During my time in Palestine, I am volunteering for 3 1/2 weeks with the Hebron International Resource Network (HIRN). HIRN was started in 2011 and is run entirely by a dedicated group of both Palestinian and international volunteers. The objectives of the organization are to increase cooperation and collaboration amongst members of Palestinian society; promote and support education for Palestinian children through initiatives aimed at improving educational facilities and environment; and providing various forms of assistance to the most vulnerable households and communities in the West Bank. The organization works out of the HIRN Center in Hebron, where housing is available for volunteers. Projects are funded through the generosity of donors from around the world.
I arrived in Hebron on Friday of last week, and our first project was to work with British artist Mark Sands on a mural for the Shuhada Street kindergarten. A nice idea, but why is this important?
To understand the significance of this project, it is important to understand a bit about the neighbourhood the school is situated in – a neighbourhood unlike any other.
Hebron (population 190,000) is the largest city in the southern West Bank. As such, it is a traditional commercial and manufacturing centre for the region. It is also a historic holy city to Jews, Muslims and Christians as it is believed to be the burial site of the biblical patriarchs and matriarchs Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Sarah, Rebecca and Leah. Historically, the city has long been home to a small but vibrant Jewish community living alongside the primarily Palestinian Muslim population. However, things began to change in the 1920’s when tensions between the two groups escalated and violence ensued. In 1968 (following the 1967 war and Israel’s occupation of the West Bank), the first Israeli settlers arrived in Hebron.
In 1997, the city was divided into two administrative sections: H1 and H2. H1, an area consisting of 18 square kilometres, is home to the majority of the city’s population and is under full Palestinian control. H2, an area of 4.3 square kilometres, is home to 35,000 Palestinian residents and 800 Israeli settlers (many from the U.S.) living in 4 Israeli settlements (considered illegal under International law). There are also several hundred Israeli soldiers based in H2 whose primary role is to protect the (illegal) Israeli settlers. H2 is under full Israeli military control and encompasses the entire Old City of Hebron, which was once a thriving market area and the centre of Palestinian commerce and trade.
Today, Palestinians are restricted from vehicular travel on several streets in the Old City, and some streets are prohibited for Palestinian pedestrian movement. The Israeli authorities currently deploy 120 physical objects to segregate the Old City from the remainder of the city, including 18 permanently staffed checkpoints. The bustling market has dried up, as 512 Palestinian businesses have been closed down by Israeli military orders and at least 1100 others have shut down due to restricted access for customers and suppliers. In the Old City, these access restrictions, as well as systematic harassment from Israeli settlers and at times harassment from Israeli forces, has led to the displacement of thousand of Palestinians and the resultant abandonment of over 1000 homes (40% of residences). Those remaining residents face serious challenges in accessing basic services, including schools, emergency health services, water and sanitation. Many children undergo daily searches at checkpoints and require international protective presence to protect them from settler harassment enroute to school. Acts of settler violence against Palestinians in the Old City include vandalism, property damage, verbal abuse and physical violence done with virtual impunity, as there are serious gaps in the enforcement of the rule of law on Israeli settlers involved in violence and intimidation against the Palestinians. The large majority of complaints about settler violence filed in recent years have been closed by the Israeli Police without indictment. (Information taken from “The Humanitarian Impact of Israeli Settlements in Hebron City, November 2013, found at http://www.ochaopt.org/documents/ocha_opt_hebron_h2_factshe.et_november_2013_english.pdf and the Norwegian Refugee Council report “Driven Out The Continuing Forced Displacement of Palestinian Esidents from Hebron’s Old City, July 2013)
The Shuhada Street kindergarten is located in the heart of H2. The settlers in the area are known to be right wing extremists who have carried out physical attacks on the Palestinian residents, as well as their national and international supporters. This reality, in combination with the extensive presence of Israeli soldiers, creates a difficult and hostile environment for children. You cannot help but see the marks of psychological trauma etched in the faces of these young children, and observe this trauma acted out in their behaviour.
The local primary school does not include a kindergarten. In September of 2013, after extensive community consultations and in collaboration with other local organizations, the Hebron International Resource Network (HIRN) was able to lease a house and transform it into the Shuhada Street Kindergarten, thereby providing’ free early childhood education for thirty energetic four and five year olds, and the only children’s recreational facility in the community. It gives them a safe place to learn and to play, away from the frequent conflict and violence enacted against them. HIRN contributed funds towards the house renovation, the purchase of toys, teacher salaries, and the installation of artificial grass. This week, HIRN volunteers, assisted by the school custodian and various children, were able to brighten the building with a colourful mural.
Peace, Salaam, Shalom,