Open or shut case?

By EA Emily, Southern West Bank. 

Last week we were invited to share knafe – a Palestinian delicacy like shredded wheat with cheese drenched in syrup – with locals around an open fire to celebrate the opening of the closed military zone (CMZ) in central Hebron’s Israeli-controlled H2 area (map). This is a small victory for a community living under occupation in the West Bank since 1967 but what does it actually mean?

In 1994, an Israeli settler – one of a number of extremist religious nationalist Israelis who have been acquiring land in Hebron since the 1960s, contrary to international law – entered Hebron’s Ibrahimi Mosque killing 29 Muslim worshippers and injuring over 100. Since then, the city’s main artery, Shuhada Street, and its surrounds have been closed off with roadblocks, checkpoints and curfews, severely limiting freedom of movement for Palestinians, defined as an inalienable human right by the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. On 1 November 2015, following an outbreak of violence, the Israeli government implemented an even stricter shut down of the area, marking it as a closed military zone (CMZ). This means that only residents, or those who study or work there, can access the area.

Shuhada Street; deserted since it has been closed down since the 1990s and now part of the CMZ. Photo: EAPPI. E.Richardson

Shuhada Street, deserted since it has been closed down since the 1990s and now part of the CMZ [Photo: EAPPI/E.Richardson]

Ten-year-old Shada Sharaf is too afraid to walk to school or play outside. “It is like a prison,” she says, “my friends can’t visit me…and I’m always lonely in the house”. You can watch an interview with Shada here.

A local woman, Nadia al-Mohtaseb, is also afraid to go out. Neither friends nor family from outside are able to visit. She thanked God she had family in the area – her lifeline. Her daughter, Nisreen, lives a few houses away. However, what was previously a 2 minute walk now takes her about 20 minutes and entails climbing over rough, rocky ground. Nisreen is heavily pregnant so needless to say this is a struggle, particularly in the 40 degree heat of that day.

Children prevented from passing checkpoint en route to school. Photo: EAPPI. E.Richardson

Children prevented from passing the checkpoint en route to school [Photo: EAPPI/E.Richardson]

The CMZ has also restricted human rights monitors from observing what happens within the zone. Youth Against Settlements (YAS), a local NGO, had to close its headquarters which were in the CMZ. The organisation had no history of violence so felt it was an arbitrary measure taken against a critic of the occupation.

The fact that locals have found ways to circumvent the CMZ – albeit through long and winding paths behind the houses – throws into question the cited security reasons for the CMZ. Could this then be a form of collective punishment for the recent attacks? According to Amnesty International, with “arbitrary restrictions on movement… [and] forbidding residents of Hebron from entering certain parts of the city purely because they are Palestinian, while Israeli settlers move freely and illegal settlements continue to expand, the Israeli authorities are flouting international law and perpetuating a cycle of human rights abuses.” Article 33 of the Fourth Geneva Convention states: “No protected person [which includes those in occupied territory] may be punished for an offence he or she has not personally committed”.

On 15 May when the military order for the CMZ had to be renewed, we asked the soldiers what the status of the CMZ was; they did not know. They were not the only ones. Over the days that followed, we asked several organisations with a local presence – UNOCHA, UNHCHR, Hebron Rehabilitation Committee (HRC), International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC), YAS – to no avail. Once the ICRC confirmed that the order had not been renewed, we struggled to find evidence of implementation. People still weren’t being allowed to access much of the area. Locals were still conducting regular sit-ins in protest.

Women and children staged a sit-in protesting restricted access of movement in CMZ. Photo: EAPPI. E.Richardson

Women and children staging a sit-in protesting the restricted access of movement in CMZ [Photo: EAPPI/E.Richardson]

Such confusion is not uncommon in Hebron; information is not readily available and often people don’t realise there is a new rule until they breach it. This confusion and uncertainty is undoubtedly stressful for residents, particularly as the consequences of breaking rules can be great.

While we wait to see signs of the CMZ opening, we are also aware that this would only be a small step in the right direction. There is still a long way to go for the residents to live truly free lives.