Sunday, December 17, 2017

Wife of Hebron activist stands stoic through her artwork two years after his death


By Rhiannon F. - November 17, 2017
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Section: [Main News] [Features]
Tags: [Hebron] [Occupation]

Nisreen al-Azzeh sits in her family home, chopping zucchini in the lounge room preparing for the evening meal, surrounded by her paintings and art materials. Her four children play in the adjacent room.

“I work in the arts, I paint at home and do my best to sell them, mainly to international solidarity groups,” Nisreen explains as she brings out her most recent paintings. Her work is deeply related to her reality of living in occupied Hebron.

“This shows how the settlers cut our fruit trees, sometimes they also poison them,” Nisreen shows a painting of thick, old grapevines cut in half. It takes two to three days for her to finish a painting. Some of them have fine detailing, particularly those showing traditional Palestinian dress or houses.

To access Nisreen’s house this evening, a trek had to be made through narrow, rocky tracks, shrouded by shrubbery and trees. Her friend, guiding the way didn’t so much as choose this path, more it is a result of living so close to the Israeli settlement in Hebron.

The al-Azzeh family live in Tel Rumeida, situated in the zone of H2 in Hebron, controlled by the Israeli army. The neighborhood begins directly off Shuhada Street, now commonly referred to as a 'Ghost Town’ due to the closing of Palestinian shops and street-facing homes after the Ibrahimi Mosque massacre in 1994. Due to the Israeli settlement located in H2, the area of Tel Rumeida is patrolled by high numbers of IDF soldiers and residents are frequently subject to settler violence. The main entrance to Nisreen al-Azzeh’s home is next to the settlement, therefore access and entry is often closed to Palestinians, including her family.

Living in this area has only grown worse, Nisreen al-Azzeh says, after her husband and famed activist Hashem al-Azzeh passed away two years ago. Hashem, who had a history of cardiac disease, started feeling chest pains in his home and needed immediate medical attention. Israeli forces do not allow Palestinian cars, including ambulances, into the fenced off area of H2 so Hashem needed to make his way through Checkpoint 56 in order to find transport to a hospital.

The same day, clashes between Palestinians and Israeli forces had broken out over two Palestinian youths who had been shot by Israeli soldiers. Going through the conflict was the only way to exit H2, forcing Hashem to inhale excessive tear gas, further debilitating his condition. When he finally made it to the hospital, it was too late. He passed away that night, October 21, 2015. Hashem left behind his wife Nisreen and four children.

“I’ve always supported the family through selling my paintings,” Nisreen said, explaining Hashem was a full-time activist. While Hashem was still alive, many solidarity groups, namely International Solidarity Movement (ISM) would come and stay with the family. After Hashem passed away, at the start of November, the army declared H2 a closed military zone and evicted all international human rights observers from the area. According to ISM, their centre was “commandeered” as a military base for 24 hours and destroyed most of their media assets. Not only were non-residents of the area barred from entry, Palestinian residents were required to 'register’ to live there.

Rahad, the oldest daughter of Hashem and Nisreen, now 19, explains that to this day, “no one can enter this area if they don’t have a particular number in their ID. It’s like what the Germans did to the Jews [in World War Two], Nisreen adds. “No one outside of this area can enter, like my Uncle, cousins, Aunts, it’s very difficult,” Rahad continues explaining their situation.

Not being allowed to have visitors enter and visit the family after Hashem’s death placed an extra strain on the family and deprived them of emotional support. “I couldn’t see anyone for eight months after Hashem died,” Nisreen says sadly. Not only did they miss their family, but also their international friends. “I always appreciate international groups being here,” Nisreen continues. She describes the closed military zone as “collective punishment.”

During the month of Hashem’s death, ISM reported there had been an escalation in violence across the West Bank and Gaza, claiming a total of 70 Palestinians' lives, one third of this number being from Hebron. “Life is very dangerous here and people are always afraid of the soldiers and settlers,” Nisreen explained. “Many settlers have guns here, and they constantly shout at Palestinians.”

Nisreen and Hashem’s youngest daughter Hanan, now only seven, is “afraid all the time” after losing her father. “The situation here has gotten worse,” her sister Rahad, speaks on her behalf. Since Hashem passed away, the army has installed two new checkpoints into the area, bringing it to a total of three to access their house. “It’s very hard to go to my university, because when I cross the checkpoint they always want to check my bags and ID,” Rahad explains.

Nisreen hopes she will one day be able to continue Hashem's activist legacy. “I think my children will stand with me, it’s important work,” Nisreen says, while stating their university studies must come first. Now the area of Tel Rumeida is open again to internationals, the family is happy to welcome them into their home once again. “Friends of my father come back to see this area. They call my mother, they come to our house and she talks to them about the [current] situation,” Rahad explained.

For now, Nisreen continues to focus on being at home with her children and painting. “Many people in Palestine won’t buy paintings, because they can only spend money on food,” Nisreen explained she relied on selling artwork to internationals who visit. “When people come to buy paintings it’s good for the children. Thanks to Allah we have this, because there is no other support.”

In the coming winter holidays, at the start of January, Nisreen hopes to also give weekly art classes at the Aman Society Centre in Hebron, provided she can gather enough materials to run them. 

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