Sunday, September 18, 2005

What's So Bad About Hebron?

There are no tanks on the streets of Tel Rumeida, in Hebron. There is no 24-hr “curfew” sealing the residents in their homes. When Israeli soldiers occupy civilian homes, they don’t usually hold the families at gunpoint. Homes aren’t being demolished, at least they weren’t while I was there. So what’s so bad about Hebron?

The day I arrived in Tel Rumeida, some local folks were throwing a picnic for the neighborhood elementary school children. Four or five international observers from the CPT, Ecumenical Accompanists, and Tel Rumeida Project were helping out, as well. There are no parks in the neighborhood, so the picnic was held in an empty lot with a few trees and a ten-foot stone wall at one end. There were perhaps forty children playing, mostly between five and 10 years old (my guess), all face-painted and intensely cute, all wearing goofy paper hats. It was a pretty adorable scene, even for someone like myself with rather limited appreciation for the cuteness of little children.

As the food was being served, stones started falling in the midst of the picnickers. Only a couple young girls were hit, fortunately, and nobody was seriously injured, before the adults got the children huddled under the protection of the stone wall, which was located between them and the unseen stone-throwers. A couple of other internationals and myself got out our cameras and camcorders, and tried to get the stone throwers on film, with some success. This went on for around 30 to 45 minutes; all that time, the stones kept coming, we dodged, and the children hid.

I won’t describe each similar incident that occurred during my brief time in Hebron. Suffice it to say that, in the course of one week, the settler kids stoned various Palestinian children, teachers, and families on a daily basis, arsonists fired two Palestinian families’ gardens, and soldiers and police predominantly responded by harassing international activists and Palestinian residents. Occasionally, a soldier or soldiers would quietly tell a group of settler kids that they shouldn’t throw stones. As you might guess, this had no effect, and was not followed by any actual interference with the stone throwers. When pressed, a few of the policemen showed some interest in actually doing their jobs, but to no visible effect. The Palestinians, for their part, went peacefully about their business, or as much of their business as violent settlers, army checkpoints, and frequently hostile police allowed. In between, they invited international activists into their houses, pressed us with food and coffee, reassured the Americans that we weren’t to blame for the U.S. government’s support of Israel, and the one Jew (me) that I wasn’t to blame for the settlers, soldiers, police, and general devastation of the Palestinian people.

During the same week, we witnessed the erection of around fifty, eight-foot tall concrete barriers along a Palestinian street, and the “upgrade” of the army’s main checkpoint from a bunch of sandbags and soldiers with a small hut, to an intimidating steel box that completely blocks the neighborhood’s entrance. A tiny, ancient-looking Palestinian woman had to be walked down to the checkpoint at 11pm to reach a hospital because Palestinian vehicles (such as ambulances) aren’t allowed in Tel Rumeida; settlers’ cars and ambulances, Israeli tour buses, and the like move freely, of course. An assortment of Palestinian men described their imprisonment and torture in Israeli prisons during the first Intifada, and did their best to explain to less forgiving internationals (such as myself) why they are still willing to live in peace with Israelis, given the chance. Settlers overlooking the old city continued their neighborly habit of throwing garbage (and sometimes, I’m told, urine) down at the few Palestinians still living and working below them. Wire netting overhead now catches the trash (which remains hanging there like the self-condemnation it is), but not the urine. Of course, I left the day before the new school year started, which is when the settlers really get down to the serious business of terrorizing Palestinian children.

Finally, after the new army checkpoint went in, local Palestinians organized a small protest. Some fifty people, including four or five internationals, gathered outside the new checkpoint. Negotiations took place in Hebrew and Arabic, so I can’t give a complete account. The Palestinians demanded that the local commander come talk to them; he didn’t. The Palestinians wanted the new barriers taken down; they weren’t. They wanted the old, less frightening checkpoint put back; it wasn’t. After some time, the lead organizer announced that they had “sent a message” to the soldiers, and the demonstration ended. Afterwards, we found out that it had been “agreed” that “nobody can control the settlers.” The Palestinians because they have no power, obviously, and the soldiers because “they have no orders to control them.” The sole gain, if you can call it that? The all-male soldiers agreed not to touch Palestinian women passing, out of sight and safety, through their new steel box.

Towards the end of my stay in Tel Rumeida, I flagged down a twenty-something settler who was walking along the road where I was watching for settler kids stoning Palestinians. He wore the t-shirt, kipah, and natural, uncurled peyos common to many young, “religious” settlers. His eyes were a bright, cornflower blue, his hair was sandy blond-brown, and he had an open and ready smile, with a soft, pleasant voice. He was obviously American (or Canadian, I suppose), and spoke English without a trace of an accent.

I explained that I was Jewish, and that, while I was not currently observant, I had been in the past and was reasonably familiar with basic Torah law and ethics. Then I asked him what in the world the settlers thought they were doing, teaching their children to throw stones at helpless Palestinian women and children.

The first thing he said sounded like, “We teach our children to throw stones?” I was mortified! Naturally, this nice young man wouldn’t do such a thing. Sure, I had seen a number of kids stoning Palestinians, and I had been told that their parents taught them to do so, but that didn’t mean it was true. It certainly didn’t that every adult settler was guilty! I quickly apologized: “I’m sorry. I didn’t mean that you, personally, are teaching this, but it does seem like somebody is.” My new friend hunkered down to talk (I was sitting on the curb), gave another earnest smile and responded, “Oh, no, it’s OK; I do teach the kids that. Let me explain why we do it.” The explanation was as follows, all said with the same ready smile, all delivered in the same reasonable tone:

There are millions of Arabs in Israel, and they have more children than the Jews do. In a few years, by purely democratic process - purely democratic process! - they’ll outnumber the Jews, and Israel will be just another Arab country. They already have twenty-two countries, and this is our only one, so we have to do something.

“Something,” in this case, was systematically terrorizing the Palestinian children, and their families, as well, whenever possible. There was some more along similar lines, but I don’t remember the language. At any rate, the young man wanted to continue our conversation, but there was no point, and I was already working hard not to vomit. I asked him to move on, and he did, eminently courteous. I was, after all, a Jew.

The point isn’t that this young man hated Palestinians; he quite obviously didn’t. And it’s not that he presented a façade of being a nice guy, masking the violent monster within. He really was a nice guy; I would have enjoyed spending time with him, if I hadn’t known what he was doing, and so would have you. No, the problem was that Palestinians simply didn’t signify in his world. This young man had something he wanted a lot, and these people were in the way, so they obviously had to go. If the Palestinians all packed up on their own and vanished, I doubt he would have an unkind word for them. Since they didn’t seem inclined to simply abandon their homes, however, he taught his kids to stone their little children on a daily basis, hoping that the families will eventually crack under the barrage (which they do, of course, in a slow but steady stream). If that’s not enough to drive everyone out, then he’ll kill whoever’s left, at least if he can get away with it (this group of settlers is on record as waiting for the day when the Israeli government finally calls on them to kill whatever Palestinians still refuse to leave). Not because they’re evil, not because he hates them, just because they’re in the way of what he wants.

Now, I imagine that many of the people reading this are thinking what an extremist zealot this settler is, how different they are from him (and how superior), and things of that sort. The truth, however, is that there is depressingly little real difference between this young man and mainstream, pro-Zionist, American Jews. The Haganah and Irgun drove hundreds of thousands of Palestinians out of Israel in 1948, and the Israeli army drove out hundreds of thousands more in 1967. These people, along with millions of their descendants, are now living in exile, mostly in refugee camps in Palestine, Jordan, Lebanon, and Syria. Their right to return to their homes is beyond serious debate, despite rather pathetic arguments raised to the contrary. In fact, most Jews with whom I speak at length will eventually acknowledge that right, and that they have no intention of honoring it.

The ugly truth is, we have something that we (or many of us) really want, a country with a Jewish super-majority, and the Palestinians are (or were, or would be) in the way of our getting (or keeping) it. We wanted it in ’48, we wanted it in ’67, we want it now, we had (have, will have) the power to take it, and that’s what we’re going to do. And, as was the case with my settler friend, the Palestinians just don’t matter much. We don’t hate them any more than he does, and if we can give them something to soothe our consciences (and reduce Jewish casualties), then most of us are perfectly happy to do so. But where there is a conflict between Palestinian rights and our own desires…well, it’s not really much of a contest, now is it?

“In May 1940, Heinrich Himmler advocated sending the Jews to Madagascar. About this plan, Himmler stated:

However cruel and tragic each individual case may be, this method is still the mildest and best, if one rejects the Bolshevik method of physical extermination of a people out of inner conviction as un-German and impossible."

Himmler discussed his proposal with Hitler of sending the Jews ‘to a colony in Africa or elsewhere’ and Hitler responded that the plan was ‘very good and correct.’”

Cruel but necessary, and, better yet, the least cruel, particularly as compared to the depraved imaginings of the great enemy. Sound familiar? I can almost hear the cries of fury at the comparison: the desperate search for meaningful distinctions, the shameful self-justification, the ingenious sophistry. Go ahead; join in, and why not? What’s the point in feeling guilty? Would you really do anything different if you admitted the truth?

Of course, Himmler and his comrades ran into problems with the Madagascar project, and had to find a different way to get what they wanted. The “Bolshevik method,” remember? We’re not doing actual death camps, and it seems unlikely that we’ll need to; who knows, maybe we’d actually refuse. So, in fairness, we’re probably only comparable to the early Himmler and Hitler, and not the final versions. Perhaps some of us will find that a source of comfort, but I don’t get much from it, personally.

Near the tomb of Abraham, I ran into a settler who was handing out pamphlets and telling busloads of tourists (who were, of course, carefully kept away from the Palestinians) about the “real” history of Hebron. His focus was on the riots of 1929, during which 67 Jews were murdered, some 76 years ago. The massacre of 29 Palestinians at prayer on 2/26/1994, about fifty feet from where he was standing, was not sufficiently “true” to make it into the pamphlet. One might think that this attack would be worth mentioning, given that it triggered the first use of suicide bombings by the Palestinian resistance (begun, so far as I can determine, by Hamas on 4/6/1994). Fortunately for us, however, the event is not completely forgotten. In the nearby settlement of Kiryat Arbah, on a lovingly tended gravestone, one can read the following inscription (from

Here lies the saint, Dr. Baruch Kappel Goldstein, blessed be the memory of the righteous and holy man, may the Lord avenge his blood, who devoted his soul to the Jews, Jewish religion and Jewish land. His hands are innocent and his heart is pure. He was killed as a martyr of God on the 14th of Adar, Purim, in the year 5754 (1994).

Abutting the settlement is the Israeli police headquarters for Hebron. Palestinians who want to report a crime must wait outside a locked gate, completely exposed to the gravestone tenders and their community, until the police feel like letting them in, on those occasions when they eventually do. For some reason, it appears that attacks on Palestinians often go unreported. Go figure.

April. 28. 2005 (from

The opening ceremony on Tuesday of a five-storey block of flats in Hebron come as thousands of Israelis attended an annual festival to mark the Jewish Passover holiday in the centre of the southern city.

Israeli Parliament Speaker Reuven Rivlin said the opening of the new apartments on a hill known as Tel Rumaida should be an inspiration to settlers who will be forced to withdraw from Gaza under a plan drawn up by Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon.

"Blessed be the Hebron heroes," Rivlin told crowds who had gathered for the ceremony. "Thank God that He has brought us back to our land and allowed us to build here despite the opposition.

"This new house should be a symbol to all who live in Eretz Israel," he added.

Rivlin has been one of the leading critics of Sharon's plan to evacuate all 8000 settlers living in Gaza.

Sharon, however, appears to have no plans to evacuate the 600 settlers who currently live in Hebron, telling parliament earlier this month that their presence serves as "a strategic Jewish asset".

The 600 settlers are permanently protected by hundreds of Israeli soldiers.