October 21, 2016, marked the first anniversary of the death of the Palestinian doctor Hashem al-Azzeh. The proximate cause of his demise is in dispute. Was it excessive tear gas inhalation, or was it the chest pains he had been feeling earlier on that day? Perhaps it was a combination of the two. But the ultimate cause is clear: the brutality of the Israeli occupation contributed to his death.
I first met al-Azzeh two years ago, while I was working for the International Solidarity Movement (ISM), an organization dedicated, as its name suggests, to standing in solidarity with the Palestinians. I was stationed in the neighborhood of Tel Rumeida, in the heart of the ancient city of Hebron in the West Bank, where a few hundred right-wing Zionist settlers (and the thousands of soldiers assigned to protect them) live among the roughly 100,000 Palestinians who call the city home.
Hebron is divided into two zones: H1, which is under Palestinian administration, and H2, where the Israeli authorities have control. H2 contains the most famous Hebron landmark, which is also a major source of contention between Muslims and Jews — the Cave of the Patriarchs, as it is known by Jews, and the Ibrahimi Mosque, as it is referred to by Muslims. The building, a large rectangular stone enclosure, is believed by Muslims, Christians and Jews to lie above the tomb of Abraham, the father of all three religions. In Tel Rumeida, a short walk away, settlers and Palestinians live in close proximity to one another, and violent confrontations between them occur on an almost daily basis.
In the middle of the night of August 2, 2014, I walked to al-Azzeh’s house. The army does not allow the use of his front door, and I had to make my way along a dirt path that led through thick bushes to the back. Al-Azzeh, a thin man in his early fifties, was standing on his porch when I arrived, tightly gripping a baseball bat in his right hand. A bullet hole, the result of a settler attack, was visible in the wall above the door.
It was the height of Operation Protective Edge, an Israeli military assault on Gaza, and the Palestinians of Tel Rumeida knew the potential for violence on this night was greater than normal. Not only had the situation in Gaza generally exacerbated the already high tensions in Hebron, but just a few days earlier the Israelis had suffered one of their worst losses of the assault, with 25 soldiers dying in a single day. A soldier from Kiryat Arba, the largest settlement in Hebron, had been among the dead, and he was to be buried in the old Jewish cemetery in Tel Rumeida. Hundreds of enraged and most likely armed settlers would be descending on the Palestinian neighborhood for the funeral, many of them looking for vengeance. I was part of a three-person team assigned to spend the night at the doctor’s house. Our presence, we hoped, would mitigate the possibility of a settler attack.
Like many Palestinians who live in Tel Rumeida, the family of Hashem al-Azzeh has a long history of confrontation with the settlers. For years, they attempted to induce him to leave his home. But he steadfastly refused. “I will never move until I die or we get our freedom,” he said in a 2013 interview.
The settlers employed harsh and violent methods. They repeatedly attacked him, smashing his head and breaking his teeth with the butts of their guns. Twice they beat up his wife, Nisreen, who was pregnant at the time, on both occasions causing a miscarriage. Once they invaded his house, shooting bullets into the walls, breaking windows and smashing furniture.
Al-Azzeh claimed that in 2003, perhaps sensing that he could not be intimidated, they offered him $2 million to leave, but he refused, saying that he “would require the national budgets of the USA and Israel.” If they provided that, he would sell them a branch from his olive tree.
The four hours we spent at his house that night were terrifying, as we sat in the darkness, thinking about the settlers roaming around outside. Earlier in the evening, I had watched from the roof of the ISM apartment as dozens of settlers climbed up the hill and passed on their way to the cemetery. A good number of them were armed, their M-16s slung over their shoulder. It was a frightening scene. I thought about my Canadian colleague, Peter, who years earlier had been attacked by a group of settlers and almost lost his life.
Throughout the night, al-Azzeh relayed to us reports that he received on his phone:
“There are thousands of angry settlers gathering at the Tomb of the Patriarchs.”
“The settlers are coming this way. They are chanting ‘Death to Arabs.'”
I had not seen al-Azzeh’s wife or any of their four children. I was sure he did not want his kids to be here if a mob broke down the door and began beating the inhabitants.
One of al-Azzeh’s sons was arrested when he was five years old. The soldiers accused him of throwing stones, but they admitted that they had not actually witnessed this. Laughing as they arrested him, they told al-Azzeh that they were relying on the word of a settler.
“We used to have daily harassments from the settlers toward our children,” al-Azzeh explained in 2013. “A lot of them suffer from psychological diseases. The children here, including my own, can’t sleep well at night. The light has to be on all the time. If we turn it off, they can’t sleep. They can’t fall asleep if we don’t stay with them. They always expect soldiers or settlers to come and attack. Many children still wet their pants at the age of 14 or 15.”
I don’t remember when I fell asleep that night, but I woke up at 4:30 in the morning. Al-Azzeh was nowhere to be seen. He must have retired to his bedroom sometime during the night. It was still dark outside, but it was quiet, and the streets were empty. It was over.
I never saw Hashem al-Azzeh again. He died on October 21, 2015, at the age of 54. Having had cardiac problems for years, he began to feel chest pains while at home, but because ambulances are not allowed in H2, he was forced to walk the 700 meters to the Bab al-Zawiya checkpoint. Israeli forces had killed two Palestinian teenagers the previous evening after an alleged stabbing attack on a soldier, and as a result, there were clashes at the checkpoint when al-Azzeh arrived, and he was forced to inhale the tear gas that the Israelis were employing. Eventually, an ambulance did pick him up, but he did not survive the trip to the hospital. An Israeli army spokeswoman said that “the military was in no way responsible.”