By Am Johal and
15 September, 2004
south on Rt. 60 from Jerusalem on one of the 29 settler highways in
the West Bank, the summer heat is overwhelming. In the distance, you
can see the terraced hillsides stacked in the landscape to catch rainfall
as it has for centuries. You can see pine trees planted in nature reserves
Palestinian encroachment on the land. Flanking either side of the road,
you can't help but notice the settlement expansion - new trailers literally
trace the hilltops all along the route to Hebron.
Passing the Israeli
military bases, you can see the showcase of physical infrastructure
required to maintain the Occupation: the military jeeps, the Kalashnikovs,
the barbed wire, the checkpoints, the tanks, and the various units of
Hebron is over 3,700
years old. It is one of the oldest Palestinian cities, and considered
the second holiest Jewish city after Jerusalem. The Bible mentions Hebron
in connection with Abraham. It hosts the Cave of the Machpelah, also
known as the Tomb of the Patriarchs/Matriarchs, is enclosed by the Mosque
of Ibrahim, also known as the Avraham Avinu Synagogue. It is the traditional
burial ground of the ancestors of Abraham and Sarah, Itzak and Rebecca,
and Jacob and Leah. According to Jewish tradition, the Cave was built
by Herod, King of Judea during the Second Temple Period some 2,000
Tensions run deep
- during the 1929 riots, Arabs massacred 67 Jews in Hebron in early
days of conflict during the British Mandate. In 1980, 6 Jews were killed
in Beit Hadassah building in Hebron, and today, the site serves as a
flourishing yeshiva for over 250 students. More recent violence in Hebron
centered around dividing up the Cave in 1994 for Jews and Muslims. Baruch
Goldstein (an American Jewish physician who immigrated to Israel) opened
fire and killed 29 Palestinians in prayer at the Mosque, before being
lynched to death by an angry Arab mob. During the Jewish festival of
Purim it is not uncommon to find militant Jews dressed up as Goldstein
with fake beards, doctors coats and army uniforms, toting guns.
There is a marble
plaque in the nearby Jewish settlement of Kiryat Arba which reads, "To
the holy Baruch Goldstein, who gave his life for the Jewish people,
the Torah and the nation of Israel." Many other Jews and Palestinians
have died in terror, state-terror, or settler violence.
In 1997, Prime Minister
Netanyahu signed the "Hebron Accord" with the Palestinian
Authority. Israel imposed a closure on Hebron in 1998 after the murder
of a Jewish settler.
As we drive into
town, we are cursed at by the yeshiva students for driving on Shabbat.
We are near the Old City of Hebron which now has a Jewish settler presence
of just over 500, smack in the center of a city of 120,000 Palestinian
Arabs. What used to be a bustling Arab market, is today a series of
boarded up shops and barbed wire encased residential quarters for some
10 Jewish families, spraypainted with the Star of David, a clenched
fist, and the words, "Death to the Arabs." Nearby, is the
Jewish settlement of Kiryat Arba which has a population of over 6,000.
There are clusters
of Israeli soldiers on every street corner of Al Shuhadah Street for
a 5km periphery around Hebron's Old City and the holy burial grounds,
the Cave. Since 1984, a mere 7 families live at Admot Yishai settlement
in Hebron (Tel Rumeida), where there is an army presence of some 12
soldiers per settler, and expansion plans include building an archeological
park, to redeem Jewish property.
Welcome to Hebron,
the frontline in the Israeli/Palestinian conflict.
As we enter the
home of Idress Z., who before the Intifada was the local butcher by
day and security guard by night, we notice the black and white picture
of him with a cigarette in his hand taken over thirty years ago when
he spent some years in Germany. He tells us that he's smoked Farid
cigarettes for 37 years and that his family has called Palestine home
for over 1,000 years.
On the wall is a
Certificate of Appreciation from the US Agency for International Development
for managing the security work on Al Shuhadah Street "for his contribution
to the Middle East Peace Process and for his dedicated performance under
usually difficult circumstances." Next to it, is another framed
certificate - Idress Z.'s family was involved with saving Jewish lives
during the 1929
riots and the names are listed.
As he sits in his
living room with his family gathered around him, a week before his daughter's
wedding, he tells our group of Israeli human rights advocates, "I
have an obligation to raise my children without hatred - to be good
people and not to hate Jews, Muslims or Christians. I want them to be
able to shake hands with the soldiers. But they treat us like animals.
What are we supposed to do?"
Just a few weeks
earlier, the military stormed his house at 7am and moved all the kids
into 1 room and threatened to kill him, accusing him of being involved
with Hamas. The soldiers told him they would make him famous and put
his name on Al Jazeera. His son-in-law was killed, an apolitical person
caught in crossfire, and his picture was hanging on a wall in their
home. The soldiers shredded the picture in front of the family.
Later that evening
on the family rooftop, we are being watched by soldiers atop the adjacent
house and are warned not to go to the edge of the roof for fear of being
shot at by the security forces across the street near the Old City.
Being in the Palestinian part of the city inherently means exposing
yourself to differential treatment. Z. would sleep on this rooftop in
a small corner sheltered in jute plastic when it was summer and too
hot inside his home. He showed us stones that littered his rooftop,
and the plastic tarp above where he used to sleep. Settlers from Tel
Rumeida up the hill throw stones to harass the Palestinian neighbors,
with the hopes of clearing more families out of Hebron. Reportedly some
30% of the Palestinian population has left, since the outset of the
Z. shares with us
a story of how when he wants to buy a kilo of tomatoes, he is not allowed
to walk across the street to the Market because it is closed to Palestinians.
Instead he has to take two sheruts and pay 16 shekels to go 7km around
the main artery of Hebron, Al Shuhada street, to a vegetable market.
He says, "This is how Jews were treated in Europe."
Curfew and closure
are constant. Palestinians are literally prohibited from crossing the
street into the Old City.
Over coffee with
cardamom, he shares his experiences with us. A few years ago, when he
found a three-year old Jewish boy, lost and despairing outside his butcher
shop, Z. took him to his parents place and was greeted by the child's
mother: she then slammed the door in his face. Other incidents involve
being harassed by an angry mob and having his teeth knocked out into
He pulls a black
suitcase off the shelf and shows us the evidence, photographs and newspaper
clippings in Arabic, some in Hebrew, even some in English verifying
his stories. He was tear gased inside his own home resulting in his
infant daugher spending three years in and out of hospital getting treated
for severe burns all over her body after she fellinto a pot of boiling
food running away from tear gas. His house was entered by the IDF, and
his kitchen was burned down.
Not surprisingly, he has a hard time accepting why he can only open
his store near the Old City for 2 hours every 15 days, why his children
are not allowed to go out and play because of closure and Jewish children
are on their bikes and playing in the streets.
That evening, his
11-year old son is crying, curled up on the couch and quivering in fear.
He's been hit in the head with a bottle by three young Jewish kids from
across the street. We have to sneak the boy and his family out during
curfew, through a dark corridor between houses and through a cemetary,
before meeting a family member with a small bus, to take them to the
hospital for X-rays. He stops along the way and throws up for the second
time. His father apologizes to us, and says, "He is really afraid."
We wait at Z.'s
neighbour's house until they return from the hospital. It is riddled
with bulletholes inside and out. Z.'s neighbor has lost his job as a
carpenter four years ago because of the Intifada, and now catches birds
and puts them in cages to sell them for 40 shekels or what his customers
can afford. His wife and their relatives sleep with four people in one
room. Over nargileh and mint tea, they share their frustration with
the situation. The economy in Hebron is suffering and everybody feels
they, like the birds, are living in a cage.
The next morning
as Mr. Z. opens his briefcase to show us some of his personal possessions
and the newspaper articles about Hebron, military officers knock on
the door asking for our identifications. The authorities are wondering
what we're doing in Hebron.
Later, we walk toward
Ruth's Tomb, discovered in Hebron within the past few years. There is
a line-up of elderly Arabs and a bunch of kids stuck at the checkpoint
waiting to be allowed through in order to walk across the street. The
IDF soldiers are calling the Shabbak to see if they can get permission
to let them through.
Today they are allowed
through after waiting for a half hour in the early afternoon heat -
if they had been denied, they would have been doing the dreaded 7km
walk to get home. This is the Old City which is now sealed for Palestinians.
We see members of the predominately Scandinavian Temporary International
Presence in Hebron - human rights observers who are not allowed to make
their human rights reports on Hebron public.
We walk to Ruth's
Tomb. Soldiers gather at the entrance. The narrow corridors leading
to the gravesite are made of corrugated tin and barbed wire. The gravesite
is empty of civilians, and grossly neglected.
Our fact finding
delegation led by the human rights organization Bustan is here to understand
some of the concerns in Hebron and to see the situation firsthand, and
meet with members of the local community to understands what can be
done by Jews, Arabs and internationals to make
the situation better.
The military presence
is palpable. The soldiers who make it to Hebron are some of the best
trained in the IDF. It is a complicated place to be. On one of the security
posts where the soldiers stand, somebody has written poetry from a French
Jewish writer. Everybody has their own way of dealing with the madness
of the conflict.
Speaking to a Jewish
settler outsider her home with many of her ten children and their friends
sitting on the steps for a discussion with our group. She comments,
"This is a Jewish state and Jewish land. An Arab can stay here
if they put up a sign that says this place is for the people of Israel.
This is the Jewish homeland. Jews have the right to rule here."
She continues, "they can go to any of the other 22 Arab lands,
and leave us alone."
We are escorted
through Kiryat Arba, harassed by a Russian immigrant upon leaving and
are asked who we stayed with multiple times.
On the way back
to Jerusalem, we are stopped three times by IDF forces and asked what
we are doing in Hebron. The drive back is still less than an hour, but
the line-up back into Hebron for Palestinians is snaking around and
looks as though it will take at least three hours to get into this City