10 August 2007 - The soul of Hebron (Part 2 of 2)
To walk through the center of old Hebron is to walk through the heart of the conflict between Jews and Arabs—not Israelis and Palestinians, not nations as such, because the crazy arrangement through which four-fifths of the city was assigned to the Palestinian Authority and the rest to Israel was agreed by both sides in 1997. No—here it is Arab against Jew, Jew against Muslim—even Jew against Israeli.
It is an ugly and disturbing reality. But there are two ways to approach it. One is to look at the world as seen by both sides, attempt to mediate between them, and—if that fails—separate them, postponing reconciliation to another day. The other approach is to look only at the suffering that one side causes the other and itself, condemn and mourn its actions, and hope that it can be persuaded to change.
The tour led by Breaking the Silence falls into the later category. It shows some sensitivity to Jewish concerns, and does not try to minimize the role played by Arab terror. Our tour leader told us at the outset that he believed Jews had the right to live in Hebron, gave us an accurate history of the 1929 massacre, and noted that Israeli repression had almost always been preceded by Arab violence against Jews.
But he had a message to convey, which became clearer as the sarcasm in his voice increased over the course of the day. Israeli evacuations of illegal settlements, he claimed, were just done for propaganda purposes. Palestinian lives did not matter to the Israeli government. And the reality of Hebron was repressed by the government and the media, or by the self-enforced denial of Israelis who do not want to see.
He himself, he told us, was an Orthodox Jew who had grown up in a settlement and served in the Israel Defense Forces in Hebron during the worst years of the second intifada. That gave him, I thought, an unusual degree of sensitivity. But when I asked him why the tour, which included a visit to an Arab family, did not include a Jewish family as well, he said he regarded the Hebron settlers as “illegitimate.”
Our visit with the Arab family was illustrative. We arrived at a house through a winding backyard path, passing underneath vines fat with grapes. The occupants cannot leave or enter through the front door, because an IDF post has been set up across the street to guard a new settlement directly uphill from the house itself. The owner welcomed us and showed us homemade movies of settlers attacking Arabs.
There were some horrible images, such as a Jewish mob storming a neighbor’s house and a group of Jewish girls shouting “kill the Arabs” in Arabic while throwing stones at helpless Arab girls on their way to school. The soldiers in the videos try half-heartedly to stop the violence but they are not carrying riot gear, they are outmanned, and they are clearly unwilling to fire their guns at Jewish teenagers.
(Though our guide constantly told us that context was important to understanding the conflict in Hebron, we were denied an important bit of information here. I asked out host when the mob had stormed the house, and he said the date had been 30 May 2003. That puts it only two weeks after the deadly suicide bombing in the Hebron market. That does not excuse mob violence, but it would help explain it.)
The man told us that he was willing to live with Jews who wanted to be near the holy places in Hebron, but not with “Zionists.” I asked him what he meant by “Zionist,” and he said that a Zionist was someone who wanted to occupy all the land up to the Euphrates River. I asked if he knew there were Zionists who believed in Israel but opposed the occupation. He said he would be prepared to talk with them.
Fair enough—and I imagine I would also resent Jews and Israelis if I had to live underneath a machine-gun nest protecting a group of religious zealots. But what disappointed me was his initial readiness to accept—at least, until challenged—the most extreme, totalized vision of the Zionist “other.” Would it have hurt us to actually meet a family of Jews, with their own, perhaps legitimate, grievances?
There must be someone to talk to, though obviously not every settler in Hebron would be willing to speak with potentially critical outsiders. While we were walking through the old wholesale market—from which a group of Jewish families had been evicted two days before—a man from the area strolled by, speaking loudly: “They come here to demonstrate and support the terrorists who want to destroy us.”
I thought: you idiot, why don’t you ask us why we’re here? Other settlers walked by without bothering us. As we walked on, curious Jewish kids pedaled past us on bikes; a father pushed two sqeauling toddlers in a pram down a steep hill. One little Arab boy, to the great embarrassment of his father, threatened me with a stick. He later ran after us and, somewhat apologetically, asked me my name in Arabic.
We walked along a central market street, which is completely closed down, empty except for bored-looking soldiers lolling about near machine-gun nests. One army jeep even had the words “Free Palestine” painted on it, which the soldiers had not bothered to erase. The street had been closed after a Palestinian suicide bomber blew himself up in a crowd; he had been trying to kill a group of schoolgirls.
Other streets had been closed after Islamic Jihad terrorists ambushed a group of Jews on their way to prayers. And dozens of Arab stores had been forced to close in 1994, after the Jewish terrorist Baruch Goldstein killed dozens of Muslims praying at the Tomb of the Patriarchs. We did not enter that holy site, but we did visit Goldstein’s grave—a pilgrimage site for extremists—in the Meir Kahane Park in tbe nearby settlement of Kiryat Arba. I felt a strong urge to deface it in some way.
Our guide talked about some of the legal absurdities of the situation—that the wholesale market belonged to a Jew whose family had been expelled by Arabs in 1929; then taken over by Arabs, who are barred from entry by the Israeli army; and now claimed by Jews, also recently expelled. In a bizarre twist, the rightful owner no longer wants the land. His grandfather was the local rabbi; he is a communist.
Another story concerned a group of Arab-owned buildings which the army had closed without authorization, and a street that Arabs were permitted to walk down but which the army refused to let them enter. Here the local commanders seemed to make up the rules as they went along, defying official policy and Supreme Court orders. A new concept emerged—the “oral warrant”—to justify these extralegal acts.
The tour leader began using the word “sterilize” to describe the army’s restrictions. I asked him whether that was an official military term, and what it meant. He said it was a word other guides would not have used, but one he felt was appropriate in portraying the effects of army policy on the neighborhood’s Arab residents.
I felt he was guilty of something more than carelessess. Words like “sterilize” and “clean” evoke the term “ethnic cleansing,” which is the opposite, or rather the inverse, of what is going on. “Ethnic cleansing” means setting out to remove the inhabitants of an area, and thereby starting a conflict. What we saw were areas that were cleared because it was the only way to stop an ongoing conflict.
Elsewhere, he pointed out all of the racist graffiti—“Arabs are sand niggers” and the like—and even anti-Israel graffiti (“Sharon, Rabin is waiting for you”) by settlers opposed to the Israeli government. Most of those slogans had been erased, however, and the guide ignored more benign stuff such as the nationalist “Am Israel Chai” (“The people of Israel live”) and even “Peace Now—the Youth of Hebron.”
Later, he spoke about “the principle of segregation” that the government admitted lay behind its policy in Hebron—but he failed to distinguish between segregation that is motivated by security needs in wartime, and peacetime segregation that is motivated by racial ideology. To drive home the point, he read an op-ed from Ha’aretz that accused the army of enacting an “apartheid policy” and so on.
Our fellow travelers took this all in silently. Most were from a church group called Ecumenical Accompaniers (EA), who are posted as observers and relief workers throughout the Palestinian tows of the West Bank. None of them spoke Hebrew, and only a few spoke some Arabic. There were two South Africans, one black and one white, the former posted in Hebron and the latter near the town of Qalqilya.
It struck me as odd, and dangerous, to place people who cannot speak any local language in the middle of a conflict zone. Indeed, one of the videos we saw at the Arab family’s house showed an EA worker falling down while trying to stop a scuffle between Arabs and Jews. She shouts in English (“Get her out of here!”) throughout the terrible ordeal, and it is clear she cannot understand the settlers’ Hebrew.
At the end of the tour, our guide spoke movingly about the difficult transition he had to go through as a soldier—from being a trained professional to firing grenades at distant targets in densely populated areas. He described this as a shift from a “black and white” sense of morality to a “grey” one—one in which the blurring of right and wrong made everything, even acts immoral in everyday life, possible.
I commended our guide for telling his story, but I disagreed with his claim that Israel hides the reality of Hebron. Breaking the Silence was, after all, invited to present its photographic exhibition in the Knesset. If people did not respond the way he might have wanted to, was that perhaps because of the ongoing trauma of terror in Israel, which he had not mentioned once in the entire tour?
He responded by saying that Israelis were in denial—just as white South Africans once were, just as all societies are about the evils done in their name. Perhaps so—to a degree, but surely not to the extent he suggested. Not when this morning’s Jerusalem Post has a photograph on page 2 of an Israeli soldier welding shut an Arab shop in Hebron on the very day that we passed through the market.
What I see in Hebron is an ongoing tragedy in which neither side is innocent. Without falling into the abyss of moral equivalence, one can say that Arabs have attacked innocent Jews, and vice versa; Palestinian leaders have failed to stop terror, and Israeli leaders have encouraged rather than discouraged wildcat settlements. The IDF, perhaps perilously, has taken matters into its own hands.
The whole goal of the tour, in fact, seemed to be to make grey into black and white. The reality, however, is that some things really are grey, and acknowledging that doesn’t mean wrong becomes right. Seeing grey for what it is may be the first step toward dialogue. And even a grey picture can resolve itself into shapes you can recognize, if you are prepared to look long and carefully, from all perspectives.