Letter from Hebron

Life for Palestinians on the West Bank can feel as isolated as life for Gazans

In the heart of the old city of Hebron four men sit around, sipping coffee in a shop thick with smoke. The walls are chipped, the floor is dirty and behind the two tables there is only one stove for heating drinks. In any other city this would be an entirely unremarkable café. But this is Beit Romano, a desolate square at the entrance to the Old City, which has been abandoned by local Palestinians.

All the shop shutters are down and the few people passing through hurry along, eyes downcast. An Israel Defence Forces watchtower looms in the corner of the square adjacent to the raised buildings belonging to an Israeli settlement. The modern settlement buildings sit uncomfortably with the boarded-up and run-down Palestinian shops below.

Not every shop is closed, though. In full view of the soldiers in the watchtower, one man brazenly serves coffee. Muhammed, who runs the coffee shop, was first imprisoned by the Israeli army for fighting and political activity in 1976. He later ran a printing press, criticising both the Israeli government and the Palestinian Authority over the Oslo Accords.

Surrounded by settlers

Muhammed has been detained seven times since then and claims to have been tortured, which has left him with permanent headaches and a visible nervous tic. His resistance now takes a different form. "I am an old man and too old to fight," he says. "Now I serve coffee to anyone who will come in. And I talk to anyone who will listen."

He remembers the vibrant, busy souk before the settlement was built. It used to weave through the narrow streets, full of spices, meats, vegetables and fabrics.

Now, about 450 Jewish settlers live in the area surrounding the old souk; the numbers have been growing since the mid-Nineties. Although the settlers make up only about 1 per cent of the city's population, the zone where they live, the size of roughly 15 per cent of the land on which the city stands, is guarded by Israeli troops, there to protect them. New roads and bypasses have been built for them so they can live entirely separately from the rest of the Palestinian city.

A regular customer at the coffee shop, Ahmed, takes visitors on tours around the Old City. Articulate and with near-perfect English, he points out every watchtower and boarded-up street. "All I do is show people. I do not explain the history as it doesn't matter what happened before," Ahmed says. "I want to show people what is happening now, so they can see for themselves."

Netting has been threaded over the top of one street to protect it from the rubbish thrown down by the settlers living above. A sea of rubbish has collected in the netting, almost blocking out any sunlight. According to Ahmed, rubbish is not the only thing that has been thrown down. Sometimes the settlers also discard urine and boiling or dirty water. Netting cannot protect against that.

Blank cheque to leave

One Palestinian family still lives in the area, surrounded by settlers. All the other Palestinian houses have been abandoned, and opposite a soldier parades on the roof of the new flats. Over a cup of coffee, Abdul, the father of the family, recounts being threatened with guns, his children suffering violence in the street and being verbally abused in his home every day.

A few months ago, a group of settlers shot through the back door to Abdul's house with guns. Although no one in the house got shot during the attack, a bullet missed his son by inches and the boy fell over from the shock, banging his head and leaving him with a permanently damaged eye. The family has also been offered a blank cheque to leave, which it has refused. Because of all this, Abdul's wife has left him and taken their youngest son with her.

When asked, given everything, what would make him leave, Abdul laughs, and then replies very seriously: "I will die here. The only way I will leave is if they kill me. This is my home."

Beit Romano is also home to Muhammed and his coffee shop. The café struggles to cover its costs, but then the point is not to make money. With every coffee Muhammed serves, he is resisting the occupation. "We cannot be arrested for drinking coffee. People see us and see that we are not afraid. Then maybe other people are not so afraid."

And it seems that other people in Beit Romano are taking courage from Muhammed's coffee shop. Just down the street, a grocery has opened.