A microcosm of Palestinian struggle: one family’s life in Hebron/Al-Khalil

The Al-Jaabari family's decades-long struggle is a microcosm of life for Palestinians under Jewish settler and army rule in Hebron-Al-Khalil (Louy Alsaeed - AJ)

Louy Alsaeed

Al-Jazeera  /  April 26, 2022

The Al-Jaabaris are one of several families in Hebron whose home is sandwiched between Jewish settlements.

Hebron/Al-Khalil, Occupied West Bank – Daily life is a test of resilience in the two-story home of 64-year-old Abdulkareem al-Jaabari and his family of 16.

In the Palestinian city of Hebron/Al-Khalil, located in the south of the Israeli-occupied West Bank, the al-Jaabaris are one of the few Palestinian families whose homes are sandwiched between the two illegal Jewish settlements of Kiryat Arba and Giv’at Ha-Avot. The family says it is exposed to regular attacks and harassment from Jewish settlers and Israeli forces.

Hebron is home to approximately 200,000 Palestinians, as well as 700 or so Jewish settlers. However, 20 percent of the city is under direct Israeli control, and Palestinians living in it, or passing through it, are subjected to checkpoints and a ban from travelling on several main streets, unlike the Jewish settlers.

This has pushed thousands of Palestinians to leave, which rights groups (PDF) have described as mass forced displacement.

During the week of the Jewish festival of Passover, which lasted from April 15 to 22 this year and overlapped with the Muslim holy month of Ramadan, thousands of Israeli settlers and supporters, some of them armed, took part in events in the streets of Hebron’s downtown, including the Old City, under Israeli army protection.

A settler rally took place on April 18 near Al-Ibrahimi Mosque (the Tomb of the Patriarchs), where an American-Israeli settler massacred 29 Palestinians in 1994 as they prayed.

Israeli forces closed Al-Ibrahimi Mosque to Palestinian worshippers for several days last week while facilitating the entry of thousands of Israeli settlers. Roads leading to the mosque were also shut down while dozens of shops in the Old City were forced to close their doors.

“We fear Saturdays and Jewish holidays,” Abdulkareem told Al-Jazeera from his home.

On such occasions, tensions on the ground increase as Israel deploys more army and police to guard settlers, and Palestinians experience an increase in movement restrictions, and state and settler violence.

Israel argues that the presence of army forces and restrictions on Palestinians are necessary for security reasons, and to protect Jewish settlers living in Hebron from Palestinian attacks.

In late February, an Israeli court ruled that the Israeli army could continue to use a building in Hebron built mostly on private Palestinian land by arguing that a Jewish presence in the West Bank is part of the Israeli army’s security doctrine.

For Palestinians in Hebron, the effect of that presence can be particularly evident at special events organized by settlers.

“On these holidays, the Israeli right [wing] mobilizes its supporters from the city and outside,” Hisham al-Sharabati, a Hebron resident and human rights worker, told Al-Jazeera, adding that settler harassment usually increases during this time.

‘Continuous attacks’

The Al-Jaabari family’s decades-long struggle is a microcosm of life for Palestinians under Israeli army rule in Hebron.

Their home is surrounded by barbed wire to protect against attacks on the property. The family has installed several surveillance cameras to document the attacks.

According to the family, every member has been hospitalized at one point in time as a result of settler attacks.

“I do not deny that I have become accustomed to daily fear in my life here,” said Abdulkareem. “The continuous attacks have forced us to be prepared for the worst at all times.”

The United Nations has documented several attacks on the family by settlers. Settlers have shot at the family, thrown stones at them, and broken into their home and damaged it. They have also had their livestock and crops stolen.

Abdulkareem’s daughter Ayat and his son Adi say they have faced attacks from settlers – Ayat when a rock was thrown at her head giving her a concussion, and Adi when he was stabbed by a settler leaving him hospitalized.

“The [Israeli] occupation and its settlers are trying by every means to displace us from our lands and homes,” said Abdulkareem, also known by his nickname Abu Anan.

Taking over the land

In 1968, shortly after its occupation of the West Bank, Israel erected Kiryat Arba – one of the first and most hardline Jewish settlements in the West Bank – some 80 metres (260 feet) away from Abdulkareem’s home.

The settlement now spans about 5,000 dunams (5sq km) and is the location of a shrine for Baruch Goldstein, the settler who carried out Al-Ibrahimi Mosque massacre.

Years later, the nearby outpost of Giv’at Ha-Avot was set up some 20 metres away on the other side of the Al-Jaabari family’s land, with the total population of both settlements approximately 8,000.

Abdulkareem’s land, passed down through his family for generations, and which he formally inherited from his father in 1991, became a strategic location, in between the two settlements.

While Abdulkareem’s sons are now employed, the 10sq km (2,470 acres) of land has stood as the main source of income for the family, who rely on farming and livestock.

Before building a house there in 1976, they would spend their summers on the land and tend to their dozen or so trees.

That idyllic lifestyle soon changed as settler encroachment increased. In 2002, settlers erected a staircase in the midst of Abu Anan’s land to connect Kiryat Arba and the outpost of Giv’at Ha-Avot. In 2006, they placed a large tent on it to serve as a synagogue.

Despite a court ruling in 2015 stating that the tent had to be removed, the army has allowed settlers to continue to use it. Dozens come every Saturday, while on Jewish holidays the numbers rise to hundreds.

For the settlers, the Jewish presence in Hebron is justified religiously as it is the location of Al-Ibrahimi Mosque, revered by both Muslims and Jews, who call the site the Tomb of the Patriarchs.

The settlers also say that a Jewish community has existed in Hebron since the Middle Ages, and that the killing of 67 Jews by Palestinians in 1929 is the main reason they were forced out before returning after the Israeli occupation of the West Bank in 1967.

Jewish settler attacks

In a 2019 sample by the United Nations of 280 Palestinian families in the areas most affected by settlements in Hebron, nearly 70 percent said at least one member of their household had experienced settler violence or harassment since October 2015.

For the Al-Jaabari family, settler attacks have been more violent than for others.

In 2007, more than 300 settlers broke into the home and attacked the family, they said.

“I have three sons with special needs – they were not spared from the attack. The settlers destroyed their wheelchairs, assaulted them and prevented ambulances from reaching us,” Abu Anan recalled.

In a 2008 attack that was documented by the United Nations, a wedding for one of Abdulkareem’s children was attacked by settlers who threw stones, eggs, and tomatoes. Another wedding in 2013 was also attacked after settlers raided the family home. On both occasions, wedding attendees were left injured.

“Even our weddings are bloody and terrifying,” Abdulkareem said.

The family says that Israeli forces in the area not only ignore complaints against settlers, but often provide protection for them during attacks. Instances of such cooperation, and even joint attacks involving settlers and the army across the West Bank, have been documented by rights groups.

The Israeli army did not respond when asked to comment on the allegations made against it.

Between 2000 and 2008, Abdulkareem filed at least 75 complaints to the police, and dozens more since then.

“A settler once shot me while I was harvesting olives,” said Abdulkareem. “I went to the Israeli police, who were a few metres away from my house, to file a complaint against the settler. The police decided to imprison me and my son for 17 days and imposed a fine on us, claiming that we attacked the settler.”

Abdulkareem’s son, 26-year-old Mohammad, believes it is futile to turn to Israeli authorities.

“In the last three years, we decided not to resort to submitting any complaint to the Israeli police, and have preferred to defend ourselves – whatever the outcome,” he told Al Jazeera.

Louy Alsaeed is a Palestinian journalist