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Dispatch from ‘the most ****ed up place on Earth,’ Hebron’s H2 quarter

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“They handcuffed and blindfolded me, threw me into a bathroom, and closed the door. They left me there for five hours.”

Issa Amro’s voice rises steadily with anger as he speaks in the backyard of his small home in the H2 region of Hebron, where 400-850 messianic Jewish settlers live, protected by up to 2,000 soldiers, smack in the middle of a Palestinian neighborhood of 36,000. He goes on to describe the Israeli soldiers occasionally opening the door, pointing a gun at him and laughing. His voice quavers at some points, the trauma underlying his anger clearly close to the surface.

He was accused of harboring a terrorist. The Israeli Defense Forces (IDF) found a knife at a checkpoint and, based on the accusation of a Jewish settler, claimed it belonged to one of his associates, 17-year-old Ahmed, who sometimes stays with Issa. Ahmed and Issa were held for a week without formal charge. In the occupied territories, under the military law Israel has imposed on them, Palestinians can be held much longer without an indictment. If they are charged, they face trial in a military court where proceedings are secret, the defense has no right to preview evidence, and the conviction rate is 99.74 percent.

Issa is an internationally known human rights activist and the founder of Youth Against Settlements (YAS), an organization focused on non-violent resistance against the Israeli occupation of the West Bank. He has spoken around the world, including at the United Nations, and today he is addressing a group of about 48 Jewish activists including myself, the majority of them American, along with a few British, South Africans, and Belgians, who have traveled to the West Bank as part of a delegation organized by a group called the Center for Jewish Nonviolence (CJNV). There are over 130 of us, divided into five working groups, two of which are in Hebron this day. The others have been sent to other sites in the West Bank, and are presumably listening to similarly tragic testimonies.

Ahmed and Issa are lucky, or at least as lucky as individuals detained and tortured in a military prison on charges supported by no credible evidence can be. Because Issa is relatively renowned, the case received some attention, leading to a DNA test on the knife that proved the weapon wasn’t Ahmed’s. The typical Palestinian resident of H2, of course, does not have the same connections and could end up in prison for years under the same circumstances. Understandably, Issa tells us, many residents keep their heads down and don’t make trouble. 

Issa Amro (L) in the backyard of his Hebron home. (Photo: Charlie Zimmerman)

Ghost town

In Hebron, every single aspect of Palestinian life is controlled by military law, soldiers, and settlers.

The city is divided into two sections, H1 and H2, based on an agreement between Israel and the Palestinian Authority in the 1990s. H1 is completely Arab and ostensibly under Palestinian control; H2, despite the overwhelming majority of Palestinians who live there, is under Israeli control.  The mission of deployed soldiers is solely to protect the 400-850 settlers. So when a settler commits a crime against Palestinians, such as throwing trash or rocks, or stealing from their homes, soldiers will take no action against the perpetrator. At best, they will call the local police, who are supposedly responsible for protecting all residents of the area.  Invariably, members of this local, Israeli police force will take an hour or more to show up, and the settler, rather than waiting around to be arrested, will walk away.

We learn this and more about H2 prior to Issa’s speech on a tour provided by Breaking the Silence, an organization of dissident former Israeli soldiers who served in the Occupied Territories. Our guide brings us to a public park in Kiryat Arba, an Israeli settlement adjacent to Hebron, which houses Baruch Goldstein’s tomb.  In 1994, Goldstein walked into Hebron’s Tomb of the Patriarchs (a holy place in Islam, Judaism, and Christianity) opened fire on Muslims praying at the site. The IDF, assuming the attacker must be an Arab, shot at supplicants attempting to flee. Twenty-nine Muslims were killed, including four by the IDF, and 125 were injured. Goldstein was subdued and killed by some of his intended victims as he attempted to reload his weapon. His tomb’s epitaph, written in Hebrew, praises him as a hero. In the spirit of fairness, our guide notes that most Israelis, including settlers, don’t share this sentiment.  The tomb sits out in the open, unguarded. There are no signs of attempted defacement or destruction, and no alternative point of view offered anywhere else in the park. Perhaps most residents don’t view this mass murderer as a hero, I think to myself, but no one seems to object all that much to this notion. 

Later, we walk down al-Shuhada Street, once the site of a busy marketplace with hundreds of Palestinian shops and stands. These were all shuttered during the intifada in the early 2000s, and even though authorities have supposedly permitted a few of them to re-open, there is no sign of any such activity, except for a few makeshift vendors selling tea and small occupation souvenirs, such as wristbands and refrigerator magnets with the slogan “Free Palestine.”  A barrier segregating Jewish and Arab pedestrian traffic was removed in 2013; however, the Palestinians seem to keep mostly their side of their street, as previously demarcated.  Perhaps this is because the other side contains multiple kiosks staffed by two or three Israeli soldiers, brandishing assault rifles.

One kiosk serves as a checkpoint, regulating entry into the portion of the city where Palestinian pedestrian traffic is completely banned.  Some Palestinians continue to live in this area, but they are barred from leaving their homes through the front door. Instead, they have to develop creative alternatives, such as climbing out a window, walking across rooftops, and eventually ending up on an unpaved road a few blocks away.

The soldiers delay us at this checkpoint for about 20 minutes, letting us pass only after obtaining approval from their commander via phone. At a second checkpoint maybe 200 yards into the street’s Jewish-only portion, we are denied further passage. Under the military law that governs H2, the IDF can arbitrarily declare any area within it a “closed military zone” and completely clear that area. They often invoke this authority at the request of settlers and when activists opposing the occupation show up.

We have to walk up a steep hill and climb some rocks to get to Issa’s house, a detour that would not have been necessary if the IDF had let us proceed.  The call of the muezzin, the melodious chant beckoning Muslims to pray, reverberates through the hills as we ascend. We are surrounded by homes flying the Israeli flag and streets full of soldiers and Israeli military vehicles. At the peak, while we are waiting a few minutes for Issa and his comrades to finish preparing lunch, a contingent of soldiers runs past us, guns drawn across their chests. They stop, and one of them yells something to us through a megaphone, words that the Hebrew speakers in our group tell us are utter nonsense.  Is this a military exercise? Are they trying to intimidate us? Maybe it is just a random activity, with no particular purpose, that these teenagers concocted on the spot.

If you spend a few hours in H2, you don’t need any guides or speeches to tell you that it is a tense and surreal place where violence can break out at any moment. Issa calls Hebron a “ghost town” and YAS has published a pamphlet about the city with that title. But “ghost town” is an understatement and a misnomer, since people do live there—it’s just that everyday life activity is actively and brutally suppressed. I and another delegation member agree that a more accurate characterization would be “The Most Fucked Up Place on Earth.”

Center for Jewish Nonviolence activists working to improve trails in H2 region of Hebron. (Photo: Charlie Zimmerman)
Center for Jewish Nonviolence activist working with resident in H2 region of Hebron. (Photo: Charlie Zimmerman)

‘We are stereotyped as terrorists as chocolate is stereotyped as sweet’

In his talk, Issa provides more detail about Hebron from the residents’ perspective. Palestinians can be arrested or lose their work permits if they complain about settlers; Issa himself has been arrested for doing so after they stole food from his home and desecrated a Palestinian flag on his property. There are 18 checkpoints in H2, with two more under construction, and residents can be held at these for up to three hours, entirely at the discretion of the soldier on duty; for this reason, a younger leader of YAS tells us he has to leave home at 11:00 p.m. to get to an 8:00 a.m class on time in the H1 district. Palestinians are subject to military trials and administrative detention, imprisonment without charge or trial, which does not look anything like a recognizable criminal offense in a normal democracy. Issa himself is scheduled to face trial within the next few months on something like 30 counts, such as “insulting a soldier” and “marching without a permit.”

Soldiers will shoot to kill children approaching them with a knife from 15 feet, and, when the kids die, the soldiers will be celebrated as national heroes. These victims are invariably teenagers (or younger) who feel desperate and suicidal, having not developed coping skills necessary to get through the day, given their circumstances. The heavily-armored soldiers, he notes, could easily disarm a knife-wielding child, or worst case, aim for the legs.

All of this, of course, is just a small slice of the occupation, reflecting the experience of one Palestinian and his associates from only one city.

“We are stereotyped as terrorists as chocolate is stereotyped as sweet,” notes another speaker. That’s right, I think. The Israeli government, a master of misdirection and propaganda, has been successful, especially for the American audience, in framing Palestinian violence as the central issue in this conflict. Not the violence it regularly promulgates itself as a matter of policy. Not settler violence, which is occasionally punished leniently, but far more often completely ignored. Not its violations of Palestinian rights under international law.  Brutal and highly effective and suppressive state violence—unlike the futile responses to it—is never termed terrorism.

Similarly, the Palestinian non-violent resistance is virtually ignored in Western media. Prior to this trip, I had never heard of Issa Amro, even though Amnesty International has advocated for him and he is known as a “Palestinian Gandhi” in activist circles. Many non-violent resistance organizations are active in the West Bank—we worked with more than one. 

Israeli propaganda succeeds by leveraging our unconscious or sometimes conscious fear of the “Scary Brown Other.”  Branding Muslims and Arabs (“not all of them of course”) as terrorists plays well in Peoria.  In other words, the continued support for Israeli policy and willful obliviousness to the brutality of its occupation is driven by and depends directly on straight-up, out and out racism.

And, in my opinion, a similar dynamic drives the end-game strategy:  The ultimate goal might be to destroy hope and provoke desperate violent responses, which will then be used as an excuse to take complete control of the West Bank and Gaza. Though other commentators have proposed something similar, this is just my own conjecture. No other plausible alternative comes to mind. There are no signs of any interest in proposing a just solution; the status quo of lording over a growing antagonistic population is not sustainable, and much of what I observed or learned during my week in the West Bank feels a lot more like a provocation than “self-defense” or anything else.

Of course, it would be naïve to assume that violent resistance does not exist. But violence is never placed in the context of the reality that it occurs on both sides and that one actor is a colonial power with massive firepower at its disposal. As implied by its name, the Center for Jewish Nonviolence does not advocate, support, or condone violence, regardless of the context, and neither do I.  But frankly, if everything that I’ve seen or heard about in my time in Hebron had happened to me, the thought of lashing out violently would certainly enter my mind.

“Existence is Resistance”

This is a slogan of the Palestinian non-violent resistance and describes its strategy in a nutshell. Each Palestinian activist I heard from experiences the occupation as a means of effectively ending their existence as functioning human beings.  Going to school or work, visiting friends, working to beautify their neighborhoods, simply walking down their own streets: the barriers to all of these activities is so great that reasonable and common responses include rarely leaving home, moving away, or even committing suicide. But, instead, members of the resistance—with great courage and at a great cost– choose to simply live their lives.

Our group observed this, heard about it, and on the third day we were in Hebron, experienced a small taste of it. We were working on weeding and cleaning some of the dirt trails in Issa’s neighborhood, those that residents must use as detours because they are banned from walking on some of the paved and more direct routes to the rest of the city. Residents do not have the time, manpower, or tools to keep these routes free of weeds, and they are also littered with trash that settlers throw. One of the paths is just below the home of the far-right Israeli politician Baruch Marzel. Shortly after we begin work, he appeared on the lawn of his home and, with a big grin on his face, started photographing us, presumably to capture the evidence of our “crime.”  He then called someone on his cell phone; shortly afterward, two IDF soldiers arrived.  They presented papers to Issa, who engaged them in a discussion in Hebrew. We learned later that they had declared our work area a closed military zone and ordered us to leave. Issa asked them for proof that this declaration was handled properly and legally under military law such as it is; he reviewed the order and discussed it by phone with the soldiers’ commander. By the time he had fully vetted the order and we had no choice but to leave, we had finished our work. A small victory.

The Israeli government justifies its policies in part based on its claim that the country faces an “existential threat.” But in Tel Aviv and West Jerusalem, there are no checkpoints, no flags of a foreign or occupying power flying in every direction, and no settlers who can summon a soldier to harass residents on a passing whim. At night, people sit in bars, drink, laugh, and watch soccer on outdoor televisions.  In the week I spent in these cities, I did not feel anything like the sense of palpable tension and fear our delegation felt walking the streets of Hebron.

The widespread, international acceptance of this existential threat narrative represents another triumph of Israeli propaganda. In the words of Issa: “Israel has all the power, but acts as if it were afraid of a 15-year-old girl.”

Occupation is Not Our Judaism

Issa remains hopeful and optimistic. One reason, he says, is the presence of our delegation and others like it. It shows Palestinian activists and other observers that not all Jews support oppression and occupation. Many Palestinians I spoke with did not, in fact, distinguish “Jew” from settler or occupier until about ten years ago, but now they all emphasize that their struggle is with the occupation, not Judaism. 

Issa also believes that as activists return home and report what they have seen and learned, support for anti-occupation movements around the world will increase. However, engendering this support among Israeli and Diaspora Jews remains challenging.  When I told friends and relatives that I was going to Israel to work with other Jews for peace, the ones that did not call me “traitor” or question my sanity generally assumed that as Jews, we would be working to support the Israeli government. The Jews in my suburban California town include lukewarm supporters of the Israeli government, card-carrying and convention-attending AIPAC members, and messianic believers in the notion that the state of Israel represents the fulfillment of God’s covenant with the Jews to return the Holy Land in its entirety. I am not aware of any members of or sympathizers with the “Jewish Resistance” other than myself.

As for Israelis, a recent survey found that more than 60 percent of Israelis object to the word “occupation” to describe Israel’s control of the West Bank, and more than 50 percent do not believe that settlements are an obstacle to peace. I spoke with some who, without admitting so outright, seem to acknowledge that occupation is morally indefensible, but  they are more concerned with why the world “singles them out.”  “What’s happening with the Kurds is Turkey is much worse, but no one talks about that,” one tells me.

Then there is the question of whether Jewish activism can backfire, doing more harm than good. For instance, Issa notes that settlers will hold off on exacting revenge for activists’ presence until the latter return home—a point brought home a few days later by Baruch Marzel’s gleeful documentation of our “criminal activity.” Issa assures us, however, that YAS can deal with any repercussions, which are outweighed by positives anyway.

Sumud Freedom Camp.(Photo: Charlie Zimmerman)

I also wondered whether our partners might view us as “occupation tourists” who drop in for a few days, plant some trees, return home to our comfortable lives feeling good about ourselves, and leaving the residents alone to cope with the day to day indignities of the occupation on their own.  But because they had more information about the amazing action that would occur a few days later (to prevent the information from leaking, CJNV leadership did not provide us details of this action until the day before it began), these musings probably reflected more of my own anxieties than our partners’ beliefs.  In coordination with YAS and other Palestinian resistance groups, along with three Israeli organizations, we built the Sumud Freedom camp in the village of Sarura, located in the South Hebron Hills. The IDF forcibly evicted Palestinians living in Sarura from their cave-homes about 20 years ago, and our mission was to rebuild these homes and move one of the former villagers, Fadal Amar, and his family back in.

We brought a generator in, rebuilt walls and floors, cleaned and demarcated roads, and cleared fields. On the first night we were harassed by the residents of the Maon settlement, which is connected to electrical, cell phone, and water infrastructure, even though it is supposedly illegal even under Israeli law. They circled the encampments on motorized three-wheelers for about fifteen minutes and then left, wishing us a Good Shabbat. 

The next night, the IDF invaded and dismantled the camp, which the activists and resident family promptly rebuilt.  This cycle was repeated twice, and as of this writing, two weeks later, the camp is still standing and the Amar family is still living there.

According to the schedule of activities CJNV provided in advance, we were supposed to engage in a non-specified direct action for one day, a Friday, return to our hotel for Shabbat on Saturday, discuss and process the work on Sunday, and leave for Jerusalem on Monday.  Instead, many of the activists camped out in Sarura Thursday night to ensure an early start and stayed straight through Monday. A smaller number, despite admonitions from our leaders that the action was over, stayed through the next week. 

Clearly, the term “occupation tourist” does not apply to these justice-seekers committed to opposing Israeli policy and upholding Jewish values.  They are living proof that these two goals are in no way contradictory—they take Judaism very seriously (there were at least ten rabbis in our delegation) and believe their religion compels them to relentlessly pursue justice for non-Jewish inhabitants of Israel.

I am a cynical, agnostic person by nature, but my experience with these hopeful and faithful activists, both on the Jewish and Palestinian side, moved me. The level of commitment I observed, as well as the increase in the visibility of and support for Jewish organizations opposing the occupation, such as J Street, IfNotNow, and Jewish Voice for Peace suggests to me that a sea change in Jewish attitudes towards Israel and the occupation is underway. I predict that in five years, the majority of Diaspora Jews will support the Jewish resistance to the occupation.

Palestinians should be the owners of their struggle and resistance, but the occupation will not end unless and until a majority of Jews around the world actively oppose it.  When this happens, we will permanently extinguish the odious notion that opposing Israeli policy equates to anti-Semitism. And history shows that the struggles of colonized and oppressed peoples do not succeed unless enough White people lend their support—as disgusting as it is, powerful people and institutions value the opinions, experiences, and safety of fair-skinned individuals over others. 

“Occupation is Not Our Judaism” is one of the slogans of the Center for Jewish Nonviolence. But in addition to merely saying this, printing it on their t-shirts, and using it as a Twitter hashtag, they live this principle with their bodies and their hearts, and that gives me hope.

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Hebron was once an all Jewish city before the Muslim invaders came along. The three forefathers of Jewish people are buried in Hebron. That’s Abraham, Issac and Jacob. Muslims also claim connection to the same three, however Islam came into this world 700 years after the Jewish Temple was destroyed on the Temple Mount and long after the three were buried there. Sounds to me that some people want and took what others already had.… Read more »

@Emet “The non Jewish population of the region at the time were either Bedouin or simple village farmers and had no collective identity outside of the mud huts. Sorry, not all their homes were made of mud. Some were made of stone”. So the “Jewish” natives who somehow crept back into the area after those nasty Romans had expelled them all those hundreds of years ago lived in desirable civilised upmarket condos and even then… Read more »

Dear Mr. Zimmerman, Your thoughts shared in this article so succinctly and thoroughly covered many very valid bullet points, bravo. Thanks for making that trip, and thanks for being an example of how human beings should act! Now, let’s stoop down a few levels: As for the strange first comment by Emet and echoed by Jerry Hirsch, I am really at a loss as to whether this should be categorized as obfuscation, or simply non… Read more »

@Emet I think you are getting your centuries mixed up: ” Hebron was once an all Jewish city before the Muslim invaders came along” Make up your mind are you talking about. Are you saying that the Zionist narrative about Jews been driven out of their ancient homeland en masse by those nasty Romans(ending up in places as diverse as Brooklyn and Finchley) is fake,incorrect call it what you like. They were in fact still… Read more »

RE: “Dispatch from ‘the most ****ed up place on Earth,’ Hebron’s H2 quarter” MY RANT: How dare dare they! How dare dare they! How dare dare they! How dare Zimmerman and Mondoweiss award “the most ****ed up place on Earth” title to Hebron’s H2 quarter without at least giving NYC honourable mention!* * SEE: “At NYC ‘Anti-sharia’ Rally, White Nationalists and Conservative Jews Find Common Ground” | by Taly Krupkin (New York) | Haaretz.com |… Read more »