Hebron is like a ghost town after 50 years of Israeli occupation
By Bishop Declan Lang
Walking through the centre of Hebron is a strange and unsettling experience. Streets are empty, shops are closed, homes are sealed shut and heavily-armed soldiers wait on every corner.
The once-bustling markets stand deserted and there is constant tension in the air.
This is one of Palestine’s biggest cities and it has felt the full force of the occupation that began 50 years ago when Israel invaded the West Bank, Gaza and East Jerusalem during the Six Day War.
Ever since it has been marred by violence between the local Palestinian population and hundreds of Israeli settlers who moved in, citing historical claims to the land.
To protect the settlers Israel has imposed a heavy security regime, forbidding thousands of Palestinian residents from walking, driving or opening shops on the main streets. Troops have flooded the area, responding forcefully to any violence by Palestinians, while the settlers seem to have freedom to harass or attack with impunity.
As a result, around half of Palestinian homes and most businesses in the city centre have now been abandoned. Many of those Palestinians who remain are hindered from accessing vital services like schools and healthcare due to the strict restrictions on where they can go.
All across the West Bank there are similar stories of people being denied the basic freedoms that most of us take for granted.
Shortly after visiting Hebron, I met with young people in Bethlehem who have known nothing other than the daily pressure of occupation and cannot even travel seven kilometres to Jerusalem without applying for a permit.
Their communities have also been devastated by construction of the separation wall. This enormous concrete barrier is officially intended to secure Israel’s border, but the vast majority of it runs directly through occupied Palestinian land.
In places like the Cremisan Valley it cuts farmers off from their fields, decimating livelihoods. Elsewhere the wall has split neighbourhoods and even families apart, preventing thousands of Palestinians from leading normal lives.
In a damning report last year the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights concluded that throughout the West Bank “movement restrictions undermine individuals’ rights to healthcare, work, education and family life, and result in the rupture of social, economic, cultural and family ties.”
These restrictions are even more severe for the 1.8 million people living in Gaza, few of whom are ever allowed to leave. Israel’s blockade of the territory has left them trapped in what the local parish priest describes as “the world’s largest prison”.
Even those who need to travel for medical treatment must go through a long application process and are often refused permission to exit.
Inbound transportation of anything from medicine to building materials is also tightly controlled. On top of the destruction caused to Gaza’s infrastructure by repeated wars, this has created a humanitarian crisis. Many homes lie in ruins, some neighbourhoods have electricity for just a few hours each day, and most families depend on support from international organisations.
This is the reality of life under occupation in 2017. The construction of settlements, the route of the separation wall and the continued blockade of Gaza are all violations of international law that not only inflict tremendous suffering, but also undermine the chance of peace. That is disastrous for Israelis and Palestinians alike.
Now, half a century since the occupation began, is a critical moment for the world to act. We all have a part to play: by praying for peace, becoming informed about the situation, and putting pressure on our politicians.
This year I urge Catholics in England and Wales to look at the resources produced by the Bishops’ Conference and share them with your parish. They can all be found online at: www.catholicnews.org.uk/occupation
Every time I travel to the Holy Land, I am struck by the people’s resilience and faith. Despite living for so long amid hardship and division, so many still strive for reconciliation and believe in a better future. More than ever we need to stand alongside them.
The Right Reverend Declan Lang is the Bishop of Clifton. He is Chair of the Bishops’ Conference Department of International Affairs and is the Episcopal Liaison for the Catholic Missionary Union. He also sits on the Mixed Commission of the Conference of Religious and is a member of the Bishops’ Conference Department of Christian Responsibility and Citizenship.
Picture: Bishop Declan Lang, right, shakes hands with Palestinian Christian Daoud Nassar at the Tent of Nations in the West Bank, near Bethlehem, on 16th January 2017. (CNS photo/Debbie Hill).