His panic-stricken little face lights up when he receives the information that we’ll escort him home, sending him skipping merrily down the road on an errand to buy potatoes. This is the Palestinian Authority controlled area of Hebron, and as we cross through Tel Rumeida checkpoint to the other side in order to wait for the Palestinian boy’s return, we soon discover the source of his fear.
We are confronted by around 100 ultra-orthodox Jews, who are gathered in Hebron to mark ‘Hebron day’, one of whom shouts “You know that Jesus is gay?”. None of us really react to this arbitrary taunt, however it does serve to focus the crowd’s attentions squarely on our small group of human rights workers. Another shouts “What are you doing here?”
“Tourists” I reply, believing this to be the safest response under the circumstances. The crowd then begins chanting in Hebrew “We killed Jesus, we’ll kill you too!” - we are quickly designated the ‘other’. The mob mentality takes on an oppressive and ugly turn; now almost a single entity justifying almost any excess as long as it is directed towards the ‘other’. The crowd edges forward “You love Palestinians” one of them shouts, spitting in a human rights worker’s face.
The first stone had been cast: saliva rains down on us and people jump above one another to be able to deliver their contempt. We are shoved and kicked repeatedly, and even though it is apparent that events are spiraling dangerously out of control, the soldiers who are standing just a few feet behind us at the checkpoint choose to look on impotently as the attacks intensify.
A man lunges from the crowd, smashing Tove, a 19 year old Swedish girl across the face with a bottle. She immediately collapses to the ground clutching her bloodied face in horrified terror. At this point the soldiers come forward and motion at the settlers, in a “ok, that’s enough guys,” motion, amid clapping, cheering and chanting from the crowd.
As Tove lay on the hard concrete floor, blood oozing from her wounds the crowd re-groups, fed by curiosity and growing in energy “We killed Jesus, we’ll kill you too!” I now felt a growing sense of apprehension as awareness dawned of the mob’s evil intent and the soldiers’ unwillingness to intervene in any meaningful way.
A religiously dressed Orthodox Jew then adds insult to injury by posing with a thumbs-up gesture over Tove’s bloodied face. The sight of this was so obnoxiously contemptuous I never gave the guy the satisfaction he sadistically craved by taking his picture. The decision as to whether I should have taken that picture has been discussed over and over by people I know, though I feel the impact of sharing that disgusting image I have etched in my mind, can serve no purpose other than that of breeding hatred.
The police arrived and an American girl who witnessed the event was taken into a police van and asked to identify who had attacked our group. Meanwhile the remaining police were telling me and another Englishman that if we didn’t move away from the scene we would be arrested as we were blocking the street. We remained.
A Jewish settler medic came to the scene about 15 minutes after the attack and immediately began asking us why we were in Hebron, telling us pointedly we had no right to be there. He refused to help Tove as she lay bleeding in the street.
Eventually Tove was helped onto a stretcher by some soldiers, amid jeers and clapping from the crowd. We escorted the stretcher through the jeering crowd to a military vehicle in which Tove and a close friend were transported to the hospital in Jerusalem.
As I walked back down the street I witnessed the police open the door of a van and release one of the attackers. Upon seeing this the crowd then began jubilantly celebrating his release. We were later told by the police that they had not even taken the names of those who were identified as having attacked us, and that one of the main assailants had simply told the police that he was due at the airport in two hours to fly back to France.
Two Englishmen and I then spent another half an hour or so escorting Palestinian women and children from the checkpoint to their homes. In doing so it is our aim to protect the Palestinians in such situations by deflecting the attention and hate away from them.
It was getting dark but the streets were still busy. We escorted one group of three boys, the oldest of whom was 9 or 10. We were followed closely along the street by a dozen or so Orthodox Jews who hissed and berated the Palestinian boys in Arabic with obscenities I am grateful of not understanding. “You like protecting the animals?”, they taunted us in English - “Nazis!”.
We reached some steps and turned off the main street and began to climb, the little boys nervously glancing back to see if we would be pursued. A couple of hundred metres further on the older boy made it clear they were OK to continue alone now. I asked the oldest boy if they were sure, he forced a smile and shrugged his soldiers in defiance as if to say “no problem this stuff happens every day”. He seemed so strong, but as I put my hand on his shoulder and looked into his teary eyes they gave out another message and I saw pain and fear.
I wanted to tell him that the world wasn’t really like this. But for him and the people of Tel Rumeida it is.
Earlier in the day at least five Palestinians, including a 3-year old child, were injured by Jewish settlers, who rampaged through Tel Rumeida hurling stones and bottles at local residents. Palestinian schoolchildren on their way home were also attacked. The Israeli “Defense” Force, which was intensively deployed in the area, did not intervene to stop the settlers.