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.

Sunday, November 21, 2010

Protesting the Hebron Fund, I remember a long afternoon at a segregated swimming hole

Note: Sean O'Neill, a good friend and colleague, wrote this piece which appeared over at Mondoweiss.  If Sean realized that Do Unto Others has 1/100,000 the readership of Mondoweiss, he probably would have given it to us first :)


Hebron Fund held its annual fundraiser in New York Tuesday night. A report from O'Neill, a former member of Christian Peacemaker Teams in the South Hebron Hills, who attended the protest:

I was just leaving Hebron’s Old City one day in August 2009 when a friend of mine, Hamzi, invited me to go swimming.

He and a few other guys were going for a dip in Abraham’s Well, an ancient spring located in Tel Rumeida, essentially the only neighborhood in the West Bank city where Palestinians and Israeli settlers physically encounter one another on a daily basis.

Whereas in the Old City a complex system of barricades, roadblocks, and checkpoints keeps Palestinians caged in and under the settlement pockets, in Tel Rumeida there is some level of mutual access, albeit unequal and under the watchful eye of Israeli soldiers.

It was a hot, sticky day, and the thought of taking a dip in the cool undeground waters of Abraham’s Well sounded superb.  After a long circuitous route, unable to cross Shuhada St., Hebron’s main thoroughfare banned from use by Palestinians, we reached an olive grove just above the well.  In our enthusiasm, we didn’t notice the four Israeli soldiers sitting above it until they came running, screaming at us, rifles aimed in our direction.  Hamzi explained that we were just on our way down to swim.  The soldiers replied that there were a couple Jewish girls there swimming, so we’d have to wait.  We began to sit down in the shade of the olive tree next to the soldiers when a soldier began yelling again, shooing us with his free hand, indicating that we were too close.

“He acts like were dogs,” Hamzi muttered to himself as we moved back a few trees.

Occasionally we would crane our necks over the terraced rocks to see if the girls were leaving yet.  Noticing this, the soldier berated us again, instructing us to face the other direction, so as not to offend the young women, who by now, done swimming, were having a picnic next to the well.  Hamzi and the others stared for a moment, absorbing this latest humiliation, before turning away, powerless.  We sat there for about an hour in the midday heat, sweating profusely, debating whether it was worth the wait.  Finally one of us, sneaking a look, noticed the girls leaving.  We jumped up happily and asked the soldiers if we could now swim.

“No,” one said.  “There’s someone else coming.”  Indeed, two young Jewish boys had now approached the well and began to disrobe.

“But we’ve been here over an hour,” Hamzi protested.  “It’s a hot day.  If we have to wait for every Jew in Hebron to swim we’ll never get a turn.”

“Maybe not,” the soldier said, matter-of-factly.

And so we left, hot and irritated.  There wasn’t a physical attack or a home bulldozed.  No one was arrested or tear gassed.  Just another of the thousand daily humiliations that is apartheid Hebron.  That was the last day I was in Hebron, and the last time I saw Hamzi, although I didn’t realize it at the time.  Shortly thereafter I flew home for a visit and returning a month later discovered I had been banned from re-entry.

Tuesday night in New York was windy, cold and dark, a far cry from that blistering day in August.  Strange in a way to think that the men in women in suits and gowns at Chelsea Piers making their way to a dinner cruise on the Hudson River had any connection at all to that conflicted place thousands of miles away.  Hamzi and some 160,000 Palestinians in Hebron settled down to bed after celebrating another Eid al Adha in the grip of a suffocating occupation.

Here in New York husbands and wives and their families parked their cars and walked breezily past the indoor soccer fields to a feast of their own, making tax-exempt donations to bankroll Hamzi’s oppression.  Tuesday night was the annual dinner of the Hebron Fund, founded in 1979 to raise money for the Hebron settlements.  According to the Washington Post, the Hebron Fund and similar organizations have donated $33.4 million since 2004 to the settlement enterprise.  Settlements, keep in mind, are illegal according to international law.

This year’s dinner, held on a boat, was styled as the Hebron Aid Flotilla, a perverse celebration of the murder of nine human rights activists by Israeli commandos on the flotilla to Gaza this past May.

The event, however, did not go unnoticed.  A couple hundred people gathered at the piers’ entrance in not one, but two protests.  On the one hand was a coalition of Palestinian, Jewish, and anti-occupation groups such as Students for Justice in Palestine, Jewish Voice for Peace, Veterans for Peace, Women in Black, Code Pink, and Adalah NY, among others.  They stood in a mostly silent vigil with signs reading “End the Siege of Hebron”, “Remove the Settlers”, and “Free Gaza”.

On the other, about 40 feet away, was a protest staged by J Street U, the college branch of the advocacy group which styles itself as pro-Israel, pro-peace.  They held Israeli flags and lamented the settlements as an obstacle to a two-state solution.  A participant in the J Street protest, Moriel Rothman said of the two protests, “I think that we’re working in parallel.  Ultimately we probably want similar things but have different tactics in how to get there.”

An attendee of the fundraiser, who chose to remain anonymous, brushed the protests off, saying, “If you look at the amount of energy that goes into protesting Jewish misconduct, it is disproportionate.  The world holds Jews to a higher standard.”  He added, referring to the Jewish protesters, “They are introspective.  You very seldom see that amongst the Palestinians.”
My first thought at seeing the two different protests was one of dismay.  Had the ideology of separation reared its ugly head even here, among the dissenters?  On second thought however, in a context in which meaningful dissent has been muffled for so long, a bit of pluralism may not be bad.  The groups didn’t agree on tactics, or symbols, or what a solution to the conflict will look like.  However, if there is an emerging consensus that the Hebron settlements, at least, are beyond the pale, that on a hot summer day Palestinian residents shouldn’t have to navigate around Jew-only roads to find that the well is closed to Arabs, that just might be progress.

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