Hebron, occupied West Bank – Across the neighbourhoods of the H2 area of Hebron – the 20 percent of the Palestinian city where some 700 Israelis live in illegal settlements and the Israeli military has full control – the streets are mostly empty of H2’s approximately 35,000 Palestinian residents.
Patrolling the streets and manning the rooftops, instead, are Israeli soldiers and armed settlers in military uniform on the lookout for any movement from Palestinian homes. Besieged, Palestinian families describe conditions in which they are attacked, deprived of vital supplies and services, and have had their livelihoods cut off.
Keep readinglist of 4 items
“This has never happened before where a full lockdown is implemented, even during the second Intifada,” said Bassam Abu Aisha, 61, vice president of a local drivers’ union and former president of the popular committee for Tel Rumeida, a hill and neighbourhood in the H2 area. “[Back then] we would have the liberty to go buy things and be in the street. But now no one can do that.”
Several residents who spoke to Al Jazeera said the same thing: “It’s like we are in a prison.”
Soldiers by day, settlers by night
Following the shocking October 7 attack on southern Israel by Hamas, Israeli soldiers came without warning to Palestinian shops in Hebron and ordered their owners and workers at gunpoint to close shop and stay home.
In online community chat groups, word trickled across the neighbourhoods of H2: Any Palestinians found outside their homes would be shot.
Palestinians in H2 were completely unable to leave their homes for the first four days, living off whatever supplies they already had. Now, they can only leave their homes and cross checkpoints at a designated hour in the morning and an hour in the evening on Sundays, Tuesdays and Thursdays.
Residents also describe a flurry of attacks and threats that began immediately after October 7. Local activist Issa Amro, 43, was apprehended by soldiers and settlers dressed in military uniform, telling him he was under arrest.
Amro explained over the phone that he was taken to the military base in Tel Rumeida. Cuffed and tightly blindfolded, Amro said he was beaten and spat at for hours, with settlers shouting slurs at him. After 10 hours, they let him go.
Over the next few days, Amro said settlers in military uniform attacked his home, stealing his house keys at one point. On October 20, soldiers forced Amro from his home, declaring it a “closed military zone”, insisting it was for his “protection”. Amro, who is now staying with friends in the H1 area, has not been able to return to his home and is still recovering from injuries to his back, legs and hands.
“This is my first live experience to be tortured,” said a shaken Amro.
I was detained and torture today. pic.twitter.com/hwnkGiFgzO
— Issa Amro عيسى عمرو 🇵🇸 (@Issaamro) October 7, 2023
With regular military forces moved to Gaza and the Lebanese border, the city’s reserve battalion has taken on primary security responsibility in H2 as well as much of Area C, the 60 percent of the West Bank under full Israeli military control.
“During the day they are soldiers, and at night they are settlers,” said Emad Hamdan, executive director of Hebron Rehabilitation Committee (HRC), a Palestinian NGO based in the Old City of Hebron. “So they have the same attitude.”
Palestinian residents say soldiers aim guns at anyone who goes up to their roof or even peers through their window, shouting at them to stay inside.
When they do go outside during the allotted time, residents still risk attacks and threats from settlers, who now wear military uniforms.
“The settlers try to touch our women and daughters,” said Abu Aisha. “They hit us; they say all kinds of horrible words in order to provoke a reaction so they have an excuse to murder us.”
In one confrontation on the street, a reserve soldier – a local settler and paramedic who Abu Aisha has encountered before – was cocking his gun as if to shoot Abu Aisha. A video recorded by a neighbour shows the man fumbling to put a bullet into the gun before it drops to the ground.
Israeli settlers in an army uniform raided my houses yard two times in the last 48 hours, they damaged my free Palestine sign, and other staff, they tried to break in to the house, I refused to open.
Yesterday I was detained and attacked, I am not allowed to leave the house now. pic.twitter.com/9ZzWxQ0JZS
— Issa Amro عيسى عمرو 🇵🇸 (@Issaamro) October 16, 2023
‘The children are constantly afraid’
While the military recently began allowing students to walk outside and cross checkpoints for an hour in the morning and another hour in the afternoon during the school week, parents are not allowed to accompany their children. As a result, children have largely been unable to go to school, due to both the movement restrictions and because their parents fear attacks from armed settlers.
A woman from the Jabari family, who resides in Wadi Hussein, a stretch of Palestinian land in H2 that lies between the Israeli settlements of Givat Haavot and Kiryat Arba – where Israel’s far-right National Security Minister Itamar Ben-Gvir lives – said the 11 children in the family compound are growing restless. They wish they could go to school or at least to a shop to buy sweets, she said.
While some families have tried online learning, the internet connection has been too poor for lessons, she added.
The Jabari family say they have been targeted by settlers for years. Among other violent incidents, a family member had been attacked with an iron pole, leaving him with severe head injuries, a female family member told Al Jazeera.
The community believes that settlers see the Jabari home as key to ultimately dismantling the Palestinian neighbourhood and connecting the two settlements.
The Jabaris say that other than to get food, they have been unable to go out since settlers recently placed couches across from their home, where they sit in wait.
The woman from the family, who did not wish to be identified, said that while they try to tell the children not to worry, they “know something dangerous is happening here”.
In one instance, a child in the family was chased down the street by a settler, she said. Another time, a five-year-old girl in the family saw a settler on the street and immediately ran in fear, falling and injuring herself.
“The children are constantly afraid,” the family member said. “They live in fear.”
For weeks, soldiers have prevented families from bringing in gas tanks for cooking and heating from H1 (the area of Hebron under the Palestinian Authority) into H2. Following lobbying from local and international organisations, the military recently agreed to allow gas tanks in under supervised distribution.
‘Absolutely surreal’ – soldiers deny access to medical care
The onerous movement restrictions mean residents cannot access basic services or medical treatment, even when they desperately need it.
With both the Doctors Without Borders (Medecins Sans Frontieres, or MSF) mobile health clinic and the local clinic in Tel Rumeida shuttered – and residents unable to reach them even if they were still open – Palestinians with medical emergencies are encountering a security apparatus entirely unmoved by their needs.
In the Jaber neighbourhood, a pregnant Palestinian woman woke up at 5am one morning in pain. According to the woman’s mother and a family friend, soldiers stationed outside their home refused to allow her to leave for several hours. At around 11am, they managed to leave in a private car. Doctors at the hospital discovered internal bleeding – the baby had died.
In another case, a woman required an injection at a clinic only 20 metres away from her home. Despite prior attempts at coordination, guns were pointed at her when she tried to leave her home. Despite the insistence of medical professionals, a soldier at the scene decided the injection could wait until the next day.
According to the Jabari family member, another member of the family who had been injured while working waited for an ambulance for three and a half hours. It was held up because of the restrictions. In the end, relatives had to carry him all the way to the nearest checkpoint, worsening his leg injury.
“Decisions are being made over what is medically urgent or not by poorly trained military reservists,” said a humanitarian worker in the area. “It is absolutely surreal.”
No income, savings running out
But what might be most pressing for these families is their dwindling cash reserves. Even in the other areas of Hebron, which are suffering because of a movement bottleneck into and out of the city, as well as because of business closures, Palestinians report dramatic income losses that have pushed families to the brink.
In H2, the economic situation is particularly dire.
“Most of the families in these areas, they are regular labourers, they are blue-collar people,” said Hamdan of HRC. “If they don’t work, they have no income. So how can they cover expenses if they cannot go to work?”
Families in H2 describe having to dip into whatever savings they have to buy food and supplies.
“The families help each other in this time,” said the Jabari family member, explaining how neighbours sneak between their houses in her area, comprised of about 100 families, to share food and supplies.
But with little to no income, neighbours can help each other for only so long.
“We are [financially] better off than some of our neighbours,” said Abu Aisha in Tel Rumeida. “But we don’t know how even we can sustain ourselves for more than a few weeks.”
Already, NGOs are privately discussing possible aid measures if the severe restrictions continue.
‘They are depriving us of life’
Monitoring of the situation has been spotty, with international monitoring group the Ecumenical Accompaniment Programme in Palestine and Israel (EAPPI) leaving when war broke out and remaining civil society organisations finding it difficult to reach families under the movement restrictions.
Residents report having their phones confiscated, and photos and videos of incidents are routinely deleted from them by soldiers and settlers. One neighbour was detained for several days for recording soldier activities, according to Abu Aisha.
Residents say some families who had elsewhere to live have left, though no one knows how many have gone.
In the meantime, residents and humanitarian organisations report that settlers are taking advantage of the situation to occupy vacated properties in the Tel Rumeida area. Abu Aisha shared a video of Israeli settlers harvesting olives from trees owned by Palestinian families in the area.
Families have been unable to pick olives during the all-important harvest season, which runs until mid-November. No harvest this year would be economically catastrophic for some families.
Unable to go to school, work or play, the Jabaris try to keep their spirits up by reading religious scripture or telling the children stories at night.
“Like all Palestinians, we hope for a better reality than what we really live,” said the female Jabari family member.
But what’s going on at home and on their televisions keeps them up at night.
“We’re not able to really live life,” said Abu Aisha, who has nine people and three children staying in his home. “Eating, drinking, going about our daily lives is difficult because all we can do is just sit in front of the television and take in these horrific images from Gaza.”
Family members sleep in shifts, terrified of what might come next.
“Settlers could come into our house and kill everyone, and no one would be able to do anything about it,” said Abu Aisha.
“It’s a reflection of what’s happening in Gaza,” said the Jabari family member, who also shared videos of nighttime raids around the family home this week.
“We are being deprived of basic freedoms. They are depriving us of life.”