Hebron, Palestine: What Occupation Means

N.B.  My time in Palestine is going to be out of sequence, mainly because I cannot help myself but to talk about this first.  I remain of average intelligence, limited faculties and incomplete information.  I beg you to do your own reading.

I entered the West Bank ten days ago.  Contrary to the stories on the news, the warnings of my family and the general implications throughout Israel that Palestine is not safe, whilst in here the only reason I’ve managed to get anything done is the long succession of complete strangers who have led me around cities to my destinations, negotiated with their countrymen in Arabic on my behalf and given me advice on things to see and do without any expectation of reward.  Some of them give me their phone numbers when they head off: “if you need anything at all, you call me”.  This includes students, taxi drivers, shop assistants, academics and anyone else you can think of whom I’ve met.  I’ve been given free food and water, reduced rates on shared taxis (servees) simply because I can’t find exact change and in-depth discussions of the political situation with people across the Palestinian political spectrum (even when we discuss Britain’s role in this travesty, it’s made clear that they acknowledge the difference between governments and their people).  The English word that literally everyone knows is ‘welcome’.  Their friendliness is breathtaking: if I had been walking around Scotland this clueless I would have been knifed by now.

Anyway, Hebron.

The thing about Hebron (Arabic: Al-Khalil) is that it is functionally occupied by the IDF.  You will have heard of the settlements issue – of the Israeli citizens who have been building walled cities on convenient land (regardless of owners) since the Six-Day War when the West Bank fell under Israeli control.  The majority of the settlers can be described as fundamentalists, who believe that the West Bank – to them Samaria – is irreducibly Jewish territory as part of Eretz (Greater) Israel.  It’s worth noting that there are some people living in the settlements for economic reasons: it’s a lot cheaper to live in Ma’ale Adummin than it is Tel Aviv, and as Israel-Palestine isn’t that large a territory commuting remains possible for Israeli citizens.

In Hebron, however, it’s fundamentalists.

Tomb of the Patriarchs, Jewish side.

The reason for this – the problem that defines this troubled city – revolves around this building in the centre of Hebron.  This are the Tombs of the Patriarchs, where it is believed by all three Abrahamic faiths that Abraham, Sarah, Issac, Rebecca, Jacob and Leah are buried.  As a consequence of various events since the Israeli settlement the Tombs, where all faiths once shared the single space, has been divided into a Muslim section and a Jewish one, with walls and bulletproof glass between the two sides (we’ll come to the reason for this later)  Sectarian violence around this site is nothing new, having gone on since the rise of Christianity.  The Hebron settlers in particular cite the 1929 massacre as support for their claim to the land.  Having appeared post-67 and refusing to move out of the city with the 1994 Oslo Agreement, despite the Israeli government setting up another settlement – Kirbat Arya – outside Hebron to draw them out – some 90 families live here, protected by several thousand IDF troops who patrol the surrounding Palestinian city.  Palestinians are banned from much of the Old City, which now is a ghost town with Jewish families dotted about.

The patrol moves through H1, the Hebron-only exception to the areas agreed at Oslo.  Palestinians live in this area as well, with the settlers behind walls and heavy security checks.

What strikes me about these soldiers – if we ignore the routine violence towards Palestinians, and the one who greets me as I enter the settlement itself with “welcome to Israel”, is their sheer youth.  Most of them are teenagers doing their conscription, little more than kids to my eyes (I’m 22).  Some of them are obviously enjoying it, but as I follow the patrol around – which they accept once they ask me if I’m a Muslim or an ‘anarchist’, surrounding me – the gangly one catches my attention.

The rearguard of the patrol.  The woman on the right, a member of the Arab Women’s Union, owns the raided house.

As his patrol arrests international protesters (I am a witness to this: they also arrest two members of the Christian Peacemaker Team, who are observers only), this soldier begins to film the crowd right back, focusing on the faces.  Despite my obviously pro-Palestinian sentiment, my heart goes out to him – I’ve been watching him clutch his rifle to his chest in the Hebron streets, eyes wide and terrified.  He’s more confident with his mobile.  He is a conscript, sent to Hebron regardless of his wishes, to protect an extremist faction that refuses to serve in the IDF alongside him and barely obeys the Israeli state from a people whose language he doesn’t speak and whose culture he doesn’t understand, who associate people in his uniform with gunfire against civilians.  Regardless of who he is or what he’s done, he too is a victim of the settlement policy, after a fashion.  This is what separates occupation from conquest: in conquest this phase eventually ends, either in independence or a process of acculturation.  In occupation there is no chance of rapprochement whatsoever, because the members of the two elements that are actually in contact, a military and a civilian population, cannot communicate.  It’s been forty-five years, and it shows no sign of abating.

To understand the people this young man is being ordered to defend, we should mention the gravestone that once stood inside H1:

Source: Wikipedia.  The State of Israel destroyed this in 1999 under laws prohibiting the glorification of terrorism.  Note the stones left by his supporters, in a pan-Jewish method of honoring one’s respected dead similar to cairns.

This was the tomb of Baruch Goldstein.  I’m not going to talk about him or what he did except to tell you that I have seen the bullet holes in the Muslim side of the Tombs.  Instead, I’m going to give you Google Translate’s attempt at putting the inscription in English (I do not speak Hebrew: if anyone can correct Google on this please do).

Here lies
Physician Rabbi Baruch Kappel Goldstein
Ztzok”l fourteenth
Son of Rabbi Israel Ibdlht”a
Seventh generation of the Alter Rebbe “Avrohom”
Rabbi Schneur Zalman of Liadi

Gave his life for the people of Israel and His Torah and its Land
“Clean hands and a heart”

Born of Tevet Tshi”z
Murdered in sanctification of God ‘
Fourteenth of Adar, Purim Tsn”d
You rest in peace

I’ve spoken before about the wide differences of opinion in Israeli society on matters of religion, and politics is no different.  Hebron represents some of the most inflammatory elements of Israeli thought, and whilst I respect the Israeli state’s  ‘right to exist’, I don’t know how they expect to get anything done towards ensuring that when this sort of thing is happening in a populous Palestinian city, an in-your-face occupation.  It’s said that faith can move mountains, but sometimes they just get in the way.


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