Hebron’s living hell

Israeli soldiers detain Palestinian youths in the old city of Hebron.

On 12 January, we drove to the southern West Bank city of Hebron. This city is drowning in a complex, traumatic and violent history that has given birth to the outrageous situation we see today. Hebron is known from biblical stories as the burial place of Abraham, Isaac, Jacob and their wives several thousand years ago. This was famously followed by multiple invasions, the Arab massacre of Jews in 1929 one week after Zionists raised a Jewish flag at Jerusalem’s Wailing Wall (with many questions regarding the role of the British in this catastrophe), and Baruch Goldstein’s massacre of Muslims praying at the Ibrahimi Mosque in the middle of Ramadan in 1994.

We toured Hebron with Hisham Sharabati, the uncle of our local co-leader, Lubna. He explained that he went “to the college of the Israeli prison during the first intifada,” and that after a barrage of tear gas and rubber bullets, he was shot in the leg and sustained a fracture, requiring crutches for one and a half years. He is articulate and educated; suffering has made him strong.

We started in a central open area of the market, old stone buildings with green metal doors on the ground floor, a small square with palm trees, women in colorful headscarves sitting on poured concrete seats under umbrellas, and a steady circle of traffic and rambunctious young boys, racing around playing, and harassing us, with unrelenting requests to purchase a variety of Palestinian trinkets. On quick inspection, I noticed multiple security cameras and a few guard towers mounted on the tops of the buildings as well as an Israeli army checkpoint with a swinging yellow metal gate and a solid metal gate guarding the entrance to a Jewish settler area with a soldier perched above. All the ground floor doors, formerly markets, were closed, some welded shut by the Israeli army, and there was a second floor Palestinian apartment completely encased in wire to protect the windows as well as the inhabitants from rocks thrown by Jewish settlers.

As we sat down for the usual lunch of falafel, hummus, pita and a collection of vegetables, Hisham began to speak, his style sincere and serious with an ironic sense of humor. Shortly, we noticed a commotion at the checkpoint site and it appeared that a number of the teenage boys had been apprehended by the soldiers with their intimidating automatic weapons ready, and were being taken one by one inside the metal door for questioning after their bags were checked. We moved closer and could only peek through a crack in the tall concrete blocks around the checkpoint. The local population did not seem to pay much attention to this encounter, clearly an everyday affair. I do not know what happened to the boys, although several were released and came out, tucking in their shirts and resuming a slightly subdued teenage swagger. The little boys watched with curiosity and at one point, two Israeli soldiers came out from their bunker, wearing what appeared to be a significant amount of battle gear, hands always on their weapons, and spoke with the little boys. I suspected this is the only kind of interaction these children have with Israeli Jews.

An Israeli army watchtower atop a home in the old city of Hebron.

Hisham explained that after 1967 a group of very right-wing Jewish settlers came to a hotel in Hebron and declared they would never leave. A deal was struck with the Israeli army that they could settle next to a military facility. There were further deals and expansions and ultimately the settlement of Kiryat Arba was officially established in 1971. These settlers have a history of particularly violent, racist, ugly attacks against their Palestinian neighbors, often observed and sometimes even promoted by the Israeli soldiers. These are the settlers that spray paint “Death to the Arabs!” or “Gas all Arabs” on the walls of Palestinian homes and taunt children and women, calling the women whores. Much of this has been well-documented by Palestinians with video cameras, many provided by the Israeli human rights organization B’Tselem as part of their “Shoot Back” campaign. It is soldiers from Hebron who started “Breaking the Silence,” when they felt guilty and haunted by their violent racist behavior patrolling this city. The local Palestinians have responded with repeated nonviolent resistance, including strikes and demonstrations, and according to Hisham some of the local leadership have been arrested by Israeli authorities and forcibly transferred and deported. In the 1970s and 1980s there were also armed attacks against the settlers as well as an attack on a nearby settlement called Beit Hadassah.

In the 1990s, a group of 400 settlers (which included 250 yeshiva students) decided to move into the Old City, into homes that they claimed were originally Jewish and these settlers have repeatedly attacked the local Palestinians and destroyed their market and ability to live a normal life. There are 150,000 Palestinians in all of Hebron and 35,000 in H2, the area of the city under strict Israeli control, “taken hostage on behalf of the settlers.” The UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs has documented 98 different kinds of restrictions of movement in an area that is just one square kilometer. Five hundred and twelve Palestinian stores, spray painted with red and black dots, have been closed by military order and there have been repeated prolonged closures and curfews. Palestinians are only allowed to walk on certain streets, and some can only access their homes by traipsing through other backyards or by walking from roof to roof, up and down ladders. The central bus station was taken for “security” and given to settlers and the yeshiva was built above the Palestinian market on top of a Palestinian school.

We wandered through much of the market, some of it ghostly quiet, some bustling with vegetables, fruit, clothes and crowds of people. Above the market Hisham pointed out metal wiring creating a protective barrier as settlers living above throw garbage, bricks, stones, plastic bags of urine and feces and other offensive items down upon the Palestinians. At one point he gestured to a plastic covering with a ragged hole above the market area. Here the Jewish settlers threw acid which burned the plastic and caused havoc below. Suddenly we saw see three Palestinian young men spread eagle against the wall, one kicked by a solder, and several soldiers patting them down. We moved closer, hoping our presence might contain the violence, and after what felt like an endless harassment, the young men were set free. Welcome to the daily Hebron patrol and as one delegate said, the mass psychology of fascism.

Hashem Aza standing in front of his home with its caged windows to protect from settler violence.

The most painful part of this tour was the visit to Hisham’s friend, Hashem Aza, who not only cannot access his house from the main street, but also lives next to one of the most rabid anti-Palestinian settlers. He has been told, “If you want peace, go to Gaza, Egypt, Saudi Arabia,” been cursed viciously, and particularly after the severe curfews from 2000 and 2003, many of his neighbors gave up and left. He stated that there is a 90 percent poverty rate and minimal available employment. We clambered up a rocky hill, through several back yards and back stairs until we reached his home. He pointed to the stone stairs and garden that once were his backyard, but this has been repeatedly destroyed by his Jewish neighbors who not only have attacked his home and his family, but they have also cut his fruit trees, water and electricity lines. They too throw garbage and once hurled a washing machine that we see rusting amongst the trees. Only recently has he acquired water again and we see a new bright blue pipe snaking through the various backyards. His little boy came scampering outside chasing a pink ball, watched carefully by his wife. In his home he shared more horrifying personal stories, showing us a series of videos documenting racist, violent attacks against Palestinians, primarily women and children, often by settler women and children, with no response from the nearby Israeli police or army. A committed nonviolent activist, he and his wife and nephew have been personally attacked, their home repeatedly trashed, his children suffer from bed-wetting and other signs of post-traumatic stress disorder, and he has unsuccessfully pursued his case in Israeli courts. He is determined to persevere, to document the realities in his beloved city, and bring this to the attention of the international community. We listened, stunned and drowning in shame, outrage and heartbreak.

Our sobering taste of life in Hebron included other devastating stories and the presence of Israeli guard towers, camouflage netting, checkpoints, a wall spray-painted with graffiti that included a tribute to the Golani brigade, one of the Israeli army’s most aggressively violent units, and to Betar, a right-wing youth organization. I passed a concrete block obstructing the road, spray-painted with an arrow and the words “This is apartheid.” There were occasional Palestinian Authority police, but the consensus was that they are mostly useless.

So what do we do with this shameful reality? While most Israelis do not support these settlers, they receive full support, protection and encouragement from the Israeli government and military, and this has not changed in the past 42 years, no matter who is in power. They have made the lives of the Palestinians in Hebron a living hell, and they have never been held accountable. This does not happen by accident. From the moment Goldstein massacred the Palestinians in the mosque, it was a political decision by the Israeli government to put the Palestinians under curfew and protect the Jewish settlers who now celebrate his murderous actions. While these settlers are clearly the most racist, religiously fanatic, possibly deranged, and fascistic element in Israeli society, they both use and are used by the government as a wedge in the never ending land grab and Judaization of the West Bank.

Given the blather that mostly passes for news about the settler issue in the US, and Israeli leaders Benjamin Netanyahu and Avigdor Leiberman’s blatant support for the settlement project and utter disregard for the welfare of Palestinians, the movement for boycott, divestment and sanctions against Israel is looking more and more like a reasonable imperative. I take my inspiration from the nonviolent activists who shared their painful reality with us. Such is the impact of a day in Hebron.

All images by Alice Rothchild.

Alice Rothchild is a Boston-based physician, activist and writer. A second edition of her book, Broken Promises, Broken Dreams: Stories of Jewish and Palestinian Trauma and Resilience (Pluto Press, 2007) will be released in February 2010.