In Hebron, Palestinian women face down daily settler home invasions

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Originally published by Ma’an News Agency on November 26, 2014.

By: Alex Shams and Salam Muharam

This is the second part in a series about the lives of Palestinian women affected by the Jewish settlements of Hebron’s Old City. Read the first part here.

The alleyways of the Old City of Hebron leading away from the famed Ibrahimi mosque — where the biblical patriarch Abraham and his family are buried — are almost always eerily quiet.

In some directions the covered alleys are blocked off by tin barriers covered in Hebrew curses and Star of David graffiti. But the barriers are not only horizontal; it doesn’t take long to spot through the gaps in the alleyway ceilings the Israeli settlers build atop Palestinian homes, with wire placed strategically by Palestinians to protect the street from the trash and urine thrown down from above.

For local Palestinians, however, the attacks from settlers and Israeli soldiers — who are widely seen as complicit in the violence — do not only come on the street. Because of the Old City’s dense urban fabric, settlers and soldiers often conduct home raids by hopping across roofs and entering through the traditional courtyards at the center of area homes.

For the many Hebron women who spend most of their days working at home, the nightmarish scenario of armed militants dropping into their homes unannounced has become the terrifying reality of daily life.

Jihad al-Atrash has lived in the area for nearly a decade, having moved into a home in the Old City after a local organization refurbished a property that had been vacated by a family forced to flee. A mother of 12 children, al-Atrash spends most of her time caring for the children at home.

“The Israeli soldiers raid the house from the rooftops, as if nobody lives in this house,” she told Ma’an during an interview in her family room. Although for years she had to put up with a few raids a month by soldiers who wanted to inspect the property — and intimidate the family into leaving, she suspects — since January, the raids have started occurring on a twice-daily basis.

While a Ma’an reporter was sitting in her home, two Jewish settlers with New York accents carrying automatic assault rifles accompanied by armed Israeli soldiers walked across the roof and climbed into the family courtyard. They entered the room where the interview was taking place and gesticulated at different parts of the home, discussing how to re-arrange the dwelling after they forced the al-Atrash family out. None of the four intruders seemed at all perturbed by the presence of the family matriarch, her three children, or even the Ma’an journalists on the scene.

“Imagine yourself sleeping at night, and at 2 or 3 a.m. the Israeli soldiers knock on the doors to raid the house and inspect it,” al-Atrash told Ma’an as the soldiers stood nearby. “You feel like there is an earthquake happening. They always raid the house this away and order me to bring all my kids in one room. They know all the names of my sons and daughters and order me to bring their IDs.

“Looking warily up at the soldiers now standing in the courtyard of her home, she added: “I am not scared of them, but my kids are.”

The children’s fear is not without warrant. In addition to the casual way the soldiers and settlers brutalize the family members during home raids, the violence often takes more bloody forms. Jihad told Ma’an that on Aug. 11 a Jewish settler threw her four-year-old son off the family’s balcony during a dispute, leaving him with a head concussion and unable to walk properly. The raids became more frequent beginning in January, when al-Atrash rehabilitated two previously empty rooms attached to the home. She accomplished the work with the help of the Hebron Rehabilitation Committee, a local center that works to revitalize the Old City.

Located just a few meters up the road, members of the committee are well aware that when settlers notice empty buildings they begin to snatch them up, and have thus invested tens of thousands of dollars in making those homes abandoned by previous residents livable for new Palestinian tenants. The committee refurbished the two rooms beside al-Atrash’s home and offered them to her last year.

But there was a problem: during the work, settlers noticed the empty rooms and drilled a hole into the building, planning to attach them to a Jewish-only settlement next door. Once the rooms were connected to al-Atrash’s home, the settlers began carrying out daily, and then twice-daily, raids, entering the rooms and continuing into the house itself to force the family out.

“When they raid the house, they prevent us from moving around. They are cowards, but feel strong because they carry weapons,” she said. “They have no rules; they can detain my daughter or my son without any fear.”When the raids occur, the whole family is crowded into one room and forced to stay there for hours.

Al-Atrash told Ma’an that often the soldiers come while the family is in the courtyard, disturbing their sense of safety and forcing them to wait in the bathrooms while the settlers look around.

“They have told us before not to lock the door, as they own the house and we do not have the right to lock it. They told me that they have official papers proving that they own the house. But after hours of negotiating, they offered me money to get the house!”

Although she refuses to leave the home, she also told us she had few options given her limited financial means. Her husband left his job to help defend the family from settler raids, but due to an illness he can now rarely be at home. And the medical bills incurred in order to treat her injured son have severely strained the little funds they have left.

Officials at the Hebron Rehabilitation Committee told Ma’an that the harassment comes in waves, as settlers decide to target individual homes one by one until they can take over the neighborhood. Despite the recurrent attacks, the committee said they had been able to renovate 1,000 units in the Old City allowing 6,000 people to return to live in the area. These numbers represent a major increase since work began in 1996, when only 400 people lived here, out of a previous total of around 10,000.

But the wider success of Hebron’s rehabilitation means little for the women forced to endure daily attacks just to be able to stay in their homes.

Most of the women in al-Atrash’s neighborhood spend most of the day working at home with their children or seeing each other, meeting regularly and updating each other on soldier’s movements while their husbands spend long hours at work. When the settlers raid, the women send children between the homes to relay the news and spread warning of an impending raid on neighboring homes.In Hebron’s Old City, more often than not, it is Palestinian women who defend their homes, their families, and their very lives from the daily cruelties of the Israeli occupation.

A few streets over from Jihad al-Atrash lives another woman who preferred to remain anonymous for fear of further harassment by Israeli authorities. Her home once opened onto the Old City’s main drag, Shuhada Street, but the main entrance has been shut since authorities closed the road to Palestinians after the 1994 massacre of more than two dozen locals by a settler wielding an automatic rifle in the Ibrahimi Mosque. As a result, she was forced to drill a hole onto the back side of her home so that her family could come and go, but the discreet entrance hasn’t stopped the harassment.

“They used to raid the house two or three times per day, but now they raid it two or three times a week,” she told Ma’an. “Sometimes, they briefly detain all of my sons and daughters. They take them down the road and force them to stand in the sun for several hours.”

As Ma’an reporters sat with the woman in her home, three of her daughters and one of her sons sat nearby interrupting every once in a while to add details. One daughter had been beaten so severely by a settler on the street that she couldn’t walk afterwards; the son said he had recently been interrogated for six hours by Israeli officers who pressured him to become an informant.

For the younger children, it seemed, the situation was often worse; many local children threw rocks at the vehicles belonging to settlers and soldiers, perhaps assuming that their tender age will save them from being beaten and detained. But soldiers on the road often reserve their harshest punishments for male youths, while the Israeli military judicial system targets them just as adults. She explained that although these days she was facing fewer problems, on Jewish holidays the situation became just as bad as the old days.

Entrance to a Palestinian home through a window, as the main door has been blocked by Israeli settlers.

“The Palestinians in the Old City are stuck in their houses. The Israeli soldiers do not allow anyone to step out,” she added. And the raids on their homes, at day and night, continue.

A few weeks after first meeting Jihad al-Atrash, Ma’an returned to the house to check on the situation. The raids continued day and night, and the settlers and soldiers had begun targeting her children more clearly as they walked to and from school.

Afraid of leaving her children at home unattended, meanwhile, lest the soldiers come, al-Atrash told Ma’an she felt increasingly trapped and hopeless.

“The workers who used to work to rehabilitate and expand the building were all detained by Israeli soldiers, and I am sure they will not come back again here,” she added, explaining her growing fear that the family would be forced from the home once and for all if the harassment persisted.

With Israeli authorities’ grip on the occupied West Bank only increasing as the days go by, it remains to be seen whether the resistance of individual Palestinian women alone will be enough to save Hebron’s Old City.