The tribulations of Khaled Al Najar

A tragedy in 3 parts.

by Hans, South Hebron Hills team

Khaled Al Najar is a simple, but proud and dignified Palestinian farmer from the small village of Qawawis in the South Hebron Hills. But today I saw him wipe a tear off his cheek. On May 22, two Israeli settlers torched Khaled’s entire harvest. Months of labor, 3 tons of wheat, several tons of animal fodder and the 3-4 monthly wages his family of fourteen was to live on for the summer disappeared in an inferno fueled by hate and the misinterpretation of God’s promise.

Two Israeli settlers set fire to Khaled's wheat harvest, destroying not only months of labor, but also the income that Khaled and his family of 14 intended to live on during the Summer. Photo c/o Operation Dove.

Two Israeli settlers set fire to Khaled’s wheat harvest, destroying not only months of labor, but also the income that Khaled and his family of 14 intended to live on during the Summer. Photo c/o Operation Dove.

Part 1

I was woken by a call at 5 am. Our good friend and driver, Abed, had received a call from his brother who is a Palestinian contact in the Israeli human rights watchdog organization B’tselem.

“Khaled’s harvest is burning. Should we go?” Abed sleepily said.

He is all too used to the occupation; he has never seen anything else. I immediately called our Italian colleagues in Operation Dove who live nearby. They were already at the scene, and there was nothing for us to do but to come back in the morning to write yet another report. Everything was lost. But nothing prepared me for the story I would hear.

EAs inspect the damage to Khaled's wheat harvest. Photo EAPPI/H. Tyssen.

EAs inspect the damage to Khaled’s wheat harvest. Photo EAPPI/H. Tyssen.

When my three colleagues from EAPPI and I arrived at 3:00 pm, a group of Israeli settlers on tour were making their way back into their bus. Apparently the misfortune of Palestinians is the newest attraction on their sightseeing tours in the West Bank. Khaled stood in the middle of his field, watching what once was his livelihood reduced to a pile of ash, with tiny flames still sparking up wherever they found some remnants to devour.

The day before we had seen him finish the harvest of his 25,000 square meters of wheat, and everything was done painstakingly by hand. He had left it on the field to dry.

At about 3:45 in the morning, a worker from his village had seen a car with two settlers circling the area. But the car was already late for the checkpoint crossing into Israel, where you have to be at 4:00 am to be in time for work, and the driver was unwilling to stop.

10 minutes later another worker saw the two settlers torch the pile and make for a quick escape. That’s when Khaled was called.

“I couldn’t do anything”, he says. “When the army arrived they didn’t help, but told me to shut up and stop being so agitated”.

The police came and asked the army to move away but did little else. Khaled’s field is in Area C, where only Israeli forces have authority. They are less than inclined to use it in favor of the Palestinians. He watched it all burn, while a single fireman took his time to extinguish the, by now, diminishing flames. He reported the crime, but without video evidence we all know nothing will happen.

Khaled runs his fingers through the ashes and despairingly tells me something in Arabic.

“It was worth a fortune”, Abbed translates. “What is he going to do now?”

And this is when I see it. A solitary tear runs down his face.

I go through our standard questions, and have never felt so bad doing it. “Can I interview you? Can I take pictures? Can I use your full name?” He looks me in the eyes. “Use what you want. What more can they take from me now? I only hope Allah has mercy”. Despite the gravity of the situation, I find it surprising. The Palestinians I know are not the ones to give up.

Part 2

Khaled lifts his shirt, and we gasp. His stomach is hanging over his belt in a grotesque manner.

“It hurts for him to work”, Abbed says, “He was shot by a settler in 2001”.

I humbly ask him to tell the story.

Khaled was shot by a settler in 2001. Photo EAPPI/H. Tyssen

“I was out with my sheep over there”. He points toward the nearby outpost called Mitzpe Yair. “The outpost wasn’t built yet, but the settler tours in the area had already started. I was on my own land when a group showed up about 50 meters above me. They were protected by army. I was keeping my distance, because I knew how extreme they could be, even though I couldn’t see anyone armed. But suddenly one of them grabbed the gun of one of the soldiers and started firing at me. I felt a sharp pain. When I woke up I was in hospital. I stayed for seven months and ten days”. We are shocked. But surely the settler must still be in prison? Not only did he shoot Khaled in front of the soldiers, he grabbed one of their guns to do it. “The settler turned out to be an American citizen. He spent three days in jail before he was sent home. Free.”

The memories, on top of his lost harvest, are too much. He becomes quiet, sits down and lights his cigarette from some still glowing coal.

Part 3

While we stand there in silence, a small bus pulls up. Out climbs a large set Jewish man, but this is not a settler. We immediately recognize Yehuda Saul from Breaking The Silence, who has devoted the last 10 years to tell Israel and the world of the atrocities he and other soldiers have committed while serving in the occupied Palestinian territory. He has a group of internationals from different organizations with him, and starts to tell yet another story.

“In 2004 this man (Abed) came to farm his land, but found settlers planting vine ranks here. He told them it was his land, and they replied it had been given to them by God. With the laws the Israeli Civil Administration applies for Palestinians in these cases, proving what is your land is like proving that you don’t have a sister. But Rabbis for Human Rights took the settlers to court. You know how long it lasted? Seven years. And for all those years, the settlers grew their grapes here. But Khaled actually won.

And in 2011, for the first time in all of the West Bank, the settler’s grapevines were uprooted for a Palestinian to take back his land. That’s when the settlers slashed the tires of your car, right, Abbed? While the army was watching?” Abbed nods. “He lost 7 harvests. Then he had two good ones. And then this happens”.

The other internationals are as baffled as we are, but Yehuda, Abbed and Khaled has seen it too many times. They just shrug. How long does it take to live under these conditions to just shrug off such injustice?

What remains of Khaled's wheat harvest. Photo EAPPI/H. Tyssen.

What remains of Khaled’s wheat harvest. Photo EAPPI/H. Tyssen.

Khaled was shot by a settler. Settlers took his land for 7 years. Now they have torched his livelihood to the ground, and there is absolutely nothing we can do. We express our sympathies, and they feel so hollow. We shake his hand and he smiles back at us while we all walk away; him back to his family of fourteen, us to write our report.

As we get in the car I feel more than a solitary tear pressing.  There is no way I, who am going back home in three months, am going to cry while Khaled walks away so proudly, carrying all his tribulations on his shoulders.

The blog The tribulations of Khaled al Najar first appeared on Lille Ville Vestbredden, a blog of EAPPI Norway.

The Story of Shuhada Street

This is part 1 in a 3-part series on the closure of Shuhada street and its impact on the community of Hebron.

by Sarah, Hebron team

Nov 2013 Shuhada Street 2 Hebron S. Robinson

Walking down Shuhada street is undeniably eery and feels as if walking in a ghost town. Photo EAPPI/S. Robinson.

Shuhada Street; most cities have one: the street that embodies the values of the community. The street where people meet and tourists visit. The street that breathes with activity and life. The street that symbolises all that it good and all that is bad in a city. New York has 5th Avenue, London has Oxford Street, Johannesburg has Bree Street, Paris has the Champs-Elysees, and Hebron has Shuhada Street. Or rather, Hebron had Shuhada Street.

Shuhada Street rests in the soul of the old city of Hebron. For centuries it was the commercial and social heart of this historic city. Shop keepers lived above their stores so life on the street was not limited to trading hours. The main fruit and vegetable market operated on Shuhada Street and the access to side roads and slip paths originated from this street. It was a bustling and busy road full of activity and life for both Palestinians and Israelis.

Then, in 1994, after the massacre at the Ibrahimi Mosque where a Jewish settler named Baruch Goldstein killed 29 Palestinian worshipers, the street was closed to Palestinian vehicles. When the second Intifada erupted six years later, the street was shut down completely. Shops were closed, people evicted, and Palestinian access banned in the name of security. Today, almost 20 years later, Shuhada Street is a shell of its former self.

This once exciting and elegant stretch of Hebron is now a ghost town. Palestinians have access to approximately 100m of the street. Israelis have access to the entire street. Palestinians that still live on Shuhada Street are forbidden to use their front doors. Instead they are forced to find alternative routes to their homes through the back of the buildings and over roofs.

According to B’tselem:

“As a result of these severe restrictions, 304 shops and warehouses along Shuhada Street closed down, and Palestinian municipal and governmental offices that had been on the street were relocated to Area H1. Israel also took control of the central bus station that had been on the street, turning it into an army base.”

The significance of Shuhada Street extends to both Palestinians and Israelis. There are three Israeli settlements on or near the street; Beit Hadassah, Beit Romano, and Avraham Avinu. These residents have full vehicular and pedestrian access to Shuhada Street. Several military checkpoints dot the road, all equipped with heavily armed soldiers. It is because of these settlers and their prioritised protection that Palestinians are barred.

Walking down Shuhada Street is undeniably eerie. Stray cats and military dogs add to the mysterious images of broken windows, welded shut doors, graffiti stained walls, army jeeps, and shattered stone. The little life this street holds is quick to enter and often eager to escape. Many walls host Israeli posters describing the history of the street albeit remarkably one-sided. Occasionally the face of a small Palestinian child peaks through a caged window on the second floor of a building curiously inspecting a street they have never stepped foot on. Israeli children catch buses to school and settlers enjoy a morning run on this stricken street. The separation is seamlessly clear.

The story of Shuhada Street is not complete. Several chapters are yet to be written. Many organisations are tirelessly campaigning to open Shuhada Street. The separation cannot be sustainable for Israelis or Palestinians. Until the street is opened, the dream of what Shuhada Street could be is just that; a dream.

EA Blog: Bus Stop Blues

by Derek, Yanoun Team

Seeing the familiar apoplectic Facebook posts in response to a strike by tube train drivers in London this Christmas I was reminded of my first visit to Yanoun. We alighted from a service (minibus taxi) at the Za’atar junction, a busy roundabout on the edge of the city of Nablus, and our Brazilian guide Alex, from the preceding EAPPI group in Yanoun, gave us our first lesson in the transport politics of the West Bank.

Settler bus stop” he said, pointing to an empty shelter with a bench, set back  from the junction on a paved area, with two large concrete blocks in front of it. “We will wait there.” He continued, pointing to a group of Palestinians stood in the road about 30 feet ahead. As we walked around the shelter, I took in the guard tower positioned behind it.

Though I was a little slow to gather the implications of this set-up, it sank in eventually. Jewish Israeli Settlers (in this instance mostly from Tappuah settlement, which overlooks Za’atar) in this area have their own bus stops, which Palestinians are restricted from using, with the threat of force used to ensure compliance. Thus the Palestinians wait on the busy road itself, unprotected from the elements, to catch buses or taxis.

EAs pass the bus stop at Za'atar Junction. The manned guard tower overlooking the stop is visible in the background.

EAs pass the bus stop at Za’atar Junction. The manned guard tower overlooking the stop is visible in the background.

As we learnt, this single clear contrast is the tip of the iceberg. There are effectively two transport systems in the West Bank, but not two parallel systems that work along similar lines. Rather at every turn transport is less reliable, less safe and less comfortable for the Palestinian population than for the Israelis who inhabit the settlements. For example, according to a report by the Israeli peace group B’Tselem:

In October 2010, there were 232 kilometers of roads in the West Bank that Israel classified for the sole, or almost sole, use of Israelis, primarily of settlers.

The right of Palestinians to freedom of movement in the West Bank is severely constrained, not just by segregated busing and roads, but by measures such as checkpoints, permits and the separation barrier, 85% of which is not on the 1967 armistice line but inside the Occupied Territories.  The situation is fluid, and 2012 saw the lifting of some movement restrictions in the West Bank. However as B’Tselem points out:

the military continues to treat Palestinians’ freedom of movement as a privilege rather than as a right.”

There are a number of bus services that exclusively serve settlements and facilitate the movement of Settlers between the occupied territories and Israel, effectively discriminating against Palestinians and bolstering Israeli support to Israeli settlements that are illegal under international law.

Numerous UN resolutions and the 2004 advisory opinion of the International Court of Justice on Israel’s wall in the West Bank have confirmed that settlements violate Article 49 of the Fourth Geneva Convention — which states that

The Occupying Power shall not deport or transfer parts of its own civilian population into the territory it occupies”.

The declared goals of these measures are security for Israelis, both those inside Israel and the 500,000+ settlers living illegally in the West Bank. Even taken at face value, such a comprehensive regime of measures affecting a specific population constitute collective punishment, also illegal under the fourth Geneva Convention. A 2004 advisory opinion by the International Court of Justice rules that:

The construction of the wall being built by Israel, the occupying Power, in the Occupied Palestinian Territory, including in and around East Jerusalem, and its associated régime, are contrary to international law.”

Both the settlements and the measures taken to protect and sustain them violate the human rights of Palestinians. This reality is unavoidable, even when one wishes to do something as simple as catch public transport. Whatever the tube’s shortcomings, I know which system I prefer.

The 'Settler' bus stop at Za'atar. A Palestinian man waits by the roadside in the far distance.

The ‘Settler’ bus stop at Za’atar. A Palestinian man waits by the roadside in the far distance.