American citizens are detained in Hebron for wearing hijab on a ‘Jewish street’

US Politics
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Wearing the wrong clothes in Hebron
Wearing the wrong clothes in Hebron

Three young women, ages 22, 21, and 20, were detained on Tuesday, July 3 for walking on Shuhada Street. Their crime was looking Arab, wearing the hijab, and having been born Palestinian. 

We were a group of ten traveling to al-Khalil/Hebron, all U.S. citizens, some of Palestinian descent and some with the Palestinian hawiyya, ID card. The initial plan, as I understood, was a benign tour: take some pictures at the Hirbawi kuffiyeh factory, visit the Tomb of the Patriarchs, and turn around back to Bethlehem, where most of the group volunteers as summer camp counselors in Duheisheh Refugee Camp. 

We passed through the checkpoint that leads on to Shuhada Street, telling the soldiers on duty that we were only trying to get to the Palestinian neighborhood behind the checkpoint. They let us in, allowing us to walk a few yards on the road before we turned up a narrow flight of stairs into the Palestinian neighborhood, bypassing the Jewish settlers’ area. 

We strolled past the abandoned Palestinian shops and houses, graffitied with Zionist slogans and Jewish symbols uncomfortably reminiscent of photos from Kristallnacht. From the Palestinian neighborhood, we looked down at the busloads of tourists streaming in and out of Beit Hadassah, built by the Jewish community of Hebron in 1880 and now home to a museum of the Jewish history of Hebron. None of us would be allowed in the museum that day; most of us wouldn’t have been allowed in on any day. 

The other end of the Palestinian neighborhood opposite the first checkpoint also leads onto Shuhada Street. Palestinians are very clearly not allowed there, though the definition of “Palestinian” is vague. Anyone seen as Arab, Muslim or sympathetic to the Palestinians is considered a threat. 

The separate but unequal system that Israel has created throughout the West Bank, with its legalistic foundation of IDs, permits, and “official” citizenships, is irrelevant on Shuhada Street. The settlers don’t recognize the existence of “Palestinians” no matter the color of their ID card, and the soldiers and policemen are complicit in maintaining this system of unabashed segregation and discrimination. As one soldier explained to me that day, “We’re not racist. It’s just Arabs who can’t come here.” 

As soon as we wandered onto the street, the settlers and IDF soldiers noticed us, particularly the young women in the hijabs. They screamed at us to stop, under pressure, of course, from the settlers. “We’re American citizens, and we’re walking down this road,” some of us said. 

“No,” said one of the women who was later detained== a U.S. citizen and West Bank resident with a Palestinian hawiyya– “I am a Palestinian, and I am walking down this road.”

Our act wasn’t a planned protest, and it wasn’t clear what specifically we were protesting. Was it the fascist and racist nature of the law – or lack thereof – in Hebron, where anyone seen as looking Arab or Muslim can be detained or beaten for no good reason?

This was the case with the international and Israeli women who marched down Shuhada Street two weeks ago wearing hijabs and kuffiyehs, and were detained and beaten by the IDF. Their action was not an act of nonviolent resistance against the law – as Noa Shaindlinger wrote in +972, their action was “perfectly legal.” Instead, their action exposed the lack of law in Hebron and the arbitrary use of force, both from settlers and the IDF.

But the young woman’s statement yesterday – “I am a Palestinian and I am walking down this road” – was a more fundamental act of resistance. Though Shuhada Street lays bare the religious-nationalist fundamentalism that fuels the Occupation and the antidemocratic, military rule this ideology necessitates, there is little difference between “this road” and the countless other roads that are inaccessible to Palestinians, in both ‘48 and the West Bank. 

The settlers and soldiers did not take kindly to her statement or her hijab, and the scene quickly turned chaotic. The settlers – many of them armed – attempted to block our path. The soldiers targeted the women in the hijabs, leaving two other non-Muslim American women, two Palestinian-American men, and myself – a white U.S. citizen – alone. The three women were detained for disturbing the peace in a Jewish neighborhood. 

“Come over here,” barked the police chief to one of them, pointing ambiguously to an area behind the car, away from the rest of us. She refused, and was detained. 

While this was happening, I was taken aside with a Palestinian-American boy, who the police mistook for just a ‘regular’ American. He kept his hawiyya tucked under the sole of his shoe. 

The soldier told me to calm down. He told me that he was American, too – from Manhattan, no less, the same city listed as the birthplace on my U.S. passport. He told me I had the right to be there, “but the Arabs don’t.” 

“They’re Americans,” I told him. 

“So what?” he responded. “The army decided they’re not allowed to be here.” The army decided, and so it is. 

The day after this incident, citizens of our home country – including Jews and Arabs – barbecued kosher and halal hot dogs, watched fireworks, and sang songs about freedom and democracy. Our country has its problems, and patriotic tunes won’t whitewash our racist and imperialist past – and present. 

But at least we’ll say those slogans, and occasionally take them to heart. In Hebron, the IDF soldiers know rhetorical appeals to democracy are hopeless; even the Americans have stopped trying.

The three women were released around midnight, without arrest. There was only one condition: that they would not return to Hebron for 15 days. The army decided they’re not allowed to be here.

Or, as the one woman so courageously made clear, not in Jerusalem, Haifa or Tel Aviv either.

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