Today was a full-day trip to Bethlehem and Hebron — another alternative tour in which most of the usual pilgrimage sites did not make the itinerary. Led by Leila Sansour of Open Bethlehem (www.openbethlehem.org), we explored the Wall’s serpentine course in Bethlehem and its projected course in neighboring Beit Jala, and how it arrogates a major swath of the towns’ agricultural lands for the Wall, a bypass road and cluster of Jewish settlements including Har Homa and Gilo.
Most disturbing for me was our time in Hebron, the town of Abraham (Gen 13:18; 18:1; 23:2, 17-20; 25:9-10, etc.), a city that today reflects every dimension of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict including the presence of 500 violent, ideologically-driven settlers encamped in four different enclaves in a city of 150,000 Arabs. Hebron is the only place in the Occupied Territories where Jewish settlers have burrowed into the very heart of an Arab city, and they are, by all accounts, the most notorious settlers of all. Our walking tour of the Old City of Hebron took us past buildings settlers have demolished and through empty streets, streets eerily designated “sterilized” because on them Arabs are forbidden even to walk, much less live or run the shops that once made the area a bustling, thriving marketplace. Two vans of Israeli police followed us closely as we trekked through town from the Tomb of the Patriarchs to the area of Tel Rumeida.
Our walk proceeded without incident until its end when we approached a small road leading to a gate beyond which was the house of a Palestinian family — friends of our Israeli guide — whose daughter was celebrating her 16th birthday. In front of their gate a large coil of razor wire wove through garbage, sheet metal and destroyed furniture, making it precarious even to attempt to pass. More problematic, however, was the sudden appearance of Israeli troops (in green) and border police (in blue). Our guide, a former Israeli soldier, urged us to move through the gate as quickly as possible before something could develop. Only half of us squeezed through, however, before a handful of soldiers stepped in to block our way. Immediately we had ourselves an episode. Turns out we had cleared our field trip (to a birthday party!) with the police but not with the military, which meant both sides radioed their superior officers, more vehicles arrived, more troops appeared, guns waved, and we weren’t going anywhere.
In Hebron, I’m learning, the military has assigned hundreds (at least 400) to protect the settlers whereas the police who are charged to enforce the law number a few dozen. Tragically, the soldiers actually aid the settlers in their attacks and do nothing to prevent them, even when blatant, horrific, un-provoked violence happens before their eyes. The handful of police on hand fear the settlers and are largely impotent to enforce the law. Settlers, meanwhile, wander the streets, destroy property, take over buildings, stone Arabs and accompanying internationals, all with impunity.
Standing there waiting for police and military officers to sort out their turf wars, rage rose within me of an intensity I’ve rarely felt. It wasn’t the automatic weapons strung round the necks of 19 year-old conscripts nor the prospect of settlers appearing with rocks in hand. I was outraged because my passing encounter with such blatant racism and wanton violence was an every day reality for our Palestinian friends.
Pressing down hard on a father’s joy in his daughter was the dark cloud of Occupation and an even darker cloud of settler animus. Here was a family trapped in a gloomy world of curfews, closures, lost jobs and violent attacks. Two years ago settlers came into their yard and cut all their grape vines. Today each vine, about 3 inches in diameter, hangs detached and rootless from the trellis. Their children walk to school only when accompanied by internationals (from Christian Peacemakers Teams) and even then they get stoned.
Eventually, after an hour of negotiations, we were cleared to have our party. A warm welcome from the host, birthday songs, cake, gifts and much laughter. The lyrics of Bruce Cockburn’s Don’t Forget About Delight came to mind:
Amid the rumours and the expectations
and all the stories dreamt and lived
Amid the clangour and the dislocation
and things to fear and to forgive
Don't forget about delight
Defying the darkness this family remembered to delight in a girl becoming a woman. As for me, I felt overwhelmed by rage. I sat to eat birthday cake and began to sob. Very quietly. Only one or two friends noticed. Another Cockburn song nicely captured my struggle: If I had a rocket launcher.
I want to raise every voice -- at least I've got to try
Every time I think about it water rises to my eyes.
Situation desperate, echoes of the victims cry
If I had a rocket launcher...Some son of a bitch would die.
Cockburn’s song reflects his visceral response to Guatemalan refugee camps in Mexico in 1983; my tears and rage came in response to a society so broken that it leaves children defenseless at the hands of wanton criminals. Mercifully, my rage subsided. I would launch no rockets. More violence is the last thing this country needs. Besides, I have a house to build.