Evicted with Welders and M16s: Welcome to Apartheid Street, Palestine
Zuheira Hashem Dundes is not a threat. An older woman, a hajji, with wrinkled hands, wearing a wool shawl to keep away the cold, she lives with her daughter-in-law on Shuhada Street in Hebron in the West Bank.
On the morning of 19 January, Israeli forces welded her front doors shut.
We got the call that morning and arrived to a crowd of Israel Defense Forces (IDF), police, illegal Israeli settlers, and concerned Palestinians arguing amidst the shriek of welders and metal saws. Zuheira and her daughter-in-law Amaal were surrounded by soldiers, demanding to know why they could no longer go into the two houses they owned, why her belongings were trapped behind an ugly wall of steel. While the settlers taunted and laughed at her, a concerned older Palestinian man brought her a chair and a glass of water. From there, she watched through her tears as the soldiers welded shut the second door.
As the crowd continued to grow, IDF and police began pushing us further away from Zuheira and her daughter. At first, they just yelled at us and tried to block our cameras, then they began physically pushing us back. At one point, an international activist was shoved and repeatedly threatened by a member of the IDF simply for taking pictures. Soldiers and police allowed settlers to stand as close as they wanted to mock her. By the time they finished the second door, Zuheira and Amaal were all alone in their misery, surrounded by a sea of laughing Israeli forces.
Zuheira's family have lived in the area for centuries. Now she must live with her son, who owns an apartment across the street. She has high blood pressure and diabetes, and the trauma of having her family home taken away from her made her faint. As the IDF were wrapping up, an ambulance arrived to take Zuheira to the hospital. She asked us to accompany her in the ambulance, but the IDF prevented us from joining her. Other international human rights activists were able to follow the ambulance at a distance to make sure they got off Shuhada Street safely without being harassed.
The IDF told us that other Palestinians had broken into these houses, climbed up to the roof, and thrown molotov cocktails at a nearby illegal Israeli settlement. When we asked a police officer if they had talked with Zuheira about this, he said no. When we asked if it was fair to evict a woman without talking with her or helping her stop others invading her home, the officer did not answer.
Instead of encouraging these women to protect their houses from other Palestinians breaking in and causing problems, and instead of finding those responsible for the violence, the IDF evicted an innocent family.
The location of Zuheira’s home on Shuhada Street suggests that the rationale for the closure is not, as Israeli forces stated, simply for the “security” of illegal settlers. Rather, as is frequent in this context of colonial occupation, it seems that the term “security” is a smokescreen for the continued project of settlement expansion and the military takeover of land and houses belonging to Palestinians. “Security” is a word that applies to some people and not others; or rather, occupying Israeli forces make Palestinian homes, businesses, and lives violently insecure in order to protect and expand illegal settlements.
In Hebron, “security” means “military takeover.”
With more settlement blocs approved even on the day this article is written, it is no secret that settlement expansion is a central tenet to the project of occupation in West Bank. David Wilder, an active member of the Hebron settler community, says that Israel annexing the entirety of the West Bank is widely supported by the settlers of Hebron. It is perhaps little wonder then that a contingent of the settler community were present, and seemingly in a jovial mood, as Zuheira’s house was welded shut on January 19th.
The reality of the security smokescreen is backed up by history - 21 years of creeping closures and restrictions on Shuhada Street.
It is 1994. Shuhada Street, which links the north and south of Hebron, is a bustling thoroughfare, lined with Palestinian shops, homes and business – a hub of economic and social activity and leading to the Ibrahimi mosque.
It is Ramadan of 1994, February, and Baruch Goldstein, an American-born Jewish settler residing in the nearby settlement of Kiryat Arba, opens fire on Palestinians praying in the mosque, killing 29 unarmed worshipers before he is beaten to death.
In an illogical response to this massacre by an extremist settler, the Israeli state imposes restrictions on Palestinian movement along Shuhada Street. Supposedly, this is necessary for the protection of illegal settlers in the city. In the name of “security,” Israel forbids Palestinian vehicular traffic and commerce on Shuhada Street.
It is 1997. The Hebron Protocol divides Hebron into two parts, the H1 area controlled by the Palestinian Authority and the H2 region controlled by Israeli forces, which includes all Israeli settlements, the Ibrahimi Mosque, and Shuhada Street. The area in which illegal Jewish settlements have been established is now under full Israeli military control. Checkpoints and growing settlements further fragment Palestinian space in H2.
The Hebron Protocol states that “the movement of vehicles on the Shuhada road will be gradually returned, within four months, to the same situation which existed prior to February 1994”.
It is October 2000. The Second Intifada begins in response to decades of military occupation and broken promises. The Hebron Protocol remains unfulfilled. Palestinians are forbidden from walking or driving on Shuhada street, although no ‘valid military order’ has been presented. In the years that follow, the Israeli army will repeatedly claim that Palestinians will soon be permitted to use the street again.
Once a bustling hub, Shuhada street now resembles a ghost town, homes welded shut, 304 shops and warehouses closed down, and Palestinian municipal and governmental offices relocated to H1. Israeli settlers however, are permitted to move freely in the street.
Hence, Shuhada Street’s alternate name is birthed. Shuhada Street became ‘Apartheid Street’.
Along with other repressive facets of occupation in Hebron, the closure of Shuhada street to Palestinians has led to economic collapse of the city centre.
The geopolitical implications of this are clear. With Palestinian vehicular traffic also prohibited on adjacent streets, Palestinian pedestrian access prohibited from the Avraham Avinu settlement compound to the Bet Haddassah settlement compound on Shuhada Street, a contiguous strip of land in the centre of Hebron is effectively annexed to Israel, linking the Kiryat Arba settlement in the east to the Jewish cemetery to the west.
Zuheira’s houses sit on that small section of road on which Palestinians are still allowed to walk. From her front doors, you can see military checkpoints on either end of the street. The welding shut of Zuheira’s houses is another building block of Israel’s ethnically-driven separation in the heart of Hebron. If this small section of road is also closed to Palestinians, then the corridor strangling the Palestinian Old City is disturbingly close to completion.
It is 21 years since the Israeli government and military closed Shuhada Street. Twenty-one years since the markets, bus traffic, and busy community life dried up, since Shuhada Street and much of the old city became a ghost town. But Hebron has refused to die.
Every year since 2010, on the anniversary of the massacre at the Ibrahimi Mosque, Palestinians and international supporters gather to protest this illegal restriction of movement. Carrying banners, signs, drums, and flags, they attempt to march into Shuhada Street. They are met by the IDF and border police who attack with tear gas, sound bombs, rubber bullets, and live ammunition. Last year, thirteen people were injured, including a B'tselem reporter, who was hit in the head with a rubber bullet. At least five protesters were detained or arrested.
We are already planning this year's demonstrations.
The call to Open Shuhada Street is spray-painted on military barricades and partitions throughout the old city. The other common phrase is “Fight Ghost Town,” an acknowledgement of the way that Israeli military occupation and settlement expansion have strangled the old city of Hebron, cutting off the economic artery of Shuhada Street. On 19 January the grip on Shuhada Street got a little tighter, cutting off Zuheira Hashem Dundes from her home and possessions. This violence opens more space for illegal settlements, expanding Israeli control over Hebron. The welding shut of Zuheira’s house is therefore disturbing, but it is not the end. This conflict can seem so entrenched, but the fight for justice wages on. Amidst it all, Hebronites, Palestinians, and international supporters will continue to struggle to recover their city and rebuild normal lives. This is resistance. This is sumud.