To all my friends and family in America, happy Independence Day.
A majority of the people reading this have never seen the United States invaded by a foreign country. We’ve never lived under martial law. We’ve never had restrictions placed on our freedom of expression, worship, or movement. We’ve never been afraid that if they got arrested, we wouldn’t get a fair trial. We complain (and rightly so) about the dangers of government wiretapping and email-reading, but for the most part, we can count on our government to protect us, not persecute us. If you’re in America right now, reading this safely at your computer in the security of your own home, breathe a sigh of relief and count your blessings.
It’s ironic that I spent this afternoon visiting Hebron, the largest city in Palestine and one of the most stomach churning examples of the oppression that fundamentalist Zionism has brought to this country. Hebron is a bustling city of around 170,000, has been an important trade hub in the region since the 18th century B.C., and is known as the burial site of monotheistic patriarchs Abraham, Sarah, Isaac, and Rebekah. Hebron, like thre rest of Palestine, was fought over in antiquity by tribes such as the Caananites, and Jews, and it came under Arab control after the 7th century Muslim conquest. A minority population of Jews lived in the city continuously until the 1920s, when the city’s Arabs became angry at the massive influx of new Jewish settlers there and clashes led to the Jews’ expulsion from the city. The city became part of Palestine when the land was partitioned in 1948, but after the failed Arab invasion of Israel in 1967, Israel occupied the West Bank, and Hebron with it.
It was under the protection of the Israeli Occupation that the first Jewish settlers began their attempt to retake Hebron. Guided by a belief that the Messiah will come once the Holy Land has been reoccupied by God’s Chosen People, a radical fundamentalist Jewish group under the leadership of Rabbi Moshe Levinger rented out the Park Hotel in Hebron to celebrate Passover in 1974. At the end of the holiday, however, they refused to leave, and instead, the Israeli Army (IDF) was summoned to protect them. Under the soldiers’ protection, they left the hotel and occupied a number of buildings in the old city of Hebron, the ancient neighborhood of beautiful stone homes and winding allyways that was home to Hebron’s markets and many of its residents. The army forcibly ejected Arabs from their homes and put up fences to keep them from returning to certain parts of the city. After that, more settlements were established within the old city, as Arabs were either bought out of their homes, harassed until they left, or forcibly pushed out. The Jews who live in the settlements acknowledge that they are there for religious and political reasons, not out of convenience. In fact, many are only short term residents who live there on shifts of only a few months, so that there can always be a Jewish presence laying claim to the land.
In 1997, an international agreement divided the city into two administrative divisions. A large portion of the old city, now called H1, was given to Israeli control. The rest, called H2 was given to Palestinian control. To protect the settlers in H1, entire streets and sections of the city have been cordoned off to Arabs, including those who still legitimately own the houses inside. Today, around 800 settlers live in settlements within the city, and there are over 1,500 IDF soldiers there to protect them.
The re-occupation has not been a clean affair. In the tightly packed old city, settlers have moved into houses and with the help of the Israeli government, erected massive barriers between their settlements and the surrounding homes. Some houses lie abandoned because they are on the line between the two. In other cases, shops have settlement annexes built on their roofs. Alleyways that lead between the two have been closed off with barbed wire, and openings in walls have been sealed shut.
According to the Ma’an Development Center, “of the 1,610 shops that existed in the Old City before September 2000, 354 have been closed by military order and 700 had been driven out of business because of a lack of trade.” (21)
Perhaps what’s most painful about the situation is just how ugly the settlers and the army have been to the citizens of old Hebron. Settlers commonly harass the local Arab population by spitting on them and throwing garbage on them from their windows, and violent attacks have been common. There have been numerous incidents in which settlers beaten Arabs, killed them, or thrown Molotov cocktails in their schools and homes. Perhaps the most famous case was the Tomb of the Patriarchs Massacre, in 1994, when a settler dressed as an Israeli officer walked into the mosque built over the tomb of Abraham and opened fire, killing 29 Palestinians and wounding 125. Settlers ever since have celebrated the anniversary of the massacre, and the killer is buried in a place of honor in one of the settlements. The Israeli government’s response was to partition the mosque and set aside 60% of it as a synagogue for the settlers.
“Undoubtedly the most aggravated settler behavior occurs in Hebron, where Palestinian schoolchildren are assaulted and humiliated on their way to schools, shopkeepers are beaten and residents live in fear of settler terror. Despite rulings of the High court of Justice that it is the duty of the IDF to protect Palestinian farmers from settlers, there is still evidence that the IDF turns a blind eye to settler violence, and on occasion, collaborates with the settlers in harassing and humiliating Palestinians. Indeed I have witnessed such conduct on the part of the IDF myself in Hebron.”
-UN Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights in the Palestinian Territories
It’s no surprise that the violence has gone both ways. Attacks on settlers began shortly after the settlement’s founding, and in 1980, a group of Arab youth murdered a group of Jewish students returning home from prayers at the Tomb of the Patriarchs. Local Palestinian citizens of Hebron have attacked the settlers with guns, knives, and grenades countless times over the years. Since the end of the second Intifada, however, there has been an increased IDF presence in the city, and the settlers have clearly had the upper hand.
Walking through the city, I met the people who have been scarred by the occupation. I visited one house, shown below, that forms part of the division between the settlement and the old city.
The settlement was built up against its walls, and the IDF closed off all windows and doors facing the new building.
Now, the family that lives inside is not allowed to lock their doors, as the IDF demands the right to conduct searches and seizures. At times, IDF soldiers demand lodging in the house for the night, and the family has no right to refuse.
Perhaps most heartbreaking is a room on the upper floor, where according to the family, settlers a few years ago threw a molotov cocktail and killed their infant son.
On the roof of the home sits a metal water storage tank, empty because of the holes poked in it by settler youth.
Apart from the harassments and the violence, Palestinian life in the old city is made miserable simply by the weight of the occupation. To move throughout the city, Arabs face numerous checkpoints, even in areas supposedly controlled by Palestine.
On the streets near the settlements, settlers and foreigners (if they are Christian or Jewish) are allowed to walk. Palestinians and Muslim foreigners are not. Soldiers stop young men in the streets and demand ID’s, and often enter houses without warrants.
For the newcomer, Hebron can be quite a shock. The injustice is ongoing, and it couldn’t be more clear. But what’s most disappointing is that it’s not an isolated incident. Israeli settlements aren’t just limited to Hebron; in fact, the ones there are some of the smallest. Throughout the West Bank, there are over 300,000 Israelis living in 121 settlements, which are all recognized as legitimate municipalities by the Israeli government. Israel provides private roads to the settlements which are off limits to Palestinians, and thousands of soldiers for their protection. Binyamin Netanyahu, the current Prime Minister of Israel, has said of the settlements: “These are parts of our homeland, and these are our brothers – they are part of us and we are part of them.” Last year, Netanyahu willingly ended peace talks with the Palestinian Authority in order to continue building settlements. So, even if the people actually living in the settlements are religious fanatics, they have the entire power of the State of Israel behind them.
Today, as my friends and I were preparing to enter the Synagogue at the Tomb of the Patriarchs, we had to stop at several Israeli checkpoints. At one of them, the Muslims with us were turned back, and I was told that I had to change my teel shirt. My tee shirt had Arabic writing on the front, and I was told that it would cause problems for me to go into the Synagogue area wearing it, so I went into the bathroom and flipped it inside out. And what was on the tee shirt? A picture of a white dove, and a single word: “Amal”. In English: “Hope”.
Right now, with absolutely no end in sight to this insanity, Hope is all that’s left.
For Further Reading:
An excellent overview of the Israeli occupation by NYT’s Nicholas Kristof: http://www.nytimes.com/2008/06/22/opinion/22kristof.html
Account of a tour of Hebron given by an ex-IDF soldier: http://www.independent.co.uk/news/world/middle-east/a-rough-guide-to-hebron-the-worlds-strangest-guided-tour-highlights-the-abuse-of-palestinians-773018.html
Basic overview of Hebron’s History on Wikipedia: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Hebron#cite_note-hebron-wp-154
An account of Hebron’s history from the Jewish Virtual Library: http://www.jewishvirtuallibrary.org/jsource/History/hebron.html
An account of segregation and forced displacement in Hebron written by a Palestinian NGO: http://www.ochaopt.org/documents/opt_prot_maan_hebron_destroyed_from_within_sept_2008.pdf
Videos of Israeli Soldiers talking about their experiences in the West Bank (by the United States Institute of Peace): http://peacemedia.usip.org/resource/israeli-soldiers-talk-about-hebron
Thoughts by another visitor to Hebron, a US Ambassador: http://davidshinn.blogspot.com/2010/06/visits-to-palestinian-west-bank-and.html