‘I will never move until I die or we get our freedom’

Hebron, Occupied Territories (NI) – Hashem Azzeh, 54, died three weeks ago. A medical doctor, husband, father of four, and a prominent Palestinian activist from al-Khalil (Hebron), he had spent years peacefully resisting the Israeli occupation of his city. Yet in the end, he became a victim of it.

Already weakened by a long term cardiac condition, he died from complications after excessive inhalation of tear gas.

His death is about the reality of the powerful and the powerless, and about a system that has gone very wrong.

A description of al-Khalil

With a population of 202,000, al-Khalil is the largest city in Palestine. Both Muslim and Jewish faiths believe that the Prophet Abraham (Ibrahim) was buried in this city. His shrine is known to Muslims as the Ibrahimi Mosque, and to Jews as the Tomb of the Patriarchs.

In 1968, the illegal (according to international law) Israeli settlement Kiryat Arba was built on the outskirts of al-Khalil. Its population is approximately 8,000.

Four other settlements were built inside al-Khalil’s city limits, the first of the four in 1979. Three are on Shuhada Street, a main street connecting the north and the east of the city.

In 1994, Baruch Goldstein, an American settler from Kiryat Arba, murdered 29 Palestinian worshippers and injured over 100 in the Ibrahimi Mosque during Friday prayers. As a result of the attack, the Palestinian residents, in effect, paid the price for his crime.

The punishment: Palestinian use of Shuhada Street was prohibited. Initially, only vehicles were banned, and then during the second Intifada in 2000, the street was completely closed to al-Khalil’s Palestinian residents.

Shuhada Street, which had been lined with Palestinian owned shops (with owners usually living above their business), served as the location of al-Khalil’s central wholesale market, and bus and police stations. It was in close proximity to the Ibrahimi Mosque, and was once a busy, dynamic area.

According to B’Tselem, an Israeli human rights organization, with the closure of Shuhada Street, 76.6 percent of commercial establishments (1,829) were forced to close, and at least 41.9 percent of homes (1,014) were vacated. Military checkpoints were put in place, and shops and homes whose entrances were on Shuhada Street were welded shut. Shop owners and residents, no longer permitted to set foot on Shuhada Street, were forced to enter or leave their homes by climbing through windows and walking across roof tops to access other streets.

Without the Palestinian residents, Shuhada Street became eerily quiet; a ghost town.

The Hebron Agreement of 1997 further partitioned the city into sections. Section H1 is under Palestinian control, and H2 is under Israeli military control with hundreds of Israeli Defense Forces soldiers patrolling the area on any given day.

The ‘principle of separation’, states a B’Tselem report, is ‘a regime of physical and legal segregation between Israeli settlers, who receive the military’s protection and the Palestinian majority.’ This principle has resulted in the 35,000 Palestinians living in the H2 section paying a grave price. This is done, supposedly, in the name of the security of the 850 illegal settlers who reside there.

Not only is the Shuhada Street in H2, but so too is the neighbourhood of Tel Rumeida, above which, on a hilltop, sits a settlement just a few meters away.

Lack of job security and daily instability from settler and army attacks have forced many Palestinians to leave their homes. Of the 500 families that once lived in Tel Rumeida, only 50 have remained.

Azzeh, who died three weeks ago, his wife and four children chose to stay.

Azzeh described daily life as ‘really horrible’. In spite of the fact that his children are harassed on their way to and from school; that his five year old (at the time) son was arrested for allegedly throwing stones; that settlers throw stones and garbage at his home; that his home gets searched often; that his olive trees have been destroyed and olives stolen; that settlers cut the water pipes that lead to his house; that he has to pass the checkpoint at Shuhada Street just to do basic shopping in H1, and have each bag checked by soldiers; and that his wife, Nisreen, lost two pregnancies due to settler attacks… In spite of all of this, he decided to stay.

Just two days before his death, with the help of international volunteers, he picked the olives that the settlers had not stolen. They were interrupted by a settler armed with an M-16 assult rifle. Israeli soldiers and police looked on as the settler photographed them, and female settlers shouted out verbal abuses.

Azzeh’s death was an eerie re-creation of a scenario he had spoken of to the International Solidarity Movement (ISM) in 2013. ‘We don’t have any clinics here and no ambulances can reach us. If someone needs to go to the hospital, we have to carry the patients by hand through the checkpoint and the ambulance will wait for us behind it. There is no way for them to come to the patients directly in H2.’

Tension has been running high in various Palestinian cities since September 2015 when Israeli settlers entered al-Haram al-Sharif compound which houses the al-Aqsa Mosque. Tight restrictions were placed on Muslim worshippers.

More than 70 Palestinians have been killed and over 2,270 others injured by Israeli forces in the West Bank and Gaza since the beginning of October this year.

Nine Israelis have been killed in this same time period.

Over 20 of the Palestinians killed, and almost 240 who have been arrested, are from al-Khalil.

Since October 29, access to the neighbourhood of Tel Rumeida has been permitted only to those registered as residents of the neighbourhood following security checks and name verifications.

On the day that Azzeh died, there were clashes between Palestinians and Israeli soldiers. Azzeh was at home when he felt chest pains. A Palestinian ambulance from H1 was not permitted to reach him due to the checkpoints on Shuhada Street. In spite of the pain, he walked the 700 metre distance to the Bab a-Zawiya checkpoint (entrance to H1) where clashes were taking place. The suffocating tear gas was too much for him.

Image Source: Palestine Solidarity Project, Flickr, Creative Commons Demonstrator throws back tear gas grenade. PSP Palestine

Image Source: Palestine Solidarity Project, Flickr, Creative Commons
Demonstrator throws back tear gas grenade. PSP Palestine

Azzeh was a peaceful protestor who readily showed international visitors and volunteers his reality. He told ISM: ‘The army and settlers have done a lot to me here. They want me to move but I will never give up. … For me personally it is clear, I will never move until I die or we get our freedom. I will keep my house with my family and my resistance.’