On Wednesday 17th March, I attended a public Zoom event hosted by SOAS Palestine Society as part of their Israel Apartheid Week 2021 series. The discussion was chaired by Youth Against Settlements (YAS), a Palestinian activist group based in the city of Hebron, situated in the southern section of the West Bank and nestled within the Judean Hills. YAS describes itself as an organization committed to the non-violent struggle and civil disobedience against the ‘Israeli occupation’. As someone who has visited Hebron twice as part of fact-finding missions, I was eager to hear their perceptions of the reality there, and to understand their narratives in greater detail.
The presentation featured two YAS activists, Muhanned Qafesha and Izzat Karaki. The event began with attendees filing in from the Zoom waiting room. Just before Qafesha was about to begin his remarks, he asked the leaders of SOAS Palestine Society why many of the attendees had ‘she/her’ on their Zoom names. The organizers tried to explain these were their chosen gender pronouns, but that just made him more bemused and snooty, almost deriding the participants in a rather intolerant manner.
This revealed a patent dichotomy. Palestinian society is in general very socially conservative; both in Area A of the West Bank and in Gaza, LGBT rights are not protected. Even the supposedly more moderate and secular Palestinian Authority enshrines in its basic law traditional Islamic Shari’a as its guiding source of future state legislation. Under Shari’a, homosexuality and other ‘illicit’ sexual activity carries the death penalty. However, some of the most fervent cheerleaders for the Palestinian cause around the world tend to be “woke” middle-class progressives who are frequently obsessed with left-wing identity politics, culture wars, and social justice. However, this irony seemed to be lost on the participants, appearing to prioritize resistance against the only Jewish state above all else, even if that means forming alliances that seem rather unholy.
Qafesha moved to summarize Hebron’s history. Oddly, however, his timeline began around 1967, the year Israel seized control of the city in a defensive war. He failed to mention that Jews had been living in Hebron for thousands of years under various empires, usually facing discrimination as second-class citizens. Under Mamluk and Ottoman rule, for example, the Jewish community was prohibited from entering the Cave of the Patriarchs — the second holiest site in Judaism — and was only allowed to pray on some small steps outside the compound. Indeed, during the Jordanian occupation of the city from 1949 to 1967, Jews were completely banned from visiting. Under Israeli jurisdiction today, however, the heritage site is open to all who consider it sacred, including Jews, Christians and Muslims. To make matters worse, Qafesha bizarrely omitted the 1929 massacre during the British Mandate period, when Hebron’s Jewish community was violently attacked by Arab mobs, leaving more than 60 Jews dead, whilst the rest were forced to flee.
Qafesha and Karaki repeatedly stressed one event that took place in the city’s recent history: the 1994 Cave of the Patriarchs massacre. This was an attack perpetrated by a Jewish extremist named Baruch Goldstein, a doctor who lived in the nearby town of Kiryat Arba. One Friday morning in February 1994, Dr Goldstein walked into the mosque section of the cave and opened fire on the Muslim worshippers. The massacre left 29 dead and many others wounded. This act of terrorism was widely condemned by Israel’s leadership, and Baruch’s political mentors, the Kahanist Kach Party, was designated a terrorist organisation in the country very soon after.
However, what YAS deliberately omitted was the flurry of terrorist attacks that had been committed against Jewish civilians. In 1998, Rabbi Shlomo Raanan, a Jewish resident of the city, was murdered in his pajamas when a Palestinian terrorist broke into his bedroom. More recently in 2016, a young Jewish girl named Hallel Yaffa Ariel was stabbed to death in a similar fashion. The perpetrator of this heinous incident, Mohammad Tra’ayar, is venerated in Palestinian society as a hero, whilst his family receives a monthly martyr’s stipend from the Palestinian Authority. Perhaps the most harrowing of all is the story of Shalhevet Pass, a ten-month-old Israeli infant who was shot by a Palestinian sniper in 2001 during the Second Intifada. These stories receive very little mainstream media attention, and even less at a SOAS Palestine Society event. Why did the event’s speakers only highlight the few terrorist attacks by Jews and not mention any perpetrated by Palestinians?
Both Qafesha and Karaki spoke of the supposed ‘apartheid’ that governs Hebron and specifically referred to their ongoing campaign to ‘liberate’ Shuhada Street. The street, which translates to “Martyrs street” in Arabic, or King David street in Jewish culture, is a main road that runs through the city, passing the Cave of the Patriarchs itself. Hebron has a unique status; it is the only Palestinian Arab-majority city in the West Bank where there is a small Jewish community still present. In 1997, the United States government, Israeli government, and the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) Chairman Yasser Arafat brokered the Hebron Protocol. Per the agreement, the parties agreed to split Hebron into two separate zones, H1 and H2. H1, comprising 80% of the city, would be under full Palestinian administrative control, where Jews (not just Israeli Jews, but Jews from any country) would be barred from even visiting. In fact, H1 is so dangerous that Jews who have taken wrong turns into the zone have been attacked by mobs. This part of Hebron is a bustling and vibrant Arab town, full of commerce and markets, and is widely regarded as the economic epicenter of the Palestinian West Bank. Today, there are more than 200,000 Palestinian Arab inhabitants of Hebron, and around 700 Jews. These 700 Jews live in part of H2, predominantly on or just off Shuhada street, and are given security protection by Israeli soldiers. In reality, the Jewish residents are restricted to living in just 3% of the entire city – perhaps this is the true apartheid.
There are also Palestinian residents who live on and around Shuhada Street, including the mixed neighborhood of Tel Rumeida. These Palestinian inhabitants have permits that allow them to travel freely between their homes and the rest of the city (ie. the H1 Zone) and can cross Israeli security checkpoints to do so. Admittedly, Palestinians who do not own property in this part cannot visit this small section of the city, and Shuhada Street is prohibited to vehicles with Palestinian number plates. Many proponents of the Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions (BDS) movement, such as the activists of YAS and SOAS Palestine Society, like to refer to Shuhada Street as a ‘Jew-only’ road and claim that this is evidence of Israeli apartheid in the city. This is a categorical lie; Palestinians who live there are perfectly entitled to use the street; non-Jewish Israeli citizens (as well as Arab residents of East Jerusalem) and non-Jewish people from around the world are free to use the road as well.
In conclusion, the event promulgated numerous inaccuracies and outrageous falsehoods. The narrative presented was blatantly biased and did not provide the attendees with any relevant context. Despite falling short of brazen antisemitism (I am certain that anti-Israel groups are now more wary to ensure they avoid this in public), I can understand why events such as these make Jewish and Zionist students on campus very uncomfortable. This toxic concoction of intimidation and a refusal to engage in dialogue breeds a climate of fear that makes many Jewish students feel unsafe and unwelcome. This environment needs to change, and change quickly. However, I am not holding my breath.