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When is a popsicle a sign of oppression?

Spoiler: When it's a sign of camaraderie between settlers and the Israeli army, who together managed to turn a thriving, bustling Hebron into a ghost town
Abandoned and closed street in Hebron. (courtesy)

What’s a common denominator between President Biden and me? We both traveled to Israel/Palestine in the month of July. Where do we differ? I chose to recognize the reality of an illegal occupation, while he blatantly chose to ignore it.

On July 1, I continued on my mission to gain first-hand knowledge, and joining a tour of Extend, I traveled to Hebron, a microcosm of Area C Israeli Occupation in the West Bank. The Israeli settlement in Hebron sits right in the center of the once-thriving Palestinian metropolis. Establishing a Jewish settlement in the center of Hebron meant curbing Palestinians’ access to their homes and stores. Yet because the Palestinians refuse to surrender and sell these facilities to the settlers, currently no one has access to them, creating an almost dystopian ghost town. In the rural United States, I have stumbled upon many abandoned streets and towns that give a dystopian-like vibe. While these developed out of happenstance and migration patterns, in Hebron it was very clear that choking off Palestinian commerce and growth was intentional and willful. During the tour, we were shown photos of the once populous and lively Hebron Bazar, reminiscent of the Shuk Mahane Yehuda I love so much. Now, a quietness and emptiness that rings volumes echoes in the streets.

There is no denying that Hebron is part and parcel of  Jewish history — it is home to Me’arat Ha’machpela, the Tomb of the Patriarchs, which, according to the biblical story, Abraham bought from the Hittites to bury his wife Sarah (note: he did not take it by force, rather, he followed the prevailing international norms of real estate transactions). Indeed, the name Hebron is mentioned more times in the Tanach than Jerusalem. For centuries, however, there was no continuous Jewish presence in Hebron.

Jewish resettlement of Hebron began about 100 years after the Mamluks’ conquest, when Sephardi/Mizrachi Jews arrived from surrounding Arab countries, and continued into the 19th century when Chabad and Lithuanian Jews arrived. Jews and Arabs lived in Hebron peacefully for dozens of years, while the Jewish population grew to about 800 people. In 1929 Palestinian residents committed a massacre of 67 Jews which abruptly uprooted Jewish settlement. During this Massacre, a few Arabs did try to help the Jews. Nineteen Arab families saved dozens if not hundreds of Hebron’s Jews. The British Mandate then moved these Jewish refugees into Mahane Yehuda, the neighborhood in Jerusalem where the bustling shuk now stands.

But, after the Six Day War in 1967 and the occupation of the West Bank, the State of Israel, through compliance with radical setters, began settlement of the area. Religious-Zionist rabbi Moshe Levinger sparked this process by bringing 60 yeshiva students for Pesach with permission to stay 48 hours. Yet they had no intention to leave. They simply overstayed their permission and without batting an eye, then-defense minister Moshe Dayan allowed them to settle in an Israeli military camp. The proliferation of settlement expansion continued with Gush Emunim in 1973. After the First Intifada of 1987, as part of Oslo Accords, Hebron was separated into H1 under Palestinian control and H2 under IDF control, with intentional segregation between the Jewish citizens, the occupiers, and the Palestinian non-citizens, the occupied. Using military and civil administration control tactics that I witnessed first hand, the state ensures that Jews will have superiority in everything from land to water to medical facilities, painting a very dismal landscape.

Getting off the van at a quaint public park, I wasn’t prepared for the shocking sign that I witnessed. Settling down to start the tour, we saw that we were in “Kahane Park,” a government subsidized park named after the fascist terrorist Meir Kahane. Imagine walking into an American city and seeing “Ku Klux Klan park” funded by your tax dollars!

Baruch Goldstein’s gravesite. (courtesy)

The gravesite of another Jewish terrorist, religious-Zionist Baruch Goldstein, who in 1994 murdered 29 Palestinians praying at the Cave of the Patriarchs, sits behind this park. In the Jewish tradition, putting stones on a gravesite is equivalent to the secular practice of putting flowers, a sign of respect and reverence. As you can see in the photo, this gravestone decorated with many stones is respected and revered by extremist Hebron settlers. Although these radical extremists are only a fringe group of the settler movement, they influence the policies of the Israeli government in immeasurable ways. Indeed, the last Israeli government under Bennett fell because of political calculations around the bill that expands Israeli civil law to settlers in the West Bank.

Spending time in Israel studying at yeshiva this summer, it hurt to see Judaism weaponized in such a disgusting way, in stark contrast to the core values of human dignity and respect for all which had been ingrained in our learning.

Boarded-up store in Hebron with ‘Death to the Arabs’ Hebrew graffiti (courtesy)

The three main policies characterizing Hebron today — separation, IDF checkpoints, and settler protection — each manifested in a way that became very real during my visit. We  learned that 86 checkpoints have been instituted, 43 houses have been seized, and access to nine roads have been blocked. Before entering into H2, despite receiving prior permission from the IDF, we were held up for 30 minutes by soldiers at a checkpoint, who tried every tactic in the book to keep us out, but ultimately had to let us in.

While we were waiting, Arab residents of H1 came up to our group of comfortable-looking wealthy Americans and tirelessly tried to solicit donations and money from us. It is an incredibly uncomfortable yet eye-opening situation when being begged for money by unemployed, impoverished Palestinians. While their lives are continuously controlled by deliberate Israeli policies intended to crush them into submission and maintain Jewish superiority,  we (who voluntarily entered their space briefly) will just as easily leave back to our comfortable apartments in Jerusalem or in the States.

Yeshiva built by settlers in Hebron. (courtesy)

While being shown the ghost town, I saw a little settler boy hand a soldier a popsicle. A seemingly benign gesture, it was indicative of the reality that the IDF and extremist settlers are in kahoots. You may be wondering, so what? This very relationship allows settlers to live above the law. In 1979, Palestinians challenged the stealing of private land in Hebron and the Supreme Court actually ruled in their favor, but the IDF simply worked around this ruling and allowed the settlers to stay. Settlers have stolen and squatted in many Palestinian houses in Hebron, and I saw one of those houses — the Zatni family’s house. The IDF simply lets the Jewish family stay there, and when you’re under military occupation, and there is nothing you can do about that.

Palestinians often call the police on settler violence, and sometimes the police try to help them, but Palestinians simply don’t have the political capital to deal with organized violent campaigns directed at them by the settlers. And, even if they work through peaceful, legitimate means of resistance, these will be shut down and deemed “terrorist” organizations, as Yair Lapid and Benny Gantz recently did in the past week to six Palestinian NGOs. Needless to say, they don’t have the “protektzia” that settlers have from the IDF.

We spoke later with Issa Omra, a passionate and well-known activist who founded Youth Against Settlements. He passionately described the impacts of the policies we saw and heard about, and condemned the US for failing to do anything about Israel’s policies, as well as failing to pressure anti-corruption and democratic development in Palestinian leadership. Issa explained that he, and many Hebronites, feel disenfranchised and voiceless. The Palestinian Authority has become subcontractors of the Israeli government. As an illegitimate non-elected leader, Mahmoud Abbas, a.k.a. Abu Mazen, does not represent Palestinian desires, while Hamas commits terrorist acts and is not interested in the non-violent resistance and compliance with international law that Isaa and many Palestinians support.

As an intensified diorama of the occupation, Hebron evoked intense emotional responses in me. While they might not represent most Israelis or even most settlers, these fundamentalists have become so politically powerful that they allow for the normalization of Occupation. It is a true testament to how just a few rotten apples can invoke exceptionally disproportionate power.

Since returning to the States, I have worked as a lifeguard in public pools in Montgomery County. Last week, while on shift, I overheard a family speaking Hebrew, and it was clear they are Israelis. My curiosity peaked, I asked where they were from. The little boys explained they are from Tekoa — another Area C settlement. I don’t think these little boys support oppressing and disenfranchising Palestinians. But by living their “normal” lives in such settlements while a million-and-a-half Palestinians around them suffer daily without basic civil rights, they have become the enablers who sustain Israel’s military occupation. — the only occupation in the world today that has lasted more than 50 years, and due to the Biden administration’s complacency, sadly is not going away anytime soon.

Some changes have been made to the original text of this post.

About the Author
Abigail is a college Freshman. Originally from Israel, she moved to Maryland as a baby and grew up there with her parents and twin brother. She spent 9 months in Israel on the Nativ College Leadership Program. On campus she is involved in journalism, activism, Jewish life, and dance. During her free time Abby loves to take dance classes, play backgammon, and read!
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