For 19-year-old Palestinian Ahmad Azza Hebron is home. Despite living under heavy military control in the Israeli occupied half of the city simply known as H2, he is determined that no Palestinian should ever think of the neighbourhood as anything other than their hometown.
“We do not want anyone to leave. If they leave then the soldiers will come and evict more people,” the teenager insists.
A volunteer with Hebron’s popular Youth Against Settlements group, Azza has been peacefully protesting against the occupation since he was 12-years-old. He lives just a few metres from the illegal settlement of Tel Rumeida, which hosts many Jewish settlers from the US, who regularly attack Palestinians without provocation.
“We really suffer a lot from the settlers and soldiers,” Azza says. “They attack small kids; they even come from outside Jerusalem. They start to attack and throw stones.”
Azza’s home is also close to Checkpoint 22, a barrier he must pass for the most basic of everyday duties, from going to the supermarket to visiting friends. Often subjected to humiliating treatment at the barrier, Israeli authorities also use demeaning tactics to intimidate local Palestinians: “My name is not Ahmad at the checkpoint. I am number 36. At the checkpoint I am not a human, I am a number.”
Whilst the inconvenience has become part of daily life for Azza and his friends and family, the threat of the Israeli occupation continues to loom over them, with arbitrary arrests and raids regularly taking place. Azza himself was arrested when he was just 16-years-old after a meeting with fellow activists on how to protest peacefully in the midst of renewed tensions in 2015.
On his way home from the meeting, Azza and his friends suddenly found themselves surrounded by Israeli soldiers; he was then taken aside and searched thoroughly whilst being asked numerous questions in Hebrew.
“I never answer in Hebrew, it is not my language,” Azza says. “If I say ‘yes’ to something without understanding, then I will be in jail for many years.”
He was then approached by a policeman who was holding a knife which he claimed belonged to Azza. Despite insisting he had never seen the knife before Azza was taken to a police station. There he was beaten, forced to sit in uncomfortable positions for hours and repeatedly interrogated by officers, who attempted to get him to touch the knife.
Azza was fortunate; his friend, mentor and the founder of Youth Against Settlements Issa Amro was quick to aid Azza, alongside a Jewish lawyer. The team also asked their contacts in Israel to use their influence to persuade the military police to do a DNA test on the knife. The results were clear; the only person who had touched the knife was the Israeli soldier.
After eight days in a cold, dark jail cell, Azza was released. But his case ending in freedom is one of the rare few. “I don’t like to talk about my own case,” he explains. “But many others who went through the same thing are not here, they were killed, so I have to say what happened.”
Despite his arrest Azza has remained active in the Youth Against Settlements organisation and works alongside a network of other volunteers who provide aid for those impacted by the occupation. From restoring water pipes, to painting walls and repairing electricity networks, Azza tries to make life more bearable for those living close to settlements.
“There are about 40 of us volunteers now. The families really like us, they feel like people support them, and they suffer a lot,” he muses.
Youth Against Settlements have also set up a kindergarten, so that families in the neighbourhood do not have to send their children outside checkpoints and risk them being attacked by settlers or soldiers. With over 40 children now in the school alongside teachers, the school has proved a great success. There are also plans to launch a local cinema by developing an old theatre. It needs a lot of work, according to Azza, but they will work on it slowly so the military does not designate the area a closed military zone.
Azza is also part of the “Open Shuhada Street” campaign, now in its tenth year. The main road in the city has been shut since the massacre in the Ibrahimi Mosque in 1994 which saw 29 worshippers gunned down by a settler in the early hours of the morning. Whilst Israelis have been allowed to use the road Palestinians have been barred, resulting in the closure of 1,800 shops on the main high street.
Despite only engaging in non-violent resistance, Azza admits that his family have been fearful for his safety, particularly since his arrest.
“My family told me to ‘be careful, be careful,’ but of course this is how a mother and father feel about their son,” he laughs. “But if everyone is afraid, who will work for the freedom of our land?”
Since the announcement of US President Donald Trump recognising Jerusalem as the capital of Israel, Hebron has witnessed even more protests than usual, with regular demonstrations taking place after Friday prayers. Whilst the protests are not violent, Azza says that clashes usually erupt close to checkpoints after soldiers respond to demonstrators by firing rubber bullets and live ammunition.
Azza says he sees the same thing occurring in Gaza after Israeli soldiers killed 20 people at protests on the border. “I am not with Hamas or Fatah, I am a Palestinian,” he clarifies, before adding that the people of Gaza have suffered enough without soldiers shooting at them with live bullets.
For Azza, the solution to the bloodshed lies in the hands of the international community. He and several members of Youth Against Settlements have been able to travel to Europe to deliver talks on the situation of the people in Hebron to encourage foreign nations to put pressure on Israel. Although last month he was refused a visa leave the West Bank and come to the UK to speak at an Amnesty International event, Azza says he looks forward to travelling more in the future.
“I want to tell people what we have in Hebron, especially to those in the UK because there are a lot of Zionists,” he says. “But it is nice to speak with them and show them the truth. It’s really important for people to speak.”