Following the horrendous attacks by Hamas in Israel on October 7th, and the reciprocal violence by the Israeli Defence Force and settlers in the West Bank, we met with Tarteel Al Junaidi, a member of the Christian Peacemaker Teams based in Hebron, to find out more about the situation there, and the work her organisation is doing. The interview was conducted by WRI's Nonviolence Programme worker, Andrew Metheven.
Could you start by introducing yourself?
My name is Tarteel Al Junaidi – I’m Palestinian from Hebron, where I was born and raised. I’m 28 and I majored in Sociology at Bethlehem University, and I joined Christian Peacemaker Teams in 2019. For my whole life I was passionate about helping my community, helping to build the voice of my people and my community.
What is the history of Hebron?
Historically, Hebron was a very mixed community between Muslims and Jews, and a few Christians. Historically the Jews and Muslims had very similar traditions and beliefs, but things changed when the Zionist movement came to Palestine. From the 1930s there were more uprisings, and clearer bias towards the Jews which was frustrating for the Palestinians – many of those Jewish people had emigrated from other parts of the world.
The British Mandate made a clear stance that there would be more land for Jews at the expense of other Palestinians. This became clear with the Balfour Declaration in 1917. The Palestinian movement wanted to stop it, and there were many uprisings. In 1929 there were attacks in Al Aqsa mosque, and the British had helped, and many people were killed. People took out their frustrations on the Jews in Hebron, which led to seventy-six Jews and nine Muslims being killed.
The British Mandate evacuated all the Jews from Hebron, so there was no presence of Jewish people in Hebron until the occupation of the West Bank in 1967. A group of settlers came with the permission of the Israeli government and started building what became the biggest settlement in Hebron. We now have four settlements inside the Old City itself. The settlers claim they have a long history in Hebron, but they are not related to the Palestine Jews, only by religion.
In 1994, an American-Israeli settler invaded the Ibrahimi Mosque and killed 29 Palestinians while they were praying. The Ibrahimi Mosque is a very holy place for Muslims, and also for Jews. Before, Jews had a special area in the Ibrahimi mosque. After the massacre the mosque was closed for six months, and when it reopened, the mosque had been divided again with 40% for Muslim-Palestinians and 60% for Israeli settlers.
I use the terms “Palestinians” and “Israeli-Settlers” because its not a religious war – its a war between the indigenous Palestinian people and Israeli settlers who came and invaded the area, which is why I use the terms “Palestinians” and “Israeli settlers”.
As the second Intifada started in 2001, they totally closed the Old City. All the shops were closed and the main commercial street – Shuhada Street – was totally closed, and many Palestinians who lived in the area left, to find something better. The Old City became a ghost town.
Can you say a little bit about the situation in Hebron now?
We now have 28 checkpoints in the Old City, to protect the settlements. There are four settlements, 28 checkpoints, 800 settlers, and there are two soldiers for every settler.
After the Ibrahimi mosque Massacre, they created a security protocol that split Hebron into two areas: H1 and H2. H2 is under direct Israeli military control, and includes the Old City and the settlements. H1 is under Palestinian Authority control but on the ground it doesn’t mean anything, because the Israeli military can invade at any point.
From October 7th, a total lockdown was enforced on Palestinians, and for a month they were not allowed to leave their houses at all. During those first days, if they left to get food or medicine, they were threatened with arrest, and some were shot.
Many Israeli’s have been in the army, and because of that, many extremist settlers in the area now act as the military. They are the ones who control the area and control the checkpoints. Even before, the settlers had their own security and power over the soldiers. Now, since they are in the army, this gives them ultimate power and no one can stop them.
After the first month there were fewer restrictions, and Palestinians can go through the checkpoints but only at specific hours. When people started to go outside to demonstrate peacefully, they faced live ammunition and more than 20 Palestinians have been killed since October 7th. While people are demonstrating, marching against what is happening in Gaza, they are walking in H1, the area where the Palestinian Authority have control. The Israeli military would use a drone to fire tear gas on the protesters, to distribute the protesters before they get close to the checkpoint.
Palestinians in H1 are living in a hell with the settlers and the Israeli military. They wish it could go back to like it was before October 7th – now it is like living in a prison.
Would you like to share a personal experience of the situation now?
Yes – I live next to a watch tower. Yesterday, they went to arrest one of our neighbours because he has an illegal car. We were driving to our home, and they stopped us, and pointed their rifles at our car. They came while they were arresting the man, my sister was driving and she got really sad and said “I hope everything will be OK”. One of the soldiers heard her and started yelling and saying bad words in Arabic to her. He started knocking his rifle on the windows of the car, and was close to breaking the glass. He asked for the keys of the car and threw them away on the street, then left. This is the kind of thing that can happen if you’re a Palestinian. We did nothing wrong, we were just driving peacefully to our home. This is nothing compared to what some people face in some areas.
Can you tell me about CPT?
CPT is an international organisation that supports the nonviolent resistance of Palestinians. We always say that we’re not neutral, we stand with the oppressed people, in the areas we work. However, we are neutral when we share information and news, we do that without bias.
CPT works from different locations around the world. We have a team in Colombia, Iraq-Kurdistan, in Lesbos working with migrants, a presence in Canada working with indigenous people, and a presence on the US-Mexico border. The Hebron team is the oldest team, founded in 1995.
Here we have many projects. The main work is school accompaniment, where we stand at the checkpoints where children pass through to get from their homes to their schools and back. Many problems happen here, the soldiers search them, check their bags, detain them, arrest them. We document that. We have good connections with the Red Cross and with the UN and if they detain a child, or invade a school, we try to connect with the Red Cross so they can intervene and stop what is happening.
We have something called the “Emergency Programme”. We try to be in contact with all of the families through visits and bringing volunteers to them so they can tell their stories directly. So if something happens to them – settlers attack, Israeli military invade, any arrests or detentions – they call us and we go and document it as soon as possible.
We used to have a presence in South Hebron hills, in an area where settlers have an outpost near villages. These villages are in a very bad situation. Nine are actually on a “firing zone”, a training area for the military, and they are trying to evict all of the people who are living there. Now, its really hard to visit, so we try to visit every two months and stay in contact with them all the time.
We also have small projects called Through the Lens, where children aged 12-17 learn photography, and tell their stories away from adult vision and perspectives. We don’t push them to talk about the occupation, but because they live in it, the occupation seeps in.
What does the teams day-to-day work look like? How many are in the team? How do you work together?
There are five people. We used to just be an international team but after covid all the internationals had to leave the area. I used to be the only Palestinian with the international team, but since covid we needed more people because the schools were starting and we needed people on the ground to help, so we started having more Palestinian volunteers, full-time.
We have an office the Old City, which is what makes it easier to stay connected with the people there, because we are kind of living with them.
On a normal day we go for several house visits, we go to schools. We also have a delegation 3-4 times a year, where 5-15 people visit to learn more. They stay for two weeks here and in Jerusalem, so they can get more understanding of the situation. Even if you read the news, closely following what is happening, it is very different when you are here on the ground.
You’ve started to touch on international solidarity – what does solidarity in your context look like? How can people help?
Protesting is very important. I think boycotting is very important – keep boycotting Israeli products and their supporters.
Share what is happening – I know it can be exhausting, but its very important to use your platform, to share what is happening.
We always encourage people to come and visit, so they can understand what is happening.
WRI is a nonviolent organisation, as is CPT. I’m interested in your take on what nonviolence looks like in Hebron, what does that word mean to you?
CPT sees our way of resistance as nonviolence, and we are trying to be with the people who are practicing nonviolent resistance. Sometimes, there is no other option for people than to resist, in their own way. The families who are living near settlers or in a very controlled life, they don’t have any option than to try and continue their life as normally as they can. So sometimes, living is their only option. They [the settlers and military] make it hard for them, but people are trying to stay in that area. Many people are leaving because of the restrictions, but the people who are there are practicing nonviolence by staying.
Our only option is to try to live.
Its really easy for people outside the conflict to forget that its about people’s lives and conflict happens in people’s everyday lives, so rooting resistance there is very powerful. I have one last question – what does the future look like? What does a just peace look like? What needs to happen or change? Do you even have the space to think about that?
Looking at the future now is really hard, especially with this Israeli government, who only want to serve themselves. What I’m looking for is to live peacefully, as it was before 1948. Jews, Christians, Muslims used to live together, peacefully, in one country. Everyone had the right to worship whatever they want to worship.
To have this future, there is a lot of work to be done in the Israeli community, and the Palestinian community. We don’t have a problem with the presence of any other religion, its about living with dignity and having your own rights.
For both communities – Palestinians have been under a long occupation, and it is ongoing. Many Palestinians feel the urge for revenge, or can’t stand the presence of Israelis because all they have experienced is killing and murder and arrest. Every Palestinian has experienced an aggression from the army or settlers. So we need to heal that, if we want to have a peaceful future. You can’t just bring people together and tell them you can live peacefully.