Thursday was an international day of action to re-open Shuhada street in Hebron city, and mark the Cave of the Patriarch Massacre. A group of friends, from the Tel Aviv area, spontaneously decided we should go, so the five of us hopped in a car, hoping to join our friends from Jerusalem, who filled up a bus. We’ve all heard about Hebron, but nothing can prepare you for it, and nothing I can write, here, can truly depict what it means to be there.
Hebron City of the Patriarchs
In order to understand the technicalities of what is known as the Occupied Territories, you have to know about their inner control and administration divisions, set at the Oslo Accords. The occupied territories are divided into areas A, B and C. Area C is officially under Israeli control and administration. It covers the majority of settlements and cuts through and around areas A and B (creating 227 A/B islands) and keeps miraculously growing. That said, it doesn’t stop the Israeli army (and deportation unite) to come into oficially-Palestinian-controlled area A and abducting Palestinians and Internationals. Area B is the epitome of long-term occupation; A land where Palestinian Authority has “civil control” and the Israeli army has “security control”.
Hebron is in area B, but it gets even messier; In 1979, 40 settlers from the adjacent Kiryat Arba settlement (home to the ethnic cleansing advocate, Meir Kehana) took over a building known as Beit Hadassah, in the center of the city. Ever since then the population of Jews in Hebron reached the not-so-astonishing number of around 500, about 0.03% of the population. In 1994, after American born, Kiryat Arba settler , Kach party member, Baruch Goldstein, massacred between 29-52 (depends who you ask) people in the Mosque of the Cave of Patriarchs, Shuhada street, a main market street in Hebron was closed off to Palestinians. In 1997, then and now Prime Minister, Binyamin Netanyahu, redivided this area B city into areas H1 (=area A), which inhabited around 120,000 Palestinians and H2 (= area C), which inhabited around 40,000 Palestinians, half of which have fled after the redivision, for rather obvious reasons.
What does it mean to live in a city so technically divided?
Maybe if the settlers weren’t violent thugs driven by racist, mythological ideology, Hebron could have been a model city of coexistence (and most probably a popular tourist destination). The reality, however, rears its ugly head and we must not forget that which allows it to happen. The Israeli government deployed about 4000 troops, in order to keep the Jewish population safe. That’s about 7 confused girls and boys with guns, for every crazed bigot in the city.
In 2002, the Israeli army took full control of the city and permanent watchtowers army outposts were constructed within area H1. Today, the army operates over the whole city, in violation of the (disturbing) 1997 agreements. A micro-apartheid is realized within the city, as over 120 roadblocks, fences, walls and checkpoints are put up in the city, it’s surrounding settlements and their access roads. So what’s the de-facto difference between area H1 and H2? Well, just as in any other area B of the occupied territories, in area H2, as long as there’s no random “closed military zone” order, Israelis (other than) are allowed.
A Tour of the Old City
The problem with the devision of a city (or any other devision, for that matter) is that you may not know the exact borders, if you didn’t educate yourself beforehand. This is basically what happened to our little happy-go-lucky team. Upon arrival through Kiryat Arba settlement, we smoothly went through a small police barricade (as usual, area B is a mix of army, border police and civil police unites). We parked next to the Settler’s Information Center (official name in government map!) and gift shop, blurting out settler music, and walked around a few Palestinian souvenir shops. In this area, one of the guys bumped into a young Palestinian man offering us a tour of the Casbah- the old city.
Islam proved to be a thorough and friendly guide, explaining every detail, showing us into houses and giving us time to do what we need. Taking us through the checkpoint, he forgot to tell us one thing, though: Beyond this point, it’s area H1. I only gathered this after he told us not to speak Hebrew, so the soldiers don’t arrest us, or any of the Palestinians don’t tell the soldiers. At that point, it didn’t really matter, as I began to understand the impossibilities of area H1.
Beyond the narrow passageway of bars, I was surprised to find something out of the “orient”, alive and not too well. The Casbah reminded me of the streets of India, with more delicate smells. Paved paths and stone arches, men sit outside their small shop in traditional Palestinian garb and children huddle around us in interest, or in interest in spare change. Some know Hebrew and are happy to hear that people from Tel-Aviv are showing interest.
But this isn’t India and the differences are in the details. Most of the shops are closed down. Black water barrels on the rooftops. Racist graffiti on the walls. Decaying antiquity that should have been preserved and instead is mutilated. Metal nets installed to collect the garbage the neighboring settlers throw from above, dripping into the street because of the day’s rain. Arches blocked with welded doors and windows covered in barbed wires. Overlooking posts of an occupying army.
Islam takes us into a family home. Built in the local style of a few centuries ago, the rooms of the house concentrate around a stairway. If you stand on the ground floor and look up through the stairway, you can see another metal net and what would have been the sky, but now is a collection of drippy trash. The story of this particular house, we’re told, as barefoot girls run around us in excitement, is that the settler neighbors threw a Molotov Cocktail through the open roof of the stairway, a couple years ago. As we walk up the ancient uneven steps, Islam points out that all the locks and knobs have been removed from the doors. It’s been done so the police and army can pass through the house at their leaser. Surprisingly enough, the house is still in use, and the poverty of its residents is indicated by the stripped rooms.
The most shocking part of our tour would be the roof of this house. As we climb up to the roof, the mother of the house looks over the city. From the roof you can see three watchtowers, in three different directions. You can see a school, turned into a settlement. You can see the abandoned mosque and the closed down Shuhada street, right below. A settler emptying his trash looked up at us. From this same roof, you could- if you chose to die- climb over to the neighboring roof, where settlers have brought in their new stone and built their house on top of the Palestinian house. And if you turn ever so slightly to the right, you’ll find the army post, also on the roof of the house. Just meters away from us, a soldier watching. Before we leave, the young man of the house comes to greet us and sells us a homemade CD that tells the family’s story. We thank him and his mother, apologize for interrupting and go back to the empty, beautiful yet corrupted streets of the Casbah.
H2 – Wrong Protest
As we leave A misconnection with our Jerusalem friends leads us to a wrong turn at an intersection, right out of the old city. Hebron has an army jeep at every turn. Between hate graffities, there are official army graffiti denoting “axes” (= “roads/streets” in army speak, because they just can’t use the original names of the streets. Who knows why. Maybe because they’re in Arabic, or maybe because there are no street signs…) As we walked in search of City Hall, where our joint demonstration of Palestinians, Israelis and internationals was suppose to be taking place, we found ourselves smack dab in the middle of a gas grande/ stone throwing match.
The five of us started walking in and witnessed one of those horrific and incomprehensible scenes, more befitting of a 70’s war film than anything else I can relate to. In the middle of a brick-chip (that’s what the infamous stones are made of in the city) covered street, babies watching from windows of the surrounding buildings, the youth put up improvised garbage wagon and burnt tier barriers, as a soldier runs forward with one of those handheld cannons and 5 camera men surround him like protons. Gas fills up the street and all of a sudden a taxi cab appears through the smoke. The kids run back, and us with them. They are fascinated by my blondness and they laugh at each other, making a fuss over getting me an onion. They run back in. More gas. Three school girls, in their pressed uniforms calmly walk passed us. We realize there’s nothing we can do, here, and we start walking back where we came from. Passing another cloud of gas and a man carrying a TV set. Then someone runs at us and tells us to run the other way. We see the rest of the press run, so we join them and find ourself in a bustling main street. The shopkeepers keep on offering us onions and no one can explain where City Hall is.
The Right Protest
We decide to walk back where we came from, nevertheless, to at least find someone who can maybe direct us. We walk back through the war zone that’s lines aren’t quite clear at any point in time. We come back to the intersection, where we had last seen our guide and that’s when we started hearing the chants, ambulances and shock grenades. Walking towards the sounds, it was all visible soon enough and so we quickened our steps and started towards our protest.
From the distance, beyond a cemetery, we could see a familiar mess. We reached an intersection where the army, border police and civil Israeli police put up a road block and somehow slipped right behind and by them. Soon enough one of our friends was detained, another- as a result- was able to get through and three of us were escorted out of the “closed military zone”.
We met another independent group of other friends from Tel Aviv and Jerusalem and they told us that there were more detainees, and impossible haggle ensued with the civil police, who were busy moving their detainee-filled squad car 10 meters in every direction. In the end it was determined that we have to leave the “closed military zone” (= stand 50 feet further down the street), or we’ll be arrested, and when we do, our friends will be released. This show of muscle went on for about 40 minutes, until our friends were finally with us.
Soon enough, the one friend that got through to the protest reunited with us, in a very dramatic entrance. As our group began walking around the cemetery, looking for another way in, my eye spotted my friend being pushed around by a settler with a camera. As we ran to his aid, I called for the police, who told us to clear the area again, as this man was harassing my friend.
We decided a best course of action was to ignore this guy, who was filming and telling us that we’re helping him with promoting Jewish tourism to Hebron, because now he can show footage of Jews walking about safely in Hebron. We finally found a gap in the cemetery fence and climbed over one by one, the overzealous travel agent, behind us, yelling to the soldiers of our whereabouts. Soon enough, we had finally reached our destination.
The soldiers behind and in front of movable concrete barricades, the protesters, unarmed men, women and children, hand-in-hand. Soon enough the soldiers broke their line and started throwing grenades and arresting people. Demonstrators ran up the street and into the cemetery and the soldiers behind us. As we were dodging gas and heading out the cemetery, we managed to meet a young man that shared a cigarette with us and showed us his rubber coated bullet scars. It was the last round of this protest and the start of a long armed forces riot.
The Hebron Syndrome
The confusion of Hebron is apparent everywhere, but not so condensed as in our last ten minutes. As we climbed back out the cemetery, a single soldier was waiting for us. He yelled for us to stop, and as I was the first to touch ground, I raised my hands and yelled that I’m unarmed. This didn’t seem to faze him out of his tantrum and he held his rifle in our direction and continued yelling for us to stop. We asked him if we are detained, but he only repeated for us to stop. We told him that if we’re not detained, we’re leaving, to which he reacted by calling his commander and explaining he “has a situation, here”. We decided it would be best to leave as he seemed undetermined to detain us. As he growled for us to stop, we simply turned our backs and walked to the car.
Reaching the car, we were approached by another soldier, who asked if this was our car. I was already in alert mode, when he smiled, was very polite and said “welcome to Hebron, but please park over there, instead, next time.”
It was then when I realized that the sidewalk was partitioned off of the rest of the street by concrete barriers and that the Palestinians aren’t allowed to cross to the other side. Islam, our guide, was sitting on the little thing, waving goodbye to us, while some other kid was being shoved by a soldier, who called him by name, to get back behind the partition. On the other side of the street were the Palestinian souvenir shops. As we drove out of Hebron, a group of soldiers were playing soccer with Palestinian kids, and at every turn there was a military jeep.