Why it’s unfortunate that for too long we have allowed the extremism of each side to misrepresent the mainstream
Disclaimer: Nearly two weeks ago novelist Ayelet Waldman published “The Shame of Shuhada Street” article in which she shares her reactions from a tour with Israeli NGO Breaking the Silence describing the realities Palestinians live under in the city of Hebron. A number of hours later three teenagers were kidnapped from Etzion junction and presumed to be in the hands of a terror organization in the Hebron region. My article was written before the news of the boys.
The facts are clear. Hebron is a blood-ridden city stained with endless casualties on either side, no doubt. It is also a city to whom an inheritance of a Land was born and a holy burial cave is deemed ‘an entrance into the Garden of Eden’. The history is tremendous; characterized by expulsions, restrictions of access to the Cave of the Patriarchs, extremist religious populations and a booming city of commerce. As the largest in Palestinian population of any city in the West Bank including a whopping 220,000 Palestinians in the city alone and 500 Israeli citizens, the statistics don’t look favorable. With restrictions of movement (for both sides), an enhanced IDF military presence and special status granted to it by the Oslo Accords (Hebron is split into two areas H-1 and H-2, not considered either areas A, B or C). One could say Hebron has inevitably become the icon of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
As a Boston-native, a proud American citizen and Israeli, who volunteered serving in Hebron as an IDF soldier for nearly a year and a half, I was exposed to a thing or two in the region. I remember the inquisitive glare of my junior high school AP US History teacher during an after-class chat about the conflict, jotting the numbers on the board, the casualties from each side. Seemingly something was wrong in his mind. How could the par be so colossal?
The typical portrait of guns-strutting IDF and settlers is aggressive and thus interpreted as immoral. However, if you look closer, one may see a whole other world contrary: mezuzah imprints or a star of David on a Palestinian house in the Kasbah, hearkening back to a time when Muslims and Jews lived side by side under Ottoman and Jordanian rule. But after a slew of events during the 1929 massacre, Jewish Hebron became a ghost town. It is events like this one which cause my 103-year old Yemenite grandfather, born and raised in Jerusalem and one grandchild murdered by a suicide bomber in a cafe, to quiver upon hearing that I served in Hebron and motioning his finger side to side, telling me never to trust an Arab from Hebron, “They’re evil”. There is a history so deeply steeped in Hebron’s corridors, not all pardons can be forgiven.
Events like Baruch Goldstein’s 1994 massacre likewise have reddened the stain. I don’t support his actions, I’d go so far as to say that most of the “settlers”, or Israeli citizens as I’d like to refer to them as, condemn it. So it begs me to ask: why has it come to be that all “settlers” behold the pejorative connotation of violent terrorists? Why can’t they be viewed as average Israeli citizens who believe that the Land of Israel represents the center of historical Jewish life and religious importance? After all for the most part, the lands on which they reside on were legally bought or legally given to them by the government with a historic and thus emotional connection in effect.
If we want to speak about injustice in Hebron, it wouldn’t stun me if the world missed out on some basic facts on the most iconic city represented in the conflict. In 1997, the Hebron Agreement divided the city into H-1 (80% of the city) and H-2 (20%, with roughly 13% access to Jews while 100% access to Muslims). H-1 to be administered completely under the Palestinian Authority both security and civilian matters, while H-2 would be both Israeli security and civilian. The city in its entirety is governed by the Hebron Municipality which supplies electricity, water and most importantly gives the final word on all Cave of the Patriarchs/Ibrahimi Mosque affairs. The agreement also includes ten days out of the year during which the entire Cave is reserved for either Jews or Muslims while the remaining days of the year are open to both sides with separation of course (in fact, Muslims and Jews prayed side by side from 1967 until the 1994 Goldstein massacre).
However, why is the outstanding fact of only 13% of Hebron accessible to Israelis overlooked? Ayelet Waldman, in her “Shame of Shuhada Street” piece, like many others have exhausted the topic of Shuhada street and have failed to look at the larger picture. Shuhada street was not just shut down as a result of the Goldstein massacre, it was also shut down as a result of the brutal 2001 sniper shooting of ten-month old Shalhevet Pass in her stroller as well as a wave of several other terrorist events. It saddens me to hear that Beit Hadassah can be seen as “curated propaganda” legitimizing settler presence, according to Waldman, as opposed to granting it for what it is: a historical testament to Jewish history in Hebron which according to her seems to be something which should be minimized. After all, Beit Hadassah pre-1929 stood as the original Hadassah hospital caring for Muslims and Jews alike.
It also saddens me that archaeological excavations like Tel Rumeida are extrapolated as a political move for settler expansion. Since when is learning history (not just Jewish might I mention) instantly a sin? What has led us to become so entrenched in such minute details we have lost touch of the grander scheme of the picture?
While Hebron in the eyes of the world may seem to be characterized by price-tag trigger happy settlers, one must not forget that extremism is an inevitable “go-to” for every human being especially when it comes to religion. Shuhada street was shut down because the string of attacks was ruthless and the “happy ever after” fairy tale was just not a reality for those in Hebron. There still hope these stores will still open; in fact, a couple of them already have been authorized to open opposite the Muslim entrance to the Cave (but no one hears that in the news, do they?). The security threats were and still are real and had to be taken control of. In fact, I don’t believe there is a conflict between two nations, I believe there is a conflict between two extremes.
I also believe the conflict is sorely misrepresented due to a failure in cultural understandings and the realities at hand. UNOCHA provides weekly reports with an overall statistic marking that the majority of Palestinians in H2 live below the poverty line. To be frank, from what I have seen during my army service, the culture in Hebron is worlds apart from that of Ramallah’s: the population at hand in Hebron is more primitive (as confirmed by multiple Palestinian speakers I’ve heard).
Characters like Yehuda Shaul, founder and leader of Breaking the Silence, should be ashamed of their behavior during their service as I know they are. But it begs me to ask again: why didn’t they report themselves to higher commanders and authorities? After all, perhaps I was sleeping during my army service, but the majority of my work entailed briefings to soldiers about their behavior and sensitivities required towards the populations.
So when Gd promised to Abraham that he would be blessed with a nation ‘numerous as the stars’, would he ever dream that the backyard of his grave would be fraught by this scene? I am sure not. But when I see articles like Waldman’s, it troubles me to think the intentions of the writer are for peaceful and accurate purposes. It also troubles me to think the world believes that the average Israeli and the average Palestinian living in the Hebron region of the West Bank despise each other, because trust me, they don’t. The ideal is not for Israeli control to pull out and the ideal is not for Israel to gain complete control over the city. Along with the rest of the conflict, there really is no ideal.
Among my frequent walks in the Arab Quarter of Jerusalem towards the Western Wall, I am pleasantly reminded of the fact that a coexistence can exist. The Arab Quarter not so long ago was similar to the Kasbah in which Jews feared for their personal security. Nowadays tourists, Jews and Muslim shopkeepers can walk amongst one another peacefully.
I, as a proud American and Israeli living in Israel, with all the beauty and turmoil involved in that decision and having chosen to serve in Hebron as an IDF soldier to become a more enlightened individual about the true realities on the ground, am breaking my silence and saying enough is enough to the stain the media is representing to the world about the City of Our Forefathers.