The insanity in Hebron does not happen by accident; someone has to make and enforce the policies we see. (Ironically I am writing this on the shuttle from New York to Boston, sitting next to a clean shaven Jewish man from Long Island, wearing a yarmulke, and holding a prayer book and legal article in his hand. He is praying. I cannot help noticing an insert in bold type in the legal document: Check your ego at the door. Your job is not to know all the answers. (I definitely need to sharpen my spying skills as well as my glasses.) I guess my trip home has just begun.
But I digress. Sitting on the dusty steps of a Palestinian home just beyond a checkpoint in Hebron, we meet Nadav Bigelman, an earnest young man born in Jerusalem from a lefty family and now a member of Breaking the Silence, an organization that started in 2004 and now has 850 members, mostly combatants. As a young high school graduate, Nadav wanted to serve his country and he wanted to serve in Hebron where he was stationed in 2008. He felt he was sent by his own society as a soldier and he now feels he has to show his society the truth of the occupation. Breaking the Silence collects testimonies from fellow soldiers about their experiences in the occupied territories. They examine several aspects: governmental, legal, IDF behavior, orders, and the mindset of the soldiers, and they have taken thousands of Israelis on tours.
He explains that from an Israeli point of view, this is a very religious area and repeats much of the history we have heard. I learn several new details: Jews and Moslems lived peaceably in Hebron for hundreds of years; the 1929 massacred of Jews was done by Palestinians mostly living outside of Hebron. When Jews returned in 1967, the Israeli government initially denied their request to (re)settle, understanding that this would set a precedent for dispossessed Palestinians demanding their return home. He also discussed several murders of Yeshiva students in the 1980s by Palestinian militants. Hebron is unique because it is the only settlement inside a Palestinian city. He has a fascinating map in a pamphlet called Ghost Town which categorizes areas in H2, the old city, in relation to Palestinian use: 1. Closed shops, 2. Travel forbidden, 3. Shops closed and travel forbidden, 4. Completely closed to pedestrians, cars, and shops. 42% of the Palestinians living around the settlements have left H2 due to the horrific difficulties in conducting a normal and safe life. There are nightly Israeli incursions; the army is everywhere, on street corners, on roofs, on patrols, at checkpoints. There have been hundreds of days of curfew where Palestinians are confined to their homes.
So what is life like for an Israeli soldier? Nadav recalls times when settlers attack soldiers and then invite these same nice Jewish boys to their homes to celebrate holidays, so it is complicated. He did 17 days of six to eight hour shifts, and then had a few days home and then would return to do it all over again. Like many soldiers, he stopped caring, “80% of my shifts I was sleeping.” He had always been against the occupation, but this was the first time he felt it so closely, was part of it, realized that it was being done on his behalf with his (and my) tax dollars.
He explains that from the start of the Second Intifada (2000) until 2007, Palestinians killed five Israeli civilians and 17 soldiers. During the same period, Israeli security killed at least 88 Palestinians, 46 were not involved in hostilities at the time of their death. Two Palestinians were shot by Israeli civilians. Shuhada Street was closed in 2000 to decrease the friction, (mostly settler attacks on local Palestinians), there were some brief attempts to have the IDF escort Palestinians in the area, but that conflicted with their primary job of protecting settlers, and ultimately the Israeli Supreme Court declared the closure legal.
As we walk, Nadav seems a bit edgy, hustling us along. He had to get police permission to do this Breaking the Silence tour. As we pass a police vehicle with four officers just hanging and watching, he points out that we have reached a spot where Palestinians can no longer walk. This was a corner where settler children would clash with Palestinian children when they all got out of school at the same time, (last year I witnessed settler children here throwing rocks at Palestinian children while the Jewish parents stood passively). Now the Palestinian children have to walk up several flights of stairs and around the area of previous conflict. Only approximately 100 of the original 500 students remain. In the parking lot there is a military van parked with brightly painted lettering and stencil like pictures: “Hebron Hospitality.” This is basically a mobile coffee house with the inscription: “To the Israeli Soldiers in Love from the Settlers of Judea and Samaria and Gaza.”
He takes us to the once thriving gold district which has been completely smashed and trashed, piles of rubble and decimated dreams, and then we sit in front of his old military base. There are three settler families that actually live on the base, the children growing up with military equipment and IDF in their community. In 2010 on one Friday night, settlers wanted to enter and told the soldiers that since it was Friday, the Sabbath, the soldiers were not allowed to use electricity to close the gate, so they demanded that the gate be left open. A huge argument ensued and the settlers got angry and pulled the gate down. (I wonder if this is appropriate behavior for the Sabbath, but what do I know about God’s commandments.) No arrests were made (on an army base!!!) and a separate open entry passage was built for the orthodox settlers. This is how the system works; problems are bypassed and the settlers get more and more entitled and out of control. Even more frightening is the settler policy of instituting a “price tag.” If Palestinians resist (let’s say demanding to harvest their own olive trees), then the settlers will commit an act of violence in retribution called the price tag. The Educational Minister (remember it is the Palestinians who “teach their children to hate” and the Israelis who have a modern tolerant educational system) has developed a program to bring high school students to Hebron to understand the (I am at a total loss here….) the most racist, intolerant city in Israel…no that can’t be right, I’ll try again, to understand Jewish exceptionalism and fascism….no… Sorry, you can fill in the blank.
Suddenly a large frightened goat, its udders bulging, bolts down Shuhada Street. My first thought is I hope it is a Jewish goat, given the rules around here. I can’t imagine a goat could get a permit. Later we see a Palestinian shepherd, escorted by five soldiers, in search of the animal that apparently refused to stay on the segregated road, the goat equivalent I guess, of the back of the bus. (I secretly name her Rosa!)
Nadav explains that a critical role of the military is to make their presence felt, to remind people, “We are in control.” He explains that this is done by mapping the houses. At 2:00 am he and his fellow soldiers would get into (break into?) someone’s house. He was told to bring his camera. They would pick an ordinary family and do five to six houses a night. They would search the house, closets, upturn furniture; the officer would write down the ID numbers and names of each person in the house and draw a map of the house. Nadav was asked to take a photo of each person (remember, people have just been awaken by a big commotion, they are scared, in their night clothes, probably young children are crying and teenage boys are seething, the soldiers are in full military gear,) and Nadav would match the photos to the names. By the end of the mapping, he usually had about 20 photos. He waited for weeks, but no commander asked for his photos and he finally realized that this was the meaning of making your presence felt, of spreading suspicion. The taking of photos was part of the intimidation. (Why did the soldiers pick that family? Are the family members collaborating? Is a big operation being planned?) Then there are mock arrests. The soldiers would arrest a random Palestinian for two hours, just for training purposes. This kind of psychological warfare goes on all the time and is quite effective in intimidating the entire population.
We ask Nadav how he felt as a soldier. He said he was following orders; he never enjoyed being a bully. He tried to be a “nice” soldier, handing out candies at the checkpoints, but then he would find himself breaking into a house at night and terrorizing an entire family. “The occupation cannot be nice. The issue is not the soldier in the checkpoint, it is the checkpoint itself.” He recommends a book by Breaking the Silence: Our Harsh Logic: Israeli Soldiers’ Testimonies from the Occupied Territories, 2000-2010. (yes is it on amazon) He feels the soldier testimonies contribute to the discourse within Israeli society. He prefers not to discuss his plans regarding his annual military reserve obligations.
We head back to the bus parked near the Tomb of the Patriarchs. Hungry children are begging, selling trinkets. Finally one of our delegates reaches into his pocket for a few shekels and we are swarmed by a small crowd of desperate kids. As we try to back out of this sorry moment, a large armed military policeman rapidly moves into the crowd and violently grabs one of the little boys by his tee shirt. The policeman is aggressively yelling, the boy is screaming in fear, wriggling out of his shirt, we are trying to hold on to the child, the policeman tells us off to back off and a thin withered man who has been peddling cheap bracelets yells, “Leave us alone, get in the bus. You are no better than settlers.” The child’s face is filled with such a fierce terror it is seared in my memory; soon ?his mother and other women are involved with more arguing. Everything exploded so suddenly, so brutally. We get on the bus, shaking. I think the boy got away, this time.