Road to Palestine, day 5 - Hebron's nets

Between check-points, settlers and resistance among the houses of a (ghost?) city

24 / 5 / 2022

The nets are over our heads. "They put them up because the settlers were throwing stones, chairs or garbage at us," says Muhanned of the "Youth Against Settlements" Association. Some of those objects we see even now over the nets. "Once I saw them pouring acid on a Palestinian, they peed on me from up there." Hebron, the main street of the old market. Below, Palestinian stores; above, beyond the nets surrounded by barbed wire and filled with Israeli flags, settlers' homes. There are about 800 of them in this area protected by 1,600 soldiers. There is also a house over which the Palestinian flag flies. A family lives there overlooked by the settlers' homes and with a window barred by bars facing one of their basketball courts. A few little girls climb down the ladder at the entrance, the oldest has a small scar under her eye. The remains of a shard of glass after a settler had thrown a bottle into the house at the family. Having reported this and other assaults only led to searches and threats against them by the army. Here two populations live divided by nets, barriers, walls and barbed wire but in very small spaces. That between occupiers and occupied is an unequal war of position and attrition. Yet it was not always so. At one time this city was the industrial and commercial center of Palestine. In the city, the Muslim majority always coexisted with the Christian and Jewish minorities. 

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The city hospital used to treat both Muslims and Jews. "Palestinians of the Jewish religion," says Muhanned, who is very proud of his city's multicultural and multireligious history. A history that began to be denied during the British Mandate, when clashes began between Zionists and the followers of Grand Mufti Husseini. They later murdered 67 Jews in 1929 and drove the survivors out of the city. Muhanned introduces us to an elderly man whose father then saved some Jewish neighbors. "Welcome Jews as residents or visitors, not as occupiers," says the elderly man pointing to the Israeli check point next door, the one we just passed through. One of 24 Israeli checkpoints in H2, the part of Hebron that is "zone B," meaning under Israeli military control, while H1 is under Palestinian National Authority control. "The houses in which Jews in Hebron live today are the same houses in which Jews lived until the 1929 uprising." Says a flyer distributed in languages halfway around the world outside the Abraham synagogue. A veritable summary of what "nationalism" and "distorted use of history" means. It says flatly that the Israelis have the right to impose their presence in Hebron by force of arms but at the same time calls it an abomination that the Palestinians dare to claim rights to Tel Aviv, Jaffa and Haifa, as if in 1948 more than 700,000 of them had not been violently driven out, just like the Jews of Hebron. The "dozens of terrorist attacks" carried out by Palestinians in recent decades are also listed, but no mention is made of the one that changed the face of the city. And it was carried out by a Jew. Muhanned guides us to the site where it took place. A mosque, also "of Abraham," just like the Synagogue that stands in the same area but totally separate from it. Inside the Muslim place of worship are the graves (or purported graves, because we are talking about a time of myth rather than history) of Abraham, Sarah, Isaac, Rebekah, Jacob and Leah. All figures considered central by both Judaism and Islam. Indeed, according to the Bible Abraham is the father of both Arabs and Jews. And in fratricidal violence, blood literally flowed over the grave of the common father. On February 25, 1994, Baruch Goldestein, a settler from Kyat Arba, a settlement near Hebron, entered the Abraham Mosque and opened fire on praying Muslim worshippers, slaughtering 29 of them before being killed. Palestinians are convinced that he was not the only shooter but that there were several settlers who fired that day. 

Perhaps, given the location, that massacre could have been an opportunity for some reciprocity, for someone in the Israeli government to say, "Hey, this time it's terrorism by one of us against them! What is it that we demand of them when we get hit? Ah yes, let's say they have to condemn and isolate violent extremists... Well, actually Goldestein was a follower of a rabbi who publicly incites to kill Arabs, maybe we should arrest him... and ban his movement... maybe we demolish that lunatic hangout in Kyat Arba..." Instead...instead it was the Palestinians who were punished. In the protests and riots following the bombing the Israeli army killed dozens and dozens of them. Then under the guise of "security reasons" it bricked up doors and windows of several Palestinian homes. There were families who found themselves walled up in their homes and had to go through their neighbors' roofs or gardens to get out. Others found themselves on streets subjected to a very harsh curfew that prevented them from leaving their homes to go to work or school. 

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Stores and other businesses including a school were closed by the authorities, and the school was confiscated and assigned to settlers. The result was the expulsion of the Palestinian population from entire streets. The creation of a situation of obvious apartheid. Muhanned lets us experience it firsthand. Near the synagogue of Abraham, soldiers ask you if you are Christian, Jewish or Muslim. Jews and Christians can approach and visit the synagogue, Muslims cannot. We are asked about our religious faith by uniformed soldiers with a weapon in their fists in the middle of a street. A scene not exactly compatible with what we usually call "democracy." The fact that the option "atheists and agnostics" is not even contemplated makes it clear that we are talking here not about faith but about the imposition of a hierarchy on the basis of community of origin. If one simply wanted to protect the tranquility of a Jewish place of worship, one could reserve access to practicing Jews only (also because they have to eat a lot of it for Muslims to match the anti-Jewish violence committed in history by Christians). If there were only a need to ensure security against terrorist attacks, requests for documents and searches (quite superficial so far, by the way) would suffice. Jew, Christian or Muslim? No, this question asked by armed and uniformed men and women in the middle of a street has nothing to do with either faith or security but only with setting identities and hierarchies. "We Jews can only move in 3 percent of Hebron," says the settlers' flyer also distributed in Italian at the infopoint and in the bookstore at the entrance to the synagogue. 

Too bad it is the sick or injured Palestinians who die when ambulances do not arrive in time because they are stuck at a check point or attacked by settlers. "99 percent of the time the ambulance doesn't arrive," says Muhanned. It is Palestinians who have to go halfway around the city to get around the roads that are barred to them. It is Palestinians who can be arrested by the Israeli army and held for years in jail in "administrative detention" (i.e., without any kind of trial) even if they are minors. It is simply impossible, indeed unimaginable, for a settler to be arrested by the Palestinian police; on the contrary, the latter usually line up in front of Israeli checkpoints between H1 and H2 to prevent kids from throwing stones at the occupiers. But everyone, Israelis and Palestinians alike, lost one of the most important places in their city. Not far from the synagogue and the mosque is a street where some soldiers bar the entrance, again only to Palestinians. To us, European passports ensure that we can pass and enter a completely empty street made up of stores with welded doors. Shuada street was one of the most important commercial streets. 

When Muhanned used to go there as a child his father told him to always hold on tight to avoid getting lost in the crush that constantly filled it. After 1994, came the forced closure of the stores to "protect" the colony that continues to grow all around this emptied and abandoned street, enclosed now on one side by a concrete wall. "We just took back the houses where the Jews lived until 1929." Would the Jews who were killed and driven out then have been happy to see their city abused like this? To see its places that were most alive turned into desert? To see their co-religionists slaughter innocent people just as the Grand Mufti's followers did? More importantly, what on earth do those Jews of that time, those Palestinians of the Jewish religion, have to do with these settlers of today? 

Israeli soldiers themselves call one of the streets they inhabit "Chicago Street." The vast majority of those who live there today came from the U.S. to take their city from the Palestinians of Hebron, because that is how the holy scriptures want it. What does this have to do with a centuries-old shared history shattered in the 20th century? If anything of that history today resonates in the present it certainly lies in the common struggle of Palestinian and Israeli activists. In his friend's little store offering us a cup of karkade, Muhanned introduces us to Givati, an activist from "Break the silence," an association formed by former Israeli conscripts who denounce the reality of occupation and settler violence. A couple of hours later, as we make our way to the headquarters of "Youth against settlements," we find ourselves passing through a checkpoint together with a group of elegant middle-aged Germans to whom Givati himself is leading the way. Muhanned, who is guiding us, has to endure threatening questions from the military man in charge at the post.

"What are you doing with these people?" "I give them a tour of the city. "You're not a tour guide, you can't do that!" "This is an administrative matter over which you have no authority, if I cannot be a guide I will answer to the Palestinian police." The soldier (or more likely the NCO) snorts. He looks at Muhanned. He looks at Givati. Look at us, ragged and overwrought Italian search patrol, with two hours of sleep in our bodies in two days. He looks at the posh old Germans. He looks at us and says to Muhanned, "You're all goddamn lefties". And he means all of us, components of a casual international gathering. Evidently we have materialized one of the worst nightmares of nation-state watchdogs, whatever that is: the possibility of people from below talking to each other, understanding each other and trying to break down their walls and barbed wires. At dinner we honor a hearty barbecue at the Youth Against Settlements headquarters. This is a small villa taken away at the beginning of the second intifada, in 2000, by the Israeli army from a Palestinian family and turned into "investigation headquarters" , a place for interrogation and torture. The settlers' plan was to take the house as soon as the army abandoned it. But the guys from the association got there first and at the cost of a long legal battle managed to make it their headquarters. 

Youth against settlements is a nonviolent organization that supports Palestinians in documenting settler and army violence, as well as trying to tell the international public about it. As we dine, we hear increasingly loud noises coming from the city center (the headquarters is on a hill at its edge). All the way to the roars of stun grenades. A demonstration is underway against the expansion of the settlement near the Abraham Mosque. Over the next few hours we learn of injuries and arrests, including a Palestinian documentary filmmaker. To sleep, we are hosted by some Palestinian families living in the surrounding streets, which are manned in force by Israeli soldiers. We see them wandering around in groups talking and laughing loudly, one even carries two small stereo speakers on his belt blasting loud music. 

We see again what we already saw last night during the raid on the village of At-Tawuani: the Israeli army is an army that moves into Palestinian towns and villages knowing full well that it is facing helpless people, forced to endure the arbitrariness and bluster of the occupiers.

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