Some say Gaza is an open air prison, referring to the limits imposed on what goes in and out. While we don’t often see the West Bank in the same way, its residents talk of feeling locked up. As well as cyclical violence between settlers and Palestinian residents, more ‘mundane’ humiliation of low pay, power shortages and checkpoint crossings is a regular occurrence.
On February 26, Hebron resident and shop owner Abdulraouf al-Mohtaseb suffered an attack at the hands of a group of around 12 to 15 Jewish settlers.
The incident coincided with extreme right-wing politician Baruch Marzel’s visit to Abdulraouf’s shop during his tour of the West Bank, part of Otzma Yehudit’s campaign for the upcoming Israeli Knesset elections. The February 26 attack, which was caught on camera by Israeli TV, left Abdulraouf, his son and his neighbour with injuries as well as destroying much of their stock.
The video shows nearby IDF soldiers intervening to break the fight up, but this was not before Abdulraouf endured a blow to his head, arm and leg and his son sustained injuries to his arm, leaving him with cuts and bruises. According to IMEMC coverage, the soldiers then took Abdulraouf and his neighbour away.
Abdulraouf was ordered to pay a 500 shekel fine, according to Samer, a friend of Abdulraouf and a Green Olive tour guide who travels to Hebron regularly with his groups. The group of settlers who attacked him, on the other hand, supposedly got off punishment-free.
“He gets attacked, and then pays a fine,” says a bemused Samer, who also says Marzel is very well-known for his violent behavior. “But, c’est la vie.”
A Palestinian governor and Jordanian parliamentarians have visited Abdulraouf to talk about the incident, and there is a group of pro-Palestinian Israeli lawyers seeking to raise a case against one of the attackers, also a lawyer, who they hope will lose his position as a result.
For me to watch the shopfront being destroyed was especially heartbreaking. I visited the shop and Abdulraouf’s home for a meal back in 2013 as part of a trip with Green Olive Tours, and it was on that day that I vowed to return to the West Bank to spend more time there and to volunteer as a teacher.
Hebron is one of the more tense West Bank cities. Although negative effects of the occupation are suffered across the region, it is here that they are most acutely felt. I felt the palpable pressure of the Israeli presence even during my short stay there firsthand: rubbish litters a fence acting as a protective ceiling atop Palestinian businesses and homes, and soldiers watch over streets and guard checkpoints. Meanwhile, a mosque and synagogue sit directly side by side in the same building in front of Abdulraouf’s shop at the site of the Tomb of the Patriarchs.
But it’s not only the close living quarters that create tension: it’s the nature of those who live here. Samer describes the Jewish settlers in Hebron as the “craziest” and says it’s advisable not to make eye contact with them. A girl of around 18 once attacked Samer, and he was also there when a man spit at Abdulraouf’s daughter: “I pretended to Abdulraouf that it was me they spat at so he wouldn’t be provoked into violence with them.”
They settle there for ideological as opposed to economic reasons; a strong sense of ownership of one of the most biblically significant parts of the West Bank. Before now, he has warned Abdulraouf of allowing his grandchildren to play outside his shop.
“I told him, if a settler goes past and shoots them, who will stop him?” says Samer.
“I would say Abed’s life is at risk every day. Because his is one of just three families still living in the historic heart of Hebron, the settlers want to drive them out. He’s very stubborn though, he refuses to leave,” adds Samer, referring to Abdulraouf using his shortened name.
Abdulraouf almost certainly relies on his stubborn nature for the survival of his business. The attack is part of an ongoing dispute; his family has stayed there despite continued pressure from settlers to vacate the premises, and he still has no intention of moving out. Nearby Shuhada Street, Hebron’s ‘ghost town’, is a stark symbol of Israel’s authority over the city and the West Bank as a whole. Its shops and homes were welded shut from the front in 1994, following the Goldstein Massacre which left 29 dead and Baruch Goldstein’s subsequent murder by surviving Palestinians.
“Open Shuhada Street,” demanded Palestinian protesters’ banners in a 100-strong demonstration on the massacre’s anniversary a couple of days after the attack on Abdulraouf’s shop. Palestinian crowds are shot at, arrested and assaulted while they peacefully protest each year, according to Julia, an activist from Berlin who was shot in the leg.
Aside from all of the land grabs and brutality covered in the mainstream media is the deep-seated mental anguish running through the Palestinian people.
Samer lives in Beit Sahour, near Bethlehem. It’s calmer there than in Hebron, but on his many tours around the West Bank, he finds himself inheriting stress from other people. “I don’t want to speak for everyone, but the majority of Palestinians are suffering from trauma or psychological problems,” says Samer.
“Living here as a Palestinian is humiliating; you feel like you are in prison.”
The start of the summer means soon water supply will be limited in all of the West Bank, and electricity is also under threat in certain areas. To accompany the 45-minute power outages enforced by the Israel Electric Corporation on Jenin and Nablus due to debts, there are warnings of further disruptions to electricity in Bethlehem and Ramallah.
“Regardless of whether they are owed money, we pay our bills each month. This kind of collective punishment is illegal,” says Samer.
More crushing than tear gas, dog bites, child arrests and other incidents that make major news, it seems, are the everyday ‘mundanities’ of life under occupation: little money, intermittent electricity, water and internet supplies, turnstiles and the often unnerving presence and partisan treatment by Israeli forces. What’s more, Palestinians have little autonomy in terms of social mobility and means to change their situation.
Instead, some, such as Abdulraouf, live in constant fear of being targeted in an attack, no matter how defiant they seem. Others fight back against the system.