The day starts grey and edgy for me, not only because we are going to visit the alternative universe of Hebron, but also because the visit will start out with meeting David Wilder, a spokesmen for the (most aggressive intolerant) Jewish community in Hebron. Some in our group feel that morally they cannot sit down with this man, (would I meet with a Klansmen?); others feel this is an unusual opportunity to observe and understand the enemy. For a delegation devoted to nonviolent struggle, I am finding little love and tolerance in my heart; in fact, I do not know if I will be able to be remotely civil. We agree as a group to be civil. I will bite my tongue, sit on my hands, and be grateful that I (unlike David) do not carry a gun.
We head south from the Paradise Hotel in Bethlehem, past stores with pomegranates, bananas, junk food, overly upholstered furniture, car repair shops, and Chinese made plastic stuff spilling onto the sidewalk. I realize that not only am I holding my breath, but I have already started wheezing, the feeling of suffocation is beginning.
Ironically Hebron or Al Khalil is derived from the word friend. The city is a major economic center with limestone quarries, grape production, glass factories, and a vigorous commercial center. Strangling on its own history, I think it is interesting to note that in the Bible, when Abraham came as a refugee to Hebron, he wanted to buy property and paid 400 shekels (or whatever the silver coins were called) from the Canaanites, (no hostile occupation, stone throwing, well poisoning, Jewish exceptionalism). He bought the double cave of Machpelah and as they say, they rest is history. I will fast forward to the Arab massacre of Jews in 1929 one week after Zionists raised a Jewish flag at Jerusalem’s Wailing Wall (with many questions regarding the role of the British in this catastrophe) and also note that many Jews were saved by their Arab neighbors. After 1967 a group of very right-wing Jewish settlers led by a charismatic rabbi from Brooklyn came to a hotel in Hebron to celebrate Passover and declared they would never leave. A deal was struck with the Israeli army which ultimately led to the establishment of the nearby settlement of Kiryat Arba in 1971. In the 1990s, a group of 400 settlers (which included 250 yeshiva students) decided to move into the Old City, into homes that they claimed were originally Jewish, and in 1994 a physician, Baruch Goldstein, massacred 29 and injured 200 Muslims praying at the Ibrahimi Mosque in the middle of Ramadan. He was killed by the angry mob, but none of his supporters were prosecuted and the Palestinians were put under curfew for months. With the Wye Agreement, Netanyahu divided the city into two parts: the Old City of H2 under Israeli control and the western area of H1 under Palestinian control. There are now 250,000 Palestinians living in Hebron and approximately 500-850 Jewish settlers under the protection of 500 security forces of one kind or another.
We travel through rich farm land, with neat squares of vineyards and other vegetables and pass one of the 20 entrances to H1 that have been blocked by concrete blocks, leaving three to four open for traffic. We turn into the settlement of Kiryat Arba, an Israeli flag hanging from a balcony, the houses are neat and orderly, there is a row of caravans, guards at the checkpoint are chatting. When they learn we are tourists from America, they wave us through. This is a residential settlement of ideological settlers and I am told many of the apartments are empty.
At Beit Hadassah, David Wilder greets us and takes us on a tour of a “museum” of Jewish history, multiple cave-like rooms with photos and historical timelines. He is a short, compact man with a trim beard, kippah on his head, Glock at his waist, a New Jersey accent. I study him carefully; he has an easy, friendly manner, “Don’t be bashful, I’ve heard everything. I can’t promise you will like my answers,” and projects an air of authority and warmth that could be disarming to the misinformed, I can imagine him as one of Romney’s PR handlers. He presents us with a context-free history of the Jewish people that is a complicated mixture of half truths, outright lies, and racist paranoia. His basic message is: there is abundant evidence that this place belongs to the Jews from time immemorial, we must learn from the past (Holocaust, pogroms, betrayals), in 1967 we came back to our rightful home, the Arabs want to kill us and cannot be trusted, (we gave Gaza “sovereignty and they gave us bombs”), we need to take care of Iran before it is too late, (remember the Holocaust), the Jews are always the victims (we only have 3% of Hebron, here the Jews continue to be the victims). I was astonished to learn that the separation wall was necessary not only to prevent suicide attacks, but also car thefts, (message: Arabs are thieves). There is no acknowledgement of anyone else’s suffering, loss, rights, etc, and he plays dumb when asked about Jewish violence or aggression or culpability for anything. He was unaware that the local settlers celebrate Goldstein’s actions; are you kidding? Just google David Wilder, or even better, Youth Against the Settlements for something approximating reality. He states he is happy to engage in dialogue with Arabs who are interested in peace; he is a reasonable man who is only here to protect his people and what is rightfully theirs. Unfortunately he has many grandchildren.
Luckily for my coronary arteries, we next meet up with Issa Amro from Youth Against the Settlements. He is an electrical engineer, born in the Old City in a house that is now a closed military zone. He is married, owns a house, and has a wife and eleven month old son. He describes the 550 Palestinian shops that have been closed by military order on Shuhada Street, once a vibrant market and city center. Because of the flying checkpoints and enormous military presence, a host of other shops are closed due to lack of shoppers, afraid for their own safety. Settlers have freely attacked and humiliated Palestinians and defaced and destroyed their homes and shops. In the small area where we are standing, there are twenty checkpoints, and he describes humiliating body searches, two to three hour waits, a “killing from the inside.” He talks about Israeli military preventing him from helping his 70 year old ill mother out a side door of her home because she is also forbidden to go out the front door onto the (Arab-rein) street. He points to the graffiti ridden concrete wall at the end of the street, blocking access to the Muslim cemetery on the other side. As he talks, his energy and sense of outrage about all the obstructions rises, as he explains, “I can jump!” I look up and spot a soldier watching us from a roof top; the eyes of security are everywhere. When Issa and his friends get arrested at demonstrations, his Israeli friends are released in 24 hours, (Israeli civil law); while he sits in jail for up to eight days before seeing a judge, (Israeli military law).
We gather at a long table facing a courtyard where I have eaten before, the falafel with fresh lettuce, tomato, and tahini sauce topped with French fries (why do they taste so good here?) arrive along with the mandatory Coke and orange soda. In 2000 during the Second Intifada, seven shops in this courtyard were closed by military order. The adjacent building is desperately in need of restoration, but the Israeli military will not grant permits so the building will gradually collapse and then the IDF will seize the land, although there is strong evidence for Palestinian ownership. He predicts settlers will get into the building and through various machinations, the land will be declared public and ultimately become part of the settlement He adds that the role of the IDF is not only to get rid of Palestinians in Hebron, but also to destroy Palestinian identity here.
Talk turns to David Wilder, “ The crazy man,” as Issa remarks. According to Issa, two weeks ago on Olive Day, settlers attacked Palestinians harvesting their own olives and as usual the Israeli soldiers dismissed the Palestinians. David took photos and film of the event, describing Issa on his website as “the head terrorist in Hebron.” Three months ago, according to Issa, David directly threatened him at Tel Rumeida Street and David told him that he will be hanged by a ledge and eaten by birds. This was all captured on video: (google: Hebron human rights press). Such a lovely man, David Wilder! Issa talks about a protest in June where international, Israeli, and Palestinian women dressed in traditional Palestinian dress and walked down the forbidden Shuhadah Street. February 25th is now an international day of action to Open Shuhada Street. Youth Against the Settlements has a samoud project where volunteers choose a home close to the settlers (which has been repeatedly attacked, defaced, etc) and help with repairs, painting, and gardening. They teach human rights journalism and have a center for teaching Hebrew, English, law, and nonviolence. They act as Hebron defenders, forming human shields when settlers attack. He worked with the Freedom Bus where six activists went inside a settlement and boarded a Jewish-only bus. “We were beaten.” Memories of freedom marches, sit-ins, and bus boycotts from the 1960s clearly come to mind. I shudder at the parallels Jews faced in Germany, only the roles here are reversed, victim becomes victimizer. I know in my head that anyone can be a fascist given the right economic/political/psychological circumstances, but this is still emotionally wrenching and enraging to witness, particularly because the settler community is protected and funded and used as a spearhead by the Israeli government.
Issa explains that Israeli soldiers have two roles: protecting Jewish settlers and harassing Palestinians. Issa has been personally beaten by settlers twice and required five stitches. He has had his life threatened, and is the target of frequent verbal abuse. He admits that Palestinians do attack settlers, but it is rare, (I have yet to see an armed Palestinian, while armed nonmilitary settlers are commonplace). Additionally settlers do not get punished for their appalling behavior. When a settler broke Issa’s nose, he was suspended from coming into Hebron for one month. That is about as punitive as it gets. Ironically, Issa notes, the oppressors are afraid of the oppressed.
Issa tells of receiving a phone call at 3 am that Jewish settlers were picking olives belonging to the local Palestinians. “Who picks olives at 3:00 in the morning?” The next day a group of activists ambushed the settlers at 2 am, the settlers took their cameras, soldiers arrived, more soldiers, stones were thrown by both parties. No charges. The impunity is official.
Issa insists that Jews and Moslems can live together if they have the will; he understands that there are many Jewish holy sites in the region, but they have to live together as equals without occupation. He has no problem with Jews living anywhere they want, but if they wish to live in the West Bank, they should have Palestinian citizenship. He is proud that his father (of the Abu Ayash family) protected Jews in 1929; now the same families are suffering at the hands of the settlers. He observes thoughtfully, “Settlers are not Jews.” This comment somewhat parallels the opinion of many Israelis that the right wing settler movement has hijacked Israel and the opinion of an increasing number of progressive Jews in the US that Judaism has been corrupted by Zionism. And then I am reminded of the comment made by a respected member of the Jewish community in Boston: “You don’t understand, Israel is Judaism.”
Issa introduces Sundus Al Azzaeh, an 18 year old student at the Al Quds Open University. She confirms Issa’s descriptions and adds that water and electricity are also under Israeli control, and are provided unreliably, at a fraction of what the settlers receive. She can’t move freely, has to go through at least two checkpoints daily, and lives near the notorious Barukh Marzel who regularly throws stones, eggs, vegetables, and physically attacks her neighbors and family. Sometimes the IDF does nothing and sometimes they join in with the settlers. Two months ago a big hulky (Brooklyn) settler attempted to run over her 13 year old brother and then beat him. The IDF did nothing. The diminutive Sundus tried to protect her brother and was arrested and charged with attacking the settler. She and her brother spent five hours in the police station, are now faced with a fine, and a police record that may interfere with their ability to get future permits. Another settler woman grabbed her six year old brother and shoved a stone into his mouth and then crushed his jaws together, breaking his teeth. There were no charges. This up close and personal violence is breathtakingly painful, but is the daily reality here. Sundus is studying English, wants to be translator, although she admits she may end up teaching. She laughs shyly and says, “I hope to be famous for helping people, especially the poor.” For many in our delegation, traveling with a group of US civil and human rights leaders, this kind of resilience, determination, and dignity remind us of the legacy of Martin Luther King and the brave souls who worked with and after him in the long struggle for justice and equality.