Living Together Apart
Thursday, May 31, 2007: Ephrata and Hebron
A Walk in Al-Khalil (Hebron)
Hebron/Al-Khalil is holy to both Judaism and Islam. According to Jewish tradition, the door to paradise is here, with Adam and Eve buried beside it. Both Muslims and Jews believe that Abraham is buried here along with Sarah, Isaac, Rebecca, Jacob, and Leah. The tombs are enclosed in a large building that contains a mosque, known as the Ibrahimi mosque, and a synagogue. Since a massacre in 1994 in which Baruch Goldstein, a Jewish settler entered the mosque, opened fire and killed 29 Muslim worshippers, the building has been strictly divided into two halves. For security reasons, there is no entry for Jews on the Muslim side and no entry for Muslims on the Jewish side. Abraham and Sarah's tombs may be viewed from both sides; Isaac and Rebecca are in the mosque and Jacob and Leah in the synagogue. The mosque contains a beautifully carved minbar (platform for sermons) commissioned by Salah Ad-Din (Saladin) in the 12 th century. To enter the mosque/synagogue we passed through 5 checkpoints, each with metal detectors and a bag check. I was relieved to see that many Arabic inscriptions in the synagogue had been left intact.
The city of Hebron (Al-Khalil in Arabic) is home to about 150,000 Palestinians and around 800 Jewish Israeli settlers. The settlers claim to be redeeming Jewish property lost in the rioting of 1929, yet the heirs of the Jewish inhabitants of that time have denounced their activity. The settlers have expanded throughout the old city little by little, taking over individual buildings and creating facts on the ground. They are regarded as on the ideological fringe of the settler movement, and they are often violent, lashing out at both Palestinians and the Israeli soldiers who protect them. Although they are by most Israelis, they are rarely taken to task for their illegal actions. As they have expanded their settlements, the military presence has increased, at a rate of five soldiers per settler.
The streets of the old city are lined with green-shuttered shops, many closed, but many still vibrant. Below the Avraham Avinu settlement, fencing and chicken wire have been strung between the shop awnings to catch the garbage that is thrown down to the street by settlers.
Shohada street has been reserved exclusively for settlers and their vehicles, apart from a few residents with special permits. Settlers welded shut the doors of many Palestinian-owned shops to prevent Palestinian residents of the street from entering their homes. A court order and police action eventually opened the doors, but many Palestinian families have left. A young Palestinian boy who walked with us down the street drew the attention of a settler boy, who appealed unsuccessfully to an Israeli soldier to do something about his illegal incursion.
The Production of Violence
Our day today started with two people talking to us about peace and hate. They spoke to us about a time they remembered when there were no checkpoints, a time when Jews and Arabs lived happily together, a time when there was certainly a territorial dispute but one that seemed surmountable.
These two people were Ardi Geldman and Batya, Rabbi Riskin's daughter. Their nostalgic recollections were of the early years of Efrata, an Israeli settlement that is part of the Gush Etzion complex located between Bethlehem and Hebron. Efrata was founded by Rabbi Riskin and about 200 families in the 1970s, and now houses 10,000 people, 40% of whom are from the United States. According to them, before the founding of the settlement this land was "just rocks." However, the Applied Research Institute of Jerusalem (ARIJ) has documented with satellite images that this was in fact cultivated with grapes and other rain-fed farming (wheat, barley, chickpeas). The fields are planted in October/November and harvested in May. ARIJ has satellite images from both seasons. However, we have heard that Israelis sometimes use photos taken after the harvest to show that the land was “barren” and justify building settlements and making land bloom that had been "just rocks" under the Arabs. (Another fact not generally mentioned by the Israelis is that many hills have been completely razed of their trees in order to build settlements.)
For Ardi and Batya, Jews and Arabs living happily together meant a time when "we employed the local village Arabs and gave them electricity and modernization. We improved their quality of life tremendously. It was a wonderful thing for them." All was well until the Palestinian Authority was formed and started shaking things up with that "madman" Arafat. A number of the members in our group felt reminded of white folks in the U.S. who talk about how well they got along with Black people during the Jim Crow era until those civil rights people came and started agitating. The white man's burden is complete with a sense of being betrayed by ingrates who have become a threat, committed to destroying everything held dear. In Batya's words: "We even helped create this political entity to give them more opportunities;" but they just turned it into a "terrorist structure." In Ardi's words, the Palestinians shifted the political situation from one in which land was the primary source of the conflict to the main cause of violence being "pan-Islamism -- it's no longer about turf but about an extreme religious ideology that denies a Jewish presence in the Middle East. And it is slowly reaching its hands around the world to effect where you live."
Unlike the settlements that many Israelis oppose and that even the Israeli government calls illegal (a rhetorical move that implies there is such a thing a legal settlement), Efrata is well-established and accepted. When asked whether to achieve real peace they would be willing to relocate to behind the green line, Ardi said, "That's such a rhetorical question that I don't even answer it when people ask. I don't think it will happen that way. No mainstream government would include this community in a peace package. We would become annexed. I certainly would never live in a Palestinian state but I don't think this would be part of one." In other words, they are very secure in their place and very unsettled by the fact that the Palestinians no longer seem so secured in what they had designated as their proper place.
Both Ardi and Batya have "moderate political views." They are "against housing demolitions, demeaning behavior at checkpoints, and the Wall following a route that unnecessarily makes lives of Palestinians more difficult." But to them even these measures are all "responses to terrorism." When we asked whether they have ever acted on behalf of these "moderate" views, they said they haven't and also mentioned that they have never been to any Palestinian neighborhoods. When pushed on why he doesn't show up as an ally to Arabs when the actions he disagrees with are being implemented, Ardi simply stated: "You're saying I should do that as an ethical imperative and I'm saying I'm not interested. You don't have the right to keep prying and implying that there is something wrong with me."
Ardi and Batya do not see peace for land as a viable solution. In a closing statement before we left, Ardi did offer a route towards peace, however: "If all Palestinians laid down their weapons, peace would break out in 24 hours. If Israeli soldiers laid down our weapons, we'd be massacred."
For me, this meeting has been one of the most difficult moments of the trip. It's not like anything was said that I didn't expect. But coming face to face with power that sits so comfortably and expresses itself with such entitlement, claiming "all morality and ethics is on our side" -- my body goes into overdrive shaking sobbing screaming stoic steaming stupified. I find it in some ways even harder to deal with than all the soldiers roaming the streets with their automatic weapons. It's pretty straightforward to get outraged about soldiers walking around harassing people or about extremist settlers who terrorize the Palestinians whose neighborhoods they move into. Ardi and Batya do not belong to this extremist camp. Their settlement is very established -- it resembles a suburb like the one I mentioned in my last post. Homes in Efrata can be bought starting at $120,000 but many cost in the millions. In fact, Ardi and Batya proudly exclaimed, "Really, the sky is the limit -- whatever you want to spend, you can build a home here." And they are friendly people, all smiles and welcoming and seemingly well-intentioned. But they live comfortable lives that depend every day on the occupation, brutalization and humiliation of others, in complete denial of this relationship, taking no responsibility whatsoever for that suffering. In fact, they paint themselves as the victims in this situation: "We didn't want to live this way, with checkpoints and bars on the windows. But terrorism has forced us into this situation."
I would like to give you just a brief glimpse into the rest of our day today, a glimpse of the cost paid for the lives led by Ardi and Batya as settlers living beyond the internationally recognized green line. Within one afternoon:
• Our local guide, Said, who is Palestinian, was detained while soldiers ran a security check on his ID.
• A soldier hollered for a kid (probably 10-12 years old) to come over to him and then whacked him square across the face. This is illegal but the only place Palestinians can file a complaint is with the Israeli police. There they typically get the run-around: hours and hours of waiting, after which often the police "forget" to file the complaint or, if they do file it, the Palestinian then has to go through hours and hours of questioning.
• On a road that passes through a settlement in Hebron, a settler boy (about 8 years old) saw a Palestinian boy (about the same age) named Mustafa who had latched onto our group for a bit. He kept glaring at Mustafa with a look of hatred I've never seen in someone so young. When he passed a soldier, he tried to get him to do something about Mustafa's presence. The soldier told the kid to mind his own business. (Hebron houses some of the most ideological settlers in Israel who are even looked down on by many Israelis; many of the soldiers there are not thrilled to be serving them. However, we later learned from CPT that other soldiers have taken orders from Israeli kids and beaten up Palestinian kids before arresting them and trying them as adults.)
• I watched a group of six soldiers parade through the market-place in Hebron and watched one of them turn and give a teenaged Palestinian a look that made my blood chill -- as though he were saying, "you are my prey, you monster."
• Above that same market I noticed nets were strung up everywhere -- I inquired and found out that these were there because settlers who had moved in above throw garbage and stones down on the merchants.
There is much, much more but I must end now to get a few hours sleep in order to continue tomorrow. I will share more when I return. For now, I will end with the words of Zleikha Muhtasib, the founder of a kindergarten for traumatized children. She started the kindergarten because she thought that helping the children helps both them and their parents. When the children are healthy and happy that makes the parents less stressed, too. She saw that the children were absolutely terrified of the soldiers, so in addition to art therapy and play time, she began a program of going with them to checkpoints and having them walk through. That helped them get used to the idea that they would not get beaten or killed if they came within range of a soldier. Then they could overcome their fear and actually walk from home to school, for example, which often requires passing through multiple checkpoints. Zleikha said a big problem they face in Hebron is that many of these traumatized kids are hyperactive and violent. She and other volunteers (mothers and teenagers who have themselves been a part of her program when they were children) work hard to provide some counseling, some non-violent outlets, and to help the kids get to a place where they can concentrate and do well in school. They are fighting a battle against the education in violence that these kids get every day. As Zleikha explained, "There are soldiers on the roof near here [the kindergarten]. They often point their guns at the children who are coming and say, 'children go home.' When we ask them why they are scaring the kids, they say, 'We have orders, there is to be no school today.' Many people say, 'Palestinians teach their kids to be violent and to hate us.' This is not true. The soldiers are teaching them violence."
This, however, is something that Ardi and Batya refuse to understand. It is much easier to sleep comfortably if you make yourself/are made to believe that the prison you are committing others to for your "security" and for your entitlement to that particular piece of land needs to be built and maintained because those people are all potential terrorists. It is much easier not to think about the terror of ghettoizing people, of shoving guns in children's faces, of demolishing people's homes, of humiliating people at checkpoints, of starving people by making their local economies nearly impossible to sustain, of shooting holes into people's water-tanks or putting dead chickens in them to poison the water. It is much easier not to think about the production of violence.
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