I’ve been to al-Khalil a number of times. I’m intentionally using the Arabic name for the city because every time I’ve visited it has been to the areas populated by Palestinians. I’ve visited on my own, with Palestinian friends and with the Christian Peacemaker Team (CPT) who maintain a presence in the old city. Every visit is a new lesson in the occupation.
Today for the first time I visited Hebron rather then al-Kahlil; the streets where Palestinians cannot drive and sometimes cannot walk and the illegal settlements of Kiryat Arba on the periphery of the city and the inner city illegal settlements of Beit Hadassah and Tel Rumeida with B’tselem an Israeli human rights organization.
Driving to Hebron from Jerusalem was mind blowing. Living in Bethlehem I associate “going to Israel” with a combination of checkpoints and slow public transport. This is not the case if you are Israeli or traveling with Israeli’s and are going to the West Bank. Driving from Jerusalem into the West Bank was seamless. We got all the way to Hebron and unless you knew what you were looking for there was nothing, no signs or road changes that would tell let you know that you had entered the West Bank.
We entered the old city of Hebron through the illegal settlement of Kiryat Arba. I know I am probably annoying you, maybe even alienating you, by prefacing all of these settlements with illegal but I don’t have a choice. International law and foreign consensus is pretty unanimous on this point. Israeli settlements within the occupied Palestinian territories, including East Jerusalem, are illegal.
Traveling by private car or bus from Bethlehem the last part of the journey into the old city is always a set of narrow busy streets. Not so coming in through the settlement, it was easy to drive our huge tour bus right up to the convenient parking lot outside of the Ibrahimi Mosque/Cave of Machpelah.
Hebron is one of the largest Palestinian cities, home to 250,000 Palestinians. As part of the “Road Map to Peace” coming out of the Oslo Accords Hebron was supposed to be gradually turned over to Palestinian Authorities. As a step towards this in 1997, the city was divided into two parts - H1 and H2. The Palestinian Authority would control H1, and H2 would remain under Israeli military control. H2 is home to 25,000 Palestinians, 500-800 illegal settlers (shouldn’t we be a bit worried that no one will confirm the exact number) and at any given time around 1,000 Israeli soldiers. Check out this link for more information about Hebron including excellent maps: link to www.btselem.org.
These numbers are bit misleading though. While there are only 500-800 settlers in the four settlements located in the old city of Hebron, the illegal settlement of Kiryat Arba is perched right outside Hebron and flows seamlessly into the old city. Kiryat Arba is home to 7,000 settlers and is part of the Gush Etzion settlement bloc. This large settlement bloc falls within Area C from the Oslo Accords, which is an area of land covering some 60% of the West Bank and is under complete Israeli control. When you look at the Hebron settlements in this larger context they appear not as wild outposts but as a continuous part of a larger colonial settlement system.
In H2 Israeli settlers are subject, as citizens of Israel to Israeli civil law, their Palestinian neighbors, as an occupied population, are subject to Israeli military law.
The apartheid street system in Hebron, Palestinians can only walk to the right of the concrete barrier while israelis and internationals are free to walk or drive in the wider left lane.
Walking within through the parts of H2 Hebron that are not illegal settlements was a heart wrenching mixture of post-war zone and ghetto. The former Palestinian markets were vacant, crumbling and desecrated with racist anti-Arab propaganda. There were posters of “Israel” that showed it occupying large chunks of Jordan, Syria, Lebanon and Egypt. Palestinians unlucky enough to live in this area are subject to the worst living conditions I’ve seen in the West Bank. You can’t tell me this is not apartheid when Palestinians have fenced off lanes for walking. When Israeli settlers are allowed to drive cars on a street Palestinians can only walk down. When on certain streets Palestinians have to turn right, if they continue straight they will be arrested. When settlers can carry guns.
In the settlement of Beit Haddash we met with David Wilder. The name should be familiar to some of you. David is the “spokesman” for the illegal settler community in Hebron. A native of New Jersey, David has a degree in education a great Jersey accent and a leather jacket. He showed us around the settlement’s museum, a series of dark rooms with exhibits meant to establish a continuous Jewish history in Hebron and persecution of Jews (highlighted by the killing by Palestinians in 1929 of 67 members of the tiny, 500-700 out of a city of 20,000, Jewish community of Hebron during the early stages of the Zionist movement within historic Palestine)
David Wilder will not use the word Palestine or Palestinians. He refers to his Palestinian neighbors categorically as Arabs. Their lack of equal rights is to him, simply “the price of war” a phrase he repeated often. His line is that since “the Arabs”, all of them evidently in consensus (even Ben Gurion’s own diaries show this to be a lie, Israel was the undoubtedly the aggressor in 48) decided to attack Israeli in 48 and 67 and lost, they deserve what they get. Of course Israel as a benevolent nation has tried to give them “gifts”, he wasn’t clear as to the exact nature of these “gifts”, but “the Arabs” won’t shut up and graciously accept so what is to be done? He very clearly tried to build up Iran as a threat and link Iran to Palestinians.
The kicker for me though was when he framed the illegal settlements in Hebron as something, which is widely accepted throughout the world, civil disobedience. The irony of a man with a gun on his hip, part of a community that routinely physically and verbally abuses their Palestinian neighbors and their children (Please check out the photos and videos at B’tslem, CPT and even the NYTimes for examples of this) calling their actions civil disobedience was hard to stomach.
I had a very visceral reaction to visiting the settlements; fear, for myself and Palestinians and outrage, the kind I always feel when people try to put a PR spin on injustice.
However, that is not enough analysis. I’m not writing this to tell you that the illegal settlers deep inside of the 1967 green line are a bit off-kilter. You know that already, or you should. It was the Palestinian counterpart to the tour, Issa, who helped put the settler phenomenon in context. He met us the end of Shuhada Street. As a Palestinian he was not allowed to walk any farther to meet our group.
So you just met with David Wilder? He asked after welcoming us.
Yeah we mumbled warily
Did he show you his gun? Issa continued.
Which is really the perfect question to highlight the hypocrisy of a man who plays himself off as just this regular Jersey guy who hopes for a good life for his family and justice for his people. And Wilder as you can see if you goggle him does indeed wear a gun or at least poses for pictures with one prominently displayed on his hip.
You know, Issa said at the end or our tour (and I’m not quoting directly but basing this on my notes) David Wilder talked a lot about the Massacre in 1929, right? It was a horrible thing that happened to those Jewish families he said. Did he talk about the 19 Palestinian families who took Jewish families into their homes to protect them. By some accounts over 400 Jews were sheltered by their Palestinian neighbors. My wife’s relatives were one of those families, that Palestinian family living in a cage up near Tel Rumeida, they were one of those families. We have more of a connection to the Jewish community in Hebron then David Wilder does as an American from New Jersey. Yet we live under terrible conditions and he moves freely with a gun on his hip.
All of this is very true of course but nothing revelatory. But what he said next helped to remind me of the larger perspective and get past my own disgust.
I don’t hold the settlers responsible for this he said. This is not the settler’s fault. This is the fault of the Israeli State, they use the settlers as a political tool. Most of the new settlers now he said, they’re no religious fanatics, they’re poor people from Russia and now even from India. They don’t know that they are going to end up in this situation.
And I think this is an incredibly important point to remember. The settlers may or may not be crazy. But they do not have control over the Israeli state. Israel removed 8,000 illegal settlers from Gaza in less then two weeks. If there are settlers in Hebron, in the West Bank they are there because they serve a political purpose for Israel domestically and internationally. They are there because Israel wants them there. If the Israeli state did not want them there, they would not be there. When we reduce any aspect of the occupation to the rational or irrational actions of individuals we over look the fact that they are operating as part of and often in service of a system.
Jo Ehrlich is a graduate student from the United States. She is currently living, working and learning in Dheisheh refugee camp in occupied Palestine.