An Israeli policeman checks a Palestinian man's identification papers, at the entrance to the Ibrahami Mosque/Tomb of the Patriarchs complex in Hebron. Dave Bender/Demotix. All rights reserved.
Making the journey from Jerusalem to the divided city of Hebron, is a surprisingly pleasant experience. To reach Hebron, a city of great religious and political significance both to many Israelis and Palestinians (and in consequence scarred by many infamous acts of violence), you head south on Highway 60, known as the ‘Way of the Patriarchs’. You do not notice when you have crossed the Green Line into the occupied West Bank and apart from a few sightings of the separation barrier nothing seems amiss until you encounter the groups of soldiers and armoured vehicles that are everywhere in the old city of Hebron.
Through the British pro-peace organisation Yachad, my tour of Hebron was organised by the Israeli NGO Breaking the Silence (BTS), a body set up “to expose the Israeli public to the reality of everyday life in the Occupied Territories.” It does so by collecting testimonies of soldiers who have served in the West Bank, and in consequence have a body of evidence of numerous illegal and immoral acts carried out by the Israeli Defence Forces there. They also take people to see various “flashpoints” in the Occupied Territories, Hebron being their most popular tour.
Like most of the people who work for BTS, our guide is Israeli. His name is Shay and he grew up in a typical Israeli family in the settlement of Ariel. His journey from settler to anti-occupation activist began when he was first deployed to the South Hebron Hills, an area he had been taught to assume swarmed with terrorists.
He was therefore surprised to discover that his role as a soldier was both quiet and mostly sedentary. After a couple of increasingly wearisome days, Shay’s commanding officer (a settler) comes rushing in to his station and orders him to follow in a chase up a nearby hill. Shay, assuming he is in pursuit of a terrorist, follows the officer and runs up the hill after him.
After a couple of minutes of seeing nothing he suddenly spots a lone Palestinian child ahead of them; the child is half-dressed and crying, desperately running away from his armed pursuers. The commanding officer starts shouting at the child, who eventually gets away onto private property. Shay recalls that his officer turned to him simply, said “good job”, and ordered him to return to base. Shocked at what he had been asked to do, Shay immediately telephoned his mother to detail exactly what had happened only to find that his own mother would not believe what he had been ordered to do.
Experiences such as these, shared by many young men and women who have served in the West Bank, led to the founding of BTS. They discovered that this experience, of the Israeli army manufacturing violent incidents and acting punitively towards civilians who plainly pose no threat whatsoever, was common not just in Hebron but across the entire West Bank. It was, as Shay put it, “the experience of a generation”.
Most of the Israeli public do not ever get to hear about incidents such as these, only 50% of Israeli’s serve in army and of those only 1/7 experience combat duty in the West Bank. What they know is only what their government and press tell them; it is no wonder they have trouble comprehending what their children are being asked to do. The objective of BTS is to change this: they want to “bring Hebron to Tel Aviv” and show the Israeli public exactly what their government is doing in their names.
The city of Hebron is divided between the old city (H2) which is home to around 700 settlers and 21,000 Palestinians and the modern city of Hebron (H1) where approximately 120,000 Palestinians live. H2 is entirely under Israeli military control, with approximately 650 soldiers and other security personnel present to protect the settlers. There are strict rules about where Palestinians are allowed go in H2 and curfew is strictly enforced. In an effort to destroy the desire for any sort of resistance, Israeli soldiers “make their presence felt” by patrolling the streets, acting in a hostile and sometimes violent manner to residents. It has even been known for the IDF to carry out training exercises on real civilian families, teaching new soldiers how to break into a house and arrest the occupants. Palestinians here have no system of law apart from the pronouncements of the IDF.
Apart from the obvious difficulties of living under this draconian system martial law, Palestinians are also the recipients of abuse meted out by the settlers. The Israeli human rights NGO B’Tselem cite "almost daily physical violence and property damage by settlers in the city". Shay shows us the house of a deaf women who lives alone with her disabled son; settlers would throw garbage into her garden and daub insults on the walls of her home. Israeli activists would come and clean it all up only for it to happen again the next day.
The IDF often turns a blind eye to incidents like these, in part because they do not care, but in part because of the shockingly unprofessional relationships between the soldiers who serve in Hebron and the Israelis who live there. Locals regularly host soldiers who are serving in Hebron for meals in their homes and one settler has opened up a coffee shop with the sole purpose of providing free refreshment to soldiers. The fact that settlers do these things to curry favour with the soldiers (who are meant to be protecting both Palestinians and Israelis) is of course reprehensible. But the fact that soldiers capitulate to this and the IDF allows them to do so, is unforgivable. It is quite clear that the presence of the IDF is protect the illegal colonisers, not simply keep the peace.
The main road running through old Hebron, a-Shahuda Street, is empty. This was a once bustling marketplace, but has since been designated a road that only Israelis can use. Palestinians whose houses are on the a-Shahuda are prevented from leaving home by their front doors and must exit by climbing through their roofs and down the back of the building. This street was once the lively centre of Hebron with shops and market stalls, but today there is nothing, doors have been sealed shut and windows boarded.
Settlers spray-paint racist epithets on the doors and walls, but in an effort to normalise Israel’s occupation these are routinely painted over by the army. Settlers claim that these shops were shut down in 2000 after the Oslo Accords Summit at Camp David; in truth the restrictions started 6 years earlier in 1994 after the settler Baruch Goldstein murdered 29 Palestinians and injured a further 125. They were fully enforced after the second intifada.
Palestinians were punished for a crime they were the victims of, a common theme in the occupied territories. The Palestinians who remain in the old city of Hebron are amongst the poorest, 80% live below the poverty line and there are little to no employment opportunities. Those with the means leave as soon as they are able to and those who could not have been left trapped between grinding poverty and the iron fist of a foreign army.
Land theft still persists. It is not uncommon for settlers to build on private Palestinian land and even though the IDF sometimes take these structures down, settler persistence and government apathy means that many of the buildings stay. On occasion, the Israeli government will play an active role in assisting this colonisation. It demolished two houses in order that a shortcut could be built from the nearby settlement of Kiryat Arba to the Tomb of the Patriarchs – no one was asked permission, no one was compensated.
Going through the checkpoint from the old city to H1 is akin to walking through the looking glass. Within 50 metres you have walked from a sad, deserted road to an active city full of life. New Hebron is far from prosperous, life is simple and hard, but one is not forced to live under the dual fear of settler violence and the military boot.
Yet on seeing these busy streets, with the market stores brimming with harvest it is hard not to feel saddened by the reminder that this is what a-Shahuda street looked like not too long ago. There was time, prior to the creation of the state of Israel, when Hebron was undivided. Jews and Arabs lived alongside each other in peaceful quiet until violence from both sides brought that time to an abrupt end. Neither peoples in Hebron have clean hands, but today Israel is the aggressor, controlling the lives of Palestinians so that a handful of messianic colonisers can think they are walking in the footsteps of their patriarchs.
Everything that goes on in H2 is done in the name of security, yet on seeing Hebron first-hand it is hard to look upon this as anything other than a flimsy cover-story. Israel never pauses to ask itself what it would not do in the name of security.
As Shay told us, “there is no moral way to occupy someone…if you agree with occupation you agree with everything you see around you”. What I saw that day in Hebron was shocking and deeply painful; a military power exerting its force on a weak and compromised people in order to protect settlers who should not be there in the first place. This is a situation as morally indefensible as it is illegal.