By Sarah MacDonald (a CPT colleague)
“Excuse me!” the Israeli soldier called to us. “You can’t walk down that street."
Elizabeth and I turned toward him, questioning. “We can’t? But the German tourists here earlier walked this way,” Elizabeth recalled.
“I walked down the street three days ago,” I added. “No one stopped me then.”
The soldier shrugged. “We can’t let CPTers walk on this street. That’s the order we’ve been given.”
The street in question was Shuhada Street, once a central route and thriving marketplace for the Palestinian community in Hebron. Since 1979, ideologically radical Israeli settlements have grown along the street. Often the settlers have harassed and attacked their Palestinian neighbors.
In November 1999, the Israeli military closed Shuhada Street to Palestinians. They locked or welded shut the doors of Palestinians shops. Even the Palestinian residents who still live on Shuhada Street can no longer use their front entrances. Instead they must take back exits and circuitous routes to stay off the street, sometimes even climbing ladders or ropes and crossing rooftops to get in and out of their homes.
In 2004 U.S. Aid renovated Shuhada Street with the intention of opening the street to all Hebron residents. Yet to date the street remains closed to Palestinians, while Israeli settlers freely walk and drive along it. Palestinians, supported by Israeli and international activists, have launched a campaign to “Open Shuhada Street” and end this example of what they consider “Israeli apartheid.”
Usually internationals are allowed to walk the street. But CPTers, apparently, fall into a different category, with our recognizable bright red caps and our known support of Palestinian nonviolent resistance to the occupation.
“The order is specific to CPT?” Elizabeth questioned the soldier. “So if I take off my CPT hat, I could walk down the street?”
“You could,” he acknowledged, “because then I wouldn’t know you’re with CPT.”
Elizabeth and I didn’t need to walk Shuhada Street that day. We could—as Palestinians habitually must—take a longer route to our destination. But we wanted to challenge even this small cog in the machinery of the Israeli occupation of Hebron.
So we pressed the soldier to explain the rationale for the order. “It’s to keep the peace,” he finally told us. “We don’t want any trouble with the settlers who live here.”
“I wouldn’t call that peace,” I objected. “Your order seems more about keeping things quiet.”
To my surprise, the soldier agreed with my shift in words. “Yes, it’s about keeping the quiet.”
“I know you’re only following the orders you’ve been given,” I continued. “But isn’t there something wrong in this order? If you’re worried that we will make trouble, then it’s appropriate to keep us off the street—”
The soldier shook his head, even grinned: he wasn’t worried about trouble from CPTers.
"But if you’re concerned that settlers might give us trouble, then there's something upside down in us being the ones barred from the street," I concluded.
“Of course it’s upside down,” the soldier admitted. “Everything here in Hebron is upside down. The system is wrong—I know that, you know that—but what can we do? We have to follow orders. There’s nothing we can do, except keep the quiet as much as possible while we work toward a solution.”
Yet keeping quiet rarely moves us toward genuine peace. As Martin Luther King, Jr. noted in his 1963 “Letter from a Birmingham Jail,” the real obstacles in a liberation struggle are the moderate people “more devoted to ‘order’ than to justice,” those who prefer “a negative peace which is the absence of tension to a positive peace which is the presence of justice.”
Someday, I believe, Palestinians will again walk down Shuhada Street. In this and many other ways, they will experience the equality and dignity rightfully theirs. But the journey to reach that day of justice will not be quiet.