January 13, 2010

Living in Hell

On January 12th, we drive to the southern West Bank city of Hebron. This city is literally drowning in a complex, traumatic, and violent history, that has given birth to the outrageous situation we see today. Most people start the story with the burial of Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, and their wives several thousand years ago, followed by multiple invasions, the Arab massacre of Jews in 1929 one week after Zionists raised a Jewish flag at the Wailing Wall (with many question regarding the role of the British in this catastrophe), and Baruch Goldstein’s massacre of Moslems praying at the Ibrahimi Mosque in the middle of Ramadan in 1994.

We are touring Hebron with Hisham Sharabati, the uncle of our local co-leader, Lubna. He explains 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 1 1/2 years. He is clearly articulate and educated; suffering has made him strong.

We start in a central open area of the market, old stone buildings with green metal doors on the ground floor, a small square with a palm trees, women in colorful hijabs 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 notice multiple security cameras and a few guard towers mounted on the tops of the buildings as well as an IDF 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, are closed, some welded shut by the IDF, and there is a second floor apartment completely encased in wire to protect the windows as well as the inhabitants from rocks thrown by Jewish settlers. .

As we sit down for the usual lunch of felafel, hummus, pita, and a collection of vegetables, Hisham begins to speak, his style sincere and serious with an ironic sense of humor. Shortly, we notice a commotion at the checkpoint site and it appears that a number of the teenage boys have been apprehended by the soldiers, their intimidating automatic weapons ready, and are being taken one by one inside the metal door for questioning after their bags are checked. We move closer and can only peak through a crack in the tall concrete blocks around the checkpoint. The local population does not seem to pay much attention to this encounter, it is 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 suspect this is the only kind of interaction these children have with Israeli Jews.

Hisham explains 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 IDF 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 local Jewish 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 in 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 some of the local leadership have been arrested by Israeli authorities 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 Haddassah.

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 OCHA has documented 98 different kinds of restrictions of movement in an area that is just one square kilometer. 512 Palestinian stores, spray painted with red and black dots, have been closed by military order, there are repeated prolonged closures and curfews, and Palestinians are only allowed to walk on certain streets, even if their homes are on these streets. These people access there homes by traipsing through other backyards or by walking from roof to roof, up and down ladders, to get to their homes. 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 wander through much of the market, some of it ghostly quiet, some bustling with vegetables, fruit, clothes, and crowds of people. Above the market Hisham points out a 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 stand he points 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 see three Palestinian young men spread eagled against the wall, one kicked by a solder, and several soldiers, patting them down. We move closer, hoping our presence may contain the violence, and after what feels like an endless harassment, the young men are set free. Welcome to the daily Hebron patrol and as one delegate said, the mass psychology of fascism.

The most painful part of this tour is the visit to Hisham’s friend, Hashem Aza, who not only can not 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, Saudia Arabia,” been cursed viciously, and particularly after the severe curfews from 2000-2003, many of his neighbors gave up and left. He states that there is a 90% poverty rate and minimal available employment. We clamber up a rocky hill, through several back yards and back stairs until we reach his home. He points 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 comes scampering outside chasing a pink ball, watched carefully by his wife. In his home he shares more horrifying personal stories, shows 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 police or IDF nearby. A committed nonviolent activist, he and his wife and nephew have been personally attacked, their home repeatedly trashed, his children suffer from bedwetting and other signs of PTSD, 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 listen stunned and drowning in shame, outrage, and heartbreak.

Our sobering taste of life in Hebron includes other devastating stories and experiences with Israeli guard towers, camouflage netting, checkpoints, a wall spray painted with graffiti that includes a tribute to the Golani brigade, one of the IDFs most aggressively violent units and to Betar, a right wing youth organization. I pass a concrete block obstructing the road, spray painted with an arrow and the words: “This is apartheid.” There are occasional Palestinian Authority police, but the consensus is 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 Netanyahu and Leiberman’s blatant support for the settlement project and utter disregard for the the welfare of Palestinians, BDS 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.

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