Nowhere is the Israeli occupation of Palestine more apparent than the city of Hebron in the south of the West Bank. For the 215,000 Palestinians who live in the city, the occupation is simply a fact of life. In some areas of Hebron, it is hard to walk more than a few hundred yards without meeting an Israeli military checkpoint. Children pass through checkpoints to get to school, as do their parents on the way to work. While Israeli settlements are often built on rural land, separated from large Palestinian population centers, in Hebron settlers have moved into the heart of the city.
Some 850 settlers live in and around the old quarter of the medina, often evicting Palestinians from their homes. Along Shuhada Street, as well as other thoroughfares in the medina, the settlements such as Avraham Avinu look directly down on the shops and houses. Palestinians have had to construct nets, which hang above the street, catching waste and trash thrown down on them by settlers. The injustice of the situation in Hebron is enough to incense any outsider who witnesses it. Yet, despite this miserable state of affairs, there are those working tirelessly to improve the lives of Palestinians in Hebron and to show the world what is happening.
A prominent example of such an organization is the Hebron Hope Center (HHC), which opened in 2011. HHC describes itself as: “A Palestinian local non-profit civil society organization established with the aim to create a positive benefit for the local community.” The organization runs tours and educational programs for men, women, and children. It also provides a lodge where up to 40 international guests can eat, sleep, and volunteer.
The main goal of the project is to provide job opportunities and access to education for Palestinian adults and children.
“The Center promotes cross cultural experiences with the use of volunteers from around the world to staff its programs and opportunities to work alongside experienced and qualified Palestinians,” says the HHC website. The main goal of the project is to provide job opportunities and access to education for Palestinian adults and children, as well as helping Palestinian women increase their economic independence. Volunteers are able to assist Palestinian children in the development of a wide range of skills, from modern languages, to journalism, sports, and medical practice.
Ayman Al Fakhori is the founder and leader of HHC. “I set up this project to raise awareness and spread our story with an international audience, extending the hand of friendship to those across the world, hopefully educating them about our lives in the process. This is why it is so important to us to have international volunteers working with us. I also hoped to gain resources for the local area, creating jobs and helping the community here,” he told Inside Arabia.
An inspiring figure, Al Fakhori has suffered a great deal for his cause. The 27-year-old has been arrested over ten times by Israeli forces because of his work. Charges are never brought against him and he is usually released within hours – the arrests are purely an act of intimidation, intended to deter him from continuing his struggle. Al Fakhori admits to suffering from severe emotional and psychological problems as a result of his treatment at the hands of Israeli soldiers. “When I am detained I feel I don’t exist,” he told Inside Arabia. “I feel like a number.” Yet, despite this, Al Fakhori maintains a warm disposition and dry sense of humor. On one occasion, when the fridge’s ice dispenser broke in the lodge, he turned to the group and said: “You see? Life is hard in Palestine.”
Since 2013, the HHC has run tours of Hebron, in both the town itself and the surrounding area. These excursions are an opportunity for visitors to understand the situation on the ground while boosting the employment prospects of the local residents who put the tours together.
The town visit takes stock of Hebron’s main sites, from the Ibrahimi Mosque to Shuhada Street in the medina. Those attending it cross many heavily fortified checkpoints and see the naked occupation in full swing. There is also ample opportunity to meet with local Palestinians, who share their experiences with tour-goers. These aspects combine to present Hebron as it is – a place of great sadness but also of hope. The crippling inertia created by the occupation is undeniable, and yet one is met with a tenacious, fully-functioning, ancient culture, determined to change the fate of Hebron and Palestine as a whole.
In 2016, Hebron was awarded the title of World Crafts City, recognizing the caliber of the traditional crafts offered, particularly pottery, glass, and ceramic work.
The HHC tours also take care to show visitors Hebron’s world-renowned traditional handcrafts. In 2016, Hebron was awarded the title of World Crafts City, recognizing the caliber of the traditional crafts offered, particularly pottery, glass, and ceramic work. The HHC tours visit several glass blowing factories and ceramic workshops. While many use modernized techniques and machinery, these traditions date back to ancient times. Today, craftwork from Hebron continues to be sold around Palestine, making it one of the most important trade centers in the area. Finally, a hiking tour, beginning in the village of Zif, enables visitors to become acquainted with the natural beauty of the area.
Finally, and perhaps even more harrowing and infuriating even than the city tour, is the visit to Al-Arroub refugee camp, home to some 10,000 people. Created in 1949, the camp sits on around 24 square km which means that it has a population density of over 400 people per square km. Al-Arroub is home to only four schools, despite having a population of around 2,000 children, and only one health center, covering all needs, from primary healthcare, to medical check-ups, to reproductive health, childcare, and vaccinations. Mental-health counseling and family protection are also available at the center, which is stretched to breaking point.
According to the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East (UNWRA): “Arroub camp has one of the highest numbers of incursions of all refugee camps in the West Bank. Clashes are frequent, as is the use of tear gas, sound bombs and plastic-coated metal bullets by Israeli security forces (ISF). Arrests and the detention of children in Israeli prisons are not infrequent during these clashes.”
The camp is surrounded by electronic gates, preventing the free movement of those who live inside. Many residents are on an Israeli blacklist, preventing them from getting proper work in the occupied territories or in Israel proper. The camp is regularly flooded during the winter months, due to substandard sewage networks, and many people live in inadequate shelters. Similar to other refugee camps in the West Bank and around the region, Al-Arroub is awash with overcrowding, poor living conditions, unemployment, and a deep sense of apathy and futility.
Al-Arroub is awash with overcrowding, poor living conditions, unemployment, and a deep sense of apathy and futility.
Ayman Al Fakhori is both fearful and hopeful about the future. “The longer the occupation continues, the more it will drive hatred and division,” he told Inside Arabia. “Nothing good will come of it. If we do not have peace in the Middle East, the world will never have peace at all.” Yet, despite the intolerable situation in Hebron, while organizations like HHC continue to work, there is always a little optimism. “My hope is that we can live in freedom and peace and that we can have our own state,” says Al Fakhori. “I truly hope that we can find our freedom and dignity.”
Today, the peace that Al Fakhori and ten million other Palestinians seek may be closer than at many times in the past. In the age of information, consistent polling shows that world public opinion has grown more sympathetic to the Palestinian cause in recent years, particularly in western countries whose governments support the occupation. Organizations like HHC must take a huge amount of credit for this, for not giving up against near-impossible odds, for continuing to tell the truth. It may be that, at long last, the world is ready to listen.