Tuesday, June 06, 2006

“There is no justice and righteousness in this corrupt state.” A Glimpse into the battle for the Old City of Hebron (Joel Stanley)

From FalseDichotomies.com

On Sunday 7th May, it was widely reported, Israeli security forces moved in to evict three Jewish settler families from a Palestinian house in Hebron. The families had been living there since April, claiming they had officially leased the house from its Palestinian owner, but the government eviction order said the documents were forged. While the families themselves left relatively quietly, about two dozen settler youths, holed up to support the families and fight the eviction, threw rocks, paint and molotov cocktails at the security forces and eventually had to be dragged away. Later the settlers denied they had used violence. “Palestinians will receive much strength today,” said Tzippora Schlissel, one of the women who had been living in the house, “There is no justice and no righteousness in this corrupt state.” The Palestinian neighbours Ms Schlissel leaves behind have a rather different slant on the eviction. “The last month has been very difficult for us,” said Umm Nemer, a 43-year-old mother of eight living next door to the house, “We have had stones thrown at us and our electricity and water tampered with. I wish all the settlers in Hebron would leave.”

Welcome to Hebron. For anyone familiar with this most volatile of cities, none of the above should be remotely extraordinary or surprising. Five months ago I visited Hebron as one of a dozen future Jewish leaders and rabbis interested in seeing one of the centres of the conflict from a Palestinian perspective. The events described above fit perfectly into a rolling narrative of tension and hostility, in which Jewish settlers are engaged in a chess game of attrition with the Palestinian residents, prizing every few yards of land gained until – they dream – the Palestinians finally give up on living in any part of historical Hebron.

Since the 1997 ‘Hebron Agreement’ Hebron has been split into two parts, H1 and H2. H2 comprises 20 percent of the municipal area of the city and remains completely controlled by Israel. H1, which by all accounts is a bustling, modern Palestinian city, home to about 130,000 Palestinians, is out of bounds to all Israeli citizens, with checkpoints to prevent their passage (as well as monitor that of any Palestinians passing through). So all of Hebron’s 750 or so Jewish settlers live in the area known as H2, within which lies most of the Casbah (Hebron’s Old City) as well as one of the most important Jewish holy sites, the Cave of the Patriarchs, sharing a site with the Ibrahimi mosque. In 1997 there were 30,000 Palestinians living in H2. Today the number has declined to no more than a few thousand. My group’s visit allowed us to understand why.

We started the day with a tour of H2. Our guide was Yehuda Shaul, a former IDF platoon commander in Hebron who finally had enough and founded Breaking the Silence, an organisation dedicated to exposing to normal Israelis “the moral erosion he saw in himself and his comrades”. At our first stop, alongside the Cave of the Patriarchs, we saw a Palestinian man pull his horse through one of the many army checkpoints stationed around H2. Shaul took a pause from his introductory explanation to translate what the young soldier on duty had just shouted after the Palestinian: “Only in Hebron! That’s the first time I ever saw a donkey grabbing a horse!” Welcome to Hebron indeed.

But it’s not just some of the soldiers. The Jewish inhabitants of Hebron seem determined to make life as difficult as possible for their Palestinian neighbours until, as mentioned earlier, they give up on living there. Our group visited a Palestinian school and watched amateur video footage of an incident that occurred two weeks earlier. Every day the schoolgirls have to use a steep, narrow, dilapidated staircase from the street up the hill to the school, while Jews who need to pass are allowed to use a wider, shallower set of stairs. International volunteers are needed on a daily basis to pick up the young girls and escort them home, as there has been a constant problem of Jewish girls waiting by the steps, taunting and attacking the Palestinian schoolchildren. In the footage we saw, about twenty Jewish girls, no older than eleven or twelve, stood to the side of the narrow passageway. “There is no Palestine, Israel is our state,” they shouted. Then as the Palestinian children were led down towards the stairs they were met with kicks, sticks and a shower of rocks. The settler girls abandoned their position to run down to the street and face the schoolchildren as they descended. In those confines, the Palestinian girls looked like skittles waiting to be bowled down, and it was remarkable that none fell off the steps. The two Israeli soldiers stationed there to monitor all this, stood to the side and sporadically admonished the settler children. Not once did they use force or raise their voices to the level of a shout. We were told by the school’s headmistress that this is a regular occurrence and that the violence is worse on the Jewish Sabbath, when the settler children have more time to hang around and launch their hatred.

There is no doubt that the army could do more to protect the Palestinians, but there is a culture of non-enforcement encouraged by personal ties to the settler community. When Shaul’s unit arrived in Hebron, we were told, their commander forbad the soldiers from accepting invitations from the settlers to Friday night dinner. They shouldn’t get too close or it would be difficult to their job. Three days later the ban was lifted, without explanation. This is just how things work in Hebron. Who knows how far up the relationship goes?

But the problem is also systemic, because the IDF are prevented from intervening too much in the event of settler violence against Palestinians. Under the bizarre rules of occupation, the army is there to deal with unrest caused by non-Israeli citizens i.e. the Palestinians only. So Palestinian snipers can be shot back and if Palestinian children start throwing stones, the army can react, roads can be closed and areas cordoned off. But if the troublemakers are Israeli citizens, in other words the settlers, they do not fall under the army’s remit. Then it is the job of the under-resourced, rather impotent civil police to step in. (Still there were no policemen around in the video footage.) These policemen are usually Druze or Bedouin, to minimise the chances of awkward situations in which Jews are turned against Jews in the presence of Arabs. The policemen are unsurprisingly unpopular with the settlers and also receive abusive comments and the odd stone on a regular basis.

The consequences of this stifling set-up is potentially far more serious than the events filmed by the school. In 1994 Dr Baruch Goldstein entered the Ibrahimi mosque and discharged his machine gun of bullets, killing 29 Muslim worshippers. That day IDF personnel only reached the scene after the massacre was over. But even if they been present at the time they still would not have been allowed to shoot Goldstein when he opened fire. According to the rules, the most an IDF soldier can do is wait for a Jewish attacker to pause to reload or encounter a problem with his weapon before trying to overpower him by hand.

The after-effects of that day in 1994 are still felt, forming, it could be said, the basis of the current security situation in Hebron. Then Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin considered using the opportunity to evacuate the settlers from Hebron. He backed down and instead Israeli authorities embarked on a strategy of segregation. Curfews were imposed on Palestinian inhabitants, the (Palestinian) wholesale market next to the Jewish Avraham Avinu compound closed, other streets shut off. This, say international observers, was the start of the Palestinians’ exit from Hebron’s centre. Today H2 is governed by an intricate system of alternating road closures, allowing Palestinian passage through certain roads at certain times, when Jewish access is prevented, and vice versa. Head from one area to another at the wrong time and you could find your return route blocked on the way back. Hence the complex network of checkpoints and soldiers. Hence the amazing ratio: three Israeli soldiers for every Jewish settler.

When we walked through the Casbah it felt like a ghost town. Hard to believe this is a centre of conflict. But the little clues are everywhere. The hateful grafitti – “Death to Arabs” the most common slogan scrawled on many of the walls; the barbed wire and army checkpoints; the settler who stood watching our group from thirty feet, menacingly turning over a stone in his hand until we received a police escort.

It is not surprising to discover Yehuda Shaul is not very popular among Hebron’s settlers. The international press is one thing, but an Israeli showing Jewish groups the darker side of the settler enterprise – that is akin to treachery. The fact is I could have visited Hebron any time and seen a very different picture. The head rabbi of my yeshiva (centre of Jewish study) has a daughter among the city’s settlers. Subsidised armour-plated buses leave regularly from Jerusalem straight to the Cave of the Patriarchs and the Jewish neighbourhoods. These families are more than ready to welcome Jews into their homes, offering hospitality and a place at their festive Sabbath table.

We were aware of the other narrative, reminded by signs put up highlighting the unbroken Jewish presence in Hebron since Biblical times, one that I do not doubt. In fact both sides now point to a time no more than a hundred years ago, when Muslim and Jewish neighbours lived side by side in community, exchanging goods, services and warm wishes. That changed in 1929, when 66 Jewish civilians were killed by Palestinians rioting through the city. Who perpetrated that violence and their reasons for doing so are shrouded in uncertainty. Today’s settlers, the first of whom arrived in Hebron in 1968, say it was a case of Palestinians turning against their Jewish neighbours. The Palestinian residents claim farmers came in from outside the city, angry at rumours that Jews had taken the Temple Mount in Jerusalem. Despite the street notices claiming heritage, some of the ancestors of the Jews driven out in 1929 – now secular Israelis moved to the big population centres, having given up the Hebron cause – have disowned today’s host of settlers. “They are not our heirs”, they say.

The settlers believe they are performing a holy task being in Hebron. They wow American benefactors into donations, telling stories of the lives they have lost at the hands of Palestinian gunmen who shoot from the hill opposite. Memorials mark where they were killed. But this narrative, as much as any aspect of this twisted place, has its shadow. Shaul puts it starkly: “The memorial culture here is fuel for the conflict.” A settler is killed away from the neighbourhood limits; a memorial goes up within days; soldiers are stationed there to ensure Jewish access to the memorial; and suddenly there is a new army presence, with uniforms and guns, on a patch previously ‘Palestinian territory’.

I said it was a chess game. The settlers call it war. Banners were draped across a fence at the foot of a yet undeveloped hill, urging Jews to ready themselves for the final conflict. In the meantime, it’s foot by foot, house by house. It has happened before that Israeli soldiers have come in to remove settler outposts in a restricted part of Hebron. Just like the evacuation that took place on 7th May, the press have been there in abundance. Just like then, the Israeli government have emphasised their strong stance against settler vigilantism and illegal facts on the ground. And then, within days, the media circus over, the outpost has been set up again. So who knows what the house evacuation of a few weeks ago really meant? These settlers are tireless. They are ready to fight if necessary. I am sure they believe in what they are doing. But when the result is such hatred and aggression, how they speak of justice and righteousness, I simply do not know.


Comment: Visit Breaking the Silence here.

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