The opening of Hebron’s Closed Military Zone: Fact or Fiction?

By EAs Emily, Daniel and Per, Hebron Team,

The Hebron EAPPI team sat around an open fire with a group of 30 Palestinians and international human rights workers eating warm kanafe. We huddled under ancient olive trees at the top of Tel Rumeida in Hebron and celebrated the opening of the closed military zone (CMZ) in H2, an area completely controlled by Israel. This community has been living under occupation since 1967 but what does this “opening” actually mean? And how will it impact Palestinians whose freedom of movement has been denied and whose lives have been disrupted since the 1st November 2015 last year?

23.05.16, Tel Rumeda, Kanafe, EAPPI/ D. Romero

23.05.16, Tel Rumeda, Kanafe is a traditional Arabic cheese pastry with a shredded wheat top crust drenched in sugar syrup. Photo EAPPI

In 1994, an Israeli settler killed 29 Muslim worshippers in the Ibrahimi Mosque/Cave of the Patriarchs and injured over 100. Citing fear of reprisal attacks, the Israeli military choked off the area around the mosque with roadblocks, checkpoints and curfews. Without notice they welded shut the doors of thousands of Palestinian shops and homes including on Shuhada street, Hebron’s main economic artery. Where more than 500 Palestinian families once lived, now only a handful remain. Today, this area is referred to as “Ghost Town.”

02.05.16, Hebron, Shuhada Street, Ghost Town, EAPPI/D. Romero

02.05.16, Hebron, Shuhada Street, Ghost Town, Photo EAPPI

After the escalation of violence in late 2015, the Government of Israel clamped down harder on the Palestinian residents of H2. On the 1st of November 2015, the Israeli army declared Shuhada street, as well as parts of Tel Rumeida neighborhood, a closed military zone. Tel Rumeida is the oldest and highest point in Hebron. Settlers have been occupying homes here since 1984. Inside the CMZ, only residents or those who can prove that they study or work within the area can remain or enter, and neither friends nor family from outside the zone are allowed to visit. This impedes on the right to freedom of movement, access to livelihood, access to education and civilian safety. [1]

It is like a prison                                                                                                              Ten year-old Shada, who lives in the zone, is afraid to walk to school and play outside alone because only soldiers and settlers are in the streets. “It is like a prison” she says, “my friends can’t visit me and I can’t visit them, I’m always lonely in the house.” Another woman we spoke to, who is resident of Tel Rumeida, tells us that she thanks Allah she has neighbours who live near her because she too is afraid leave her home. Her friend lives a few houses away but because of the zone’s boundaries, what used to be a 2 minute walk to her friend’s home on a paved street now takes 15-20 minutes and involves climbing over rough, rocky and uneven ground. Pregnant women and the disabled struggle even more, especially in the 40 degree heat of hot summer days.

22.05.16, Check Point 55, Girl with sign, EAPPI/P.A. Skytt

22.05.16, Check Point 55, Girl with sign calling for the opening of the zone, EAPPI/P.A. Skytt

The zone also restricts human rights groups from observing, monitoring and reporting on any human rights violations that may occur in the area. For the Hebron EAs one of the consequences of the CMZ has been that it has prevented us from offering protective presence to students and teachers passing through checkpoint 55 and checkpoint 56 on their way to Cordoba school. [2] The protective presence offered by EAs deters soldiers and settlers from harassing children and helps them to reach school safely. [3] The sweeping nature of these access restrictions constitutes a form of collective punishment, prohibited under international law.

Youth Against Settlements (YAS), a Palestinian popular committee working to end the Israeli occupation, was forced to close its headquarters when the CMZ was expanded to include its building. YAS members believe this closure was punitive and was intended to intimidate and silence its members who are committed to non-violence and are vocal critics of the army’s human rights violations and the illegal settlements that surround their building. [4]

22.05.16, Tel Rumeda, CMZ Soldiers, EAPPI/D. Romero

22.05.16, Tel Rumeda, CMZ Soldiers, Photo EAPPI

The Israeli military cite security concerns as the justification for the CMZ. However it is worth noting that locals use, now well-worn, paths to circumvent and access the CMZ. This fact belies the security justification for the closure.

 International law clearly states that collective punishment cannot be justified under any circumstances. Article 33 of the Fourth Geneva convention specifically states that “no protected person may be punished for an offence he or she has not personally committed.[5]

The Israeli Military has been renewing the military order for the CMZ every few weeks since 1st November 2015. The previous order extended the enforcement of the closure until May 15th 2016. So, when the 15th of May arrived and the Israeli military didn’t announce that it was going to be renewed, locals expected that the restrictions associated with it would be lessened or removed. In the days that followed, several international organisations didn’t know whether the zone was closed or open and soldiers who work in the zone said they didn’t know the zone’s status even though they are tasked with enforcement. Eventually, the International Committee of the Red Cross and others confirmed that the order was not renewed and that the zone was technically open. But there is no evidence of any change on the ground and, as a result, courageous locals are conducting sit-ins calling for implementation of the “opened” zone.

22.05.16, Check Point 55, Sit In, EAPPI/ D. Romero

22.05.16, Check Point 55, Sit In, Photo EAPPI

This demonstrates one of the impacts of the occupation on the lives of Palestinians: important information is often not available to them. They don’t realise there is a new or renewed rule in place until they accidentally breach it. There are no leaflets, signs, or markers provided by the army who make these decisions. It appears as though the soldiers who regularly interact with the public are sometimes unaware of the regulations they are enforcing. This situation adds stress and uncertainty to an already tense and desperate situation.

While we wait to see if the CMZ will in fact be opened, this would only be the tiniest step forward. There is still a long way to go in order for the residents of Shuhada street, Tel Rumeda and Hebron to live truly liberated lives.

04.05.16, Check Point 56, Peace Dove, EAPPI/D. Romero

04.05.16, Check Point 56, Peace Dove, Photo EAPPI

More information:

Youth Against Settlements: Hebron closed military zone ended following activist campaign

B’Tselem Press Release, Nov. 6, 2015: “New restrictions on movement in Hebron and area disrupt lives and constitute prohibited collective punishment”

EAPPI: My street is a closed military zone

EAPPI UK/Ireland: Round the houses of Shuhada Street

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