***Part 1 of a four-part travel diary, in which I explore Hebron first from a left-wing perspective and then from a right-wing perspective, inviting the reader to make his/her own mind up about the city.***
The road to Hebron winds through the achingly beautiful hills of Judea, their rocky slopes kissed by white stone and green shrubbery.
I am en route to this ancient biblical city with Breaking the Silence, an organisation of former Israeli soldiers so appalled by what they witnessed in uniform that they wish to expose the reality of the experience of Palestinians under the Occupation, with a view to ending it.
Our guide is Avner Gvaryahu, a veteran paratrooper. Born into a religious Zionist family, he does not doubt the centrality of Hebron in Jewish history: this was the burial site of the patriarch Abraham, the first capital of King David, and the site of a Jewish community until the pogroms of 1929. The question is the “moral price” we are willing to pay for our presence in this ancient city.
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ON THE edge of Hebron lies Kiryat Arba, and on the edge of this settlement lies the Meir Kahane Memorial Park. The entrance sign honours the “holy” Rabbi Kahane as a “lover of Israel, genius of Torah and brave of deed”, but he needs no introduction: this is the man with the ignominious legacy of founding the only political party in Israeli history to be banned for being too racist. Kahane was infamous for advocating the forced expulsion of Israel’s Arabs. In 2013, his disciples won nearly a third of the vote in Kiryat Arba, running as Otzma LeYisrael, which ultimately failed to win any Knesset seats at all – a mark of the political gulf between this place and the rest of Israel.
On the edge of the park is a façade of Jerusalem stone. Twenty years ago, Baruch Goldstein entered the Cave of the Patriarchs and mowed down scores of Muslim worshippers with a hail of bullets, murdering 29 and, before he was beaten to death by the survivors. Now his remains are buried behind this façade.
It is said that his grave has become a popular place for local youths to make out. So it is not immediately clear whether the façade exists to separate the park from the grave, or the grave from the park. Goldstein’s legacy, we are told, is a source of shame for many residents. But the dozens of pebbles placed on the grave, a mark of respect for the dead in the Jewish tradition, suggests a more complex reality.
“[Here lies] the holy Baruch Kopel Goldstein,” reads the headstone, “who gave his life for the People of Israel, his Torah and his Land.”
A few metres away stands a rotund man in a black t-shirt and jeans, filming us on his smartphone. He grins sheepishly to himself.
In the distance is an illegally built pre-fab synagogue, which used to be taken apart whenever Condoleezza Rice was in town and then put back together. Rumour has it that Itamar Ben Gvir, a far-right activist, has tried to have this iterative reconstruction inscribed in the Guinness World Book of Records.
Eventually, without a word, the mysterious stranger gets back into his tractor and hurtles into the distance.
This is to be the first of our child-minders.
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AS OUR bus arrives in Hebron, half a dozen Palestinian children gravitate towards its door, poised to beg for alms. Furtively, a young boy shoves his half-eaten pitta into the handle of a flap on the side of the bus next to us. The driver rolls down his window and drops the children two chocolate bars, unaware of this minor act of sabotage.
The Oslo Accords divide the West Bank into three jurisdictions: Area A is under full Palestinian control; Area B is under Palestinian municipal control and Israeli security control; and Area C (60% of the West Bank) is under full Israel control. We are taught a helpful mnemonic: ‘A’ is for Aravim (Arabs), ‘B’ is for beyachad (together) and ‘C’ is for celanu (a corruption of shelanu: ours). But Hebron is a special case, the only Palestinian town with a settlement inside it. So the Hebron Agreement of 1997 divides the city into two: H1 is under full Palestinian control; and H2, which contains 30,000 Palestinians, is governed under Israeli military administration for the sake of the 700 Jews who have made Hebron their home.
Now we stand in the heart of H2. After the Cave of the Patriarchs massacre, the army placed the Arabs here under curfew, closed hundreds of shops and then began to declare parts of the Old City ‘sterile’ zones: no Arabs. The response to the murder of Arabs, that is to say, was to place Arabs under increasingly tight restrictions to protect the settlers from reprisals. With the intensification of violent attacks by Arabs during the Second Intifada – in which Israeli civilian casualties included a baby girl shot by a sniper– the sterile zone was expanded. Now the main arterial road through H2 is completely closed to Arabs altogether; many roads are shut to Arab vehicular traffic too.
It is a beautiful spring day, and this market street is empty. The only souls here are soldiers and tour groups, but there is nothing to see other than that there is nothing to see. Breaking the Silence seems to be serving the double role of breaking the silence in Hebron, empty but for those who come to gawp or learn about its sacred history.
Hebron feels like a large open museum, pitted of patrons and filled instead with armed guards to protect its small community of resident curators. City of the Patriarchs? Ghost town, more like.
Behind us, a bearded settler, shopping bags in hand, is berating a heavily-armed soldier. “Yitzhak Rabin was a criminal!” heckles the settler. “All the Oslo criminals should be brought to justice!”
“Tell me,” replies the soldier softly, “do you have a deadline for how long you want to go on ruling over another people?”
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BY THE old Arab cemetery, a white-haired settler observes us, hands in pockets, his expression torn between bemusement and contempt.
“When your instinctive reaction is one of separation – one law for us, Israelis, another for them,” Avner explains, “these problems are bound to repeat themselves –”
“What’s the alternative?” interrupts the settler.
Avner ignores him, evidently accustomed to intercessions by disgruntled locals. “Our automatic reaction is to justify the situation. Why? Security. It doesn’t look good… But it’s all for the security of a very small group, the settlers in Hebron –”
“Do you receive a salary in dollars or shekels?” interrupts the settler again.
Avner continues unfazed. “These settlers are Israeli citizens, so perhaps we need to defend them as long as they’re here? But we’re playing a zero-sum game: it’s us or them. So we use the most draconian means available: ‘sterile’ zones, and as in the eye-witness account, firing grenades into civilian areas –”
“What year was that in? It was twenty years ago!”
“The settlers here are willing to pay this moral price to be here. And since this is all being done in our name, we have to face up to this question too: are we willing to pay this moral price for this reality?”
Avner insists that Israel’s agenda is control of territory, not physical security: “it’s not that complicated” for a Palestinian from H1 to enter and attack Israelis, he says. “If a Palestinian wants to live his life in dignity, earn a living, go to school without crossing checkpoints, live without getting attacked by settlers, he can do so, just not here –”
“Who’s attacking whom?” blurts the settler astonished. “We’re attacking them?” he wonders allowed.
“The policy is to slowly push the Arabs out,” states Avner bluntly.
Looking around at this mess, it is scarcely conceivable that this almighty mess is the result of a consistent policy at all, much less a long-term master plan. This mess smacks of a total lack of foresight, the result of piecemeal, improvised measures. To credit Israel with strategic thinking here is unduly complimentary.
As we move on, the settler shakes his head in the middle of the empty road. “That’s the problem with you lot,” he mutters under his breath. “You don’t ask questions.”
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TWO YOUNG settlers trail us on our way. They clutch leaflets close to their chests: eager to protect their community from this assault on their reputation, but reluctant to intrude.
I ask for a leaflet. “Breaking the silence on Breaking the Silence” accuses Breaking the Silence of conspiring to delegitimise Israel and give moral support to the boycott movement. Now that’s chutzpah: doing something outrageous, then getting angry at those who report your bad behaviour.
A woman in a blue floral dress breaks away from the group, to speak to the teenagers: “You look like great kids,” she says. “What do you need to get involved in all this madness for?”
“When I was growing up, this place was a war zone,” answers the girl quietly, her doleful eyes downcast. “They used to shoot at us all the time. Now suddenly we’re the bad guys?”
Breaking the Silence has collected many testimonies from soldiers recalling Jews throwing stones at Arabs or otherwise assaulting them. But these kids feign astonishment.
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HEBRON USED to have a vibrant urban arts scene, but much of this graffiti has since been whitewashed. Fragments remain.
“DEATH TO THE ARABS (mavet la’aravim)” is scrawled in chalk across a wall of a building that settlers once forcibly occupied. Next to it is “DEATH”, crossed out by a self-doubting author and replaced with “HEBRON IS OURS (Hebron shelanu)”. The irony is, this is a ‘sterile’ zone: the vandals cannot have intended their message to be read by Arabs.
It was written for us.
Nearby, the faded outline of “GOD IS THE KING (Hashem hu ha’melekh)”. The settlement movement is divided, we are told, between those who accept the authority of the state and those messianic elements who accept only the sovereignty of God. So long as the state acquiesces to the Jewish settlement of biblical soil, the gulf is papered over. But beneath the surface is a volcano.
On the shutters of a closed Arab shop is spray-painted a large Star of David. Here is a symbol I hold dear, expropriated as an expression of Jewish supremacism. It offends me infinitely more than Stars of David emblazoned over skulls on tank tops or drawn onto the seal of Congress in an Economist cartoon.
“Any questions?” asks Avner.
“When are we going to wake up from this dream?”
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AROUND THE bend is a row of shuttered shops, and above them flats. The homes are inhabited, but their residents are not allowed to walk on this street. Instead, they scale the rooftops and descend on the other side of the building. This farce would be funny were it not so desperately sad. The windows are covered by metal cages, to protect the residents from stone-throwing settlers. A man lifts his daughter up, to see the street on which they are forbidden to tread. Through the bars, further along, a large blue banner taunts them: “PALESTINE NEVER EXISTED (AND NEVER WILL).”
This is rubbing it in, and it’s just plain nasty.
A woman drives towards us; we step out of the middle of the road. She reverses into the parking space and shoots Avner a dirty look. Sighing defiantly, she mutters barely audibly, “In every generation, they rise against us to destroy us –”
“– and the Holy One, Blessed be He, saves us from their hands,” snaps back Avner in a microsecond, completing the line from the Passover song. The woman ignores him.
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WHAT I report will no doubt upset people. But I report what I see, and how I feel, and there are some things worth being upset about: Hebron is one of them. It is vital to fight off boycotts with one hand, and also the sources of well-deserved opprobrium on the other. To label as ‘anti-Israel’ the act of speaking up about wrongdoing is the worst form of McCarthyite jingoism.
If Israel is the villa in the jungle, then Hebron is the crack house in the basement, where the Gatsby of the mansion entertains his more degenerate friends, as a legion of butlers stands guard.
I love my country, and that’s why I refuse to allow it to be turned into something that makes me feel ashamed. I am not the settlers’ merkin.
This travel diary is the first in a series of four on Hebron:
- Hebron through my Left eye: Part I
- Hebron through my Left eye: Part II
- Hebron through my Right eye: Part I
- Hebron through my Right eye: Part II
If you think I’ve got the wrong end of the stick and want to give me a tour around this land yourself to see it from a different angle, please email me on firstname.lastname@example.org.
Visit the Breaking the Silence website to book a tour to Hebron.