Settler violence and severe restrictions on movement are affecting the daily lives of Palestinians in the southern part of the occupied West Bank, especially in the old town of Hebron. Matteo Benatti has been head of the ICRC's office in Hebron since September 2007. He explains the situation.
What are the humanitarian issues in Hebron?
The settlements have made many aspects of life very difficult for Palestinians. In the old city of Hebron, about 600 settlers live in colonies, in close proximity to some 30,000 Palestinians. The Israeli authorities impose tight security measures and have set up many checkpoints in this area of the city, which includes the Cave of the Patriarchs, an important place of worship for both Jews and Muslims. A number of roads are closed to the Palestinians and they are not allowed to bring cars into the areas where they live.
Movement restrictions, together with recurrent violence by settlers, are affecting the Palestinians in their daily life.
How does this affect them?
Hundreds of Palestinian families have to pass checkpoints in order to buy food, for instance. They often face intimidation by settlers at the checkpoints. Women are particularly vulnerable to this form of abuse, the more so because Palestinians are not allowed to drive along many of these streets, forcing women to cross the checkpoints on foot. Because of closed roads, old people are forced to lug shopping bags over extended distances.
Ambulances taking Palestinian residents to hospital in emergencies can face long delays at checkpoints. Families have been forced to carry their sick relatives on stretchers or use donkeys to transport them to a pickup point where an ambulance is waiting.
The economic life of the old city has almost died out because of movement restrictions and settler violence. Some shopkeepers have been ordered to close down by the army. Others have lost their customers, because Palestinians are afraid to go close to the Jewish settlements. Poverty is rampant. According to an ICRC study of households in the restricted areas of the old city last summer, 86 percent of families live in relative poverty, as they have only $ 97 per person per month for food, clothes and all other living expenses.
Most Palestinians living in the old city have had to put wire in front of their windows and have to keep them shut as they risk having urine, rotten vegetables or stones thrown at them through the windows. For children, even the daily walk to school can be frightening, as settlers may threaten them or throw stones. It is extremely tiring for families to live in this constant atmosphere of tension.
What is the ICRC able to do in this kind of situation?
We regularly receive calls from Palestinian families in the middle of the night who are being attacked by settlers or are desperately waiting for an ambulance stuck at a checkpoint. When people are in difficulty, we liaise with the local civil administration and with the Israeli armed forces. Luckily, this does help in many instances, and in general I think we have a good working relationship with the local Israeli authorities.
We are also able to help families in practical ways. We provide close to 7,000 people with food every month, for instance. In addition, a number of families have received bee hives and produce excellent honey for themselves and for the market. We have helped establish roof gardens for others so that they can grow their own fresh vegetables. Of course, this is not a real solution to their problems, but it does help to alleviate their difficult economic situation.
Under international humanitarian law, the Israeli authorities, as an occupying power, must ensure the provision of food and medical care to the population under occupation, as well as public order and safety. For us at the ICRC, it is frustrating that we are not able to help as much as we would like and that we see no improvement. That being said, we are still hopeful that the restrictions on movement will ease.
What is the situation in the southern area of the West Bank?
The most southern area of the West Bank, Masafer Yatta, is also a hotspot of settler violence. This area is home to thousands of herders and Bedouins who are used to moving around freely in the grazing areas with their sheep and goats. People looking after the animals, including women and children, are often attacked. Some villages are also situated in what has become an Israeli military training area and it can be quite dangerous to move around.
To make matters worse, the climate is extremely harsh. The land is arid and barren and the hills only take on a slightly green tinge for a couple of months in spring. A number of the families have had to reduce the size of their herds because they could not find enough food and water.
How do families manage under such harsh conditions?
Coping is becoming increasingly difficult. It looks like we are heading for another drought this year, which compounds the fact that many of the families in the Southern Hebron Hills suffer from a chronic lack of water. The Israeli authorities do not allow Palestinians to build new rainwater cisterns, so the ICRC provides mobile water tanks for those families with the most acute problems.
This reduces the time they spend fetching water, as the tanks can normally hold a week’s drinking water. Families used to pay someone else with a water tank to bring water to them – and this can be quite expensive. Now, they can save this money for other essentials.