We are greeted warmly by Areef Jabari, the Governor of Hebron. He describes himself as ‘Not a Returnee’. A Returnee is someone who has come back to occupied Palestine after a period of exile (usually returning during the Oslo ‘peace-process’). In his case, as he makes clear, he has stayed put throughout.
He talks with sorrow for the lost chances for peace and for the lack of compromise on Israel’s part; of the occupation of Palestine being the “Longest Occupation in Mankind”; and tells us that 48% of his area is controlled by Israel – roads are closed, land taken for settlements, and Green Zones - land which is forbidden for Palestinians to build on.
He also talks with disdain about the cynical promotion of Palestinian ‘peace plans’ by the US before they start bombing another Arab nation – the Mitchell report before Afghanistan, the ‘Road Map’ before Iraq – that are quietly forgotten after the invasions.
I’m sure he gives me a funny look when I introduce myself as British. Later on he makes a point of looking directly at me when mentioning Britain’s role in the occupation of Palestine, the Balfour declaration and the British Mandate, etc. My ‘colonial guilt’ is duly suppressed, however; I’m not being told anything new.
I’ve read about horror stories in Hebron – the 1994 Baruch Goldstein massacre of Muslims at prayer; the slaughter of Jews here in the 1920’s. I have also read about the shielding of Jews from that terror by their Muslim neighbours, who had lived with them side by side in peace for generations. And I have heard about Jewish Israelis who have been given the right to ‘resettle’ in Hebron since the Oslo Accords, but who have publicly denounced their right to do so, proclaiming that they have nothing whatsoever to do with the settlers here.
Areef Jabari emphasizes the days of peaceful coexistence between Jews and Muslims in Hebron in the centuries before the violent rise of Zionism. But the reality of life here today is so far from those days it is difficult to imagine.
In Hebron I rediscovered what I had learnt last time I visited Palestine, when the reality of the check points hit me: You can read up on a subject, go to meetings, conferences, watch films and internet reports, and get a good idea of what things are like. Intellectually, you can acquire an understanding, but a ‘real-life encounter’ – experience - is much more powerful.
Walking through the ghost-city of Hebron was very disturbing in that sense. One minute we’re walking through a busy city on a mid-week afternoon. Suddenly we have wandered further down the Market Street and it is eerily quiet. A boy cycles alone in the empty street. An occasional, pitiful shop is open, but nothing else. I am told to keep up as we walk past yet another occupied house. There are 27 houses in Hebron occupied by the Israeli Occupation Forces (IOF). This is the fourth we’ve seen in less than an hour.
There are 400-500 settlers in the Old City and a few thousand in Kiryat Arba and Givat Ha Harsina to the east. The ‘Jewish Underground’ and ‘Gush Emunim’ (‘Bloc of the Faithful’) are prominent here. Characterized by a fundamentalist, messianic belief that Israel is a God-given land, exclusively for the Jews, they have been trying to ‘reclaim’ Hebron since the early 1980s; to ethnically cleanse it of Palestinians. Illegal from the outset, they were given state approval as a ‘fact on the ground’ and, after tense fighting in the late 1980s, they are protected by the IOF. There are about 4,000 troops stationed in Hebron nowadays, according to the Christian Peacemakers Team, who have been here witnessing the situation since 1995 .
Granted immunity from the law by the Israeli Army, Gush Emunim’s leader, Rabbi Moshe Levinger once said, in 1987: “This town will become a Jewish city. Tens of thousands of Jews will be living here within the next ten to twenty years.” In 1990, Levinger served just ten weeks in prison for killing an unarmed Palestinian merchant.
Since 1994, the population of H2, the area covering the Old City and the settlements, has dropped from 75,000 to 50,000. Refugees from H2 often move to neighbouring H1, or to families in the surrounding villages. In other words, the Settlers, aided by the IOF, have successfully forced out 25,000 Palestinians in ten years.
Moreover, the Israelis are now demolishing houses in the area in order to build a road linking the Settlements in the Old City to the larger colonies of Kryat Arba and Harsina. They are also planning to build the infamous Wall deep into Hebron to protect the illegal settlements, making the division of the city a permanent feature.
I catch up with our group, and realise we’re approaching a check point where a man is trying to escape the inquisitions of soldiers. We walk swiftly by, the Israeli citizens among us keen not be questioned or asked for ID. Israeli’s are not allowed to do what we are doing – to witness for them selves the brutality of the occupation. And Palestinians with Israeli citizenship aren’t allowed to legally visit relatives in the Occupied Territories.
There is no life in the Old City, only quiet echoes of better days gone by. The odd shop keeper who has dared to open is desperate for custom. When we stop to buy some Turkish Delights (‘made in this shop for over 50 years’) from a family business I have nothing but admiration for the guy. He has remained open despite the daily harassment and threats to his life from the settlers.
All over the closed shop fronts there are Stars of David, painted for the political symbolism it carries from the settlers; ‘this is ours – Jewish – not yours’. Other racist graffiti boasts that the area has been closed since 1994, or the eloquent “I hate you: You smell” (in Hebrew).
The obvious parallels of witnessing the Star of David painted on shop-fronts recall the unmentionable here. It is unavoidable to think of the Third Reich when you see this, and it’s widely known, yet unspeakable for Israeli society. In May, an Israeli Cabinet member mentioned this repetition of history when he said that the images of destruction in Gaza camp reminded him of his own Grandmother during the Nazi era. The Israeli establishment was shocked by this breaking of a serious taboo, and he was duly pressured into retracting his statement.
There have been recent attempts to re-open the shopping area. Of the five or six shops we find open, they all have a poster up calling on people to “Bring new life to the Old City” by shopping there on the first Thursday of every month; an initiative encouraging the Palestinian community to collectively act to resist the ethnic cleansing.
At the other end of the Old City is Al Ibrahimi Mosque and the Tomb of the Patriarchs. With check points at the entrance this place feels a million miles from ‘Holy’. I’m asked, jokingly I think, by a companion if I feel any deep stirrings in me, being so close to the burial site of my ancestors. I could only answer negatively, I felt too disturbed by what I’d seen to contemplate any Jewish heritage I have in me.
The key for Al Ibrahimi mosque is currently in the hands of the IOF. A Military presence in a Holy place is forbidden, according to Islamic law, and Al Athan (the call to prayer) from Al Ibrahimi Mosque is regularly banned. Governor Jabari calls this a violation of the freedom to worship, and it’s difficult to argue otherwise.
Outside, I spot an armed man with a long beard, sunglasses, and bare-arms. To my eyes, he looked like an American biker, a Hells Angel. A young child sits next to him, oblivious to me watching them from the other side of a barbed wire fence. I’m repulsed by his lounging about, seemingly without a care in the world. All this misery: young children with dirty faces and empty eyes – not at all like the lively children who want their photos taken in the Old City of Nablus; the economic blood-letting of an ancient and beautiful city centre; because of these fanatics and their refusal to live in peace with ‘non-Jews’.
According to the Shabbat, a prospective convert once asked Rabbi Hillel, “What is the whole of the Torah (the whole body of Jewish teaching)?” Hillel responded; “That which is hateful unto thee do not do unto thy neighbour. This is the whole of the Torah. The rest is commentary. Go and study.” (Shabbat 31a, “Judaism”, CM Pilkington, 2003).
This “Golden Rule” of Judaism seems to have been reinterpreted by these “faithful” settlers to be something more like: “Do unto your neighbours that which was hatefully done unto you.”
The probably over-used dictum of Marx’s serves as a terrible warning; “History repeats itself, first as tragedy, second as farce.” I desperately hope we never see the suffering and hatred witnessed in Hebron as farcical. Ethnic cleansing, the decimation and misery of occupation, will always be tragic.
For more on Hebron, I recommend an article in News from Within, October 2003, available online at: http://www.newsfromwithin.org/oct_2003.htm
For a report on the first “Festival Day for Shopping in the Old City of Hebron”, go to: http://www.cpt.org/archives/2004/jun04/0014.html