Saturday, June 14, 2008

Hebron: where Patriarchs lie buried and where matriarchs lie in front of tour buses

My daughter and I just returned from a quick trip south to Hebron in the southern West Bank, just 30 clicks (that's Canada-speak for kilometers) south of Jerusalem. To get there from here we rode a serveece (shared taxi) to the infamous Huwarra checkpoint outside of Nablus, hailed another one from there to Ramallah, a third to the Qalandia checkpoint north of Jerusalem, and a fourth to Damascus Gate just north of Jerusalem's Old City. After a 30-shekel night in the Hebron Hostel in the Muslim Quarter, and a quick breakfast on the amazing roof of the Hashimi nearby, we set out for the bus station in West Jerusalem where we joined a tour heading to Hebron led by Breaking the Silence, a group of former Israeli soldiers who served in Hebron and have since made public the terror and abuse of Palestinians that went on under their watch. More about that below.

The story of Hebron goes back at least to Abraham. Genesis 23 documents the Patriarch paying full price for the cave of Machpelah where he would bury his wife Sarah. When Abraham himself died, his sons Isaac and Ishmael buried him in the same cave (Gen 25:9). Ditto for Isaac, Rebekah, Leah (49:31) and Jacob (50:13). Which is why the burial site in downtown Hebron, like the Temple Mount (or Noble Sanctuary) in Jerusalem, is sacred to both Muslims and Jews--known by the former as the Ibrahimi Mosque and the latter as the Cave of the Patriarchs--and why Hebron has its share of religion war stories to tell.

Two 20th century Hebron tragedies stand out among the rest. In 1929, riots in Jerusalem spread to Hebron where 67 Jews were brutally killed and 50 more wounded. The surviving 500-ish Jews were evacuated. Then, in 1994, an American-born radical settler, Baruch Goldstein, entered the Patriarchs' shrine with his M-16 and gunned down 29 Palestinians and wounded 150 more, before he was subdued and beaten to death. Since the Goldstein episode the Tomb of the Patriarchs has been militarized, partitioned and strictly controlled. Muslims to the left, Jews to the right. Christian tourists: no guns or knives please.

What makes Hebron unique in the Occupied Territories, however, is not its painful past or its militarized shrine (enclosed by a pristine Herodian wall). The bizarre thing about Hebron is that, since 1968, it has been home to first one and now several Israeli settlements located in the general area of the Tomb, in other words, deep in the heart of a Palestinian city. Nowhere else in the West Bank or Gaza do Jewish settlers and Palestinians live so closely. (Notice in the first picture that settlers, living above Palestinians, have thrown garbage onto wire mesh above the shops in the Old City.) Predictably, with proximity come security measures, enforced by IDF troops, monitored at military check points, surveyed from watchtowers, and implemented through closures, curfews, intimidation and forced population transfer. Hebron is the Occupation under glass.

For the blood-soaked details of the 40-year story of Jewish settlements in and around Hebron, I recommend chapter five of Idith Zertal and Aikva Eldar's Lords of the Land: The War over Israel's Settlements in the Occupied Territories, 1967-2007 (Nation, 2007), and bits of chapters 5, 6 & 7 in Gershom Gorenberg's The Accidental Empire: Israel and the Birth of the Settlements, 1967-1977 (Times, 2006). For recent stories from Hebron's front lines, see the Breaking the Silence link above.

Back to our tour. Breaking the Silence has been leading Hebron walking tours for several years but in recent months settlers in the area have mobilized against them. This led police to block the tours which in turn push BTS to bring their case to the High Court. Justice prevailed, which means that tours should be able to resume, legally and unencumbered by settler animus. It was precisely that High Court ruling that our tour set out to test.

We approached Hebron through a settlement called Kiriath Arba. (If the name rings a bell, see Genesis 23:2.) We planned to stop first at the settler shrine to Baruch Goldstein, the guy who gunned down 29 worshiping Muslims in the Ibrahimi Mosque--for these settlers Goldstein is a hero--but Yehuda and Mikael (our guides) got word that settlers were waiting for us. So the shrine visit was scrubbed and we proceeded through the settlement to the gate leading directly into Hebron.

And that's as far as we got. Immediately our path was blocked by settlers whose numbers swelled as the first ranks used cell phones to summon their friends. Soon there were dozens: old and young men, women, children, several babies in arms, a pregnant woman, a child in a stroller. A line of women and children (pictured) planted themselves directly in front of the bus. One fellow took to a megaphone, addressing us, his captive, mostly-English-speaking audience, in Hebrew. Police and soldiers arrived in force. No one was going anywhere.

When Mikael wasn't working the phones he was providing running commentary over the bus PA. Meanwhile the unflappable Yehuda, sporting sandals and a cowboy hat, wove among the settlers with a video camera or pressed his case with the authorities. We hapless passengers, embracing our role as witnesses to something simultaneously illegal and outrageous, jostled for the best photo angles or took notes in our Moleskins. One young man--maybe 14 years old--caught my eye. (He's the one in the white shirt with his hand on his chest.) He was pacing up and down beside the bus. Our eyes met. He glanced sideways for cameras and then drew his finger knife-like across his throat. He needn't have worried; settler children his age are not legally responsible for their vandalism and assaults on Palestinians. A faux-threat to murder some international would evoke little more than dismissive hand waving.

So it went for two hours. At first it looked like the tour was over before it began. Then we learned it could proceed if we remained on the bus. Then, we could advance only a few hundred feet before turning around. In the end, we gave up. The lawyer for BTS advised us to reject any limitations (since they had no legal basis) and to turn the bus around. No need to let the settlers argue in court that they had "allowed" the tour to proceed.

Not ready to admit defeat, my daughter and I got the bus to drop us at the northern, Palestinian entrance to Hebron as it passed by. We easily caught a serveece taxi and shortly found ourselves wandering the Old City, sipping drinks in various shops (date juice, coffee, tea), visiting the Tomb of the Patriarchs, and walking the ethnically-cleansed, Palestinian-forbidden Shuhada street where settler vandalism abounds. A young man (again, about 14) approached. In Hebrew, with much hand-waving, he demanded that we turn around and leave the area. Fortunately he had only his kid brother with him and none of his peers. When we refused to comply he gave me a push to which I responded by taking his picture (orange shirt, blue cap) and continuing on our way.

Strange limbo this: we are free to wander Palestinian markets (where Israeli citizens cannot legally go) and along defacto settler streets (from which Palestinians have been cleansed). Moving between two worlds though belonging to neither, we felt the embrace of both hatred and hospitality.

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