter customers from coming to the area. Very few people can now be seen moving around the Old City and Tel Rumeidah, and there has been a marked drop in the number of Palestinian worshippers in the Tomb of the Patriarchs. Some shops have also stopped opening for business in the nearby market due to the absence of shoppers.

The IDF Spokesperson cited “security considerations” as justification for the new restrictions, but such considerations cannot justify the imposition of such broad and ongoing limitations on the lives of residents. More generally, the IDF Spokesperson regards the imposition of these restrictions as an isolated instance intended to provide a solution for a new reality – overlooking the longstanding policy implemented by Israel in the center of Hebron for many years, based on the “principle of separation” between settlers and Palestinians. Israel’s security establishment considers itself responsible solely for ensuring the security and wellbeing of the former. Protecting the daily routine of Palestinian residents of central Hebron, let alone their wellbeing and security, is not part of the considerations that guide Israeli policy in the city.

The policy of separation that Israel implements in Hebron has already destroyed the economy of the city center and led Palestinians to desert it in droves, unable to live under the strict restrictions imposed upon them. The new restrictions imposed since October give cause for concern that the authorities hope to push residents still living in the city center to leave their homes, with the aim of emptying yet more areas in Hebron of Palestinians.

The sweeping restrictions imposed by the security forces on the movement of Palestinians in Hebron constitute collective punishment of residents unfortunate enough to live or work close to areas where settlers have chosen to live. As such, these restrictions are immoral and unlawful.

Security forces inspect passersby at Jaber Checkpoint between the Jaber and al-Ja'bri neighborhoods. Taken by Suzanne Jaber, B'Tselem volunteer, Dec. 2015. 

Testimony of Yaser Rajab Tawfiq Abu Markhiyeh, 45, married and father of four, a clerk in the Hebron Municipality and resident of the Tel Rumeidah neighborhood in the city. Testimony given to Musa Abu Hashhash on 19 Jan. 2016:

Yaser Abu Markhiyeh showing his ID card with the number written on it. Taken by Musa Abu Hashhash, B’Tselem

Our house lies opposite the Gilbert Checkpoint. My mother, who is 72, lives with us. I have to cross Checkpoint 56 and the Gilbert Checkpoint every day on my way to work and back.

Since they tightened the restrictions, it has become much harder to enter and leave the neighborhood. The soldiers also came to the homes of local residents, wrote down the names of all the adults and assigned each one a number. That is the number of each resident on the list held by the soldiers at the checkpoint. That way they can easily locate the name and check that only residents of the neighborhood enter and leave the area. They came to our house in the evening. Five soldiers came and asked for my identity card and the cards of my wife and mother. They wanted to assign us numbers. I absolutely refused to accept the numbers, even though the soldiers said it was for my own good and for the good of my family. The soldiers left without registering us.

Later, when I came home from work, I tried to cross through Checkpoint 56 and the soldiers told me that I wasn’t a resident of the neighborhood. I insisted that I was and refused to leave the checkpoint. I waited there for about two hours and in the end they searched me very carefully and a soldier accompanied me to make sure I was going home. That happened several times.

After two weeks of suffering, the commander responsible for the neighborhood came to my home and asked for my identity card and those of my wife and mother. This time I agreed to be registered. He gave us numbers: 178 for my mother, 179 for my wife, and 180 for me. Since then we have been allowed to cross the checkpoints after we show them the number.

But five days ago, my mother came home at 1:30 p.m. after visiting my brother Nabil, who lives in another part of Hebron. When she got to the Gilbert Checkpoint, the soldiers told her that it wasn’t her number and wouldn’t let her cross. She called me and I called the Red Cross, the DCO, and the international organization TIPH. My mother, who is 72 years old, was forced to wait at the checkpoint for four hours before they let her through. The next day something similar happened to me. When I got to Checkpoint 56 after work, the soldiers refused to let me in and claimed that my number didn’t appear on the list. For more than two hours, I tried to convince them that I live in the neighborhood and that I had given them my number, but they weren’t convinced. Eventually the commander who gave me the number came along and recognized me. He apologized and gave me a new number – 506 – and wrote it on the cover of my identity card.

Despite the number system, it’s still hard to get into Tel Rumeidah. The inspections are very strict and usually take between 20 and 30 minutes, even though the soldiers recognize the residents of the neighborhood. They inspect everything and ask us to lift up the clothes on the upper part of our body. They search our bags of food, including fruit and vegetables. These complicated and humiliating procedures cause long lines at the checkpoint and residents have to wait for ages. Two days ago I waited for two and a half hours before my turn came and I got in.

Because of all these delays I only leave home once a day, to go to work. Once I’m back home, it becomes a prison. I don’t go out again. Before all this I used to go out several times a day. Another problem is that the soldiers don’t let us bring in gas canisters, so sometimes we have to bring them in through the cemetery and between the homes. They also don’t let our relatives visit us. Last Friday, my brother Nabil tried to visit us and the soldiers at the Gilbert Checkpoint sent him back. All this comes on top of harassment by settlers and soldiers, who swear at us and sometimes spit at us. Tel Rumeidah is like a prison now. At night in particular, there is no-one outside, only soldiers and settlers wandering around.

We have no choice but to continue to live here, because I only make 1,900 shekels a month and I can’t afford to live anywhere else. Nine families have left the neighborhood for good because of the unbearable closure.

Testimony of ‘Imad Abu Shamsiyeh, 46, married and father of five, unemployed, resident of the Tel Rumeidah neighborhood in Hebron. Testimony given to Musa Abu Hashhash on 4 Jan. 2016:

I live in a house that I rent for a small sum, which lies between two checkpoints – Bab a-Zawiya (Checkpoint 56) and Gilbert. I have suffered from a disability since birth.

In October, at the beginning of the latest wave of incidents, the Israeli military issued an order closing the neighborhood. Now, only residents of the neighborhood are permitted to enter. Other Palestinians, human rights organizations, and journalists are not allowed to enter. The neighborhood has become like a prison. The streets are empty and the residents only go outside when they have to. Only settlers and Israeli security forces move around the area. The military has also installed sophisticated new inspection machines at the checkpoints. A resident of the neighborhood who wants to move around the area has to undergo several rigorous inspections. In addition to these restrictions, the military also gave the neighborhood residents set numbers and registered them on lists held at the checkpoints. My number is 242.

The first few times I left the neighborhood, I tried to return through Bab a-Zawiya Checkpoint (56) but the inspections there took a very long time. They checked every person for something like fifteen minutes. Sometimes they ordered residents to take off their jackets and expose their upper bodies. Sometimes they also had to remove their belts and shoes. The checkpoint was very congested and waiting times were long. I decided not to go that way anymore, and instead I walk along difficult paths that are muddy in winter, between the houses, in order to reach my home and avoid the suffering and long waiting at the checkpoint.

My family and I feel trapped in our own home. It’s particularly difficult for the children. I used to go out of the house a few times a day, but now I try to go out as little as possible. Sometimes I don’t leave home for several days. It’s very boring for my children – no-one comes to visit us and we don’t go to visit anyone else. A lot of foreign tourists used to come here and even visit our home, but they can’t do that now. My father, who lives in the a-Sheikh neighborhood, used to come to see us every day, but now he and my sisters, who also used to visit us a lot, can’t come here. No-one has been to our house since the incidents began. Even walking around within the neighborhood is complicated now. We have to go through Gilbert Checkpoint to get to the grocery store, and even though the soldiers know us, they insist that we undergo an inspection every time.

The situation is so bad that I’m considering leaving the neighborhood. I rented a house in the a-Sheikh neighborhood, but the landlord changed his mind at the last moment after he found out that I am a resident of Tel Rumeidah, that I was arrested for filming violations as a B'Tselem volunteer, and that my children were detained several times after soldiers accused them of throwing stones.

I’m still looking for a cheap home so we can leave all this suffering behind. We aren’t the only family that’s thinking of leaving. Nine families have already left the neighborhood and several more are considering doing the same.

I don’t know when the closure of the neighborhood will end. Yesterday the military extended the closure order by another month. That means that our suffering will continue for at least one more month.

Narmin Sha'abneh. Taken by Manal a-Ja'bri, B'Tselem
Narmin Sha'abneh. Taken by Manal a-Ja'bri, B'Tselem

Testimony of Narmeen Muhammad Hamdan Sha’baneh, 16, high-school student, resident of a-Sahla Street opposite the Pharmacy Checkpoint. Testimony given to Manal al-Ja’bri on 5 Jan. 2016:

I live with my parents and my four siblings in a rented apartment in a five-story building. Our apartment looks out over the Pharmacy Checkpoint. I am a student in the 11th grade at the girls’ high school in the Abu Sneineh neighborhood. I volunteer for B'Tselem together with my sister Suzanne and my brother Hamdan.

Our home is surrounded by checkpoints – the Pharmacy Checkpoint, ‘Abed Checkpoint, the Bakery Checkpoint, Checkpoint 160, and the Al-Haram al-Ibrahimi [Tomb of the Patriarchs] Checkpoint at the entrance to the Old City. They have also recently set up makeshift checkpoints on the road with signs saying “Stop for inspection.” Sometimes I have to undergo inspections at all these checkpoints on a single day.

Recently, my family and I have suffered a lot crossing through these checkpoints. The soldiers check me and go through my bag every day when I come home from school. I videoed several incidents in which the soldiers detained students and inspected their bags. Sometimes I feel that the soldiers pick on the children, and particularly on the older boys, whom they often detain at the checkpoint for a long time.

That’s what happened to my brother Hamdan, who is 17. He was on his way home from school and got to the Pharmacy Checkpoint, which is opposite our home. The soldiers detained him and made him sit on the ground with his face to the wall for over two hours. I filmed him being detained. Hamdan has epilepsy and sometimes he has spasms if he gets agitated. The whole time he was detained, my mother tried to persuade the Border Policemen to let him go because of his illness, but it didn’t help. This isn’t the first time that the police have detained Hamdan.

Hamdan Sha'abneh detained, Dec. 2015

Sometimes when I come home from school there are clashes on the street. The police close the checkpoint and don’t let me cross, and then I have no choice but to go all the way round through Checkpoint 160 and then onto the Bakery Checkpoint. Sometimes there’s also a makeshift checkpoint to get through before I get home.

Every time I go through the checkpoints I’m scared. The policemen always ask me whether I have a knife in my bag. Life was hard here before, but it was definitely easier than the way things are now.

Testimony of Siham Fawzi ‘Abd al-Mu’ti Fakhuri, 26, a university student and resident of the a-Salaimeh neighborhood in Hebron. Testimony given to Manal al-Ja’bri on 6 Jan. 2016:

I live with my parents and my seven siblings in an old house in the a-Salaimeh neighborhood of Hebron. The Bakery Checkpoint is just a few steps away from our house. I’m studying information systems at the Open University. Every day I have to cross the Bakery Checkpoint and Checkpoint 160. They always inspect me at both checkpoints, on my way to university and back, but during the recent period of incidents the inspection has gotten much stricter.

On Tuesday, 5 January 2016, I left the university at about 5:00 p.m. to head home. I met my sister Nibal, who is 19, at Checkpoint 160. I phoned my father as I always do so that he could come and collect me from the checkpoint, because I am afraid of unnecessary inspections and delays by the Border Policemen at the checkpoint.

My father came to the checkpoint. The moment I passed through the electronic gate with Nibal, four policemen called out and ordered us to halt. One of them asked to see our identity cards and bags. A policeman began to inspect the cards and another one inspected our bags. My father got angry at the strict search and the delay. He came over, grabbed my bag, and shook all the contents out on the ground. He said to the policeman: “Look, they don’t have anything.” It was very cold and after sundown. The policeman ignored what my father did and told him to throw the bag on the ground. My father did so.

The policeman ordered me to sit on the ground next to the room where the policemen were sitting. My father shouted that that there was no reason why I should sit on the ground and that I hadn’t done anything. I went to sit there because I was afraid that the policemen would harm my father. In the meantime a Border Police jeep arrived and a policewoman and policeman got out. The policewomen came up to me, took out her weapon, and aimed it at me. For a moment I thought she was going to shoot. I quickly got up and ran to my father, trembling and screaming. I hugged him. The policeman ordered me to go back to my place and sit on the ground.

In the meantime my uncle Na’el and some other residents had gathered on the scene after hearing my father’s shouts. At that point another Border Police jeep arrived and a senior officer got out. He ordered the policewoman to search me. The policewoman ordered me to stand with my face to the wall, my arms raised, and my legs spread apart. She began to search my body brutally and opened the buttons on my coat. I felt humiliated and angry, but I didn’t do anything because I was afraid they would attack us or shoot us. After the search the officer told my father to take me to the police station so they could interrogate me. Nibal fainted and fell to the ground. I don’t know exactly what happened but I think she was scared, too. My uncle Na’el rushed to pick Nibal up and took her in a private car to a nearby clinic.

The policemen took me and my father in a Border Police jeep to the police station at Al-Haram [the Tomb of the Patriarchs]. When we entered the station there were two policemen there in blue [Israel Police] uniforms. One of them called us over and my father told him what happened. The policeman asked me to give him my cell phone number and the details of my Facebook account and I did so. We waited at the police station for about half an hour without any interrogation. Then the policeman let us leave.

I went home with my father. Nibal was already there. She had been treated at the clinic and she looked a bit pale. I don’t know why the policemen at the checkpoint behaved like that. Since yesterday I have been afraid to leave home and go to the university.

Testimony of Fidaa al-Ja’bri, 27, married and mother of four, resident of the Old City of Hebron. Testimony given to Manal al-Ja’bri on 7 Jan. 2016:

I live with my husband and our four children – Salsabil (9), Ahmad (8), Muhammad (5), and ‘Abd a-Rahman (3) – in an old two-story building. Our apartment is on the first story, and on the second story is the apartment of my brother-in-law Rami, his wife Maysaa, and their five children. The house is situated close to the main road connecting the checkpoint to the military base on Givat Ha’avot and the settlement of Kiryat Arba. It’s about 300 meters from Givat Ha’avot Checkpoint and about 500 meters from A-Rajbi (Beit Shalom) Checkpoint. One of the entrances to our home from Wadi al-Ghrus Street was closed off with concrete blocks around 15 years ago. About two months ago the Israeli military put new concrete blocks opposite our home. Two soldiers stand next to them 24 hours a day and search passersby.

These checkpoints make our lives very difficult and we suffer from the inspections and delays. We don’t feel safe. My sister-in-law and I are afraid for our husbands and children, because the policemen at the checkpoints detain them and inspect them every day on their way to work and school. Salsabil is afraid to go to her school in the al-Ja’bri neighborhood because she’s scared of the soldiers. Sometimes they close the checkpoint and don’t let her through, and then she has to walk along a dirt road that is difficult to cross, particularly when it rains, and she has to climb a ladder over a fence to get through. I walk with her when I can. Once she used to take a shortcut to school through the al-Rajbi building, but now she’s afraid that the settlers who moved in there will attack her so she takes a longer route through Givat Ha’avot Checkpoint. About two months ago a woman settler chased after her with a large knife. Salsabil came home pale-faced and told me that a settler with a knife in her hand had chased after her. I immediately took my camera and rushed up to the roof of our home. I managed to film the settler as she was moving away from the area.

My son Ahmad, who is in the third grade, has also been afraid to go to school since the soldiers searched his bag several times at the checkpoint. So my sister-in-law Maysaa walks him to school every day.

On 9 October 2015, after Muhammad al-Ja’bri stabbed a policeman in Kiryat Arba, things got tougher. Maysaa and I prefer not to leave home at all to avoid harassment by soldiers. We feel humiliated and embarrassed when the soldiers order us to raise our hands and inspect us with metal detectors at the checkpoint.

My husband suffers a lot from the closure of the checkpoints. Over the past few days they have closed Givat Ha’avot Checkpoint every day around 5:30 or 6:00 p.m., and it remains closed until the next morning. When there are clashes between youths and policemen at the checkpoint, they close it even in the middle of the day and you never know when they’ll open it. It’s particularly hard when my husband brings home things we need, such as gas canisters, vegetables, and other basic products. The soldiers at the checkpoints he crosses inspect everything he buys and sometimes scatter things on the road, and then my husband has to pick them up. When he gets to Givat Ha’avot Checkpoint, if it’s closed he has to drag everything along a dirt road that turns to mud when it rains.

My sister-in-law Maysaa and I are very worried. Our lives have changed a lot since the beginning of the latest incidents. We miss our families, because we only visit them very rarely, and they sometimes only visit us once a month. Maysaa’s family hasn’t visited her for over three months because they’re scared of the soldiers, particularly because her father and brothers were detained in the past. Sometimes she cries about this. Her relatives suggested that she leave her home and live with them until her husband finds another apartment.

Ishaq Qafishah. Taken by Musa Abu Hashhash, B'Tselem
Ishaq Qafishah. Taken by Musa Abu Hashhash, B'Tselem

Testimony of Ishaq Suliman Muhammad Qafishah, 68, married and father of five, owner of a business in the Old City and resident of the Wadi Abu Kteileh neighborhood of Hebron. Testimony given to Musa Abu Hashhash, 5 Jan. 2016:

I own a souvenir and embroidery shop at the end of the Qasbah market in the Old City, behind the Al-Haram [Tomb of the Patriarchs] military checkpoint. I’ve been selling gifts to visitors and tourists in the Old City for decades. The business is my only source of income. Before the settlers moved in here and the military set up all the checkpoints in the area, I had a good income and every day I made more than 1,000 shekels.

Then the financial situation of the merchants in the Old City deteriorated. My sales fell to an average of 250-300 shekels a day, but we could still make a decent living and I kept on working. Over the past few years there was a slight improvement in the situation. More visitors came to the market and to prayers in Al-Haram al-Ibrahimi, school students from Hebron and other cities in the West Bank visited the area, and tourists and journalists came from all over the world.

After the beginning of the recent incidents in October, the situation deteriorated once again. The policemen at the checkpoints introduced stricter inspection and searching procedures, and from time to time they close the area around Al-Haram al-Ibrahimi.

The market is so empty now that it sometimes feels as if the area is under curfew. At first I thought that it wouldn’t last long. I opened my business like the other merchants, but no-one came to buy. I haven’t sold anything over the past few weeks. Today, for example, it’s already 12:30 p.m. and I’ve only made two shekels. Yesterday I sold a prayer set for 12.50 shekels. The day before I made 10 shekels. I work from 9:00 a.m. to 4:00 p.m. every day, but what I make isn’t enough to cover my journey to and from work.

People are afraid to come to the area because of the massive police presence, the inspections at the checkpoints, and the rude and humiliating behavior of the policemen toward young men and women. They force them to lift up their clothes from their torso, take of their coats and shoes, and remove their belts. I have often heard the policemen shouting at young men and women, forcing them to go through the detection device several times. They also detain some people for a long time in the cold, claiming that they want to check their identity cards. Sometimes I intervene because some young women ask me to help them get through the checkpoint.

The situation at the checkpoints is intolerable. I am 70 years old and even I think twice before crossing a checkpoint. A few days ago a policeman at a checkpoint told me to take my belt off. At first I refused and got stuck between the two gates of the checkpoint. The policeman insisted, and eventually I was forced to remove my belt because ten minutes had already passed and I realized that I was delaying other people whom the policeman was not allowing to enter the checkpoint.

I usually perform midday and afternoon prayers in Al-Haram al-Ibrahimi. Before the incidents, there were always dozens or hundreds of worshippers there, but now it ranges from 10 to 20, because even the faithful are afraid to come to prayers due to the checkpoints.

I don’t know what I’ll do if things go on like this. I might have to close my business and look for other work outside the Old City, like my friends in the market who have closed their shops.