The sense of Place and Identity in Hebron, Palestine

Posted on Mar 16, 2020

In Hebron, a city of 200 000, there is the Old City of 30 000, where there are religious sites coveted by Zionist settlers, these under military cover are slowly but surely helping Israeli policies of settler-colonisation. OCHA has recently produced an excellent summary of the deteriorating situation in Hebron.


On 5th Feb 2020, with CPT (Christian Peacemaker Teams) we went to a checkpoint in the Old City Hebron, within H2, an area of 30,000,under Israeli military control, to monitor Palestinian children, adults, and teachers on their way to school. They have to pass through these checkpoints – horrible cages with turnstiles, cold concrete, barbed wire and cameras.

We record the numbers of children and incidents of body and bag searches, delays and denials, and other kinds of abuse. The children have never known any different. This is a scene that the unaccustomed observer (especially) will struggle to empathise with or make sense of. We, the foreigners with passport privilege, free to leave this land at any time, can have no idea of the real impact of these checkpoints on the Palestinians.

This February morning, it was cold, and many children were going to school. After an hour, the last six boys were kept waiting for over 20 minutes and then the boys, waiting in the shade by the turnstile and no doubt cold, gave up and just turned back the way they came, away from school. No education for them today – effectively denied entry to their education by soldiers.

This was just one ripple of abuse, denial of human rights, among so many ripples spreading through the Palestinian community far and wide.

This checkpoint is a barrier between settler-free Palestinian territory, to the south of the Old City, under Israeli military control. and what might be called a settler-colonisation corridor, or H2 High Security Zone (H2HSZ) (about 2.5Km, from Tel Rumeida to Kiryat Arba), that runs in a heavily policed curve south of the Old City, following the line of Shuhada Street to the west, and up to Prayer Rd to the east. To the north of this corridor are further checkpoints separating the settler corridor from the Old City.

The geography is extremely complex. A balanced community has been invaded by a malignant poison and this corridor is a poisoned place, poisoned by Zionist nationalism.

Within the corridor lies Abed’s shop, owned by Palestinians who have lived here for generations. It lies smack bang in the middle of this apartheid corridor.

Some Palestinians live and work within this poisoned place. The idea of a poisoned place has been written out before. For example see here:

By Edward Relph:

    “I have written about these pathologies of place attachment [and poisoned places] … This is the result when sense of place turns sour and becomes exclusionary. Much of what is positive in sense of place depends on a reasonable balance. At one extreme, when that balance is upset by an excess of placeless internationalism the local identity of places is eroded. At the other extreme, when that balance is upset by excessive commitment to place and local or national zeal, the result is a poisoned sense of place in which other places and people are treated with contempt.”

In its extreme forms, … it is revealed in ethnic nationalist supremacy and xenophobia.”

It looks and feels to me, actually being here, as if the Palestinians living here have been exiled to a poisonous place, a place poisoned by settler-colonialism. But, nonetheless, they are desperately holding on to their home and heritage, trying to hold onto their identity and sense of this poisoned place.

It is especially difficult for non-Palestinians to understand what is going on, or the thoughts and feelings of Palestinians. There are two opposing dangers: first, that we remain too aloof and detached or unfeeling treating the situation as a novelty, almost a tourist attraction; and second, and by contrast, we could assume too much, ‘as if’ we could ever know.

One way for non-Palestinians to approach the situation could be through Palestinian culture: writing, poetry, art, cinema. To this end I’ve included here a poem that we read together this morning at our morning reflection the day after a 17 year old boy was brutally shot dead by the IDF, for throwing stones. We cannot over-emphasise the barbarity and fascist features of this extreme Israeli Zionist nationalist and expansionist programme.

Through the words of Mahmoud Darwesh, the first and last verses of a famous poem “Identity Card” written when he was only 24, and read by him in Nazareth in 1964, to a tumultuous reception.

Identity Card
by Mahmoud Darwish – 1964, aged 24
First read in Nazareth to a tumultuous reaction

Write down!
I am an Arab
And my identity card number is fifty thousand
I have eight children
And the ninth will come after a summer
Will you be angry?

Write down on the top of the first page:
I do not hate poeple
Nor do I encroach
But if I become hungry
The usurper’s flesh will be my food
Of my hunger
And my anger!

Anger, of course, but violence may well breed more violence. A dilemma, since Identity seems to demand a forceful response. Youths throw stones and are shot: people demonstrate peacefully, and are shot. The State of Israel wants and needs violence, ‘permanent war’ to brutalise its own population, to cement an Israeli identity in thrall to a fascist hatred of Muslims and Christians in Palestine. We should note that Israel’s extreme nationalist colonialism is a form of ethnic cleansing and incremental genocide. And note that, after Eco, (see here) permanent war and institutionalised racism are two of the features around which fascism congeals.

These places that we monitor are, in a sense, poisoned places, poisoned by settler-colonialism, breeding and perpetuating xenophobia and fear and distrust on all sides, and note clearly that this cycle of hate is triggered, sustained and accelerated in occupied Palestine, by US/UK/NATO and even the Arab Gulf States which back Israeli-State invasion, settler-colonisation, and expansion.