In March 2016, the Israeli army renewed an order designating Al-Shuhada Street and parts of the archaeological site of Tel Rumeida in Hebron city a closed military zone; this order will be in place until at least mid-April. This was done to protect Israeli settlers, who are illegally living in the area, from possible assaults by Palestinians, or so the Israeli army told the media.
The military order was initially established at the end of October 2015, following a new wave of confrontations between Palestinians and Israeli forces and settlers, which began in mid-September 2015 in East Jerusalem and spread to Hebron in early October.
Under the military order, all entry is prohibited to Shuhada Street and Tel Rumeida, with exceptions for Israeli settlers and Palestinian residents. Notably, the latter must prove their residency and undergo rigorous security inspections every time they pass through a checkpoint. Palestinian men are routinely asked by armed soldiers to remove their belts and shoes, lift their shirts and trousers legs, and remove their jackets. The bags of both men and women are regularly examined.
Describing the military order’s impact on Palestinians, one resident of Tel Rumeida told me, “I don’t feel safe. I don’t understand why they do this to us. We have been controlled even in the past, but now I feel that I am not treated as a human.” “Closing the area is preventing me from having international friends in my house. In the military zone you do not see an emergency ambulance, you become asocial, so you don’t think about visitors or birthday parties,” the man added.
Before the military order, Palestinians were still prohibited from driving on any part of Shuhada Street and Tel Rumeida, were routinely subjected to strict security checks, and often had to enter their homes through back entrances or from rooftops, because settlers or Israeli soldiers had blocked their main entrances. Nevertheless, anyone could enter the area, and the situation was relatively easier.
Now, international visitors and Palestinians residing in other areas are routinely turned away. Residents of Shuhada Street and Tel Rumeida must register at checkpoints or with the Israeli Civil Administration for a number proving their residency. Those Palestinians who forget their residency number, or whose names are erroneously left off the registry list through no fault of their own, are denied access and forced to enter their homes through fields and alleyways.
Whatever the reason, it is both demeaning and outright dangerous to force Palestinians to access their homes this way. “Once I was turned back because the soldiers said I was not registered. They did not let me in but I tried again after a while and succeeded. This is very humiliating,” a resident of Shuhada street told me. Others have had to endure hostile encounters with Israeli military personnel, including being shouted at or held for questioning.
Some Palestinian residents have chosen not to register with the new identification system, as a means of protesting the requirement.
A City Under Siege
Before October, only some of the nineteen checkpoints between the Old City and the Ibrahimi Mosque were staffed. Following confrontations between Palestinians and the Israeli army and settlers, more of these checkpoints have become operational.
At the end of December 2015, the Israeli military installed a new inspection machine at checkpoint 56, which forces Palestinian residents to go through two turnstiles and a room where they are searched and questioned. The machine also makes security checks lengthier.
Checkpoint 56 is in a key location in Hebron. It controls access to Shuhada Street, which leads to Ibrahimi Mosque, and separates the Israeli controlled side of Hebron (known as “H2”), from the Palestinian Authority controlled part of the city (known as “H1”).
For Palestinians, restrictions on movement in Shuhada Street are not new. The street was once one of the main commercial hubs in Hebron’s Old City. Access to the thoroughfare was restricted for the first time in 1994, after an American Jew, Baruch Goldstein, killed twenty-nine Palestinians and injured more than 100 additional worshippers at the Ibrahimi Mosque. In response, Israeli authorities banned Palestinian vehicles from accessing Shuhada Street, supposedly to prevent possible Palestinian retaliation. Israeli authorities also began limiting Palestinian access to the commercial district, which forced many shops to close down.
The 1997 Hebron Protocol, which divided the city into H1 and H2, reopened Shuhada Street to traffic, but not to commerce. During the Second Intifada, access to the area was completely closed off to Palestinians, leading to the permanent closure of Palestinian shops. Since the end of the Second Intifada, restrictions on Palestinian movement into and out of the area have only increased.
Resistance to Israeli Measures
According to Human Rights Watch and B’Tselem, during this latest round of violence, Israeli forces throughout the West Bank, Hebron included, have systematically engaged in the unlawful killing of Palestinians, who they view as a threat, regardless of whether the threat is real.
To protest this continuing oppression of the Palestinian community, the Hebron-based Palestinian human rights organization Youth Against Settlements (YAS) launched its seventh annual Open Shuhada Street Campaign on February 20. The campaign encourages people worldwide to pressure the Israeli government to open Shuhada Street and Tel Rumeida to everyone. As part of the campaign, from February 20-28, YAS hosted various events in Hebron, including press conferences, photo exhibitions, film screenings, and memorials. The week’s events culminated on Friday February 26 with a demonstration demanding the opening of Shuhada Street.
The Hebron Defense Committee, a non-violent movement working to resist the presence of Israeli settlements and closure practices in the Hebron area, also organized a sit in at the north entrance to Shuhada Street earlier in February, to protest the closures. As part of these efforts, the organization launched the Dismantle the Ghetto, take the settlers out of Hebron campaign on February 20, which called for the removal of all illegal Israeli settlements from Hebron and an immediate end to the ‘closed military zone’ order in Tel Rumeida and Shuhada Street.
A Pathway to Settlements
The restrictions imposed on Palestinian residents of Shuhada Street and Tel Rumeida have had devastating ramifications on their lives, careers, and health. According to the Ramallah-based human rights organization Al Haq, Israel’s closure of businesses, as well as main commercial and residential streets, has created harsh and restrictive living conditions for Palestinians living in H2. For these Palestinians, going to school, work, or even the hospital is an extremely arduous process.
With Palestinian ambulances prohibited from accessing the area, those in need of medical care must travel on foot from H2 to the Palestinian side of the city. This can be a fatal journey for some. In October 2015, Hashem Azzeh, a well-known non-violent Palestinian activist and resident of Tel Rumeida, died of a heart attack because he could not receive urgent medical care in H2.
As confirmed by the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs, movement restrictions, along with on-gong settler violence, reduced income, and restricted access to services and resources, has led to a reduction in the area’s Palestinian population. “This is a way to complete the settlement project and push people out and take over more houses. They want people to leave voluntarily. If this continues, they will succeed,” a man from Shuhada Street explained to me. “People cannot even renovate their houses so eventually they will feel [that] ‘Ok, Khalas’, this is enough. They will leave, if not today, maybe tomorrow,” he said.
No Basic Rights for Residents
Israel’s restrictions on Palestinians in Shuhada Street and Tel Rumeida violate various principles of international law. These include the right to freedom without discrimination (Article 2 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights), the right to freedom of movement (Article 12 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights) and the right to an adequate standard of living and the continuous improvement of their living conditions (Article 11 of the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights). The restrictions, based on the false premise that all Palestinians are inherently dangerous, also violate the prohibition against collective punishment (Article 33 of the Fourth Geneva Convention).
Israel’s practices in Shuhada Street and Tel Rumeida represent some of its most appalling human rights violations. As many human rights organizations have been asking and as Palestinians themselves are demanding, it is imperative that Israeli authorities fulfill their responsibilities under international law and lift the closed military zone, without further delay.