Michael Totten

Darkness in Palestine

Last summer I visited Hebron, one of the darkest and most hate-stricken cities in the West Bank, a place most tourists visiting the Holy Land for a sun-drenched Levantine holiday would not dream of setting foot. Six years ago I took my mother to Beirut and even down to Beaufort Castle overlooking Hezbollahland and the Israeli border area, but I would not take her to Hebron. This is a city where a few hundred Jewish “settlers” make their home at the bottom of valley surrounded by Palestinians who have been trying, sometimes violently, to drive them out for a very long time.

Eve Harow drove me there. She works as a professional tour guide and knows the area well.

“Hebron’s a tough place,” she said. “I could never live there.” She agreed, however, to take me in her car.

Eve is a tough lady, but Hebron is tougher. She, too, lives in a settlement in the West Bank, not in Hebron, but in a “mainstream” one, Efrat, a small California-style town in the Gush Etzion bloc that functions more or less as a suburb of Jerusalem. You can drive from one to the other in just a few minutes.

Efrat

I will not present an argument here for or against Israeli settlements in the West Bank. That’s not what this is about. I’m perfectly capable of arguing both sides of that question, and my own opinions are mixed, depending in part on which “settlement” we’re talking about. The Jewish Quarter of Jerusalem’s Old City, the illegal trailer outposts on remote hilltops, the Jewish towns just over the 1967 armistice line that may or may not one day be annexed to Israel, and the Jewish sector in Hebron are all very different places and subjects that should be argued about and analyzed separately.

‘What do you think of Hebron?” I said to Eve as we headed south out of Jerusalem. Like so much of the Middle East, it’s a problem without a solution that makes me want to throw my hands in the air and give up.

Eve Harow

“It’s a microcosm of the Middle East,” she said. “It really is. There are a few Jews and a lot of Arabs. If Jews are not allowed to live there because they were once driven out, then that validates the ethnic cleansing of 1948. Ethnic cleansing is wrong no matter who is the focus. We didn’t throw the Arabs out when we came back in 1967 even though they thought we would.”

We reached the West Bank in minutes. The hills loom right over Jerusalem. You can easily see, if you go there, why Israel insists on retaining defensible borders if and when a Palestinian state comes into being.

West Jerusalem from the hills of the West Bank overlooking the city

It would be so easy to bombard the city with artillery, as the Jordanian army frequently did when it controlled the area before the 1967 war, and it would be no more difficult to fire crudely-made rockets into the dense population center below. It’s impossible not to think about this on the road from Jerusalem toward Efrat and Hebron.

“So,” I said as Eve and I drove. “Why live in Efrat, or anywhere beyond the Green Line for that matter?”

“Because I think Jews should be able to live in Judea,” she said, referring to the southern half of the West Bank.

“What about the Palestinians here?” I said. “You say Jews should be able to live in Judea, but most people who live here are Arabs.”

“There have a right to live here, as well,” she said. “I think they can gain a lot more from living in peace with us than they can by waging war against us. I hope that one day they understand that because we’re not going anywhere. I want to live in a world where Arabs don’t want to kill me, not because they love Jews but because it doesn’t advance their own interests. I want to live in a world where they think about what’s good for them rather than what’s bad for me.”

“Don’t you worry that, since you live in Efrat rather than, say, Tel Aviv, that you might get forced to move?” I said.

“No more than I fear for the whole state of Israel,” she said.

Efrat in the foreground and Bethlehem in the background

Efrat, though, is more tenuous than Tel Aviv. Jews can only be forced out of Tel Aviv by a conquering army–a fantasy event that is never going to happen–but there’s a chance the Israeli government might one day order residents of both Efrat and Hebron to move back inside Israel’s official borders.

“Lots of people in Israel think you’re a major part of the problem just by existing out here,” I said.

“Yes,” she said. “I know. They don’t want to face the truth that they’re hated just as much as I am. The PLO was founded in 1964, three years before we came back here. When they talked about liberating territory, they weren’t talking about Efrat. We didn’t have Efrat then. They were talking about Tel Aviv. Israel is considered a racist genocidal state. Not just the settlers, but all of Israel. Sometimes I feel like I’m living inside a horror film. One of the most insulting things you can say is that I’m against peace because I’m a settler. I live here. I have seven children and three grandchildren, and if there isn’t peace then I’m the big loser. It’s the little people who pay the price. It’s the little people who go to war, and it’s the little people who get buried.”

Few places in Israel were quiet during the second Intifada, and even fewer places were as dangerous as the roads leading from Jerusalem to the settlements.

The road from Jerusalem to Efrat

The tunnel between Jerusalem and Efrat was a particularly dangerous stretch of road during the second Intifada

So many Israeli civilians were shot at that most had to wear the same kind of helmet and flak jacket that I had to wear while embedded with combat troops in Iraq.

“I only wore the vest once,” Eve said. “I cried the entire time and never put it on again.”

*

Hebron is tough, but Efrat is easy. Jews and Arabs in that area may not particularly like one another, but for the most part they manage to muddle through in their parallel but separate lives without bothering each other or getting in each other’s way. They don’t live in the same towns or on the same streets like they do in some parts of Israel, but they use some of the same roads and shop at some of the same grocery stores. They almost never get into fights. Gone are the days when Israelis wore flak jackets on their way to work in the morning, and gone are the days when Palestinians waited for hours at a long series of checkpoints to get where they wanted to go. Gush Etzion is now sedate. Violence is all but unheard of.

Efrat may or may not be attached to Israel proper if and when a peace treaty is signed. It wouldn’t be hard to attach it to Israel. It’s just outside Jerusalem and part of a geographically contiguous bloc.

Hebron is different. Hebron is stressful. Hebron is in the heart of the West Bank. The Jewish community there is too isolated and too far away to ever be annexed during a two-state solution to the Arab-Israeli conflict.

Violence may not be a daily occurrence, but the threat of it hangs constantly in the air, and I could feel it before I even got out of the car.

The road in from next-door Kiryat Arba was under Israeli army control, but it passed through residential and commercial Palestinian neighborhoods.

The road into Hebron

Everyone on the street could plainly see Eve’s Israeli license plates, and the posture from some of the young men walking by was palpably hostile.

The road into Hebron

Most communication between humans is non-verbal. It’s conveyed through body language and is the same across cultures. I wasn’t imagining the hatred directed at me from some of the Palestinian men on that road. It was obvious.

I am not paranoid around Arabs, not after having lived in an Arab country. Nor am I paranoid around Palestinians. I’ve met too many to count in Israel and was never once stared at in a hostile manner in Ramallah, perhaps because it was obvious, at least to some, that I was American and not Israeli, at least while I was walking around and talking to people. On my way into Hebron, however, no one could have known that I was American. Thanks to the plates on Eve’s car and the glass between me and them, they naturally assumed I was Israeli. And I felt their hatred as though it were heat.

Just a few weeks after I left, several Israeli civilians in a car much like Eve’s—including a pregnant woman—were shot to death on that very road by Palestinian gunmen.

She introduced me to David Wilder, a spokesperson for Hebron’s Jewish community. He grew up in New Jersey, but has lived in Israel for 35 years. He first visited during a one-year program in college and said it changed his life, so he came back after he graduated and has been there ever since.

David Wilder

“Why live here instead of in Tel Aviv or Jerusalem?” I said. A muezzin sang out the call to Muslim prayer from a minaret.

“I get to the States more often than I get to Tel Aviv,” he said. “And I don’t go to the States frequently.” He laughed. “I didn’t grow up in a religious family. I had a secular Jewish identity. I didn’t make contact with religious Judaism until I came to Israel. My wife is Israeli, and her story is similar. After we got married we decided we wanted to contribute something and to actually do it rather than talk about it. And we decided that if Jews should be able to live in a place like Hebron, we should go live in Hebron.”

Houses in the Jewish sector of Hebron

“So the purpose of the Jewish community here is to maintain access to the tomb, right?” I said, referring to the Tomb of the Patriarchs, the second holiest site in all of Judaism after the Western Wall in Jerusalem.

The Tomb of the Patriarchs

“That’s certainly a primary reason,” David said. “Hebron is the first Jewish city in Israel. This is where Abraham came 3700 years ago. He lived here. All the patriarchs and matriarchs lived here. King David started the Kingdom of Israel here before he went up to Jerusalem. And with very few exceptions, Jews have always been living here. The last time there were no Jews here before the riots in 1929 was back in 1100 when the Crusaders threw all the Jews out and replaced them with Christians. The Christians have since been replaced with Arabs. But otherwise there were always Jews here. This community is part of a chain that goes all the way back to the beginning of Judaism.”

Hebron, circa 1929

The Tomb of the Patriarchs is roughly 2000 years old. It was built by King Herod. There are caves underneath that were off-limits to Jews and Christians for hundreds of years after the Mamluks invaded from Cairo in 1260 and threw out the Christians. In 1267 they declared the building a mosque.

“We share control of the building with Palestinians,” David said, “but they tell us straight up that if they can throw us out of here that they won’t let us back in the tomb of our patriarchs. They say it’s a mosque and that only Muslims should pray there even though it was built by King Herod, who was a Jew. If we don’t stay here, none of us will even be able to visit.”

Inside the Tomb of the Patriarchs

Jews and Arabs famously get along well in the Israeli city of Haifa. They live in the same neighborhoods, on the same streets, and in the same apartment buildings. They eat at the same restaurants, attend the same schools, work for the same companies, and drink beer in the same pubs. They can get along. Haifa is proof.

Israelis and Palestinians don’t mix much in Jerusalem, but they get along reasonably well for the most part in the places where they do overlap, such as Jerusalem’s Old City, and their relations are civil if less warm than between Israeli Jews and Israeli Arabs in Haifa.

In Hebron, though, they’re like anti-matter and matter.

“Do you have any contact at all with the Palestinians here?” I said.

“Today?” David said. “Virtually none. There used to be contact. Relations between Jews and Arabs used to be good. Most relationships were positive. But in 1929, the Grand Mufti of Jerusalem, Mohammad Amin al-Husayni, began inciting the Arabs. The Jews here were warned to gather weapons for self-defense, but they said no, the Arabs are our friends, they will protect us. They protected us in 1921, and the Jews here were sure they’d be protected again. So they didn’t take up weapons. And they were defenseless.”

Some Jews returned to the city following the six day war in 1967. Jordan had controlled the territory for the preceding 19 years, but lost it when Israel reconquered the area after Jordan’s attempted invasion hit the rocks of the Israel Defense Forces.

“When we came back in 1967,” he said, “we had reasonable relations between Jews and Arabs again. There were business relationships, personal relationships. We could walk around the city unarmed and there were no problems. Things weren’t all lovey-dovey, but people got along. Things started to change in a bad way during the first Intifada in the late 1980s. The PLO began rounding up Arabs who were seen talking to Jews and accusing them of being collaborators, so pretty soon the Arabs stopped talking to us.”

While it’s not true that the first Intifada consisted entirely of civil disobedience and rock throwing, the second Intifada was nevertheless much worse than the first. The second consisted almost entirely of suicide bombings and rifle attacks. The road from Jerusalem to Gush Etzion was ferociously dangerous, but Hebron degenerated into a war zone.

“They shot at us for two and a half years from the hills around us,” David said.

“What did they use?” I said. “Sniper rifles? Regular rifles?”

“They shot at us with both,” he said. “A sniper shot and killed a baby in the head right on this street. They shot into my apartment a number of times. We warned during the Oslo Accords that if Arafat was given control of the hills around us that we would be shot at. People said we were panicking, that we were hysterical, but we were right.”

Memorial for a baby shot in the head by a sniper

Some Israelis in Hebron have tried to rekindle ties with their Palestinian neighbors, but David said most attempts have been ineffective.

“They don’t want us here,” he said. “They say they don’t want us here, and they believe that someday we’ll leave, if not because they drive us out then because our own people will force us out. Mahmoud Abbas says that no Jews will be allowed to live in a Palestinian state. Arabs live in Israel, but he insists that no Jews can live in Palestine.”

He and I walked the streets of the Jewish quarter. I looked up into the hills and wondered how clearly we might be seen if anyone was looking at us through a sniper scope.

Palestinians live in houses on hills above Hebron's Jewish sector

“My kids were almost killed out here when somebody shot at them,” he said.

And yet he continues to live there. It’s true that the people who shot at his kids hate Jews in Tel Aviv just as much as they hate Jews in Hebron, but at least Tel Aviv is outside rifle range. And no Israeli government will ever order Jews to leave Tel Aviv. A future Israeli government might, however, order the Jews out of Hebron.

“Those are Arab houses up there?” I said.

“Yes,” he said. “There’s nobody living there now, but that’s an Arab house. The last man who lived there was a nice guy. A few years ago a 17 year-old kid jumped down from up there into the playground with a knife.”

Palestinian homes above a Jewish playground in Hebron

“Fortunately he was caught,” David continued. “When asked what he was doing, he said he wanted to kill somebody. When asked who he wanted to kill, he did what he was told and said he wanted to kill an Arab. That’s why he jumped into a Jewish playground! According to the law here, any conflict between Arabs has to be handled by an Arab court. It can’t be handled by us. So we sent him home.”

“Do you feel safe here?” I said. Hebron is not scary, but nor is it comfortable. The worst thing about standing at the bottom of the Jewish section of town isn’t the fear of getting shot, which is small, but the disturbing awareness that many people who live in the houses above hate your guts so completely that it takes an army to keep them away.

Israeli army guard tower over Hebron

“If you’re afraid you can’t live here,” David said, “but Jews in Israel are targeted no matter where they live. I know who lives around us, and I know what they’ve done. I’ve seen it. I’ve seen it many times. Somebody put a teddy bear out here in the market that had wires sticking out of it. It was a bomb. They were hoping one of our kids would pick it up. So the army closed the market.”

He took me around the corner and showed me a destroyed home that Israelis recently occupied before the army threw them out.

“When we came back in 1967,” David said, “there was nothing here. Everything was destroyed. More recently we asked if we could move into empty buildings that were old Jewish property. The government, of course, wouldn’t let us. But after the baby was killed by a sniper, we moved in anyway. We put some apartments in here. And after five years the army evicted us. A year later two families who didn’t have anywhere else to go moved back in, one here and one at the other end. After they were discovered, the government sent hundreds of Israeli soldiers in to pull them out. The soldiers came in with sledgehammers and destroyed everything.”

House where the Israel Defense Forces evicted settlers who lived there illegally

Nobody gets to live in that building, not Jews and not Arabs, so the building is wasted and ruined. An entire swath of the old city is like this. Hebron would be a beautiful place if everyone could live together peaceably like they do elsewhere, but they can’t, so it’s not.

“These buildings,” he said, “without any doubt, belong to us. The courts accept that. But they won’t let us use the buildings because then there would be more Jewish families here. Some people don’t think we shouldn’t be here in the first place, so they certainly won’t let us grow. Palestinians have 97 percent of this city. They can build whatever they want wherever they want, but we’re not allowed to build anything.”

“There are, what, 800 Jews here?” I said. “And as many, if not more, Israeli soldiers? Why are there so many soldiers protecting so few people?

“It’s true that they’re here to protect us,” he said. “They’re also here to protect you and the other visitors. The main reason they’re here, though, isn’t to patrol this area, but to patrol the other side of the city. They go over there and arrest terrorists before they can blow themselves up in Jerusalem. They’re protecting the entire country and making sure Hamas doesn’t take over the area. If the Israeli army wasn’t doing that, Hamas would have taken over a long time ago. And everyone knows it.”

He took me to a memorial for the victims of the 1929 massacre. Sixty seven of Hebron’s Jews were killed in late August that year. Houses and synagogues were vandalized. Hundreds, though, were saved by Arabs who not only refused to participate, but hid would-be victims from their rampaging neighbors in their own houses.

Memorial for the 1929 massacre in Hebron

Memorial for the victims of the 1929 massacre

“The killers did horrible things to people,” David said. “They castrated men. An Arab working at a bakery put his Jewish boss into the oven and baked him. They cut off women’s breasts and horribly raped them. These are the easy pictures to look at.”

A young victim of the 1929 masscre in Hebron

“What was the, quote, ‘reason’ for the 1929 massacre?” I said.

“It was incited by Mohammad Amin al-Husayni,” David said.

Mohammad Amin al-Husayni, the Grand Mufti of Jerusalem and ally of Adolf Hitler

Husayni was the infamous mufti of Jerusalem who sided with Hitler during World War II and recruited Muslims to fight for Nazi Germany. “Kill the Jews wherever you find them,” Husayni said, and his people did.

Husayni inspects Muslim soldiers who fought for the Nazis

“There have been a number of reasons given,” David said, “but the real reason was that he hated Jews. He and his Arab followers later expected Rommel to invade in 1942 and kill everybody. There were Arabs here, though, who defended and saved Jews. There were Arabs who saved Jews as if they were part of their very own families.”

Surely there are still Arabs in Hebron who would save Jews, or who at least wouldn’t hurt them. Not everyone is a homicidal maniac. Hebron would be a much darker and more violent place than it is if they were. Such people keep a low profile, though, for the most part, and don’t have much sway in Palestinian politics. Perhaps they will later, but today they do not.

The terrible events of 1929 still hang over the place, and the bloody-minded hatred that triggered it has yet to be extinguished. It happened back in the days of grainy black and white photography, but it was not so long ago. It is still within living memory. Just a few weeks ago, Al Aqsa TV, the Hamas channel in Gaza, interviewed a Palestinian woman from Hebron who not only remembers that massacre, she’s proud of that massacre. And she said she’d like to see it repeated.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=T64JIgs5C6k&feature=player_embedded

“Allah willing,” she said to the interviewer, “you will bury (Israel), and massacre the Jews with your own hands. Allah willing, you will massacre them like we massacred them in Hebron. We, the people of Hebron, massacred the Jews. My father massacred them.”

Today the Jews of Hebron have an army. That army keeps Jews and Arabs apart in order to minimize violence. The security measures, though, have all but ruined parts of the city. It reminds me of no place so much as Baghdad a few years ago when sectarian Sunni and Shia militias “cleansed” neighborhoods of the other and American soldiers had to canton the city with gigantic walls to keep them apart.

A wall separates Jews and Arabs in Hebron

“During the second Intifada a suicide bomber blew himself up down the street and killed a couple from Kiryat Arba,” David said. “He came very close to killing a group of 50 kids who were visiting. So the army closed the stores here so nobody could use them as a base for terrorist attacks. It went through the Supreme Court which okayed it, and they’ve been closed ever since.”

The doors in the Arab neighborhoods immediately adjacent the Jewish area have all been sealed. No one can go in or out, and no one can walk on those streets, not even people who own property on those streets. The doors are covered in spray paint. The area is utterly ruined.

Hebron's derelict sterile area

Human life is surely more important than property and the right to move freely, but security here comes at a terrible cost to the city in the absence of peace and civil relations. What the Israeli military calls the “sterile zone” was once a vibrant ancient city. Today, it looks like a ghost town, as though everyone had been driven out by a violent catastrophe, which is pretty close to what happened. These streets are in Hebron’s old city, a part of town that would overflow with thousands of tourists and pilgrims from all over the world if it weren’t a slum made hideous by hatred and war.

“So what do you think?” Eve asked me as we drove through this zone on our way back to Jerusalem.

“I think this,” I said, meaning the permanently closed streets that had been emptied at gun point, “is very disturbing.”

The sterile area in Hebron between the Jewish and Arab parts of the city

“So do I,” she said. “Have you talked to anyone else about Hebron?”

“I talked to an Israeli soldier who served here,” I said. “He didn’t like it. He hated it, actually. He hated what he had to do here.”

“They usually do,” she said.

Israel’s capital city once looked much like Hebron does now. The 1967 armistice lines slice right through the heart of Jerusalem alongside the walls of the Old City. There is no chance the borders of a future Palestinian state will match that line precisely, but if Palestine acquires any part of Jerusalem as its capital, a border will by necessity be drawn somewhere in that urban environment, so the two sides had better truly make peace if it happens.

Because Hebron, historian Yaacov Lozowick wrote, “is what happens when Israelis and Palestinians agree to divide a city, but can’t agree to live together in peace. The blame for lack of peace is irrelevant: each side will doubtlessly say it’s all the fault of the other, but the result won’t be any nicer thereby. The myriads of observers, pundits, politicians, dreamers, visionaries and true believers who all know for a certainty that dividing Jerusalem is the key to peace in the Middle East need urgently to visit Hebron.”

Postscript: I’ll be returning to the Middle East in two weeks, first to Israel and then, unless something dramatically changes, to Egypt. I will need your help for travel expenses, and I haven’t asked in a while, so please pitch in as much as you can so this project will be financially viable.

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