A Palestinian woman is determined to stay in her home despite settlers’ intimidation tactics
By Maher Abukhater
When Jamila Shalaldeh got married in 1988, she did not know that leaving her small town and moving to the city
of Hebron, south of the West Bank, would be a terrifying and challenging experience for her and her family. Shalaldeh, 55, a mother of three—a boy and two girls—is originally from Sair, a relatively affluent town about 10 kilometers northeast of Hebron. After marriage, she moved to live with her husband, Ragheb Salayme, on Shuhada Street in the city’s old section. Her husband’s family had lived there for generations along with scores of Palestinian families.
At the beginning, life was more or less normal; the new family, the residence, the street and the city.
The residents tried to lead a tranquil life and run their businesses as normal as possible, despite the heavy Israeli military presence in the area.
But there was another kind of Israeli presence disrupting their days and turning their lives into a hellish nightmare: hardcore Jewish settlers. They lived across the road from the Salayme house in an enclave called Beit Hadassah, the first Jewish settlement established in 1979 in an abandoned building known as Dabuyya in the heart of the all-Arab neighborhood and city.
Within five years, three nearby settlements—Avraham Avinu, Beit Romano and Tal Rumeida—were also established in downtown Hebron. Today, some 500 Jewish settlers, among the most extreme, live there, changing the landscape and life of Hebron’s city center, where more than 50,000 Palestinians live.
Hebron was the only West Bank town, besides East Jerusalem, where Jews had established settlements in the heart of the city, within the Arab urban areas.
The city is also home to a shrine, holy to both faiths, and a point of contention between them. The Ibrahimi Mosque or Cave of the Patriarchs is believed to be the burial site of Prophet Abraham and his wife Sara, as well as other patriarchs, revered by both Muslims and Jews.
The mosque was traditionally a prayer place for Muslims, but that changed when on February 25, 1994, an off-duty Israeli army medical doctor and settler opened fire at Muslim worshippers performing morning prayers there. Twenty-nine people were killed and 150 were wounded before worshippers were able to overtake the killer.
In the aftermath, Israel ignored mounting calls to remove the Jewish settlers from Hebron and decided instead to step up punitive measures against the Palestinian residents there.
After the 1993 Oslo accord between the Palestinians and Israel, the Palestinian Authority had wanted Israel to evacuate the settlers from downtown Hebron and turn the city over to the Palestinians, as was the case with the rest of the West Bank cities.
Israel instead cemented the settlers presence in Hebron by dividing visiting times to the Ibrahimi Mosque between Muslims and Jews. It allowed Jews only entrance to the site on certain days of the year for worship, and did the same for Muslims. Muslims and Jews shared the mosque’s exterior space during the rest of the year.
The Israeli government also closed several roads in downtown Hebron, including Shuhada Street, prevented shops from opening, declared long curfews and set up army-run checkpoints that severely inhibited the movement of Palestinians in the area.
Hebron was eventually divided into H1 and H2 areas; the former, the largest part of the city with 200,000 people, was placed under full Palestinian control and the latter, which contains the city center and downtown neighborhoods, where the settlements are located, remained under Israeli-control.
“Life became very difficult after the attack [at the mosque],” says Shalaldeh, admitting that even before it wasn’t exactly a walk in the park.
“We were placed under curfew for a long time after [that event] and when the curfew was over, we realized that our life will never be the same,” she says, as she stood outside a fortified checkpoint separating her house from the rest of Hebron.
Shalaldeh has time and again single-handedly stood up to settlers in her neighborhood, who, under army protection, ran wild in the area harassing and attacking Palestinians in the streets and in their homes.
“We put up fences on windows and roof tops to block the stones thrown at us by settlers,” she says. “They want to frighten us into leaving our house so that they will take it over but they will never succeed. We will never leave,” she adds.
While Shalaldeh is determined to stay and fight, other neighbors could not endure the systematic harassment, opting to move to the Palestinian-controlled areas where they had the chance to lead a normal life and set up businesses unfazed.
“They don’t scare me,” she says. “I called on the neighbors to stand up to the settlers and not let them scare them, but they always say that because I am from Sair I am tougher than them.”Shalaldeh says she was arrested more than 20 times for her bravery.
In 2012, she was detained after soldiers had raided her house to arrest her only son, Abdul Rahman Salayme, now 23. While her son, active with the Youth Against Settlements movement in Hebron, was later released, his mother remained in prison for a while longer, says the young Salayme.
Shalaldeh recalls how she protected Palestinian school girls, who were being harassed by a well-known female settler, on their way to school.
Settlers are reportedly given a free hand to harass and attack Palestinians in Hebron, but Palestinians are immediately detained if they try to defend themselves. Israeli soldiers cannot arrest or stop settlers, because they are Israeli citizens and any problem is handled by the police force.
Since the outbreak of a recent wave of attacks against Israelis in October, Shalaldeh witnessed soldiers killing young Palestinians in her neighborhood, claiming they were trying to stab soldiers.
“The settlers call on the soldiers to shoot and kill the young Palestinians,” she says. Shalaldeh recounts an incident where a number of settlers stalked a group of young Palestinians and when one of them was left alone, they shouted to a soldier to shoot him claiming he was carrying a knife. The soldier allegedly did.
“Walking through the checkpoint in and out of our neighborhood is always dangerous,” says Salayme. “You don’t know what the soldiers will do. They might turn you back or arrest you or simply shoot you. It all depends on the mood of the soldier,” he adds.
While talking to Shalaldeh outside the checkpoint in the Palestinian-controlled part, her daughters kept calling her cellphone every 10 minutes, worried something bad had happened to her.
Shalaldeh says her daughters were traumatized by an encounter with soldiers manning the checkpoint and are now too terrified to cross the barrier alone.
Israel has made life even more difficult by prohibiting non-residents, even visiting relatives, from entering the neighborhood. Residents are forced to show their ID cards, which carry a serial number, to the solider at the checkpoint who will compare it to a list of names before being allowed to cross over.
Movement restrictions were tightened following the recent outbreak of attacks against Israelis in the West Bank and East Jerusalem.
Since October, more than 180 Palestinians have been killed by Israelis in the occupied territories, allegedly following knife attacks, car rammings or during protests. Of the victims, more than 50 were from Hebron alone, some of them young girls, and most of them were killed at Israeli army checkpoints, says Hebron’s Palestinian governor Kamel Hmeid.
Israel, he says, has sealed off the city’s center to the point where people avoid visiting the area altogether for fear of being harassed by soldiers and settlers alike. There are sections in the city that are even inaccessible to ambulances. Should a woman go into labor or should an old man require immediate hospitalization, their families have to take them to the checkpoint where they will be transferred into a waiting ambulance.
Yet, and in spite of such unimaginable hardship, Shalaldeh, her son, and daughters—one of whom is married and has a child—are determined to stay in their home even if they become the only Palestinian family living on Shuhada Street, as Shalaldeh puts it, and fight it out with the settlers till the end.