Anyone who wanted to understand what it means to live under occupation in the West Bank city of Hebron, surrounded by military checkpoints and decidedly unfriendly Israeli settlers, just had to visit the house of Dr. Hashem Azzeh in the neighborhood of Tel Rumeida.
To understand that reality, you only had to listen to the stories of this cultured and mild-mannered Palestinian doctor, who opposed violence and became over the years the incarnation of sumud — steadfast resilience in the toughest conditions. “I’m not leaving,” he repeated. “No one can kick me from my home.”
His very existence was an act of resistance.
But Azzeh, 54, finally did leave his home, three days ago, while trying to reach the hospital. He died before he got there, to the dismay of family and friends, Palestinians and foreigners.
On Wednesday, Azzeh suffered from sharp chest pains. He quickly realized he needed to rush to the nearest hospital. His family called an ambulance, but ambulances are never able to reach the house because of army checkpoints, which have been even more rigid since the start of the new Intifada.
The doctor had no other choice. He set out toward Bab al-Zawiyah by foot. There he found soldiers firing tear gas toward youths hurling stones to protest the killing of two Palestinian boys the night before.
“The air was saturated with tear gas,” said Sundus, a nephew of Azzeh. “My uncle, already very weak, had a respiratory crisis. He collapsed and lost consciousness.”
Azzeh arrived at the hospital in a desperate condition. The doctors could do little to save him. It’s difficult to establish how the tear gas contributed to Azzeh’s death, which was most likely caused by a heart attack. Certainly the roadblocks, which have surrounded his house for more than two decades, decreased his chances of survival. If an ambulance had ferried him immediately, Azzeh could have had a chance.
Mourners have streamed into Tel Rumeida to remember Azzeh. People in tears, their faces marked with pain, Palestinians and foreigners, all celebrating his firm decision not to abandon his home.
If he did leave, it was only to buy milk at the shop near his house, where his family was (and still is) forced to pass through metal detectors and controls. Every single time. Their neighbors — settlers who would like to see this Palestinian family leave Tel Rumeida — do not undergo the same treatment.
“They had been offered money to go away,” said Jawad, a young activist from Hebron. “But Hashem always refused. He repeated that if every Palestinian agreed to sell land to the settlers, it would be the end for Hebron and for our people.”
Azzeh organized tours for journalists and activists, during which he explained what happens in Hebron and around his home. He candidly recounted abuses suffered by his wife and children, to which the doctor had always reacted with words, not violence, uttering the same phrase: “I’m not leaving.” Now it will be the mantra of his wife and four children, aged between 5 and 17.
Meanwhile, the bloodshed continues. On Wednesday in Beit Shemesh, one Israeli was stabbed and wounded by two Palestinians, one of whom was killed by police. A few hours before, a Jewish man mistaken for a Palestinian was killed by a security guard at the Central Bus Station. Dozens of youths were arrested this week in East Jerusalem and the West Bank, and more than 800 have been detained since the beginning of October, according to Palestinian sources.
“This crisis would not have erupted if the Palestinians had hopes for their own state,” Jan Eliasson, the United Nations deputy secretary general, said after this week’s spate of violence. “They see, instead, the growth of illegal settlements in the occupied West Bank, which undermines the very possibility of a two-state solution and poses growing security risks to all.”