Hebron is a city deep inside the Palestinian territories, but it is unlike any other in the occupied West Bank. With illegal Jewish settlements in the heart of the city, Hebron reflects the bitter reality of military occupation: checkpoints, heavily-armed settlers, curfews, concrete barriers and segregated roads.
Israel occupied the West Bank in 1967. A year later, the illegal Jewish settlement of Kiryat Arba was established on the outskirts of Hebron, which is holy to all three monotheistic faiths. Some of Kiryat Arba's settlers, however, soon made their way deeper into the Old City, occupying areas near the Ibrahimi Mosque and setting up pockets of settlement.
A divided city
Following the massacre of 1994, when American-Israeli settler Baruch Goldstein stormed the Ibrahimi Mosque and shot dead 29 Palestinian worshippers, the city was divided. Bustling Palestinian markets were shut down to create buffer zones between the Jewish and Palestinian communities and checkpoints were erected across the city.
In 1997 the "Hebron Protocol", which formed part of the Interim Agreement signed under the Oslo Accords, saw the partition of the whole city into two zones called H1 and H2; H1 was to be controlled by the Palestinian Authority (PQ) and H2 was to be administered by Israel.
H2, which engulfs roughly 20 per cent of the occupied city and encompasses its holy sites, is home to approximately 40,000 Palestinians and some 800 settlers who live in small, fortified compounds and enjoy Israeli army protection. The settlers carry out frequent acts of violence against the city's Palestinian residents, whose movement is heavily restricted and often face random searches by Israeli soldiers. Unlike the settlers, the Palestinians are also subjected to Israeli military law.
Twenty-five-year-old Sundus Azza is one of those Palestinians who stand witness to the city's stark division. She was born in the H1 neighbourhood of Halhul, but in 2003 moved with her family to a house in the neighbourhood of Tel Rumeida in H2, a mere ten metres from an Israeli settlement enclave.
"If they [Israeli settlers] see any house which is empty, they will take over the houses," Azza told MEMO. It is this fear of further annexation of Palestinian land that led a wealthy Palestinian family to offer Azza's family their property rent-free in order to ensure it is protected from the settlers.
Living with the settlers
Throughout much of her life, Azza and her family have faced regular harassment by Israeli settlers and soldiers. Her house has been vandalised and members of her family subjected to violent attacks by Israeli settlers. "Six years ago, an aggressive settler woman who was maybe 45 years old attacked my brother," Azza told MEMO: "He was young. She took a big stone and she tried to put [it] inside his mouth, just to cut the oxygen." Azza continued: "He is lucky that he just closed his teeth and she crushed his teeth."
"One of the soldiers saw what happened, but Israeli courts do nothing [to] settlers," she added. "With all the problems the she [caused], they only let her move from Tel Rumeida to [the] Kiryat Arba settlement, which is 5 minutes away by car."
According to Azza, the settlers of H2 exert disproportionate control and enjoy a level of unaccountability that allows them not only to get away with assaulting Palestinians, but even to attack Israeli soldiers if they stand in their way.
In 2015 her brother Ahmed, who like Azza is a Youth Against Settlements volunteer, was arrested after an Israeli settler falsely accused him of possessing a knife. A rare DNA test later proved him innocent and he was subsequently released. "This was the first time a DNA test took place and it was because of international pressure," Azza explained. "They found that the knife belongs to a soldier," she said, adding that her brother "would never even think of holding a knife".
"He spent one week in jail and it was really hard for me and for my family. For me, it was the worst week I ever had," she added.
Azza joined Youth Against Settlements, a local Palestinian movement which seeks to end the expansion of settlements through non-violent activism, in 2008. As a media and activity organiser, Azza documents human rights violations against her fellow Palestinians.
"The settlers attacked our centre many times," Azza said. "The worst attack was on 24 December when a group of settlers came to the centre, they attacked almost all the volunteers." The settlers hurled "big stones" at the volunteers, eight of whom were then hospitalised.
Azza is also part of the "Open Shuhada Street" campaign. Al-Shuhada Street, which was once the city's commercial hub, was closed to Palestinians in the aftermath of the Goldstein massacre. "It was full of people, it was crowded, all the markets were open, the bus station was there and now it is a ghost town," Azza says.
In October 2018, Israel approved $6 million in government funding to expand the settlement in the Old City, with the construction of 31 new Israeli apartment units in Al-Shuhada Street.
Documenting settler violence
In the aftermath of the Ibrahimi Mosque massacre, a UN body – the Temporary International Presence in Hebron (TIPH) – was set up to monitor the situation in Hebron. However, in January 2019, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu expelled the TIPH mission after a long campaign by Israeli politicians to have its mandate terminated.
Since then, Youth Against Settlements has launched a campaign to document settler violations in Hebron. In Tel Rumeida, Azza's fellow activists wore blue vests similar to those of the TIPH and accompanied young students on their way to school, but they have often been subjected to harassment by the settlers and have even received death threats.
Azza hopes one day she will be able to lead a normal life, but she says she finds it hard to imagine a bright future. "The situation is only getting worse and worse," she says: "More checkpoints, more violations from the Israeli settlers, but we don't have to lose hope."
"Let me dream that there are no checkpoints, there are no settlements, there is no occupation, the situation will be excellent."