It was with a nonchalant air that two activists passed through the checkpoint into Hebron’s H2 and onto Shuhada Street. We had arrived straight from a confrontation in South Hebron to attend what was dubbed a “Global Campaign for Justice in Hebron”: a demonstration against the closure of Shuhada Street to Palestinians and of the segregation of the city in general. Four days prior to the protest, which fell on the 16th anniversary of the Goldstein Massacre where 29 people had been massacred by a right-wing Israeli gunman, Benjamin Netanyahu had added another cause to the agenda. The Israeli president had declared that the Tomb of the Patriarchs in Hebron would become a protected Jewish Holy Site, therefore continuing Israeli control in this West Bank city. To Muslims, the site goes by the appellation of the Ibrahim Mosque, and one of the most holy Islamic sites outside of Saudi Arabia. The Palestinian Authority leader, Mahmoud Abbas, had warned that this could incite a “religious war”.
Two photographers stood at the intersection near the barrier that bars entry to Shuhada Street and warned us that his was “a good place to see action, or a good place to get arrested”. Crossing Fathiyeh, a CPT volunteer whom we had met two weeks previously and who was here in her role as an international observer of the protest, we confirmed that this was the place. Soldiers began documenting those present.
Several coaches were arriving in the distance and above the wall of the Muslim cemetery that borders Shuhada street, the banners and placards of the demonstrators became visible as they alighted the buses under the falling rain. They carried slogans such as “Open Shuhada Street”, “There is no holiness in an occupied city”, and “Ibrahim’s mosque is a bi-national holy site”. The sound of Arabic, English & Hebrew chants could be heard issuing from a megaphone as the muezzin’s call to prayer broadcast from the local mosque. As we went to join the protestors, so did the Israeli Defence Force (IDF), carrying their assault rifles and laden with backpacks of tear-gas & munitions.
Within minutes, the group of wholly non-violent demonstrators was attacked by IDF soldiers trying to repress the protest. We were amid clouds of tear-gas — made more potent by the rain — and sound grenades were rolled at our feet. As well as the Palestinian & international protestors, many Israelis were amongst those objecting to their government’s policies of occupation here. As the soldiers attempted to disperse the crowd, demonstrators linked arms to prevent them advancing further. Several scuffles broke-out as the soldiers tried to physically move the crowd, people were pushed to the ground, and I witnessed an AFP photographer being dragged off into a military jeep. I crossed him several days later in Jerusalem and he told me that he had been charged with “assaulting a police officer”. During this time, interviews and statements were made to the international press who were present.
It did not take long before the IDF announced that the area was now a “closed military zone”, a tactic often employed at demonstrations, thereby making it an offence to be present in a specified area. Without the signed orders which authorise this, their words were not legally binding, as the Palestinians well knew. A stand-off then ensued and I joined the line of demonstrators who were face-to-face with the Israeli soldiers. This stalemate continued for over half an hour, with several small skirmishes breaking out as the soldiers tried to physically push-back the protestors. In between these skirmishes, Palestinians danced amongst the chants in Arabic & English calling for an end to the occupation.
The decision was taken by the Israeli forces to once again use force against the crowd, and more tear-gas and sound grenades were fired to disperse them. As children retreated through the nearby cemetery, Israeli soldiers trained their guns on them whilst we tried to reason with them, reminding them that they were pointing live rounds at small, unarmed children. Dusk drew in as the soldiers watched watched them leave.
It was a long, cold ride back to Ramallah that night, eyes still stinging from the tear-gas. But today we had witnessed a strong show of solidarity between Palestinians, Israelis and internationals, a solidarity which would be shared again in the coming days.
» My photos from the protest are in this annotated slideshow, or you can view it as a photo-essay set.