Lessons from Shuhada Street

Seven years ago, I had the distinct pleasure of traveling to Palestine for the first time on a Sabeel Witness Trip. Our group was made up of white American Christians of various denominations, our Scottish-born tour guide and me, a white American convert to Islam.

As a journalist I’d been writing about Palestine for years but had never seen for myself what the “facts on the ground” really looked like. When I joined AMP as its director of media and communications in 2009, visiting Palestine was the only way to authenticate my writing and public speaking on the occupation, apartheid and the deprivation of Palestinian human rights. 

Nothing I had written about before that trip prepared me for what I witnessed. Afterward, I often spoke about the occupation and my eye-witness account of how Israeli policies impacted every aspect of Palestinian lives. I did not speak about the racism I personally experienced, because even now I consider it to be of no consequence relative to what Palestinians endure daily. After all, once my 14 days in the Holy Land were over, I’d be back home. 

Now, however, I am shedding light on those experiences in hopes it may help the average person understand the significance of the 8th annual Open Shuhada Street campaign. If it’s hard to imagine what it must be like for a Palestinian resident of Hebron, who can see his house across the square from his shop but nonetheless has to take a circuitous, one-hour, 20-minute route around checkpoints to reach it, then maybe my story of being discriminated against because of my Muslim faith will resonate. What happened to me is definitely not more important nor is it a more legitimate example of apartheid and oppression. I’m just trying to use any tactic that will work to raise awareness. 

My trip started with a seven-hour detention at the Tel Aviv airport, where officials could not grasp why someone with a “Jewish-sounding” surname would be wearing a headscarf. Nor could they comprehend why a Muslim would be traveling with a group of Christians. Their incredulity was a stunning eye-opener into the bigotry that’s pervasive in Israeli society. It was apparent that in their convoluted world view, they view all Palestinians as the enemy. They also seemed to equate my headscarf with their idea of “Palestinian-ness.” They were not able to make any distinction. Equality and inclusiveness were never part of the equation. 

Once I finally was able to join my group, the discrimination did not stop. I must have been a constant source of irritation for my companions as their lives were impacted on so many occasions because of me. Each time our bus inched its way through a checkpoint, for instance, we’d be fine as long as soldiers only saw white, American faces through the bus windows. But without fail, we’d come to a lurching halt when the soldiers saw me. Without fail, we’d be pulled of the bus, and a search with armed soldiers, mirrors and dogs would ensue. 

Hebron trash

A net collects garbage thrown by settlers on the Palestinian residents below.

Shuhada Street

Members of the American tour group walk on Shuhada Street while Palestinians are relegated to the narrow alleyway created by cement barriers. 

Not being able to cross

Members of my group and our tour guide wait for permission to cross Shuhada Street. We were prohibited from crossing for about 20 minutes because of my headscarf.

View the photo gallery.

Then came Hebron. We arrived on a miserably hot day and cloudless sky. A Palestinian from the Hebron Rehabilitation Society gave us a tour of the old market area, closed by more than 100 checkpoints though it was only slightly larger than .5 square miles. He showed us mobile surveillance cameras that moved along wires to follow specific individuals. We entered al-Ibrahimi mosque – after going through three checkpoints and a bag search. 

Hebron has a long and storied history. It’s one of the oldest cities in the region and is mentioned in the Bible. Abraham, Sarah, Isaac, Jacob, Rebekkah and Leah are thought to be buried in al-Ibrahimi mosque. 
In 1994, a Jewish American physician named Baruch Goldstein entered the mosque during morning prayers and opened fire. He killed 29 worshipers then and there. Israeli soldiers killed another 11 Palestinians in the ensuing chaos. Settlers erected a statue of Goldstein in his honor in a settlement that abuts Hebron. 

Israeli authorities punished the Palestinians for Goldstein’s violence. They divided the mosque, giving 65 percent to Jews. Palestinians were left with just 35 percent of their mosque, which was manned in 2010 by 12 audio and visual recorders, several checkpoints and an untold number of Israeli soldiers. I don't know how many cameras may be inside the mosque now.

Worse still, once settlers began moving in, Palestinian life basically stopped. The movement of more than 30,000 Palestinians is severely restricted because of about 800 Israeli settlers who live illegally in the top floors of buildings in the old market area of Hebron and in settlements ringing the city. Palestinians who still have access to that area have erected netting above the street to capture the refuse and feces the settlers throw through their windows at them. (View images from Hebron. The colorful pictures of shops come from outside the old market area. Inside the old market area, which is closed, most shops are closed and there is very little freedom of movement.)

Nearly 2,000 shops in the old market area are closed, either by military order or because of lack of business. There’s no business because Palestinians are not allowed to travel on, or even cross, Shuhada Street, the main thoroughfare in the once bustling market area. In a blatant case of apartheid, cement barriers have been erected along the side of Shuhada Street, leaving a narrow path for Palestinians. Jews, my Christian companions, and soldiers had free reign. An American hijabi was not so lucky. 

Our tour finished, we planned to cross Shuhada Street to get coffee in an international market. But two blond-haired soldiers with Russian accents stopped us. They pointed at my head and prohibited us from crossing. As our Palestinian tour guide explains in this video, they won’t let me cross because I’m Muslim. 

So there we were in the blazing sun, in a 20-minute stand-off with 18-year-old punks with automatic weapons. I offered to stay behind so the rest of the group could move on and get refreshments but they refused. As we stood there, I watched as Palestinians scurried on the narrow path, going about their business while soldiers lazily meandered down Shuhada. One lone soldier guarded a settlement at the end of the street. 

It was a desolate and sickening scene, one that will haunt me for the rest of my days. After a waste of time and emotional energy, we eventually were let through. An easy story, really, when compared to what Palestinians put up with every day, especially in Hebron.

A group of activists formed Youth Against Settlements, led by Issa Amro, as a way to combat apartheid peacefully by providing programs and activities for youngsters who have seen almost all their opportunities strangled by the occupation. The youth center, which is also Amro’s home, has been the subject of attacks by the military and settlers, who, in 2016, destroyed $15,000 of the group’s media equipment . Amro was arrested and currently is facing 18 charges and several years in prison for his nonviolent resistance activities. 

Since my miserable time standing on the side of Shuhada Street in the blazing sun seven years ago, things have gotten steadily worse in Hebron. According to the Open Shuhada Street organizers, adults and children over the age of 16 have been assigned numbers they must recite in order to get through the checkpoint into the city. Other children must carry their passports to prove they are residents. Sounds eerily reminiscent of another horrendous period in recent history. It’s important for us to remember that our tax dollars, to the tune of more than $3.1 billion per year, help support these policies that not only contravene international law but that deprive Palestinians of their basic human rights.

Please take action for Open Shuhada Street. Get more information here 

AMP's action alert.
Sign these two petitions, one asking the UN to demand Israel end apartheid and open Shuhada Street and one demanding the IRS revoke the tax exempt status of the Hebron Fund .
Get more information about Issa Amro’s trial .
Finally, join us tomorrow for a social media campaign. Join the Thunderclap and get sample tweets.