08 August 2007 - The soul of Hebron (Part 1 of 2)
Today (Thursday), I’ll be visitng Hebron with an Israeli tour organized by a group of former IDF conscripts who have formed an organization called Breaking the Silence. It promises to be interesting, and I’ll post a full report in part 2 on Friday. Today I’ll provide a bit of background. It’s already been an eventful week in Hebron, the only West Bank town with a Jewish settlement inside an Arab city.
On Tuesday, Israeli soldiers forcibly removed Jewish families that had settled illegally in the middle of the Hebron market district. It was not the first time that the IDF has removed settlers, nor will it be the last, but this time was different. Hamas’s rocket attacks and its coup in Gaza have given the anti-withdrawal movement a fresh wind, and new self-confidence to take on the Israeli mainstream.
The most recent Peace Index survey from Tel Aviv University shows that a majority of Israelis now opposes a large Israeli withdrawal from the West Bank. On the sides of buses one sees advertisements carrying the slogan, written in bright orange: “We Will Not Forget.” People seem willing to let the Prime Minister talk peace with the Palestinians, but less interested than ever in making territorial concessions.
This mood is reflected in the ranks of the IDF itself, which maintained its discipline during the Gaza disengagement but which is struggling to do so now. A dozen combat soldiers refused to take part in the removal of the settlers and protestors. Though they have been condemned in the media and will face stiff punishment from the military, they have been defended by right-wing politicians and rabbis.
The right wing view is that the removal of Jews from anywhere within the Land of Israel (including the West Bank) is not only religiously impermissible and politically foolish but also a violation of human rights, a “black flag” order that soldiers should disobey. The left wing disagrees, but has little credibility because it supported soldiers who refused to serve in the territories during the recent intifada.
The emergence of refuseniks, from whatever political camp, is troubling because it threatens the unity and legitimacy of Israel’s military at a moment when Israel is facing the military challenge of a potentially nuclear Iran and the enduring political challenge of hostile international opinion. The potential consequences for Israel’s security, both external and internal, could be severe.
Ha’aretz puts it stridently: “[T]he IDF must have a unified chain of command that includes only military commanders subordinate to the chief of staff, who in turn follows the orders of the supreme headquarters of the IDF: the government. Private armies will lead to the disintegration of the IDF, and will ultimately fight each other, as in pre-revolution China or in Iraq after the American invasion.”
With that in mind, I’ll be heading to Hebron with a group of soldiers who are not shy about expressing their opinions—though they do so out of uniform, it seems. I’m curious to see how they will frame the issue for a bus of foreigners. It might also be interesting to attend one of the Hebrew tours, to see if the descriptions, and debates are substantively different with a foreign audience than a local one.
I spoke about the tour with some Israeli acquaintances this evening. “That place is just evil,” one said. “On both sides, Jew and Arab. They hate each other.” Another one told me about the Jewish fanatics who frequent the gravesite of Baruch Goldstein, who killed dozens of innocent people in a terror attack in 1994. There are plenty of Arab fanatics too, and the IDF struggles to keep them apart.
Hebron does seem to symbolize the conflict at its worst. A city holy to both Jews and Muslims, whose central religious shrine, the Cave of the Patriarchs, is revered by both, is so often the trigger of mutual animosity. It’s where the occupation is said to be at its worst. However, it is still something of an exception, even in the West Bank. I wonder if our guides will portray it as the norm, or as a special case.
After the tour, I might try to head over to Bethlehem, which will probably involve crossing a checkpoint or two. I have dinner plans with friends who live in another, more “ordinary” settlement in the West Bank, one with a view of Tel Aviv in the near distance, one where you’d hardly know you were in occupied territory if it weren’t for the security barrier snaking thorough the hilly countryside.
There is something hauntingly beautiful about that part of the country, where minarets rise to the east of the road, and sometimes to the west, and the landscape seems to stare back at you solemnly, and you wonder whether what you’re looking at is left or right of the Green Line, and what the future will be. I imagine I’ll return with more questions than answers—but perhaps better questions, at any rate.