Post Taglit-Birthright: Hebron -- 500 settlers, 2,000 soldiers and the tensest place I've ever been

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'I look up at a net hanging above the souk. It’s full of garbage and other debris. The Jewish settlers, who number about 500, have built homes above the market street. I am told the net is to protect the Palestinians below.' Photo: Rachel Marcuse.

In July, activist Rachel Marcuse spent 10 days in Israel as part of the Taglit-Birthright program -- a fully sponsored trip for young North American Jews to learn more about the country. She went to bear witness and ask questions about the Israeli state's treatment of Palestinians, and to learn about other complex issues in Israel today. After the program, she spent another 10 days elsewhere in Israel and the West Bank of Palestine talking to Israeli Jews, Arab Israelis, international activists, and Palestinians. This is the final segment of a seven-part series on what she found.

After our visit to Ramallah, Hannah and I head to Hebron -- or, in Arabic, Al-Khalil -- to meet another member of the International Solidarity Movement (ISM). We take a small, hot, local bus through a mostly desert landscape, passing some desolate Bedouin camps along the way, the bus radio providing lilting Arab music as our soundscape.

All of the highways in the West Bank are considered to be in Area C, which means that they are controlled entirely by Israel, or, more specifically, the military. Area A is controlled by the Palestinian Authority (Ramallah is one example) and Israelis are not allowed to enter. Area B, where many Palestinian farms are located, is under Palestinian civilian control, but Israel's military control. While I heard many stories of Palestinians being randomly searched along the Area C highways, when we pass some well-fortified checkpoints, our bus isn't stopped.

We arrive in Hebron in the bustling commercial area. It feels like a big place and it is -- Hebron is the biggest city in the West Bank with a population of 163,000; about half a million Palestinians live in the city and the surrounding area. We meet "Ali," who, like the other ISM members, has taken a code name. He takes us to the Old City.

As in Ramallah and Aida Camp, we are offered coffee or tea by many people, including the shopkeepers. Ali remarks that he can't make it through the souk -- the market -- without leaving over-caffeinated. I'm feeling that more caffeine would increase the dis-ease I am already feeling with the place; respectfully, I decline several offers.

My discomfort increases as I begin to more fully understand the situation, a situation which is almost literally on top of me. I look up at a net hanging above the souk. It's full of garbage and other debris. The Jewish settlers, who number about 500, have built homes above both sides of the market street. I am told that the net is to protect the Palestinians below from the garbage, urine, eggs and bleach routinely thrown at them by the settlers. I can see evidence of the refuse in the net right above me. One of the shopkeepers shows me egg stains on the scarves he is selling.

Hebron feels tense; in fact, it's the most tense place I have ever been. There is a lot of history here and a lot of contemporary conflict. Since it is the traditional burial site of Abraham and Sarah, Isaac and Rebecca, and Jacob and Leah, the fathers and mothers of the Jewish people, it is the second holiest place in Judaism, right after Jerusalem.

It is also holy for Muslims who worship at the Ibrahim Mosque at the Cave of the Patriarchs. It was here, on February 25, 1994, during the overlapping holidays of Purim and Ramadan, that an Israeli settler and member of the far-right Israeli Kach movement, opened fire with an automatic weapon. Twenty-nine worshippers were killed and 125 wounded that day. When Hannah and I enter the mosque, after a security screening and donning long brown robes, we can see the bullet holes in the wall.

As it's Friday, demonstration day in the West Bank, today might feel even more tense than usual. There is a rally planned for later in the afternoon to protest the closure of Shuhada Street, the main thoroughfare of Hebron, which is reserved for settlers. As a consequence, this closure shut down about 800 Palestinian stores.

In the settlers' area, the movement of Palestinians is heavily restricted; the Jewish settlers have total freedom of movement and are protected by the IDF. And they're really protected by the IDF. There are 2,000 soldiers in Hebron and 500 settlers -- a ratio of 4:1. The settlers are primarily Orthodox (and many are American) and not obligated to serve in the military, something that seemed to bother many Israelis I talked with.

As a result of the limitations on Palestinian movement, about half the shops in the Israel-controlled area have gone out of business since 1994, in spite of UN efforts to compensate shopkeepers in an effort to keep them in business. Palestinians cannot come close to where the settlers live without special permits from the IDF. Palestinian control of Hebron, despite it being one of the most populous cities in the West Bank, is limited to some 20 or 30 square kilometres.

We speak with Monir, a shopkeeper, whose business is adjacent to shut-down Shuhada Street. "I have the best of a bad situation," he says, noting that all of the other shops were just closed down. But, business is bad. "There's no tourism here anymore," he says, "everyone thinks it's a war zone." I think to myself that it feels like a war zone as I note a group of young male settlers saunter by. The demo is about to start; the town has quieted.

We wander by the demo. There are a couple of hundred people there, surrounded by IDF soldiers with snipers positioned strategically on rooftops. We have been warned that there is likely to be tear gas and arrests -- and this is later confirmed. As we have committed to being in Jerusalem that evening, we are unable to stay for long.

We walk out of the Old City and find a bus heading to Bethlehem. Hannah makes friends with a gorgeous girl of about 12 and takes her photo. About 45 minutes later, we get off on a busy street in the commercial area of Bethlehem. We wait with a group of families and then get on a large green and white Palestinian bus bound for Jerusalem. It's going to take us right to our friend's place in Jewish Jerusalem, just over the hill we can see in the distance.

The bus pulls up to a vehicle checkpoint and we all get off to have our documents inspected. One of the soldiers approaches us in Hebrew and then switches to English. "We're not letting Internationals through today," he tells us. "Oh," I respond weakly, "but we're just going to the other side of the hill." He's not interested. It's Friday, demo-day, and it's likely he thinks we've been at a protest. We have. He turns us around, instructing us to wait on the highway for a bus coming from the other direction. We're about an hour's walk out of Bethlehem and it's getting dark.

We immediately befriend another International who was also turned away. He's a six-foot-five African-American basketball player from New York City who has been doing basketball training with Palestinian kids. He is surprised to be turned away at the checkpoint. He's gotten through many times before, he says, but knows that the soldiers can be inconsistent. He remarks that if it's this hard for us, imagine how hard it is for Palestinians just trying to get to work.

Settlement lite

This Bethlehem checkpoint was very obviously a checkpoint. At other times on the trip, though, it wasn't clear to us whether we were inside or outside the Green Line.

For example, days later, we go back to the house of Or, one of the Israelis who traveled with us on the Taglit-Birthright tour. We'd stayed with him in his parents' house and left a bunch of our stuff there before heading to the West Bank.

He picks us up in Jerusalem and we start driving. "Are we driving East?" I ask. "Yes," he says. "Are we past the Green Line?" I ask. "Yes," he says again. "So, your parents kind of live in a settlement?" "They don't ‘kind of live' in a settlement, they live in a settlement," he tells me. "Ah..." I respond with dim realization. "You're been referring to it as a village for the last couple of weeks." "It is a village," he says.

And for him, it is. Or grew up there and describes it as a "settlement lite," or a non-ideological settlement, as it was one of the earlier developments where "no one," he claims, was displaced. For him, it's normal. For me, I'm more than a little miffed to finally learn that I'd been staying in a Jewish settlement in East Jerusalem without knowing it.

It turns out that it's not the first time I'd stayed in a settlement during the Taglit trip. I later learn from one of the soldiers who accompanied us that one of the kibbutzim we had stayed at was across the 1967 border. Looking back, I remembered that for this portion of the trip, we'd had not just the one medic/guard, a young woman who would rock her look of skinny jeans, a blue tank top and a rifle, but a second one as well. The reason for the additional soldier wasn't explained to us at the time. I had assumed it was because we were near Jerusalem. We were actually on a settlement outside Jerusalem. The very slippery slope of land encroachment is clear.

Bethlehem and the Canucks

But, this time, leaving Bethlehem, we had definitely arrived at a "real," completely unambiguous checkpoint. Eventually, another bus does arrive and we make it back into Jerusalem by way of the same checkpoint through which we'd earlier entered the West Bank. Shabbat, the Jewish day of rest, has arrived and there are no public buses to be had.

In English, I ask a soldier the best way is to get into town. He asks where I'm from. I tell him Canada. "Where?" he says. "Vancouver," I answer. "Where?" he asks again. "Umm, East Van," I respond. "Where?" I give him my intersection. "I'm from Oak and 41st," he says. "Are you Jewish?" he asks. I nod. "You're not really supposed to be in Bethlehem," he tells me. I know that while parts of Bethlehem are Area A, and forbidden to Israelis, I'm not Israeli and figure my Canadian-ness supersedes my Jewishness. He doesn't seem to think so.

The soldier takes off his yarmulke, the head covering required of observant Jews, and shows it to me. Embroidered on it is the logo of the Vancouver Canucks.

Another assumption dissipates.

Epilogue -- September 14, 2010

I've been back in Vancouver now for about six weeks and my trip to Israel and Palestine is still sinking in. People have asked what my biggest "take aways" are from the trip. Here are just a few:

- It's great to have one's assumptions blown to smithereens. This is especially true for someone like me who can be a bit, shall we say, judgmental? The participants on the Taglit-Birthright trip managed to challenge nearly all the first impressions I had of them. The same can be said for many of the Israelis I spoke with -- in particular, the soldiers. My only real contact with Israelis up until the trip was traveling in South America and coming across packs of post-army kids, constantly on the defensive. I found most Israelis to be more moderate than I had expected.

- Everyone wants to tell you their story. This was true for soldiers, who spoke of the immense social pressure to participate fully in army life, and of Palestinians dealing with incredible oppression. Art and storytelling has to be a fundamental way of dealing with conflict.

- The Jewish diaspora is a lot less progressive than much of the population of Israel. Diasporic Jews are pretty fast to call each other self-hating, while asking questions and engaging in dialogue is an integral part of Israeli culture.

- Taglit-Birthright is an incredibly smart program. By building social cohesion, as in my "birthright equation," participants create bonds with each other and with the physical -- and emotional -- place. The program, despite its rhetoric to the contrary, makes critical thought difficult.

- The West Bank is simultaneously tiny and gigantic. Despite being filled with some of the most friendly people I've ever met, there is a heaviness there. While certainly not hopeless, most didn't see an authentic peace process happening anytime soon.

- Many Israelis agree that Israel's policies have had the (unintended?) consequence of increasing anti-Semitism around the world, but there is nonetheless an overwhelming sense of social cohesion and national unity clearly tied to military service.

- Hebron is just totally and completely screwed up. The settlers -- religious fanatics from my point of view -- just need to leave. Period.

People have asked if my politics have changed from the experience. Despite the unequivocal nature of my last take-away -- some things are just wrong and I don't want to be too sucked into relativism -- they have. My politics are certainly more nuanced, as happens when you spend time with people from different backgrounds. I shifted my opinion on lots of specific policies and suspended my judgments about many people and how they live their lives. However, I wouldn't say that my politics have changed on a fundamental level.

For me, it's still about power. The IDF is one of the strongest militaries in the world. In 1967, Israel conquered a bunch of land that wasn't its for the taking. People lived there. And those people are still coping with the occupation. Sure, anti-Semitism still exists, but, in terms of sheer power, the IDF could crush any country in the region. The once-oppressed too easily becomes the oppressor and what Israel is doing to the Palestinian people simply breeds more hatred around the world.

"With great power comes great responsibility," as the old cliché goes, but I think it's true. Consistently, I heard people say that the Arabs needed to take more responsibility for a peace process. I don't necessarily disagree with that (or that Hamas isn't a problematic part of the equation), but I feel that it's Israel's responsibility -- and the responsibility of the Jewish diaspora as well -- to be sure that responsibility is taken for moving a truly equitable peace process forward.

So, what next? The Palestinians and Israelis I spoke with didn't think a resolution to the conflict was going to arrive soon, but there did seem to be a sense that the peace process and its ultimate terms would unfold more quickly this time. Over and over, I heard that Israelis are just tired of it all. Peace talks have begun since I returned to Canada, surely a positive sign. Netanyahu is going to have to prove that he can get his coalition together to continue the settlement expansion freeze. But the settler and conservative lobby in Israel is strong.

As Israelis repeated over and over again to me about the situation, "It's complicated." Of course it is. But, it's also about power... and political will... and justice. As the young woman from the International Solidarity Movement said to me, "It's the responsibility of all of us."

Rachel Marcuse is a Vancouver-based activist, facilitator and apparatchick. The executive director of the Coalition of Progressive Electors (COPE), a municipal political party, she also freelances, focussing on facilitation skills, youth-engagement and strategic planning. Her views do not necessarily represent the positions of any organization whatsoever. She can be found on Twitter @rachelmarcuse.

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