***Part 2 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.***
“This is a closed military zone,” the commander says. “You’re not getting through.”
“What do you mean, closed?” retorts Yuli. Behind her stands a group of 250 people, touring Hebron with Breaking the Silence, an NGO of former Israeli soldiers. Having made our way up Shuhada Street (Hebron through my Left eye: Part I), we have reached the base of Tel Rumeida. Sitting on the ruins of biblical Hebron, this Arab neighbourhood houses a tiny Jewish enclave in its core. In our way stands a row of soldiers, guarding the entrance.
Yuli shows the commander a letter from the police, confirming our permission to enter. The commander insists there is a military order [tzav] overriding the authorisation by the police. Yuli demands to see a copy. The commander promises that a copy on its way.
Shouting ensues. The crowd is drawn into a face-off against the soldiers. Both sides draw their weapons: smartphones. The Israeli army is accustomed to confrontations with anti-Occupation activists, who are known to try to provoke soldiers on camera or otherwise record them in an unfavourable light. Now the army comes prepared, equipped to film such confrontations as proof of its own good behaviour. A soldier films me on his iPhone as I film him on mine.
“Listen up, everybody!” shouts Yuli after a while. “I’ve just heard the soldiers chuckling amongst themselves that there is no such tzav! We’re not going anywhere till they let us through.”
Enough is enough, one man decides. The army lacks the legal authority to stop him: if he walks straight up the hill, the army wouldn’t dare touch him. He marches towards them and demands passage. The commander beefs up his chest. “You’re stopping me from carrying out my job properly,” he barks, threatening that this will bring consequences of its own.
Patience is wearing thin as we wait for a fax of the non-existent military injunction. A young settler boy rides his tricycle down the hill . “Here comes that military decree,” chuckles one man cynically. The boy tries to ignore the mêlée.
“In ten minutes, we go in,” instructs one irate man. “Deal.”
“Deal?” scoffs a soldier. “No one’s asking you.”
The commander intones: “The sovereign here –”
“– is the rule of law!” bellows a member of the group, incensed.
It is time for a change of tack.
“Here, speak to Ilan,” pipes one woman, passing her mobile phone to Avner. Who’s Ilan? The penny drops. On the line is Ilan Gilon, a Member of Knesset for Meretz. We are calling the Knesset – on first name terms. Within seconds, others are furiously phoning their elected representatives, to enlist their immediate assistance.
“I’ve tried Zahava [Gal-On],” says another woman, “but it’s going straight to answer phone.”
“I’ll call Tamar [Zandberg],” offers one man.
“Don’t worry,” says another, “I’ll get Nitzan [Horowitz] on the line.”
The lady next to me nods vigorously. “It’s good to add pressure from many different angles,” she says.
“Phoning the whole Meretz list isn’t ‘different angles!” I chuckle, still bemused by the brazen informality of this intimately small country.
The commotion has drawn the attention of local settlers. Down the hill comes Baruch Marzel, looking thoroughly unimpressed. Marzel used to be Kahane’s (extreme-)right-hand man, and is the founder of the ultra-nationalist Jewish National Front. Now he lives in Tel Rumeida.
Eventually the commander relents. It is obvious that we are not going to wait patiently for the arrival of an imaginary military order. The soldiers step aside, and we ascend to Tel Rumeida.
*** *** *** *** ***
At the top of the hill is an Arab house, its front shielded by a metal cage, installed to protect its inhabitants from violent settlers, we are told. At its gate stands the same settler who had watched us at Goldstein’s grave, grinning as he films us on his smartphone. I learn later that this is Ofer Ochanah (half-rhymes with ‘Kahane’), a Kiryat Arba resident with a soft-spot for the killer Baruch Goldstein.
I cannot help but think the choice of black shirt is apt.
“This guy lives at no. 6 Traitor Street,” he sneers, gesturing at our guide, the former paratrooper.
“Get lost,” a woman snaps.
“‘Get lost?'” Ochanah repeats, irate. “Where to? Home? Look at that, I’m home,” he said with a cheeky grin. “Look at these poor Arabs, living in a cage,” he shouts derisively, adjusting his kippa as the inhabitants of the house stepped outside. “Have you brought your peanuts and bananas? Peanuts and bananas?”
“And where’s your cage?” the crowd retorts, incensed.
The settler and the Arab engage in a war of words, but both are drowned out by a gale of animated muttering. “Do you know how many children you’ve killed?” Ochanah hectors the Arab, who is holding his young and bewildered son. “You are murderers!”
Fed up, Avner calls at the soldiers, “Move this guy! What are you even here for? Take this man, and move him to one side!” But the soldiers have no choice but to stand by and watch: a military is not meant to manhandle its country’s own civilians.
Ochanah continues shouting. “I can’t hear you!” teases Avner.
“Of course,” retorts Ochanah, “you’ve got selective hearing.”
Avner attempts to resume his explanation, but Ochanah hollers over him:
“Welcome to the City of the Patriarchs, the city in which –”
“– one of the families that protected Jews during the –”
“– Yehuda Shaul was arrested this week –”
“– and this, folks, is the true face of our country. This man is a violent racist –”
“– a racist? What can I say, I hate Arabs –”
“– let’s head back down –”
“– show me one IDF jeep here that doesn’t have bars on it because of these stone-throwing Arab criminals –”
“– there are still four groups that haven’t heard Ofer, who hasn’t tired out yet –”
“– I’m in charge of tourism here, I’ll show you around, free of charge – bring your grandchildren… The most important thing is that I receive a budgets at your expense –”
“Our grandchildren will return with passports,” snaps one man, his finger pointed. “Excellent,” beams Ochanah, “as long as they return! What, why should I take money from you?” he asks facetiously, embroiled in a new argument: “You pay taxes and I live like a king!”
“Life goes on,” sighs one bemused onlooker.
“Damn right. 2,000 years, nobody’s been able to stop that: not the Nazis, not our enemies, and you won’t either,” Ochanah continues to boast. “We’re fighting with such great faith that you’re no match for us. Bring your children, I’ll host them for Shabbat – and your taxes pay for the cost!”
The crowd begins to make its way downhill, leaving a gleeful Ochanah taunting that his life in Hebron is funded by the public purse, and scraping for a final argument about whether Rabin was a murderer.
The fracas is all caught on film by a young Arab with a B’tselem camera, standing silently on the side. Before I leave, I think of giving him a thumbs-up in gratitude; but the intention might not come across on film, so I make do with a humble smile and move on.
They say that these extremists are the Jewish community of Hebron, but I struggle to find anything recognisably Jewish about it. This is not my religion. This is not my faith. This is not my country, nor my people. These are not my values. This is the face of Jewish Fascism, the substance of our own supremacism.
No. 6 Traitor Street is somewhere on this hill.
*** *** *** *** ***
Around the corner, we enter the garden of an Arab house and are greeted by its owner. Jawwad is an activist with Youth Against Settlements, a non-violent resistance group that hopes to end the Occupation through a “mass Palestinian uprising of civil disobedience”.
Jawwad tells us about an unpleasant run-in with Baruch Marzel, the neighbour-from-hell. Jawwad claims he was pushed around by Marzel, who, after losing his Knesset bid, trespassed on this property; Jawwad says that, in line with his organisation’s non-violent principles, he kept his hands in his pockets. Jawwad was then hit on the head by a stone allegedly thrown by Marzel’s sons. He claims the police then refused to arrest Marzel: it was the Sabbath.
“This is apartheid,” Jawwad sighs to himself. I bite my tongue: I do not believe that this is apartheid; but I can understand why it looks that way to him.
Down the hill, more graffiti. “Peace Know is a dagger in the back,” reads one piece, ‘Achshav‘ mistakenly written with an aleph not an ‘ayin.
And this place is a dagger in the front.
*** *** *** *** ***
“Where are you going now?” asks the soldier at the Tarqumiyyah crossing. “Back to Israel,” Yuli says. This wasn’t Israel, but it was a scary vision of what Israel might look like if those who want Israeli sovereignty extended over the whole West Bank have their way.
This is Israel’s Wild West, the frontier territory in which its cowboys shake off the rule of law as they ride forth to their manifest destiny.
Breaking the Silence asks whether we are willing to pay this “moral price” for control of Hebron: next week, I return to see the city through the eyes of the settlers – what is this “moral price” buying us anyway?
This travel diary is the second 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.