Page last updated at 18:12 GMT, Tuesday, 11 November 2008

Palestinian life: Splits and barriers

Mohammed Taha is pushed to school by his brother Amjad
Mohammed Taha is pushed to school by his brother Amjad

By Jeremy Bowen
Middle East editor, BBC News

More than 40 years of Israeli occupation distorts everything in Hebron, even the school run.

Two brothers, Mohammed and Amjad Taha, live in the narrow lanes and covered courts of the old town centre.

Until a few years ago their quarter was crumbling, but it has been renovated with Swedish aid money.

The alleys have been paved, and the ancient stones scrubbed and repointed. Half close your eyes and you could imagine yourself in a place where tourists might want to stroll.

And how wrong you would be. This is no place for a holiday.

You can see Mohammed and Amjad's school from their front door, about 200 yards away, just down the alley.

When I was there last week the school's windows were catching the morning sun as Mohammed, eight, teetered in the entrance of his home, holding on to the doorframe.

He has cerebral palsy, so his big brother Amjad, 12, parks his wheelchair, puts on the brake and lifts him in.

A Palestinian woman and child walk behind an Israeli soldier in Hebron
Israeli troops protect the Jewish settlers, and impose restrictions on Palestinians
He's been doing it since Mohammed started school two years ago.

They wave goodbye to their mother and set off.

Concrete barrier

But they don't turn down the alley to get to school, which should be only two minutes away, even for a boy in a wheelchair.

About the time that Mohammed was born, the Israeli army blocked the alley with a high concrete barrier.

Last week Mrs Taha told the BBC that the Israelis had ignored requests to open it to make it easier for him to get to school.

The barrier was put there by the army, to make life easier and safer for the Jewish settlers who sometimes use the street on the other side.

A small community of Israelis lives in the centre of Hebron, in defiance of international laws that forbid an occupying power to settle its own people on the territory it has captured.

A strong force of Israeli combat troops protects the settlers, and has imposed years of restrictions on the Palestinians who live near them.

Anger and hatred simmer on both sides. Both sides recall massacres: of Jews in 1929, of Palestinians in 1994.

So we filmed the boys going to school. Instead of the direct route, Amjad had push him up into the tangle of alleys to take him the long way round.

Hebron is a city of steep hills. Luckily Amjad is a strong boy, and judging by his shoulders, the workout he had been getting every school day for two years was making him stronger all the time.

The morning after the pictures of the two boys were broadcast by the BBC, Palestinian workers employed by the Israeli civil administration turned up at Mohammed Taha's alley and demolished the wall.

In a statement the army said that after a request from the family, the wall was taken down "to facilitate easier movement for the child, it was a gesture of goodwill…"

The building workers told the BBC that the wall would be rebuilt with a gate inside it, which only Mohammed and his family will be able to use.

Self-inflicted wound

In occupied Hebron, the abnormal has become normal. The Taha brothers are not the only people there who have tough lives.

Israeli police
Palestinian police have recently deployed on Hebron's streets
Living under occupation is hard enough for Palestinians, but their leaders are making matters even worse with a wound that they are inflicting on themselves.

The split between their two main factions, Hamas, the self-styled Islamic Resistance Movement, and Fatah, the heirs to Yasser Arafat, is so bitter that reconciliation talks arranged by the Egyptian government in Cairo were cancelled at the last minute.

Hamas said it would not go because police loyal to Fatah have been arresting its people.

In the last few weeks a new detachment of Palestinian police, armed and trained by Americans and Europeans, has been deployed on the streets of Hebron.

They are there with the permission of Israel, on the understanding that they will stay away from the Jewish settlers and will co-ordinate their operations with the Israeli authorities.

Outside the headquarters of Palestinian intelligence in Hebron, families were waiting to visit some of the arrested men who are being held in the building's cells.

Tense-looking men dragged on their cigarettes.

Women, all modestly dressed in the Islamic style, some completely veiled, stood together.

Tea and weaponry

Inside in the deputy chief's office a small cache of weapons and bombs, mainly home-made, was arranged in the corner.

Tea was offered by an intelligence man carrying an American-made M-16 assault rifle, and wearing a holster containing a nickel-plated pistol, its butt covered in mother-of-pearl-effect plastic.

Palestinians seized weapons from Hamas during recent raids
Palestinian police seized weapons from Hamas during recent raids

The deputy chief, who doesn't want his name published, said the small pile of weapons came from the previous night's raids. He spoke in between signing papers, making phone calls, and sipping his tea.

"It is illegal for other factions to carry weapons. Hamas says we work for the Israelis to keep their people on side. This is a political and PR struggle as well.

"But we signed an agreement with Israel and we are serious about applying it to get a Palestinian state."

For the Fatah leadership in Ramallah, who have been negotiating with the Israelis, the raids and arrests in Hebron and elsewhere are the meaning of the phrase "cracking down on terror" that is often used by Israeli and western leaders when they are listing what Palestinians need to do if they want a state.

But some of the people who have been raided say it is more to do with settling scores.

A number of Hamas supporters who spoke to the BBC said that the Palestinian police who raided their homes threatened them by saying that they would get the same medicine that Hamas inflicted on Fatah people in Gaza when they seized control last year.

Weakened by division

Charitable institutions funded by Islamic charities and run by Hamas sympathisers or activists have also been raided, and sometimes closed down, by Palestinian police.

The deputy intelligence chief in Hebron shrugged and said that it is impossible to separate the political and military activities of Hamas from its charitable work, which for some Palestinians is the nearest they have to a welfare state.

Hamas denies any of the charities were fronts for what the police say are illegal activities.

The irony of all this for Palestinians is that they know that their divisions weaken them.

Both Fatah and Hamas have talked about the need for national unity.

But for now, they cannot even find a way to sit down together. And for if they are not united they will not be able to create a proper state.

This week the Taha family had some good news about Mohammad's trip to school.

But the collapse of the reconciliation talks before they had started is not just bad news for Palestinians, it is bad for anyone who wants peace in the Middle East.

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