Before you start reading, I have to warn you. This post is long. And it will be riveting. It will also make you angry, sad, depressed, perhaps even bring you close to tears. The end will seem uncharacteristically light-hearted, showing, I hope, how life here can jump from one extreme to another so quickly. And I, as an outsider, as an observor, can look at this all semi-passively. Do not get me wrong, I was infuriated and deeply upset by what I saw this weekend, but less so than my Israeli friends. In fact, whereas my foreign friends expressed interest in my trip and wanted to join me, a large propotion of my Israeli friends did not feel the same way. It is different to them, they are tied to this situation, it is more emotional to see all the wrongs being done, more upsetting, especially because they disagree with it absolutely and – by all counts – fundamentally feel the same way I do: that the occupation is disgusting, unacceptable and a great obstacle to peace.
On Thursday afternoon, there was a terrorist attack in the south of Israel, near Eilat and the Egyptian border. 8 Israelis were killed and, despite Hamas’ statement that the attacks (which it did not carry out) targetted soldiers, the majority of the dead were civilians. Even if they had been soldiers, it would be unacceptable. Most people who live outside of Israel do not realize that the soldiers are people like you and I; army service here is mandatory. And as much as I respect refuseniks, I respect leftists who do their service as much because we need soldiers who hold those values. An army of only right-wing extreme-Zionists would help no one. It is also important to remember that these soldiers are young, often under the age of 22. In retaliation, Israel fired rockets at Gaza because the Israeli intelligence sources found that the terrorists who carried out the attacks in Sinai originated there. I condemn the attacks, I condemn the retaliation, and I condemn the Palestinian response which has been to send over 100 rockets into Israel over the last three days.
It was under these circumstances that I caught the bus to Jerusalem on Friday morning to head to Hebron (or in Arabic, al-Khalil) with a new friend from Brazil. At one point along the road, a bus filled entirely with soldiers in uniform and guarded by a police car and two army vehicles drove past – a grim reminder of Thursday’s attacks. Outside the municipality of Jerusalem, two soldiers wearing bullet-proof vests and carrying loaded M-16s climbed onto the bus and checked it. Another reminder of Thursday. I arrived in Jerusalem on time and immediately boarded the next bus to go to the settlement of Qiryat Arba.
It is important to note here, I think, that the bus ride from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem takes 50 minutes and costs 20 shekels. The bus ride from Jerusalem to Qiryat Arba also takes 50 minutes, but it costs only 9.5 shekels. A few weeks ago, an article in Haaretz talked about the subsidizing of the transport system in the West Bank to settlements.
Before getting into this, a briefing of the current situation in Hebron. Hebron is the only Palestinian city in the West Bank that is not classified as Zone A (under complete PA security and civil control). Hebron is divided into two zones, H1 and H2. H1 is under complete PA control, like Zone A cities, and is blossoming; H2 is a mix of Palestinian and Jewish settlers. Qiryat Arba itself is outside of Hebron proper, but within downtown Hebron there are four settlements which are more accurately described as houses and compounds inhabited by Jews. These are: Avraham Avinu, Beit Romano, Beit Hadassah and Tel Rumeida. In H2, there are soldiers everywhere, Palestinians are harassed daily by the settlers and the main street – Shohada (or King David, to the settlers) – is essentially a ghost-town. The Palestinians have not been allowed to open their shops there since the second intifada and as my friend and I walked down the street we didn’t even see any Palestinians on the street until we passed the soldiers after Beit Hadassah. There are also fences, soldier outposts and checkpoints and walls separating H1 from H2. Israelis are not allowed to move into H1, Palestinians can pass from one zone to another no problem, but it is a severe inconvenience.
At Qiryat Arba, we got off and wandered around a little lost looking for the tomb of Baruch Goldstein and for Kahane Memorial Park (named after Rabbi Meir Kahane). After about ten minutes, a nice settler with a gun tucked into his pants offered us a ride to the tomb. He was from India and told us that the gun was for his own personal security, but also assured us that our own lives were not in danger. Having brought us to the tomb, he left. We stood there in awe. Baruch Goldstein was a terrorist, he was an extremist right-wing Jew who massacred 28 Palestinians and injured over a hundred others while they were praying in the Ibrahimi Mosque (to the Jews, the Cave of the Patriarchs). The awe we felt was not in respect to Goldstein – we feel nothing but disgust towards him and any other individual who carries out the same actions – but of the fact that there are a small number of extremist Jews who continue to consider him a hero and even make pilgrimage to his tomb. We were also disgusted by the fact that on his tombstone it said he “gave his life for the people of Israel, its Torah and land” (he was beaten to death by the survivors of his massacre, he did not give his life in service, he was nothing more than a common terrorist). We then ambled through the Kahane Memorial Park, and it’s shocking too that it’s a memorial park because Kahane too was an extremist and his many followers advocated death and hate of Arabs and included, among them, Baruch Goldstein.
My friend and I then walked down to the main street at the beginning of Qiryat Arba – which, by the way, is absolutely beautiful – and hitched a ride with a young settler woman to the Tomb of the Patriarchs, which we weren’t allowed to enter because it was Friday and for four or five Fridays a year, during Ramadan, the Muslims of Hebron are allowed to access all of the caves. A little annoyed that I couldn’t pretend that I’m Muslim (like with al-Aqsa), I stood around the outside and looked, heart-wrenched, across the fence to the Muslim side. We were divided, my friend and I on the Jewish side, then a fence behind which stood a mass of soldiers, and then another fence behind which sat Palestinian men and boys, facing me, their hands on the fence. I felt so absolutely miserable looking at them. I was wearing a long skirt and a long-sleeved turtle-neck tshirt, looking like a settler. I wanted to shout to them that I’m not, that I’m sorry, that I don’t want them to hate me. Mostly, I wanted to wish them “Ramadan karim”. But I said nothing, for some reason I was afraid. Not for my safety, but I was scared that if I said something they would shout at me, hate me more, or worse, misunderstand me and think I was mocking them.
We then headed down Shohada Street (known to the settlers as Hamelekh George). It was surreal how empty the street was. A co-worker told me that after the Hebron Agreement, the US and Israel had renovated the street in hopes of improving Palestinian quality of life in the area. However, everything was shut during the second intifada and since then shops haven’t been allowed to re-open, mainly because Palestinians would face harassment from settlers and because shopping would be severely limited due to the bad security situation. In fact, we didn’t see any Arabs (or Jews, for that matter) walking along a good part of the street – only 2 young Palestinian children further toward the end of it and a gathering of tourists near a soldier base about mid-way. There was no life on the street and, interestingly (and oddly reminiscent of the holocaust, my friend said), stars of David had been painted onto a large number of shop doors by the settlers.
Having narrowly missed Avraham Avinu settlement (the largest of the downtown settlements and housing the original synagogue in the city), my friend and I decided to try and access the closed Beit Romano yeshiva-settlement. To no avail. We did, however, find gates to peek through and, having not yet grasped the intricacies and details of the H1-H2 separation, were baffled to find a bustling market and Palestinians on the other side. A soldier told us off and told us to get away from the gate, but we went back. Was what we were seeing H1 or H2? Could we get there? How? He answered none of our questions.
We then headed back up and into Beit Hadassah, the first of the downtown settlements. In 1979, 10 women and 40 childrean went in secret, led by the wife of Rabbi Levinger (who helped establish Qiryat Arba and was at the forefront of Jews demanding to return to Hebron), entered the empty Beit Hadassah (which had been a hospital until 1939 when the last Jews were evacuated from Hebron) through a window and refused to leave. Though Menachem Begin and his government were opposed to the establishment of the settlement, they were disturbed by the idea of forcibly removing women and childrean from the house and thus ordered the army to surround it but did not remove them. A year later, in 1980, 6 yeshiva students were killed in a Palestinian ambush in front of the building when trying to bring supplies to the women, and the government decided to allow the women’s husbands to join them. Finally, the settlement was recognized and today it is home to about 25 families. We went down into the museum that the settlement houses and stole a couple of pamphlets as we did not want to pay the 10 shekels and support the occupation, and wandered around a bit. We then went up around the back of the house and looked down onto metal nets that had been put up to catch debris thrown by the settlers onto the Palestinians in the market (in the H1 section of Hebron) below. My friend and I were appalled to see, among the rubbish, a knife that had been thrown down, and a chair.
Angry and hungry, we left and decided to see if we could enter H1 Palestinian territory before heading to Tel Rumeida settlement. We were both determined not to give the settlers any money and therefore not to eat there. We easily crossed through the checkpoint and on the other side, it was like a different world. From the ghostliness of Shohada street into bustling Hebron with taxis beeping and shops open and men wandering around. We walked about 30 meters and found a store selling some snacks (and, most importantly, Indomie) and found ourselves surrounded by 10 or so men, all eagerly welcoming us to Hebron and asking where we were from. Among them, was an older man who spoke very good English, Adris.
Adris invited us to go back to his house, on the H2 side, for tea and to talk. He lives right across from Beit Hadassah, near the Cordoba School (in which, during the school year, Arab students are escorted to school and back home by Israeli soldiers to protect them from settler attacks) that was built with Spanish aid. He fed us fresh figs from his garden and made us tea, for he wasn’t fasting. Adris talked to us about his life, his children, his home. He pulled out a suitcase with newspaper articles in it and told us about how, 14 years ago, the settlers offered him $3 million for his house and when he refused, they beat him to a pulp – with help from the soldiers – and knocked most of his teeth out of his head. He then located an envelope containing his teeth, which he keeps as “souvenirs”, and poured them out onto the table. He showed us places where the settlers sprayed “gas the Arabs” onto a building outside his house, he showed us the well on his property that settlers often try to occupy saying Abraham once used it, he walked us through his olive groves, showed us his gardens and wells in his house, he showed us his deeds for two homes in West Jerusalem that are no longer his, he gave me a bottle of amazing olive oil, he invited us to return and eat with his family and stay at his house and pick olives with him in November. Adris was the best host we could imagine.
Adris then took us into the H1 side and found a place that would make us falafel and hummus during Ramadan when we said we were hungry. He took us on a tour of the suq (market), a part of which we had seen from the gates outside Beit Romano, and showed us the many locations in which streets were blocked with barbed wire or walls, separating H1 from H2. We walked under the metal nets holding up rubbish thrown by the settlers, we smiled non-stop and thanked people for their shouts of “welcome to Hebron!”, and we absorbed everything. It was so, so, so absolutely surreal. It was, and I don’t often use this term, literally apartheid. After the tour, Adris quickly shook our hands and disappeared, leaving us with his very sweet son who seated us in the cafe he works in and plied us with free drinks while we waited the hour and a half for the servees taxis to start running to Bethlehem.
Adris and his family ensured that we left Hebron not only with the bitter taste of the occupation in our mouths, but also with the sweetness of the hospitality of the Palestinian people and their eagerness to share their lives and their stories with us. I am certain I speak for both my friend and myself when I say we cannot wait to return.
As I forewarned, the next part of this weekend story will outline just how radically different life is for those living in Israel and free of occupation. On the Saturday following our trip to Hebron, my friend and I were picked up by some of her friends and taken to a foam party on a kibbutz. Entry was free, alcohol was free and unlimited, food was free. There was dancing, bikinis, loud music. It was a lot of fun, peaceful, beautiful, and looking back on it I can hardly believe that the two events occurred within less than 24 hours of each other.