In troubled Hebron, an innovative programme of activism training brings new hope

Palestine (OpenDemocracy) – The organisation that filmed the notorious incident of an Israeli medic shooting a wounded Palestinian teenager in the head, is at the crest of an exciting new wave of creative resistance.

When an Israeli medic shot a wounded Palestinian teenager in the head, it was hard to imagine that the moment might represent a turning point for a troubled city in the epicentre of the wave of violence that swept Palestine and Israel last year. And yet, almost exactly a year on, the organisation that filmed the notorious incident is at the crest of an exciting new wave of creative resistance.

Long a special case in the Palestinian-Israeli conflict, Hebron, the largest Palestinian city by population is also the only Palestinian city (other than East Jerusalem) in which Israeli settlements are located in the city centre. As such, Hebron represents the Israeli occupation with all its various logics of control in concentrated form. The historic high street and main commercial artery of Hebron – Shuhada Street – is now virtually a no-go area for Palestinians – as are its adjoining neighbourhoods, such as Tel Rumeida. The Shrine of Abraham – sacred for Muslims and Jews, and now partitioned between a mosque and a synagogue, has also become increasingly inaccessible to Palestinian worshippers as a result.

In the wave of violence that gripped Palestine and Israel last year, nowhere was more affected than Hebron. Starting with the incident in which a young girl, Hadeel al-Hashlamoun was killed at a checkpoint, dozens of local young people were shot dead in response to alleged knife attacks – some real, others probably not. Typically, Israeli authorities took advantage of this situation to impose new, tighter controls which are likely to become permanent. Palestinian residents of central Hebron have been numbered and listed on a registry, and anyone not on the list is no longer permitted to enter. It’s not difficult to see how this could represent yet another step towards the complete removal of Palestinians from the area – something which leading figures among the local settlers are quite open about seeing as their medium term goal (the long term one being to remove us from the city altogether). Further physical restrictions have been imposed, in some cases cutting communities in half.

When two young Palestinians, Ramzi al-Qasrawi and Abdul-Fattah al-Sharif were shot dead at Gilbert Checkpoint towards the top of Shuhada Street, it could well have just ended up as another statistic in the bloody history of our city. Instead, it turned out to be a crucial catalyst for change – and perhaps not in the way you might expect.

The story of what happened to Abdul-Fattah al-Sharif, and of Elor Azariya, the young Israeli medic who killed him, has attracted copious media attention. No one can deny the basic facts: Abdul-Fattah was lying on the ground, critically injured but alive. A Magen David Adom ambulance rushed to the scene. MDA are affiliated to the ICRC, and are therefore legally obliged to uphold the principles of neutrality and impartiality – giving priority help to those who need it most. Instead, a lightly wounded Israeli soldier was quickly stretchered off, while Elor Azariya cocked his rifle, walked over to Abdul-Fattah, and coolly shot him in the head.

You may well have read about the repercussions of this incident in Israel – which have been extensively covered. The event caused a significant rift in Israeli society between those who did and didn’t think he had done anything wrong, setting the commanders of the Israeli military who positioned themselves – hilariously for us – as humanitarian defenders of international law, against Israel’s political elite. Things intensified recently when Azariya was given an eighteen month sentence for manslaughter – a sentence which, it has been noted before, is less than what many Palestinians get for throwing stones.

What has been less written about, though, is the impact of the event in Hebron. For Imad Abu Shamsiya, the former wedding photographer turned veteran video activist who filmed the incident, the event was life-changing in ways that weren’t initially positive. He was inundated with death threats, sometimes delivered by telephone or social media, at other times in person by groups of local settlers who came round to his house, or harassed his children on the street. The threats to his security ultimately led the president of the Organisation of the Islamic Conference to raise a question directly to the UN Security Council.

But for the wider community, the example Imad set in shooting that video – combined with the hard work of groups such as Human Rights Defenders – the activist organisation which I co-founded with him in 2014, has helped – has helped to catalyse a change which is beginning to look like it might be the start of one of the most positive things to happen to Palestinian resistance in years.

The story actually starts a year ago, when Israeli troops raided my house. Having previously been trained by the Israeli NGO B’tselem in video activist methods, my natural response to this warrantless intrusion was to film them. Their response to my filming was to seize my video camera and break it. Broken or confiscated cameras are a well-known fact of life for Palestinian activists. But if our equipment has a rather short lifespan sometimes, luckily we have more durable assets to draw on – including, in this case, the networks of international solidarity which have been steadily growing for many years. Generously, activists in the North California chapter of the International Solidarity Movement more than made up for the deficit, providing four new cameras which we distributed to the community.

That was the birth of a new project which we call the ‘Capturing the Occupation Camera Project’. The ideas was to try to source decent quality video cameras, distribute them to the local community, and train people in video activist methods.

Around the same time, teaming up with another local group, the ‘Hebron Defence Committee’ we also initiated another project. We’d previously helped run a campaign called ‘Open Shuhada Street’, focusing on the demand of restoring freedom of movement to our city centre. This time, though, we decided to go more ambitious. Our demand now would be for the complete decolonisation of Hebron, through the removal of the illegal settlements. The name of the campaign might sound controversial to some. It’s called ‘Dismantle the Ghetto’. But that’s what we are living in central Hebron. We are numbered, listed, our every movement is tracked, in order to guarantee the security of a military, colonial occupation. It’s not that we have a problem with Jews. They’re welcome to come and live with us. Many of the activists who come to do solidarity work here are Jewish. But the settlements in central Hebron are clearly illegal and the infrastructure of occupation that maintains them is the root cause of Hebron’s problems.

Since the killing of Abdul-Fattah, and the video Imad shot of it, these projects have gathered pace. We now have more cameras and more volunteers. Five families in total have been trained and equipped – together with another five volunteering with B’tselem, that makes ten. But recently, with our increased resources, we’ve been able to do something else which is looking to be game changing – we’ve started going into schools. There are four schools in central Hebron – Cordoba, Ibrahimia, Fayha and Ziad Jaber – which operate right next to the military checkpoints and the settlements. The kids in these schools are under constant pressure – they are routinely detained, intimidated and harassed. Many now have had the experience of seeing their friends shot dead by Israeli soldiers who were going way beyond anything that could reasonably have been justified by self-defence. They are scared, angry and traumatised.

We’ve been amazed by the response we’ve had. Not only were the children incredibly eager to learn. Many of their parents came as well! We were also met with phalanxes of local media eager to interview everyone. Since shooting the video, Imad has become a local hero. Children and young people now see that there is something they can do – non-violently and constructively – to change their situation.

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By Mujaddara, CC BY-SA 3.0, Wikimedia Commons

More than anything, parents want their children to be safe, and that’s what we teach them. Lesson number one in our training is to keep yourself safe. As veteran activists, we’ve developed a sixth sense over the years about how far you can go when trouble kicks off – where to position yourself, how not to become a target. We want to share that with the kids. Ideally, we’d be able to provide proper legal advice as well – we’re in talks with lawyers who might be able to help provide that sort of training in the future. But for now we do maintain a network of lawyers who can help provide cover if our young activists find themselves in trouble.

Of course we also want people to learn how to make powerful, punchy videos. We train them on how to compose space – how to divide up a picture, how to focus on the most important thing when there are things kicking off all around you. For best results, proper video cameras are ideal, which is why we go to the trouble of getting hold of them. But you can still get great footage with a phone, so we teach people how to do that too.

We’re already beginning to see results. The thing that has impressed us most is the number of girls and young women who have come forward. We did a training session at a girls’ school for five people, but nine turned up. They have been our most active trainees so far.

Meanwhile, ‘Dismantle the Ghetto’ has been going from strength to strength as well. What’s been incredible has been how everyone has unified. The campaign now involves virtually every political party and campaigning group in Hebron. We organise peaceful marches and demonstrations.

Back in mid-February, my house was raided again by soldiers who told me that they would arrest me if I attended our next demonstration. I told them to go ahead if they had anything they could arrest me for. But we are heavily focused on finding more innovative ways to protest. The Mosque of Abraham (Ibrahim in Arabic) has become almost unattended because of the level of restriction on movement in the area – most days you’ll only see four or five people there. So we organised two days where we got as many people as possible to come and pray – hundreds attended on a Wednesday, and then again on a Friday. We organised a big cultural event for everyone afterwards.

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By Hebronite999 – Own work, CC0, Wikimedia Commons

In the near future, we’re planning more artistic and cultural events. We want to paint a mural to commemorate the victims of the Hebron mosque massacre, when in 1994, the radical settler Baruch Goldstein shot dead twenty nine people. We’re also planning exhibitions of photography to coincide with Ramadan, and with ‘Land Day’. So far, it’s looking like Hebron is leading the way on this, but we’re very interested in spreading the movement – if people came to us from Ramallah, Nablus, Jenin, Nabi Saleh or Bil’in we’d do everything we could to help them replicate what we’re doing.

These days the atmosphere in Hebron is incredibly exciting. The new generation of young people who are taking over in the local organisations just aren’t interested in the petty splits and divisions of the past. As for us older people, we’re tired of them too. We miss the sense of unity we had in the First Intifada – and that’s exactly what the atmosphere feels like now. There’s a determination to build mass resistance on non-violent lines. We don’t want to see our children as martyrs. We want them to live so they can continue the struggle. One thing we know for sure is that we’re in it for the long haul. And you can’t go on resisting when you’re dead.

This report prepared by Badee Dwaik and Gilbert Ramsay for OpenDemocracy