Do Unto Others focuses on the Middle East, (nonviolent) social movements, and how I make sense of my place in the world. I'm currently based in Cairo, Egypt doing peacebuilding and community development.

Thursday, October 23, 2008

The Hebron Circus Comes to Town

Being terribly sick for most of the last week, I was eager to get out into Hebron and do something before I head back to At-Tuwani tomorrow. I had heard about a Breaking the Silence tour of Hebron this morning and decided to participate. Breaking the Silence is a group of veteran Israeli soldiers who have served in the Occupied Territories, largely during the second intifada, who give their testimonies and their stories of service in the OPT (Occupied Palestinian Territories) to a wider audience. Breaking the Silence voices the stories of these soldiers to force Israeli society to address the reality that Israel has created in the OPT.

Part of the continual work of Breaking the Silence is giving tours of Hebron, a large city in the southern West Bank, to both Israelis and internationals. As you may be able to predict, Breaking the Silence has had a difficult time giving their tours in Hebron. Many of their scheduled tours have been stopped before they started because the army has declared the route of the tour a 'closed military zone' to restrict movement in the area. Settler violence has also provided difficulties for these tours. Recently, after appeals and legal proceedings, the Israeli high court has ruled that Breaking the Silence must be allowed to give tours of the city of Hebron.

The tour was set to begin in Tel Rumeida, an area just above the Old City of Hebron that has been taken over by settlers, with the exception of two resilient Palestinian families remaining. When the tour bus of tour-takers arrived with their police escort, we proceeded into Tel Rumeida with little trouble. I would estimate there were 50 people their for the tour and rougly the same number of soldiers/police (both were present and providing escort). We headed up the house is Haani, a Palestinian man who has faced years of harassment, property destruction (his olive grove has been totally destroyed 4 times), and physical attacks against himself and his family by the settlers of Tel Rumeida. Upon leaving Haani's house to continue into Hebron, we were met with a wall of 15-20 settlers.

Many of the young settler girls had whistles. Whistles, what the hell? Right, I was thinking the same thing. I will shed light on the whistles later. Yehuda, a ex-soldier who served in Hebron, who was leading the group turned to us and said, "stick as close to me as possible so we can stay in a tight group in case there are instructions you need to follow." So the crowd of people began to push forward, and at first it was just a mess of bodies and I couldn't distinguish anyone from the next person.

After moving a distance we stop and gather for Yehuda to give some background on the area. By this point I am realizing that our group is completely surrounded by police. The police have formed a circle around us and are creating separation between our group and the settlers.

By this point, I am able to recognize the settlers that are just outside the circle of police and are directing their angry shots and gestures in our direction. As I am able to distinguish our group from police and police from settlers, something splashes at my feet. It's an egg. I look up in time to see some settler youth smiling and throwing eggs at our group. The whistling becomes more and more prevalent and overwhelming. There is also a settler with a megaphone, shouting in Hebrew. The whistling, shouts, and megaphones are obnoxious and make it difficult to hear Yehuda, but we sure aren't stopping the tour. About this time, the leader of the settlers lays himself on the ground in front our group to try to impede the progress of the tour. He is yelling and screaming as he lays on the ground surrounded by police (in order that we may walk by without him kicking us, which he was attempting to do). I asked the women next to me who knew Hebrew what he was saying. She said he was calling out, "YOU ARE FACIST NAZIS WITH THE BLOOD OF JEWISH BABIES ON YOUR HANDS!! HOW MUCH MORE BLOOD? HOW MUCH MORE BLOOD DO YOU NEED? YOU'RE ALL NAZIS!"

The tour proceeded onto Shohada St, just below the settlements, which was a thriving thoroughfare and marketplace for Palestinians until the second intifada (around 2000) when the road was closed to all Palestinians. Now the road is used solely by settlers who are headed to the synagogue. All entrances from the Old City to Shohada St. are blocked by large concrete blocks and spiral barbwire fence. As we proceeded, we were told stories about the mental training that soldiers go through when they arrive for service in the OPT. The leader of the settlers in Hebron comes to talk with the soldiers about their role to protect the Jewish residents, and how Arabs fit into the picture (or don't). For the duration of our two-hour tour, the settlers followed us down roads that are usually their own, and are closed to Palestinians. They continued with their whistles and their megaphone. The megaphone is illegal to use on the streets without the permit, but that wasn't so much recognized. Many of the settlers who tried to disrupt the tour were young adults, 10-16. These had no respect for the police and often yelled at and pushed the police whenever they were thwarted from pushing their way into our group.
*Notice the whistle of the young settler. Also, notice the earplugs of the policeman. Hilarious.

Several things struck me during the tour. First, where the hell am I? This is seriously a circus. Whistles and megaphones? We have the blood of jewish babies on our hands and we're facist nazis? This is a big joke. I can't believe that someone just walking us through this area and telling us the history elicits this response from the settlers. Second, I thought about this kind of behavior in the U.S. The police probably wouldn't allow these people to continue to move along with our group. Also, pushing a police officer would get you handcuffed quick. Third, I think about these kids. What are they learning? So impressionable at this age, and they are learning to hate people. The older men with them are shouting racist slurs against all Arabs. People walking through their neighborhood are called facist nazi pigs. Oh my heart breaks for the young ones. Third, and most important, I think about our tour contrasted with the times when settlers come cruising through the Old City of Hebron. When settlers decide they want to come through the Old City, life stops for Palestinians. Soldiers declare the entire area a closed military zone: shops close, Palestinians are forced to leave the streets, windows and doors and forced closed, and soldiers walk with guns drawn shouting and threatening anyone in the streets.

Settlers simply rule the land. One of my teammates was told by a soldier recently, "if I ever even touched a settler, I would be DONE as a soldier. I would never be promoted again. I would leave the army the same rank that I am now." The settlers are able to say and do anything they want, and the policy of law enforcement is to let it happen.

Similar to our tour, when it comes to Palestinians and settlers, the policy is separation. More than that, the policy is to push Palestinians back and remove them from the situation, so that there is no contact. So if there is violence at the vegetable market? Bye bye Palestinian vegetable market, hello settler side street. A settler massacred 29 Palestinians who were praying at the main mosque in Hebron years aho, so half of the mosque was converted to a synagogue because apparently the attack on Palestinians happened because the settlers didn't have a place to worship. In addition, Shohada St. was closed to provide settlers a clear path to the synagogue.

As our tour draws to and end we reach the Ibrahimi Mosque, that holds the tombs of Abraham and Sarah. Near the mosque, a gate is placed in the street, Palestinians on the left, settlers on the right. Palestinians proceed through metal detectors and frisking before praying, settlers walk freely into the synangogue. This is a sick sick circus with whistles, megaphones, and racial slurs. This is apartheid. Maybe I should change the title of my blog, "The Hebron Apartheid Circus Rules the Town."