Hebron, occupied West Bank – Israeli forces showed up at Ahmad Azzah’s house in the southern West Bank city of Hebron late last year with a clipboard and a roll of small white stickers.
That was the day he became a number, he said.
“My family got the number six,” Azzah told Al Jazeera. “They took all our identity cards and registered us, just like our neighbours, and gave us a number.”
Azzah and his family live in Tel Rumeida, a neighborhood in Hebron’s H2 sector under full Israeli control. On November 1, a month after a renewed wave of violence surged through the occupied West Bank and Israel, the neighbourhood was declared a closed military zone. Then, a new system was introduced under which residents were given a number on their ID cards, and only those with a number were allowed in or out. The system remains in place today, the Israeli army confirmed.
To get in and out of Hebron more easily, some Palestinians have started using a dirt footpath on the edge of Tel Rumeida that is not usually guarded by Israeli soldiers.
“They already treat us like animals here, but now we live like prisoners too,” Azzah said. “When I sit outside my house in the courtyard, I am sitting under metal fencing installed by foreign volunteers to protect us from settlers throwing things on our heads, and if I want to leave to buy some bread and milk for my family, or to go to school and back, I have to cross through checkpoints with my new special number; they don’t ask for my name, just my number. This is our life here.”
Muhannad Qafesha, a student at Hebron University and a resident of Tel Rumeida, said that he often uses the footpath rather than risk being held for hours at the checkpoint.
“Right now the checkpoint is closed,” Qafesha told Al Jazeera on a recent morning, motioning to the red “X” above the electronic turnstile built at the main northern entrance to his neighbourhood. “So if I were poor or had a lot of groceries or something, I would be stuck here waiting for the checkpoint to open so I could go home.”
They gave us numbers and built this checkpoint to try to make life unbearable, so all the Palestinians would leave this area and the settlers could take over Hebron completely.
As he spoke, Qafesha hailed a taxi to take him to an open stretch of hillside on the southern border of Tel Rumeida – a ride that costs around $4. With an average daily wage of around $25 for West Bank workers, according to data from the Palestinian Bureau of Statistics, this is an unaffordable prospect for many.
“It really does become expensive, but it’s a 15-minute drive – much too far for most people to walk,” Qafesha said. “Especially since the taxi can’t take you the whole way; the rest of the way is walking through the mud.”
The taxi dropped Qafesha off in front of an industrial yard. He walked down a hill, through a car park and up dilapidated steps on the side of a hill.
An Israeli army spokesperson told Al Jazeera that it is illegal for people who have not been registered in their system and received a number to enter Tel Rumeida from any route. Human rights group B’Tselem says that Israeli forces have been known to “threaten anyone caught attempting” to use the footpath to enter Tel Rumeida, “particularly if they are not residents of the neighbourhood”.
It took Qafesha about 25 minutes to walk from the “secret” entrance of Tel Rumeida to the checkpoint.
“If this was really for security reasons, as the soldiers say, why is this possible?” he asked. “Why are not all the entrances sealed off with checkpoints? It’s because it is not for security at all; it is for intimidation. They gave us numbers and built this checkpoint to try to make life unbearable, so all the Palestinians would leave this area and the settlers could take over Hebron completely.”
Just outside the checkpoint, a young man carried his belt in his hand after Israeli soldiers searched him. He complained that an Israeli settler could “leave and come back with his car if he wants,” explaining that “no one here will ever check him for anything”.
According to B’Tselem, many Palestinians have refused to participate in the number system at the Tel Rumeida checkpoint, in protest at a system many believe is unfair. Their only alternative point of access into and out of the neighbourhood is the dirt footpath.
While an Israeli army spokesman confirmed to Al Jazeera that the number system was “still in effect”, he would not comment on how much longer it would remain that way.
“We don’t know how long this will last. They tell us they will re-evaluate the system [soon], but who knows? This could go on for a very long time,” Qafesha said. “What I do know is the people here will not abandon their homes and give them to the Israelis. It is our duty in Hebron to stay and persevere through this.”