17 June 2013
To mark the occasion of World Refugee Day, UNRWA is putting a spotlight on the situation of Palestine refugees in the Agency’s five fields of operation. Today, we bring you the story of a Palestine refugee woman whose life has been deeply affected by settlement construction in the old city of Hebron, in the West Bank.
Despite her family’s memories of dispossession and loss after 1948, Hana Abu Hiakal describes her childhood, in Hebron’s old city, as happy and filled with promise. For Hana, now a 54-year-old widow, the dark times began in 1984, when the Tel Rumeida settlement was established in the middle of her neighbourhood. The settlements have continued to encroach around the lands and homes of people like Hana and her family in the decades since then; in Hebron, there are now some 500 Israeli settlers living among 200,000 Palestinians.
Today the home Hana shares with her sister and her brother’s family is completely isolated, caught in the middle of the much-expanded settlement. It has become nearly impossible for friends or relatives to come visit them, not just because of access restrictions, such as checkpoints, but also the threat to personal security inherent in visiting the middle of a settlement.
Their social ties with their community, Hana says, have become much harder to maintain. One of the founders of the Beauticians’ Union in Palestine, she has had to give up her work because of access issues and the difficulty of traveling to and from her salon.
Even at home, the family has little privacy, thanks to 24-hour surveillance imposed by the Israeli military. Her windows and balconies have also fenced off, in order to ‘protect’ her family against settler violence, including stoning, verbal threats and harassment, which she says has turned the home into one massive cage. ”I have one daughter,” Hana says, “and I wasn’t even able to celebrate her wedding in our house.”
Settlements and settlement expansion have major impacts on individuals and communities throughout the West Bank, including East Jerusalem. Along with loss of land and livelihoods, residents also face the risk of violence from settlers. In 2012, there were 739 recorded instances – a 26 per cent increase over the previous year – of settler violence leading to injury or damage to property.
Hana’s situation is even more precarious, since she suffers from cardiovascular disease and gastritis and needs regular medical care. Her home is only 250 meters away from the city center, but now she must travel ten kilometres and cross four checkpoints just to get to the hospital and back.Settlers have set her car on fire several times; after the fourth incident, the Israeli military prohibited Hana from driving home. She parks her car in a distant neighbourhood and walks home along an unpaved road.
“It has been very painful for me to experience this sudden change in my life. I feel like someone is draining the happiness out of me step-by-step,” Hana says. “The only thing I can do is hope for better days ahead.”
As part of its mandate to serve Palestine refugees, UNRWA seeks to assist people like Hana. The Agency provides emergency cash assistance to help repair damage to homes, along with psycho-social support in case of settler attacks. For those whose needs are particularly urgent, UNRWA also supplies humanitarian assistance of food and cash support. An UNRWA school and clinic are located. Further, UNRWA provides psycho-social support following settler attacks and humanitarian assistance for Special Hardship cases (food and cash). An UNRWA clinic and school are also located in the vicinity of H2, providing much needed services to refugee residents of the area.