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The Daily Ordeal of Getting to School in Hebron

copied from my Electronic Intifada article here

 

Palestinian children in Hebron are forced to pass through Israeli military checkpoints in order to get to school.

(Osama Qawasmi/APA images)

The Qurduba School in the occupied West Bank city of Hebron is once again a target for harassment by Israeli occupation forces, as new restrictions on freedom of movement bring a wave of settler attacks and soldier violence.

Established in 1984, the Qurduba School sits surrounded by five Israeli settlements on a hilltop in central Hebron. To get to school every morning, pupils between the ages of 6 and 13 — and their women teachers — must navigate a maze of checkpoints and dangerous settler-inhabited streets.

Curfews, checkpoints, land confiscation, home demolitions, army and settler harassment, and other aspects of occupation within Palestinian life in Hebron intensified after February 1994 when extremist Israeli settler Baruch Goldstein, from the nearby settlement of Kiryat Arba, gunned down 24 Muslim worshippers at the Ibrahimi Mosque in the center of Hebron.

In the years following the massacre, the mosque was split into two parts, becoming half-mosque, half-synagogue. In 1997, the settler-populated area around the religious compound was cordoned off by Israel as H2, designating full Israeli military control, while the rest of Hebron was designated as H1, and remains under administration of thePalestinian Authority.

Since 2005, teachers with the Qudruba school coming into the Israeli-controlled H2 district from the H1 area of the Old City had secured the right, through demonstrations, to bypass the daily metal detector scans and bag inspections at the checkpoint. Instead, they were able to pass through a side gate to reach their school.

On Tuesday, 11 October, the army revoked this right for no apparent reason. “Through this special teachers-only gate,” school principal Ibtesam al-Jondy told The Electronic Intifada, “we were able to reach our school easily. It took only five minutes from the checkpoint to the school. Then suddenly, we were stopped for nothing. So all the teachers refused this order, because it’s our right [to pass through].”

In response to this injustice, teachers refused to submit to inspection, and held a demonstration with more than one hundred of their students, who left their empty classrooms to join their teachers at the checkpoint. In a shocking display of brutality, Israeli soldiers sent nine children to the hospital with injuries.

Eleven-year-old Yazan Sharbati, who was injured that Tuesday, told the International Solidarity Movement that “the army told us to go back to school, and we told them that without teachers there is no school … I was so afraid that something bad was going to happen. The soldier pushed me very hard” (“Hebron school demonstrates for third day: “Without teachers there is no school,” 13 October 2011).

Protest struck a chord

The brutal repression of the 11 October checkpoint protest struck a chord in the Hebron community, and inspired an outburst of support in a city all too accustomed to violations of the right to freedom of movement. Over the next two days, community members and representatives from the Hebron governor’s office, along with the director of education in Hebron, stood in solidarity outside of the checkpoint with the students and teachers of the Qurduba School, who held the school day’s lessons outside of the checkpoint. On the third day of demonstrations, soldiers projected the high-LRAD sound cannon, nicknamed “the scream,” and fired rounds of tear gas to forcibly scatter the crowd. One teacher was arrested, and five students and demonstrators were injured.

Students, teachers and demonstrators returned to the checkpoint — Checkpoint 56 — every morning for two weeks. “During this period,” said al-Jondy, “many establishments tried to help us, but we got only promises, without solutions to our problem.” Though settlers had little to do with the events, the protests also inspired many settler attacks, as Palestinian news agency WAFA reported (“Settlers, soldiers continue attacks on Hebron schools,” 20 October 2011).

Inside the Israeli settlement of Tel Rumeida, said al-Jondy, “the settlers began to warn us … that they will settle in the empty school, and keep us away.” To save the school, coveted by settlers for its strategic hilltop location, the few teachers who lived inside H2, and did not encounter the checkpoint during their commute, reopened the school, while the other 13 Qurduba School teachers kept up a daily vigil outside the checkpoint.

Eventually, when all attempts to reason with the authorities failed, the teachers began using a much longer alternate route to bypass the checkpoint every morning. “Except for the Israeli soldiers,” lamented al-Jondy, “nobody has any power. The Ministry of Education spoke with the commander, but there is no solution. The Israeli army claimed they closed the checkpoint because of security. But every day for five years the same teachers come to the checkpoint. They have their names and identity numbers. They are on a list. They are not a security threat.”

Constant physical and psychological assaults

The students and teachers of Qurduba School are no strangers to the travails of occupation. The school sits atop a hill in the middle of downtown Hebron, within ample view of the Beit Hadassah, Tel Rumeida and Admot Yishai settlements, each of which consists of a few buildings and a handful of settler families. Across the street from the entrance to the Qurduba School, a door has long been adorned with graffiti reading “Gas The Arabs!JDL [Jewish Defense League].”

The building and its inhabitants are constantly physically and psychologically assaulted by settlers and soldiers. “There were about 450 pupils in the 1980s,” said al-Jondy. “Because of the occupation, because of the settlers and the bad situation here, this number began to decrease. This year we have only 149 pupils.”

Defence for Children International-Palestine Section (DCI-PS) stated in a 2008 report about the situation in Hebron that the area around the school and the settlements “is often the scene of violent confrontations” between Israeli settlers and Palestinian schoolchildren. “Settler schoolchildren … routinely verbally harass, chase, hit and throw stones at Palestinian schoolchildren under the watchful eyes of Israeli soldiers. Their parents and other adults engage in similar behavior, blocking the school steps with their cars to make it difficult for students to pass or setting their dogs loose to chase and terrorize young children” (“Under Attack: Settler Violence Against Palestinian Children in the Occupied Territory,” November 2008 [PDF]).

Hebron has been under occupation since 1969, when the first religious settlers, who had barricaded themselves in a downtown hotel room and refused to leave, were coaxed out by the Israeli military and given the nearby settlement of Kiryat Arba. Ten years later, the act was repeated in an abandoned hospital, and this time Israel allowed the squatters to settle in downtown Hebron.

Restrictions on Palestinian life in Hebron accelerated after the 1994 massacre, and the expulsion of Palestinians and their livelihoods from the heart of Hebron’s Old City became an institutionalized process after the area became Israeli-controlled H2 in 1997.

Now, at least 500 settlers and at least 2,000 soldiers have shut down Shuhada Street, the economic heart of both Hebron and the entire southern West Bank. The gradual takeover of Shuhada Street, beginning in the 1980s and culminating after the second intifada, has turned the once-bustling marketplace into a ghost town, and has caused the (often forced) abandonment of over 1,000 housing units and over 1,800 shops and storefronts — which now, in a cruel and ironic twist of history, are graffitied with the same Stars of David that once marred Jewish storefronts in 1930s Germany.

“Sometimes many students come to the school very late,” said al-Jondy. “When I ask them, ‘Why are you late?’ they tell me, ‘Last night I didn’t sleep, because the settlers threw empty bottles and stones at my house.’ So they come here drowsy and sleepy, and they can’t concentrate on any subjects during the day because of what happened during the night. Most of the students’ houses are close to the houses of the settlers, so they are very vulnerable .. sometimes as head teacher I come early to the school, and the settlers chase me with dogs, and I have to run from their dogs.”

The DCI-PS report cites the testimony of Raghad Hashim Younis al-Azza, a ten-year-old student of the Qurtuba School:

“About a year ago, I was going to school with my classmate Ruwand who lives on Shuhada Street. I was with my cousin Ahmad and our neighbour’s daughter, Abrar. On the road, we came across a group of settlers, about 10 of them. They were about the same age as me except two girls who were around 18 years old. The two (older) girls attacked me and hit me. They asked the boys to make a circle around me and beat me. My cousin and the neighbor’s daughter ran to the checkpoint to inform the [Israeli] soldier. When the soldier approached us, the settlers ran away. He asked me what happened. I told him everything, but he did not respond to me.”

Settlers also frequently attack the school itself. To cite one of myriad examples, Ma’an News Agency reported in November 2007 that “right wing Israeli settlers broke into the courtyard of the Qurduba school … attempted to set fire to the building … attempted to rip the doors off the building and succeeded in knocking over walls, trampling flower beds and blocking the path to the school with rocks … a group of children, armed with axes, attempted to break the water pipes that supply the school. They were urged on by their teacher” (“Israeli settlers attack girls’ school in Hebron,” 26 November 2007).

In 2008, a previous director of the Qurduba School, Reem al-Shareef, moved the school’s start time from 8:00 to 7:30am, so the students would not be harassed by the settler children as the latter headed to daily study at their yeshiva. Today, because teachers and administrators must take a long route to avoid Checkpoint 56, “it takes about 45 minutes to reach the school,” said al-Jondy, “so most of the teachers come here late. Three of the teachers have injured themselves because of the new route. One of them hurt her leg, one hurt her back.” Because teachers are late, it is harder to enforce the 7:30 start time, leaving teachers and students once again vulnerable to early morning settler attacks.

Various challenges to education

“It’s very hard to have education in H2,” explained Mohammed Abuthereim, Hebron Municipality Director of Education, referring to the Israeli settlement district of Hebron. “The occupation affects [the children’s] social health. The students suffer from fear, worry and sadness. How to get an education, how to learn to read when you are attacked by settlers on the way to school? The same for the teachers … we need students to learn in safety, and not to have to worry about these things.”

Now that school has reopened, students and teachers are greeted with almost daily settler attacks. “In October, I filed a complaint with the Israeli police at the [nearby settlement of] Kiryat Arba, and they promised that in the future they would stop the settlers, because they don’t have the right to do these things,” al-Jondy told The Electronic Intifada. “But so far, the police have done nothing for us … [On 7 November,] the school’s guard phoned me at nine in the morning and told me there were settlers around the school, throwing empty bottles and big stones on the school and on the garden. So I quickly phoned the police, and they eventually came, but they did nothing.”

For now, the Qurduba School is pushing the Hebron municipality, as well as organizations like the Temporary International Presence in Hebron, to demand that the Israeli military ease its draconian restrictions of freedom of movement, not only for teachers but for all residents of Hebron.

In the meantime, resilience, steadfastness and hope remain the driving forces, in spite of the occupation, that keep the Qurduba School open day after day.

Badia Dwaik, a Hebron resident and the deputy coordinator of the local activism groupYouth Against Settlements, told The Electronic Intifada that the students and teachers of the Qurduba School have begun peaceful protests against the new closure policy.

“Over the years they have struggled for freedom of education and for the right to education enjoyed by all other children in the world, and this continues today,” she said. “They will not give up.”

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Rally Renames Hebron’s Shuhada Street as ‘Apartheid Street’

copied from my Alternative Information Center article here

 

On Wednesday 14 September, a rally was held in Hebron to officially rename downtown Shuhada Street ‘Apartheid Street’, in protest against the Israeli  occupation that for nearly 20 years has shut down the once-thriving town center,

Hebron_action_explain

Israeli soldiers gather around demonstrators, who explain to them that the ceremony is a non-violent action (Photo: Heather Stroud)

 

severely curtailed freedom of movement and caused for the Palestinians of Hebron humiliation, harassment and persecution at the hands of settlers and Israeli soldiers.

 

The rally and renaming ceremony were organized by Youth against Settlements, a committee that since 2009 has organized non-violent demonstrations and actions to raise awareness of the occupation that plagues the over 165,000 Palestinian residents of Hebron.  A crowd of Palestinians, internationals and journalists gathered at the heavily guarded checkpoint entrance to Apartheid Street at 1 p.m.,waving signs and placards and emblazoning, with stencils and spray paint, the walls of the area with the proclamation ‘Welcome to Apartheid Street’. Despite the explicitly peaceful nature of the protest, a crowd of 20-30 Israeli soldiers immediately assembled across from the protesters and on the rooftops surrounding the site. Rifles loaded with tear gas canisters and stun grenades, they quickly strung up razor wire to block the path of the protestors, though the latter incessantly repeated their peaceful intentions.

Hebron_barbed_wire

Israeli soldiers placed barbed wire to prevent the demonstrators from moving forward (Photo: Heather Stroud) 


At a press conference, Youth against Settlements member Issa Anmo told a gathering crowd of Palestinians and journalists that “on behalf of all the Palestinian residents of Hebron we have one simple demand- open Shuhada Street and end the occupation. We are changing the name of this street to Apartheid Street for many reasons. The reasons are- only Israelis and foreign tourists are allowed to access Shuhada Street. It becomes as a ghost town. The street is closed to the Palestinian residents of Hebron…Palestinian residents who live on the street are prevented from going on the street, and to enter and exit their homes, and to get to their businesses. Some families are using back roads, and some other families are using the roofs to get to their homes. Shops have been closed by many military orders, [and] it’s forbidden for many Palestinians to drive on the road. Imagine that you are living on a street and it’s illegal for you to drive on the street!”

 

At the beginning of the 1990s, Apartheid Street was still the booming downtown marketplace of Hebron, and the commercial center of the entire southern West Bank, as it had been for centuries. Center of a vibrant community economy where Palestinian residents and farmers maintained small shops to sell fruits, vegetables and other goods, it was also the home street for thousands of Palestinian families who lived in apartments overlooking the bustling town centre. The May 2007 B’Tselem report ‘Ghost Town: Israel’s Separation Policy and Forced Eviction of Palestinians from the Center of Hebron’ paints a bleak picture of the desolation inflicted upon Shuhada Street by the occupation in just two decades: “at least 1,014 Palestinian housing units in the center of Hebron have been vacated by their occupants. This number represents 41.9 percent of the housing units in the relevant area. Sixty-five percent (659) of the empty apartments became vacant during the course of the second intifada. Regarding Palestinian commercial establishments, 1,829 are no longer open for business. This number represents 76.6 percent of all the commercial establishments in the surveyed area. Of the closed businesses, 62.4 percent (1,141) were closed during the second intifada. At least 440 of them closed pursuant to military orders.”

Hebron_1990_fruit_market

Hebron’s bustling fruit and vegetable market in 1990


Israel’s occupation in Hebron has a turbulent history and over the past 40 years, one can discern familiar pattern: The one-sided domination of fundamentalist Zionism and its colonialist impetus, with the military backing of Israel trailing in its wake. In 1968, religious Jewish settlers rented a hotel in Hebron for Passover and barricaded themselves inside, refusing to leave; eventually, the Israeli army coaxed them out and established for them the nearby settlement of Kiryat Arba to appease their desire to reclaim ‘Judea and Samaria’. In 1979, 40 women and children from Kiryat Arba repeated this brazen gesture, sneaking into an abandoned building on Apartheid Street in the middle of the night and, despite a lack of electricity, food and water, refusing to leave the next morning. This time, the Israeli army eventually allowed these squatters permanent residence in downtown Hebron, with full military support.

 

The fundamentalist settlers of Hebron are guided by the religious conviction that they are reviving a Jewish presence in Hebron that dates back 4000 years ago to the days of Abraham, who, along with most of the oldest patriarchs and matriarchs of the Old Testament, is buried at the nearby Cave of the Patriarchs/Ibrahimi Mosque, which today is a half-synagogue, half-mosque structure, heavily guarded by the Israeli army. They are also determined to maintain their community in memory of the 1929 Hebron massacre which 82 years ago, in the midst of a tense political climate and rising animosity in Palestine, resulted in the deaths of 67 Hebron Jews and the evacuation of the entire Jewish community from the city.  This massacre is contrary to the history of the two communities in the city, as Jews and Arabs had coexisted peacefully in Hebron for centuries, a peace attested to by the fact that several hundred Jewish lives were saved during the massacre by Palestinians, who hid Jewish families in their homes at considerable personal risk.

 

Since downtown Hebron was settled by Israelis in 1980, Apartheid Street and a small surrounding area have gradually become occupied by approximately 500 Jewish settlers (the term ‘Israeli settlers’ would be misleading in this case, as many of the settlers are recent arrivals from the east coast of America), guarded by at least four times as many Israeli soldiers. The process of apartheid over the last 20 years has been complex and gradual, but unmistakable in its intentions. After a massacre at the Ibrahimi Mosque in February 1994, in which 29 Palestinians were killed and over 100 wounded by an Israeli settler from Kiryat Arba, the Israeli military began to pursue an official separation policy that closed the shops of Apartheid Street, blocked off the Jewish area, already heavily guarded and controlled, from the rest of Hebron, and sought to remove most Palestinian presence from the settler enclave.

HHebron_2007_fruit_market

Hebron’s fruit and vegetable market in 2007, closed by the Israeli army 


In 1997, Hebron was officially split into two areas- H1, 18 square kilometers, under Palestinian control and containing most of Hebron’s Palestinian population; and H2, 4 square kilometers in the absolute center of the city, encompassing Apartheid Street and much of Hebron’s Old City, under Israeli control and enclosing the settler population alongside a handful of Palestinian families who could not be coaxed or forced to leave. The Second Intifada in the early 2000’s brought, according to B’tselem, “unprecedented restrictions on Palestinian movement in the city, primarily a continuous curfew and closure of main streets to Palestinian residents…during the first three years of the Intifada, the army imposed a curfew on H-2 for a total of more than 377 days, including a curfew that ran non-stop for 182 days, with short breaks to obtain provisions. On more than 500 days, the army imposed a curfew that lasted for a few hours up to an entire day.”

 

In response to the military crackdown, which began in the 1990s and reached a feverish pitch in the 2000s, the vast majority of Palestinian apartments and storefronts in Apartheid Street have either been voluntarily abandoned or forcibly emptied out. Today, what was once a booming marketplace is now, indeed, a ghost town, traversed only by settlers, Israeli soldiers, and the occasional Palestinian who holds the proper permit.

 

“I was born just 50 meters from here”, says Issa Anmo, sitting in the office of the Christian Peacemaker’s Team on the border of H-1, “and I am not allowed to visit the house where I was born, I am not allowed to go back to my neighborhood to smell my flowers. At the same time, the settlers can do what they want inside my house!…why are they allowed and I am not allowed? They are civilians and I am a civilian! Why am I not allowed? Is their blood blue and my blood is dark, is black?…This is apartheid. Nobody can argue [with] me if it is apartheid or not.”

 

The 14 September rally, like many others held over the years, was meant to highlight this unjust and oppressive state of affairs and indeed, the disproportionate Israeli army presence at the explicitly peaceful rally itself highlighted the reality of everyday life for the Palestinian population of Hebron. “It was just a rally to explain what is happening in Hebron. At the beginning we were afraid we could not send out the message to explain what we were suffering from, but then the army and the Israeli police came and they put up the barbed wire and detained us, and prevented us from doing a civil right. They showed exactly what it means, that we are suffering from the apartheid and inequality in Hebron…I’m not happy the police came, but they showed the real face of the occupation, this is a reality.”

 

The rally also intended to highlight the resolve of the Palestinian people, and the fear of the Israelis, toward the upcoming September initiative at the UN. Says Issa, “it’s very connected to September…the Palestinians are suffering from occupation, from settlements, and from apartheid. And this activity was concentrating on apartheid, to tell the world look, there is a problem here! We do not want you to stand against Israel, we want you to stand against apartheid, against occupation, against the settlements. We are not asking people to stand against Israel or say anything bad about Israel, we are just asking them to stand with us against the occupation, against apartheid and against the settlements which are destroying our own lives and violating all our human lives.”

 

Not all Palestinians at the rally, however, were pleased that Apartheid Street was officially receiving a new name. Said resident Azmi Ah- Shouki, “I don’t want to change the name of Shuhada Street, because this name has a relationship with the history and suffering of the Palestinian people. We want the occupation to end and we are here always. The cccupation makes apartheid, but we are Shuhada Street.” Shuhada Street means ‘The Martyr’s Street’ in Arabic, and recalls the memory of those murdered at the Ibrahimi mosque during the massacre of 1994. A small faction of Palestinians showed up at the rally to oppose the decision, and later in the day the group partially covered many of the ‘Welcome to Apartheid Street’ wall stencils with black spray paint.

 

Issa, however, along with other members of Youth against Settlements, remains steadfast. “[These people don’t] know what apartheid means, that is the point. We need to educate the people more about apartheid. We are not changing the name really, we are just explaining, giving a description for the street, that it is an apartheid street. [The name is] officially changed, but it’s not a big change. Finish the apartheid, then it will be the same name [Shuhada Street] again”.

 

Walking away from the entrance to Apartheid Street as the rally dissipated, passing the endless storefronts of the Palestinian people of Hebron as he made his way through the crowded, narrow corridors of the Old City, Badia Dwaik, Deputy Coordinator of Youth against Settlements, expressed perfectly the prevailing feeling of the day- “We did many protests and demonstrations before, but it is important to get attention from the world media. I am happy because we announced this to raise awareness that it is now Apartheid Street. The message is rich, so I am happy.”

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Jogging in A War Zone

“Hey!”

I stop in my tracks, panting and sweating, and turn around. I knew this was going to happen as I jogged past the soldier standing limp and bored on the side of the road. The soldier beckons me toward his little box with a slight twitch of the huge assault rifle draped across his chest. With a rough look on his 18-year-old face, he addresses me inquisitively in Hebrew, and I, in between gasps of air, say “Lo Ivrit (no Hebrew). English?”

“Where you from?”

“America.”

“Can I see your passport?” His tone becomes the slightest bit nicer when he hears the holy name of Israel’s daddy-with-the-checkbook. I know I’m not required by law to give this kid-with-an-army-jacket-and-a-huge-gun my passport, he is only a soldier; but if I say ‘no, I don’t have to show you anything’, he would say ‘Yes you do, I am soldier, I make the rules here’, and if I persisted, he might radio in reinforcements, or police. So I give him the passport. He looks it over. “What are you doing?”

“I’m jogging, for exercise.”

“Why here?”

“Why not?” Of course I know why he is surprised to see a sweaty Jewish-looking boy without a kipa jogging here with a shirt that has Arabic letters on it. I am not jogging down any old street, and I know it; I am jogging in Tel Rumeida, or Tel Hebron as the settlers call it.

The city of Hebron has a long and complex history that mirrors in many ways the travails of Palestine as a whole; suffice it to say that the Hebrew name for the city, Hebron, and the Arabic name for the city, al-Khalil, both mean ‘friend’. Jews lived here in ancient times; Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Sarah, Rebecca, Leah, Ruth and Jesse are buried in the city (patriarchs and matriarchs worshipped by Jews and Muslims alike); in recent history of the last 1000, Hebron was mostly populated by Muslims, except for a small Jewish community that maintained peaceful ties with its Arab neighbors. In 1929, as mounting anti-Zionist sentiment began to stir up the Arab world (understandable, as Zionists were settling Palestine in droves and had clear, British-backed intentions to create a predominantly Jewish state on land previously promised to the Palestinians), 67 Jews in the Jewish community of Hebron were violently murdered by Arab mobs (many more were saved by Muslims who hid terrified Jewish families in their homes, at considerable personal risk). After this, Jews left Hebron- until 1968, when Rabbi Moshe Levinger and a group of fanatical Israelis rented a hotel in Hebron for Passover, and barricaded themselves in, refusing to leave. Eventually, the Israeli government compromised with them and relocated them to a nearby settlement, which they called Kiryat Arba.

The rapidly expanding settlement still had eyes for Hebron, however, and in 1979 Moshe Levinger’s wife Miriam led a group of 40 women and children to occupy the abandoned Beit Hadassah hospital in central downtown Hebron overnight. When patrolling soldiers heard a chorus of Jewish folk song coming from the abandoned building the next morning, they knew they had a situation on their hands. The women and children refused to leave, though the building had no electricity or running water. When several of the children were becoming very sick because of the sub-human living conditions, the Israeli government installed running water and electricity; eventually, when it was clear the women and children were not going to leave, the israeli government allowed their husbands to visit them on Shabbat.

For about a year, a crowd of young yeshiva boys from Kiryat Arba would come to the Beit Hadassah building from the Cave of the Patriarchs (where all the above-mentioned founding myth-figures are buried save Jesse and Ruth) chanting and singing every Shabbat night, and set up vigil ooutside the building. One night, a year after the initial occupation, 6 of them were murdered by Arabs. Immediately following that tragedy, the Israeli government in the early 80s granted, and built, permanent housing for several families in downtown Hebron. Between 1980 and 1984, the other downtown settlements in Hebron were established- Avraham Avinu, Tel Rumeida, Beit Romano and Admot Yishai. The latter settlement, Admot Yishai, was originally a group of 8 families who one day showed up on top of a hill living in portable caravans; when one man inside one of the caravans was killed by an Arab man standing outside his flimsy window, the Israeli government rushed in to build permanent housing. A similar pattern, then, to Beit Hadassah- first, belligerent and unapologetically racist right-wing religious fanatics move in of their own accord, driven by the zealous belief that they are restoring a direct link to the Jewish past (as always, the truth or falsity of this claim does not matter in the face of the reality of the occupation); the Israeli government gripes and moans, but can do nothing to stop them, and so must in the meantime at least try to contain the situation; when one of the settlers is killed, he is turned into a martyr by the settler community, who demand help from a government that, if it refused, would be denounced by the larger Jewish community for failing to care for its citizens or respect the very ethnic legacy it uses to prop up its otherwise largely secular rule.

These Jewish settlers in the middle of the largest Palestinian city in the West Bank form a compact knot in Hebron’s exact cultural center; their separate settlements can be covered on foot in their entirety in 20 minutes. Surrounding this little pocket of Jewish settlement, dubbed H2 (and all else dubbed H1) after the Oslo Accords in 1993, are soldiers, checkpoints, watch towers, concrete walls, barbed wire, electric fences, and many other signs of occupation. Wikipedia-

Israeli organization B’Tselem states that there have been “grave violations” of Palestinian human rights in Hebron because of the “presence of the settlers within the city.” The organization cites regular incidents of “almost daily physical violence and property damage by settlers in the city”, curfews and restrictions of movement that are “among the harshest in the Occupied Territories”, and violence and by Israeli border policemen and the IDF against Palestinians who live in the city’s H2 sector.[149][150][151] According to Human Rights Watch, Palestinian areas of Hebron are frequently subject to indiscriminate firing by the IDF, leading to many casualties.[152] Hebron mayor Mustafa Abdel Nabi invited the Christian Peacemaker Teams to assist the local Palestinian community in opposition to what they describe as Israeli military occupation, collective punishment, settler harassment, home demolitions and land confiscation.[153]

The presence of settlers in the city means the presence of an enormous military occupying force in the city, which makes life horrible for its residents. I have seen 15 heavily armed soldiers raid a home in the middle of the afternoon with guns pointed wildly in all directions, in full military coordination, to look for and apprehend an eight-year-old boy who they claim threw a stone at them while they were making their rounds. I have seen a gang of 8 year old settler boys, on a raised platform behind a barbed wire fence, spitting at a gang of Palestinian boys down below, who try to spit back, but cannot because of the difference in elevation and the fence (a fitting metaphor, if there ever was one). The Zionists respond ‘well life is tough for the settlers there too, they live surrounded by Arabs who would murder them, and many of them have been murdered!’ They attribute this Arab hatred to anti-Semitism, coupled with the intrinsically violent nature of Arab blood. They forget that they are hated here because they bring an occupation that chokes the life of the city, and they are a symbol of a larger occupation that has choked the life of all Palestine.

Littering the H1 side of the checkpoints one reads graffiti saying ‘Free Palestine’ and ‘Zionism is Racism’; inside, ‘Free Palestine’ and ‘Free Israel’ fight for wall space. There are about 500 settlers and 5000 soldiers to guard them in Hebron. The tragic absurdity and tense surreality of the situation is all the more concentrated by the fact that what used to be the cultural and economic lifeline of Hebron, downtown Shuhada Street, is now completely boarded up, a ghost street, because of the close proximity of Jewish settlers. Long stretches of silence on the once bustling street are punctuated by the occasional Palestinian family walking side by side carrying bags of groceries (which were freshly prodded through by the hands of soldiers at the checkpoint 50 metres away), the occasional group of fresh-faced Israeli soldiers or stern-faced older Israeli cops, the occasional steps of settler boys with a glint of macho, self righteous evil in their eyes (and this isn’t anti-Semitism, I love meeting the eyes of old rebbes wandering down the streets of Jerusalem, or exchanging a quick glance with religious yeshiva boys muttering to themselves as they pace down the windy roads- but these Hebron boys are something else, they look like dogs born and bred to hate, to fiercely, zealously, arrogantly and violently defend their Judaism. Shame on any interpretation of any faith that values such macho, ignorant defense of the tribe and hatred of the other over the universal virtue of humility).

Except on Shabbat, most settlers drive their cars up and down the street, honking angrily at the Arabs who get in their way (they drive like New Yorkers because many of them are, in fact, American). The electric tension in the air is amplified by the fact that not only the settlers, but also the vast majority of Palestinians in Hebron are religiously conservative and politically right-wing (70% Hamas), and, like much of the West Bank, have been driven to this belief in recent years thanks to the intensity of the occupation.

So there is a reason I go jogging down Tel Rumeida- because it is one of the most fucking absurd and terrifying places I have ever seen, terrifying because of its normality, unsettling because of the peace and quiet that lingers in the air as soldier boys walk by with guns or drive by in jeeps, as stern-faced looking settlers grow even sterner faces as they see me without a kipa and with Arabic writing and the word ‘Morocco’ on my T-shirt, as six-year old Jewish children play happily in the sunshine as policemen stand quietly on the street corner, as arabic men eye me with the confused look of ‘what the hell are you doing jogging in this war zone?’ And indeed, I feel disgusted at the image of myself sometimes, a boy coming from halfway around the world to spy on this conflict that concretely strangles the lives of those embroiled in it, a boy who has the privilege to jog by soldiers, and ironically scoff at the fact that he is waved through because of his american passport, while others live in constant fear that a wrong glance given at a soldier could send them to jail for two years.

Then you get to what is half- Cave of the Patriarchs, and half- al Ibrahimi mosque. Muslims enter from one side to worship Abraham, and Jews enter from the other side to worship the very same guy. Though the building is controlled by an Islamic waqf, it is surrounded on all sides by a thick layer of 18-year-old-Jewish-boys-with-guns. Before 1967, for 1400 years it was completely a mosque, and Jews could only ascend up to the seventh step on the outside staircase. In all honesty, speaking as a Jew and as a cosmopolitan secular citizen, I am glad that today part of the structure is a synagogue, and Jews can worship there freely; I am not glad, however, that this has been achieved through such a barbaric and racist occupation! And yes, it was wrong for Muslims to forbid Jews from visiting the tomb of their patriarch, but shame on those who use the memory of this past oppression to justify their present oppression!

The creepiest part is the room that houses the Tomb of Abraham. It lies in the middle of a circular vault; on one wall there are two windows, through which Jews in the synagogue can look into the room of the Tomb; on the wall next to it there are two windows, through which Muslims in the mosque can look into the room. Both Muslim windows are connected through a direct line of visibility with one of the Jewish windows; the 2nd Jewish window is actually a door, the only door that leads into the room of the Tomb, and it is blocked from Muslim view by the Tomb itself. Thus Muslim and Jewish worshippers, as they go to pay respects to the first patriarch of both of their religions, the mutual father of Isaac (who spawned the Jews) and Ishmael (who spawned the Muslims), awkwardly look at each other through this narrow, slanted, indirect, sidelong, askew line of sight. Each side can see, out of the corner of its eye, members of the other faith approach the tomb with eyes widened in awe, and lips moving in prayer. How sweet and pleasant it is for brothers to dwell together in unity! How awkward, unsettling and sad it is for these two cultures, with so much water under the bridge, and so much in common, to approach the same holy site from two different vantage points, with a plastic screen standing up in the room next to the Tomb, to block either brother from throwing something through the bars of the window at the other, over the father’s grave! And, as befits an occupying power, the Jews have the privilege of an undisturbed, solitary vantage point, that also doubles as the only door through which the Tomb can be physically accessed. The blanket that is draped over the Tomb, however, is adorned with beautiful cursive Arabic script. I went back and forth from the mosque side to the synagogue side, looking through each window, making sure the tragicomedy before my eyes was real.

On the way back to the ISM apartment, I am stopped again by another soldier. This happens at least twice every time I jog. This kid asks me my religion. “You are Jewish? Ah. Be careful, there are Arabs here, they have knives. Come back here and let me know if there is any problem.” I grab my passport out of his hand, turn around and walk away. I should’ve known, jogging in a war zone!

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