Getting all the Land

Haitham Imad/EPA, via Shutterstock

Nothing in my life prepared me for what I saw when we visited Hebron. It is one of the biggest and oldest Palestinian cities in the West Bank of Israel-Palestine, with a population of over 200,000. There were then about 400 Israeli settlers living in the most troubled H2 area of the old city.

We were cautioned not to look at the Israeli border police who patrolled the old city, and most certainly not to photograph them. The old town had a very heavy police presence, but I think the first sight that shocked me was a young Israeli settler sitting at a bus stop. He looked like a North American surfer dude, but he was nonchalantly holding an assault rifle in his hands.

This is not something we see in our society, thankfully!

Photo by Roberto Morgenthaler

In the centre of the old city, we visited the Ibrahami Mosque, site of the Baruch Goldstein massacre of 29 worshippers in 1994. This shocking act was followed by Israel’s division of the Mosque into two parts, one part now a synagogue with a separate entrance. We visited both and then began a walk down the city streets. Reaching Ash-Shuhada Street, our Palestinian guide informed us that he was unable to continue with us; the street was closed to Palestinians. It had been declared “sterilized”. Some of the Jewish members of our group refused to walk down that street in solidarity with our guide, Sayeed.

Market in Hebron by David Birchall

Perhaps the most disturbing aspect of our trip to Hebron was our experience in the old market, a place with that feel of a centuries-old gathering place, a place so full of stories, it felt like a giant step back in time. Hundreds of the Palestinian shops in Hebron have been closed since the advent of settlers to the area, but some were still open. We visited with one man whose family had run their particular small shop for many generations. He had a deep resolve to keep that shop open as an act of resistance, despite daily pressure to just give in, close it up and move away. Above the sloping stone walkway between the shops was a vast network of netting, preventing garbage strewn from the settler dwellings in the apartments above from falling on the vendors and customers in the market. Not only garbage got thrown down, apparently, also buckets of urine, of “stink water”, and even feces were dumped on the Palestinian market. Sadly, these kinds of open expressions of hatred for Palestinians are not uncommon in the West Bank. This is why Palestinians say: “Our existence is our resistance”.

Though some do leave for a better life elsewhere, the vast majority stay. They practice “sumud,” which means “steadfastness”.

Illustrative: Israeli soldiers check the ID of a Palestinian woman near a Jewish enclave in Hebron on October 29, 2015. (AFP/Menahem Kahana)

Everywhere in Hebron are checkpoints for Palestinians where their identity cards are checked, as well as moving roadblocks. Israelis have no need to stop at these stations; they are for Palestinians only. Israeli cars have a different coloured license plate which exempts them.

In the West Bank, there are buses for Jewish people only. Settlements are for Jewish people only. There are dirt roads for Palestinians and new highways for Israelis only. Israelis erase Palestinians by calling them all “Arabs”. Seeing “Death to Arabs” spray-painted on walls in public places was deeply disturbing. Israeli settlers in the West Bank have the vote, but

Palestinians living there for generations have no vote. Settlers are governed by the Israeli justice system; Palestinians are under Military rule. Naming this as apartheid was a rather obvious conclusion for me in 2014.

I’ve never seen anything like it before or since, and it is a chilling experience to see humans treat one another like that.

We visited a Rabbi in Qiryat Arba settlement, an upscale condo complex at the edge of Hebron and I was “nominated” to be the interviewer because I was a mediator. The first thing I noticed was his New York Brooklyn accent. He and his large family were living very comfortably and we were lucky he was willing to give a group like ours an audience. I had questions formulated by our group in advance and I remember at one point he nearly kicked us all out for challenging his strong sense of entitlement. I did have to put my “mediator hat” on at that point!

His desire to have all the land was what I remember most of that discussion. He strongly resented the Palestinian presence in Hebron and felt it unfair that biblical Hebron had to be “shared” on any level with anyone other than Jews. This was a good example of the Zionist mindset. Zionism really has nothing to do with Judaism. It is a political ideology bent on getting and holding onto all of the land of “historic Israel” (another article) for Jewish people only.

Judaism values “tikkun olam” – repair of the world – and caring for the stranger. It’s important to keep the clear the distinctions between Zionism and Judaism.

For now, we need to keep the Zionist goal in mind. The current onslaught in Gaza is about that – getting all the land. What everyone in Israel-Palestine needs is a Ceasefire Now. That has to be the first step.