Special Series: Fast Forward
Through the Looking Glass
By David Kattenburg
I took off for Hebron on a Sunday morning, on a number 405 bus from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem. Throngs of Israeli soldiers filled the station, soldiers on the move, barely more than teenagers, large backpacks and automatic weapons flung over their shoulders, smart phones in their hands. Sitting beside me on the bus, a petite, red-headed girl in olive uniform flicked her finger across her smart phone. Listening to her chat with a friend, I could tell she was North American. Strike up a conversation, I told myself, but I didn’t have the heart. Soon she was dozing, her phone clutched in her small freckled hand.
On the outskirts of downtown Jerusalem, climbing Ben Gurion Boulevard, I leaned over to catch a glimpse of the ruined Palestinian village of Lifta in the valley below. How could my young seat mate, now chatting on the phone with her Jerusalem rendezvous, be so oblivious?
Inside cavernous Jerusalem terminal, an impatient ticket agent told me I could buy my ticket to Hebron on the bus. I could have hopped onto a 440 straight to Kiryat Arba, the West Bank’s oldest Jewish settlement, on the edge of Hebron, but chose to wait for a 160 that terminates at Hebron’s old city, beside the Cave of Machpelah – aka Tomb of the Patriarchs; the Ibrahimi mosque. I sat down on a wooden bench in front of Gate 6, crowded with soldiers, border police and settlers. When the 160 arrived, the driver told me he was going to Kiryat Arba, not Machpelah, so I squeezed back through the door, past soldiers and settlers shoving their way towards the bus.
Back inside the terminal, a skinny man with broad brimmed black hat and dishevelled beard showed me his 11:30 a.m. ticket to Machpelah. This would be the one to catch. I sat down once more. The cavernous space beyond the glass door reminded me of the Port Authority Terminal in Manhattan. Why is it that guys in shorts and T-shirts walk around with automatic weapons, I asked a young man in shorts and T-shirt sitting beside me, his automatic weapon rubbing against my knee. I had never been this close to an automatic weapon before. You can do this after two years of service, he told me, as he leafed through a ring binder of some sort. “Everyone else gets to wash the dishes.”
The 11:30 bus finally arrived. I paid the driver eight shekels and flung my bags onto the front seat. I like riding shot gun. Behind me, a French couple chattered away. Somehow, the woman guessed I was a French-speaking Jew. “I could see it in your eyes,” she said.
“When did you do aliyah?” she asked me in French, brightly.
“I haven’t done aliyah,” I replied. “I’m a journalist.”
“Israel has two capitals, you know,” her partner piped up, enthusiastically.
“Is that so?” I replied.
“Yes. Hebron and Shiloh!” he continued. I had been to both, I told him (I didn’t reveal that I had toured Shiloh with a Chicago-born rabbi named Dovid Ben-Meir, now living in Eli settlement, who thinks the Arabs were intent on finishing Hitler’s work in May 1948). Thankfully, this was the last of my exchange with the French tourists. I settled into my journey to Hebron.
The last time I’d been to Hebron – the first time – I got there in a Palestinian service taxi from East Jerusalem. No better way to experience what Israeli-American activist Jeff Halper refers to as the “Matrix of Control.” This time around, wanting simply to get to Hebron, time was of the essence. As it turns out, a 160 bus from Jerusalem to Hebron – packed with soldiers, settlers and Zionist tourists – slips effortlessly through Halper’s byzantine architecture. This way and that the skinny, expressionless driver took us, up and down spacious avenues and urban expressways. I sat on the edge of my seat, eyes peeled for the Green Line. Where was it? Had I actually missed it? I knew I had when we sailed past Gilo settlement – a shimmering mountain of Jerusalem stone on the city’s southern margin. Through Gilo tunnel we raced, like thread through a needle, skirting Aida refugee camp, Beit Jala and Bethlehem, with just fleeting glimpses of Israel’s ugly apartheid wall and industrial checkpoints. Before too long, we were on Highway 60, racing south through the West Bank.
Now my heart began to accelerate. How would my arrival pan out? On the right, Highway 35, leading to northern Hebron – to Palestinian Authority-controlled H-1, home to the majority of Hebron’s 200,000 Palestinians – sailed by. This is the route I had taken before, in that Palestinian service taxi. Instead, we continued on to Kiryat Arba, turning right into the settlement (past a bus stop where Rabbis for Peace’s Arik Ascherman had picked me up, four years ago, for a trip down to the Hebron Hills). Now I would really get to see Kiryat Arba, I thought to myself. The bus wound its way through the tidy settlement, stopping here and there to drop people off, my Zionist French friends included. Around and around the bus drove, up and down prim and proper settlement streets. I began to fret. “Machpelah?” I asked the skinny, expressionless driver. He barely whispered a word. Then, suddenly, the tidy streets of Jewish Settler Land segued into Palestine. A woman in a long dress and hijab trudged up the street towards us, child in hand. My chest swelled with sorrow and affection as I watched her climbing the hill, alongside dumpsters overflowing with garbage.
Finally, we pulled to a stop and I stepped to the door. “Toda,” I said to the driver. Thank you. He said nothing, and I stepped onto the street. Around me, the eerie chanting of muezzin reverberated in the sun-scorched air. Looking around, I saw that I was standing beside a military checkpoint, a hundred yards or so from the Cave of Machpelah. Behind me, three Israeli border police slouched against a wall, automatic weapons over their shoulders. Backpack and Mountain Equipment Coop bag hoisted over mine, I began to walk up to the Ibrahimi mosque. To my right, a long metal fence snaked between this paved path I was free to walk along, toward the Tomb of the Patriarchs, and the rubble-strewn lane Palestinians use to access their neighborhood. I stopped dead in my path, emotion rising in my chest. I wanted to go where they go. That would take me to H-1, where my hotel is. I stopped, turned around, walked back slowly, then revolved 180 degrees to the left, up the Palestinian path. A little boy rode up on a donkey, riding switch in his hand. In my mind, I imagined he said “Welcome.” Could it be?
Then – as if it couldn’t have been predicted – a voice called out to me from behind. A border policeman walked up, smiling. “You go this way,” he said, pointing to the left. I showed him my passport. “Where are you going?” he asked me.
“H-1,” I said, but I don’t think he understood.
“What’s your religion?” he asked – a question I would grow accustomed to over the next seven days.
“Jewish,” I told him. “Why?”
“It’s dangerous,” he said. “You could be killed.”
“Oh, they’re friends,” I replied. He must have had no idea what this old Jewish guy, laden with backpack and shoulder bag, could possibly be thinking. Make this easy, I thought to myself, heaving a sigh. I said goodbye to the friendly border cop, thanked him for his good service, crossed the courtyard in front of the Ibrahimi mosque, then trudged down deserted Al-Shuhada Street. I knew my way. A black soldier asked for my passport and what my religion was. “How do you like Hebron?” he asked.
“It’s hot,” I said.
“You should come in August,” he laughed.
In front of Beit Hadassah settlement, a group of black tourists seemed to be discussing the 1994 massacre at the Ibrahimi mosque – the murder of 29 Muslim worshippers by Brooklyn zealot Baruch Goldstein. It was in response to Goldstein’s rampage that occupation authorities shuttered Palestinian homes and businesses up and down Shuhada Street – the traditional core of Palestinian commerce – banishing it to H-1, where 160,000 of Hebron’s estimated 200,000 inhabitants live. Limited commerce continues in the narrow lanes of the souk, nominally controlled by the PA, but in the shadow of a half dozen settlements where an estimated eight hundred ultra-religious Jews live. (A monument to Goldstein apparently sits in Kiryat Arba, home to another nine thousand or so Jewish settlers).
Past the checkpoint leading up to Tell Rumeida, a hill overlooking Shuhada Street where two hundred Palestinians live amidst eighteen settler families (and a closed military zone since last November), a lone Palestinian approached. A pair of soldiers waved him away, but I walked up to him and we chatted for a moment. Islam was his name and he wanted to sell me a Palestinian bracelet. He lifted up his T-shirt and showed me a scar apparently inflicted by soldiers. I squeezed his shoulder, then continued up to Checkpoint 56. Flashed before your eyes in a Rorschach test, Israel’s new checkpoint separating Shuhada Street from PA-administered H-1 might be perceived as a high-voltage substation, or an industrial meat grinder. Crossing through it from Israeli-controlled H-2 is a breeze. Much easier than in the opposite direction – as I would soon see.
Passing from Shuhada Street into H-1 is like stepping through a looking glass. Bab Al-Zawiya market bustles with commercial activity: fruit and vegetable vendors shout at each other and passersby; yellow Palestinian taxis race this way and that, honking their horns in a deafening cacophony. Women in elegant long dresses, colourful hijabs and sunglasses inspect apparel in the innumerable shops lining the sidewalks, children in tow. Men lounge about, or labour in innumerable ways. Walking on the sidewalk can be an impossible proposition. One must step onto the street, dodging cars and other pedestrians. I made my way up Ein Sara street to the Hebron Hotel – more commonly known as the Alamana. I had stayed here in 2012, and had secured a room for the whole week, $30 per night. I spent the day settling in, then returned to the old city to case out the location of the Christian Peacemakers Team, who I would be accompanying the following morning, bright and early.
Monday morning, I rose at dawn and returned to the spot. Luke, Chloe and I walked through the souk, past an Israeli checkpoint, to the corner of a square on the bottom of Shuhada Street, twenty meters from another checkpoint – Qitoun. There, together with a pair of observers from the Temporary International Presence in Hebron (more on them in a bit), we watched schoolchildren come and go. Soldiers and checkpoints intimidate kids. When rocks get thrown, soldiers and police teargas or spray skunk water throughout neighborhoods, Luke and Chloe told me (something I already knew). With exams now underway, the kids were particularly stressed by Israel’s architecture of oppression.
But the situation has calmed considerably since last Fall, when several dozen Palestinians were killed by Israeli soldiers and police here in Hebron, in the course of alleged knife attacks. Save for an occasional rock and burst of tear gas rounds, this week would be quiet. I took plenty of photos of checkpoints, though, and spoke with soldiers and police, invariably pleased to hear that I was Jewish.
On Monday evening I crossed Checkpoint 56 onto Shuhada Street, without a hitch, chatting with a helmeted, fully clad, heavily perspiring soldier on the other side. Down Shuhada I strolled, to another pair of soldiers standing at a guard box between Beit Hadassah settlement and a set of stairs leading up to Tell Rumeida. He studied my passport. Across from them, a young man slouched against the hood of a car. I walked over. Are you Jewish?” he asked.
“Of course,” I replied.
“Nice!” he said, nodding his head. We exchanged names. Israel was born in Boston, moving to Hebron at a young age. “What do you do?” he asked. I explained that I taught anatomy and physiology in Canada, and he thought this was interesting.
“Staying with the Arabs?” he asked.
“Yah,” I replied. “Cheaper, and they’re very friendly.”
“Oh, that’s true,” he replied, with a tinge of irony in his voice. “Don’t tell them you’re Jewish.”
“Oh, I tell everyone that,” I said (exaggerating for effect). Over the course of the week, I would tell several Palestinians that I was Jewish – and lived to tell the story.
I asked Israel about Baruch Marzel, one of Tell Rumeida’s most militant Jewish settlers. He pulled out his smart phone and gave Marzel a ring, gazing down at my business card as he spoke. Marzel had no time for me at this moment, it turned out, but I would drop in on him later in the week. I thanked Israel for his assistance and continued on my way. On a brightly lit basketball court down the street from Beit Hadassah, a group of settler kids were playfully roughhousing and tossing a ball around. I reflected for a moment, then walked back and took a couple of shots. Immediately a hand shot up to block my view. “No pictures,” the oldest of them yelled.
“Oh yes! A picture,” yelled a younger one, clearly amused.
“Erase it! Erase it!” yelled the older one, waving angrily as he walked towards me. Right, I thought to myself, retreating slowly, while saying “Sure! Sure!” I’m about to get assaulted by a pack of knit-capped, long locked settler youth. A few steps further down the street, looking over my shoulder, a mangy yellow dog lurking on a garbage heap snarled menacingly at me. Okay, the voice in my head continued. I’m that ill-fated character in the film Fellini never made, who gets his throat ripped out by a rabid dog. As I hurried along, a few Palestinian men and a boy greeted me with a “Salaam alaikum!” Peace be with you.
“Alaikum salaam,” I answered back. I was safe, and continued on to the checkpoint leading to the Ibrahimi mosque. There, I exchanged greetings with a pair of border police, one black, the other Mizrahi. “Shalom,” I said.
“Are you Jewish?” the Mizrahi asked, studying my passport.
“Of course,” I replied. “Very nice,” he smiled, broadly.
“Why is it nice?” I asked.
“Oh, you know,” he said, struggling with his English. “Everyone who comes here is … Christian.”
“Yes,” I said, nodding affirmatively. I understood.
Soon, a chorus of muezzin filled the air. God, this must really piss off these Jews, I thought to myself happily.
I wanted to take a shortcut through the souk, back to my hotel, but an attractive blonde soldier with a very big gun, questioning me closely about my religion, told me I couldn’t. It doesn’t always pay to be a Jew. “Mazel tov!” I said to another pair of soldiers as I walked back down Shuhada Street, feeling proud to have mastered the lingo. I slipped through the steel turnstile at Checkpoint 56, through the looking glass, and heaved a sigh of relief.
On Tuesday morning I took a taxi uptown to speak with folks from Temporary International Presence in Hebron (TIPH). A friendly Swede named Ingrid Bohlen described their work. TIPH was established in February 1994, following the Ibrahimi mosque massacre. Israel and the PLO invited Italian, Danish and Norwegian observers to patrol the old city, which they did between May and August 1994. Under the terms of the 1997 Hebron Protocols, the mission was renewed. Observers from Norway, Italy, Denmark, Sweden, Switzerland and Turkey have patrolled Hebron’s old city since then. Confidential reports are issued to these governments, and to Israel and the Palestinian Authority.
TIPH’s neutrality being of the essence, Bohlen and the media officer who sat in with us were very circumspect in their comments. Bohlen did confirm well known facts – that settlers throw solid garbage and a variety of fluids into the souk, for example. TIPH contributed to the installation of protective fences, although these don’t block fluids like urine and bleach.
“Is movement in the city free, without obstacles or barriers, as prescribed in the 1997 Hebron Protocol?” I asked.
“No, it’s not; its not,” said Bohlen, stating the obvious. Checkpoints make life difficult for Palestinians, she continued. And TIPH’s relations with Jewish settlers?
“We generally do not interact with settlers, and settlers do not interact with us,” Bohlen said. “We are there and they are there. There are episodes when TIPH observers receive harassment from settlers.”
“What sort?” I asked.
“Standing in front of our cars; it can be words; it can be showing the middle finger. Those kinds of things happen.” Before Bohlen arrived, there was an incident where a settler attacked a TIPH observer. In contrast, shopkeepers in Hebron’s old city tend to appreciate TIPH’s presence, says Bohlen.
There are magic spots in old Hebron that beg to be revisited again and again. Shuhada Street and its adjoining warren of alleys provoke admiration and sorrow. It took a handful of conversations with a variety of people to fully comprehend the damage Israel’s closure has caused. Hebron is Palestine’s commercial powerhouse, a magnet for merchants and customers from as far away as Nablus and Gaza. Jamal, a shopkeeper who inherited his stall from his father, spoke eloquently about how things used to be: narrow Al-Shallalah street and the souk beyond Al-Baladya square (parallel to Shuhada, across from the Jewish settlements) packed with shoppers, often arriving by cars to shop and pray at the nearby Ibrahimi mosque. In the wake of Shuhada Street’s closure – its shops welded shut, the old vegetable and chicken markets walled off – commerce shifted to the Bab al-Zawiya market beyond Checkpoint 56. Vegetable, meat, clothing and craft merchants who’d operated out of tidy stalls would now sell their wares from wooden carts. Shoppers, in turn, congregated outside the old city. The once packed streets of the old quarter became quiet, even on busy days.
Wandering through the old souk, I discovered the Al-Sawakneh quarter, an astonishing maze of tunnels and courtyards that beg to be mastered by an intrepid tourist. It’s dangerous, Israeli soldiers and police told me. You’ll be killed. I ignored their advice. On one such outing, I stumbled upon the Hebron Rehabilitation Center and adjoining Friendship Garden, an oasis of sunlit greenery, elegant hospitality and vibrant political discussion. I had several conversations with its manager, Sofiaan Sharabati.
Over various coffees and non-alcoholic beer, Sofiaan recounted his family’s militant roots: how his father and older brother – hard core Fatah militants – were jailed in the late seventies, then released, along with some thousand PLO fighters, in exchange for a handful of Israeli soldiers captured in Lebanon; how his other brother had killed a Jewish settler and is now serving a life sentence in an Israeli jail.
Sofiaan pursued a startling different path. As a child he hung out with Jewish kids. He came to embrace heretical beliefs: that God did promise Israel to the Jews; that it is their land; that Palestinian leaders are Mafiosi, and their people not a true nation; nowhere near as smart or worthy as the Jews; that there will never be a Palestinian state. What gives you hope, I asked Sofiaan? To see the Israeli flag flying, he told me. His views anger some, and provoke many arguments. But he doesn’t give a shit. Many agree with him, but haven’t the balls to speak out, he says. Uncomfortable ideas for an anti-Zionist like me, but I would return for more, sitting down with Sofiaan for a recorded interview.
When I wasn’t wandering the streets of Hebron’s old city, getting chatted up by shopkeepers, debating politics with Sofiaan, or confirming tribal membership to Israeli soldiers and police, I was trudging up and down the narrow, rubble-strewn paths of Tell Rumeida, high above Al-Shuhada Street. I had imagined Tell Rumeida as a place of fear and loathing, where a couple hundred Palestinian families cling to their land, under constant threat from a tiny population of violent Jewish settlers shielded by soldiers and police; their backyards transformed into a closed military zone; the ugliest manifestation of Israeli Apartheid.
This is all true. But Tell Rumeida is also a place of great beauty, a towering oasis of wind-blown fields, crisscrossed by paths of golden dirt, dotted by the most remarkably gnarled, ancient olive trees; a fabulous place to fly a kite, or escape the stifling tribalism of Al-Shuhada street below. From an eastern promontory, Abraham is said to have gazed down at a pair of holy caves where he and his family would soon be laid to rest.
The first couple of times I trudged up to Tell Rumeida I was by myself, furtively glancing this way and that, wary of hurled rocks, angry shouts or, God forbid, a gunshot. I stopped to admire the remarkable olive trees. I met a young man named Imad, who studies mechanical engineering at a Hebron university. Sitting on the patio of a house he and his family rent from an absent owner (so that settlers don’t take it over), he described the unfriendly advances of local Jewish settlers. His kid sister beamed at the curious man who’d come to visit with a smile that puts the sun to shame.
Beside the house local group Youth Against Settlements once occupied, now an empty, Israeli-declared closed military zone, I watched a bunch of kids flying a kite – a powerfully invigorating image of liberation from the daily woes of Israeli occupation. I had been to the YAS house in 2012. Wandering behind the house, I gazed across a gully to a Palestinian property where settlers had been barbecuing that night, four years ago. A half dozen paces away, beneath a blue sky and brilliant sun, stood a heavily perspiring Israeli soldier. We smiled at each other, and I began to approach.
“No, no!” the soldier warned, waving his finger. “Not this way. You have to go around!”
“Oh come on!” I smiled. “Let me just come over!” All I wanted to do was step up to him and have a brief, friendly conversation. But no. For several moments, we jousted back and forth in a friendly way – me saying that it was just a few paces; him replying that, no, I would have to walk around the property and enter from the opposite direction; glancing furtively over his shoulder, lest another soldier or superior spot the dangerous situation he was now grappling with. This was absurd, I smiled back. Come on! Let me just step over. “No, no,” he insisted.
So I stepped back down the path and walked around the house, as he instructed. Tell Rumeida is a surreal world. There, on the top of another dirty path, I came upon another Palestinian property, leading to a gate, then a military base and paved road connected to Shuhada Street below. This would be the ideal path for Palestinians to drive along to their own homes. Instead, like me, the Occupation obliges them to follow the much longer, scenic, rubbly route. Above this little military base sits a set of orange trailers where a half dozen Jewish settlers live.
Baruch Marzel is one of these. I dropped in on Marzel that day, unannounced, having asked for directions from various soldiers. One of them checked my passport and asked if I was armed. “No,” I told him, with feigned surprise. He didn’t ask to check my bag. I knocked on Marzel’s door, spoke briefly with his wife, and then Marzel came out. Come back in half an hour, said Marzel. So I sat on a bench – beside a set of Bronze age and Byzantine ruins Marzel and others claim as evidence that Abraham, his family and all the Kings of Israel lived here – watching a pleasant group of settler kids cavort on a play structure.
Finally, I had my sitting with Boston-born Baruch Marzel. My line of questioning, aimed at teasing out anything in the way of a liberal or conciliatory view, did not amuse him. For every Arab killed by Jews, Marzel told me, a thousand Jews have been brutally murdered by Arabs. Killing Jews – and other Arabs – is part of their religion. The Nazis never sent their children to blow up Jews. Arabs do this as second nature. Look at how many Muslims have been killed by Muslims in Syria and Iraq! Stupid people and anti-Semites like me don’t understand. Everyone hates the Jews, but God is on their side. That’s all that matters. There will never, ever, ever be a Palestinian state.
I asked Marzel if he could introduce himself once more, on tape. This is useful in creating audio documentaries, I told him. He declined. He did let me take his photo. “Great shot,” I said, checking the image.
“At least the camera is objective,” he retorted.
“Oh,” I quickly replied, “There’s no such thing as ‘objective journalism’. Fairness, yes.”
With that, Marzel rose and left the room. “Mazel tov,” I said to his head-scarfed wife, standing in the kitchen, and departed, heading down the hill to where mortally wounded Abdel Fattah Al-Sharif had been shot in the head by Israeli soldier-medic Elor Azaria. Nearby, I asked a Palestinian man if he spoke English. He led me to the door of his house and called for his wife. The woman approached, hurriedly putting on her hijab. She barely spoke English either, but she summoned her daughter to bring me something to drink. The girl went away, then returned with a fluted glass of cold tamarind juice on a metal tray. I drank it, thanked the woman and her daughter, then walked down to a lamp post, leaned against it and wept.
Uphill from the spot where Abdel Fattah Al Sharif’s blood still seems to stain the pavement, a British-born man named Dawud lives with his Palestinian wife, whilst advocating for the opening up of Shuhada Street. He is a well known fixture in Tell Rumeida and the old city, and kids come running when they see him. Surrounded by them, he plays a hand-slapping game, then hands out sweets. On Friday, Dawud took me on a walk through Tell Rumeida. We spent much time at the site of Bronze Age/Byzantine ruins. Some Israeli archaeologists claim these are part of David’s temple; others dispute the notion. Dawud described in great detail the disputes he and his wife’s family have had with Israel’s Antiquities Authority, who’ve encroached on their land. Archaeology in the service of land confiscation, Dawud calls it.
On our way back to his house we encountered a pair of Israeli soldiers. “Let’s go over and talk to them,” I said. Our thirty-minute exchange was captured by my audio recorder, held close to my chest, in fully open view.
“So, what are you doing here? What’s your job?” I asked the pair.
“To protect the Jewish …,” Soldier Number One began saying, from several yards away, up a set of steps.
“Not the Jewish,” piped up Soldier Number Two (a better English speaker). “Not just the Jewish; no, really … all the citizens. If there’s a fight, we are …”
“But Palestinians are not citizens,” I countered.
“We are protecting everyone who lives here,” said Soldier Number Two. “If that means there’s a fight between Jewish and Palestinian people, we protect both.”
A friendly debate ensued between me, Dawud and the soldiers. The IDF is even-handed and professional, the soldiers insisted. “A lot of times,” said Soldier Number Two, “the Jewish boys, they’re really, they’re being, let’s say …” He paused to think. “Yesterday, I saw two little Palestinian girls walking by a Jewish boy. He was, like, sixteen years old, and [he] started shouting at them. Right when I saw that I wasn’t in uniform; I went there; I talked to him. I walked him away from there. And that’s it. The Palestinian girls walked. They also started fighting with him, but I saw he started it. He was the one to do the troubling.”
Soldier Number Two launched into an analysis of what soldier-medic Elor Azaria had done, just down the street, shooting Abdel Fattah Al-Sharif in the head. “Sometimes people do bad things. Of course, they should be arrested. He shot the Palestinian guy. Now he’s in the jail … He did a bad thing … He got his punishment.”
Was Israel practicing apartheid, I asked? It seems so.
“I was sure too, that the Palestinians living really like apartheid, and live outside, by military law, but it’s really not like that,” said Soldier Number Two.
Will there be a Palestinian state, I asked?
“To tell you the truth, I don’t know,” said Soldier Number Two. “I don’t think so. I don’t really care about it. I’m, like, doing my job here. We don’t care about [political] things in the IDF.”
Later that afternoon, exhausted, my gut uneasy, I returned to my hotel room, checked my email, chatted on Facebook for a bit, then lay down. Through my open window, a bit after five, a barrage of short, sharp bangs resonated in the distance. Tear gas rounds, or fireworks from a noisy wedding parade starting to build up steam? I got up, put my pants, shirt and socks back on and headed back to the old city. At the very least, I would grab a bite to eat.
But it was Friday afternoon, and everything was locked and shuttered tight; hardly anyone moving, save for a squadron of male wedding revellers driving their cars up and down Ein Sara. As I approached Youth Against Settlements’ new headquarters, just outside Checkpoint 56, I spotted a young YAS volunteer and her American journalist friend. Had I heard the news, the YAS volunteer asked? We’ve won! The military closure of Tel Rumeida has been lifted! I had my doubts whether YAS was responsible for this, or if the military had simply decided that things had calmed down.
The two were heading off to a prison release party for Palestinian journalist Muhammad al-Qiq. Would I like to come along? I thought for a moment, then declined. My guts were unwell, the party was out of town, I didn’t know anyone there, and I couldn’t cope with a late night out. I bid my young friends goodbye as they climbed into their bright yellow service taxi, then headed down the street to find something to eat. A 12-shekel shawarma, sitting down to eat it on some stone steps, hit the spot. The wedding party, now raucous, roared down the avenue in front of me: young men behind the wheels of their cars, others hanging out open windows. The drivers lurched forwards, then slammed on their brakes before smashing into the car in front of them, bumper car-style. It all seemed foolish and irresponsible. Hebron women are so much more dignified, wrapped in their long dresses and hijabs, holding children by the hand; doing the shopping. I finished my shawarma and head back uptown. A pair of donkeys ambled slowly in the opposite direction, temporarily blocking traffic. One stopped to relieve itself on the median, in an impressively powerful stream that flowed down onto the pavement.
Saturday – my last full day in Hebron. I rose at 6:30, checked email and Facebook, then breakfasted on cheese, sliced tomato, cucumber and olives, washed down by Nescafe instant coffee. I did my laundry – a sanctified task – in a big white bucket provided by hotel staff. They escorted me to the hotel roof, where I hung my clothes to dry beneath a brilliant sun.
My aim was to head down to the old city to witness the customary Jewish settlers’ march through the old city, shouting “Death to Arabs” and other neighborly incantations. Dawud and I rendezvoused at the Al-Baladya intersection, where New Shallala street enters the souk, beneath Beit Hadassah settlement, camouflaged guard tower and barbed wire barriers. We walked about, then passed through the Ibrahimi mosque checkpoint and up Tell Rumeida.
As we started ascending the hill, a police car pulled up beside us. Behind the wheel sat a police officer of a certain rank, with a young soldier beside him. Dawud and I were visibly suspect: An English-speaking Muslim resident of Tell Rumeida, kuffiyeh around his neck, and a Canadian Jew with one of those Palestinian bead bracelets around his wrist. After a round of close questioning and hard looks, he let us go. We climbed to the top of Tell Rumeida and gazed down on the valley below, bathed in that late afternoon light that photographers adore, old and new neighborhoods now thrown into distinct shades of golden brown and light beige. What other promontory might Abraham have been standing on when he spied that pair of caves, owned by Ephron the Hittite, which he decided buy as a burial plot for himself and his family?
Later, having parted ways with Dawud, I descended the paved road to Checkpoint 56, towards the spot where Hadeel Al-Hashlamoon was gunned down for no good reason eight months ago. Behind me, I noticed the same police cruiser creeping toward me. It passed beside me and halted. The same police officer gazed at me intently from behind the wheel, the soldier in green beside me now, staring straight ahead. “Why are you here? What are you doing?” he asked in halting English. What follows is a reconstruction of the twenty-minute conversation that ensued.
“I’m a tourist and a journalist,” I told the officer. “A Canadian Jew.”
“Why Hebron?” he asked.
“It’s beautiful. I like Hebron,” I replied.
“Tel Aviv is beautiful. Jerusalem is beautiful. Be’er Sheva is beautiful. Go there!” he replied in put-on jocular fashion.
“Sure they’re beautiful,” I countered. “But Hebron is very beautiful.” I asked the cop where he was from. Be’er Sheva, he told me. At one point, the soldier beside him spoke a few words, in English, with a clear American accent. I asked him where he was from. New York, the soldier told me. How long had he been here in Israel? A year or so, he replied. Where in New York, I asked? New York, the soldier repeated, staring straight ahead.
“You walk along, around and around,” said the cop, acidly. “You go into places you don’t belong. You could get killed. We have to come and save you.”
“You don’t need to save me,” I laughed.
“You’re looking for trouble, like all you journalists.”
“I’m not looking for trouble. I don’t have anything out. Everything is in my bag,” I replied, raising my hands to show him my camera was away.
“This is the Sabbath. You have your politics. You cause trouble.”
“You have your politics too,” I replied.
“I don’t have politics,” said the cop. “I’m a police officer.” Soon, though, he segued into a screed about Grad rockets launched from Gaza onto defenseless Israeli communities. “These people [Hebron Jews] see themselves as a shield. You’re hear looking for problems; just looking around for trouble.”
A pair of Palestinian men walking up the hill – collaborators, perhaps – passed by the policeman’s open window. The three exchanged greetings. “See?” the soldier said. “We get along just fine. It’s people like you who cause trouble.”
At this point, feeling vulnerable – possibly about to be asked to get into the back of the car – I started to get angry. Look, I said. I’m a Jew. This is the Jewish state. Two hundred and fifty members of my family died in Sobibor. My grandmother died in Sobibor. Her name is carved on Mount Zion. I could make aliah tomorrow if I wished, and become an Israeli citizen within a week. Are you telling me I don’t have a right to walk here, among Jews?
The cop stared at me with steely eyes. “You people just want to cause problems. There are no problems here.”
Suddenly, the policeman’s smart phone rang, calling him away. Before leaving, he shared a final of warning. Watch out. Then he drove off, and I descended the hill to the checkpoint. Thinking for a moment, I decided to turn left, through the turnstile and back to my hotel.
I departed Hebron early on Sunday afternoon. Seven Days in Abraham’s hometown. I had spoken with a dozen Israeli soldiers and police, a handful of Jewish settlers, several foreign activists and international observers, and a whole bunch of ordinary Palestinians trying to eke out a living under military occupation and apartheid. Back pack and Mountain Equipment Coop bag over my shoulders, I trudged down to the old city for my last trip to the souk, where I purchased a few items from my friend Jamal. Then, I headed for the taxi stop where a little Palestinian bus destined for Bethlehem was parked. I threw my bags onto the front seat – I like riding shotgun – and stepped out onto the sidewalk. A shopkeeper engaged me in discussion. Inevitably, the conversation turned to religion.
“What’s your religion?” the shopkeeper asked. I paused for a moment, then said “Yehuda.” A slight expression of surprise flickered across the man’s face.
“We have nothing against Jews,” he said. “It’s the settlers who are a problem.” I nodded in agreement. There’s a difference between Jews, Israelis, Zionists and settlers, I told him. He seemed to understand, but I can’t be sure.
The bus began to fill, and I got in. Soon we took off, racing up Ein Sara, past the hotel where I had slept for seven nights. Beside me, a mother sat with her two small daughters, the smallest on her knee, the other whining gently and demanding attention. At one point, the mother adjusted her dress and took the little one to her breast. I stared out the window, intent on observing Israel’s “Matrix of Control” in all its detail. I scribbled my observations in my notebook:
At the junction between Highways 35 and 60, a pair of Israeli soldiers in a grove, their vehicle parked beside the road, surrounded by a dozen Palestinians presumably trying to make a living.
A big red sign reading “Entrance to this area forbidden to Israelis. Dangerous to your lives.”
Checkpoints and barrier gates wherever unpaved roads from Palestinian villages emerge onto the highway.
Guard towers and tall, chain-linked or barbed-wire fences along the road in built-up areas.
Huge concrete blocks with thick steel loops on top to hoist into place as barriers.
A long line of cars at the junction to Gush Etzion and Efrat settlements, soldiers sitting behind guard posts, automatic weapons at the ready.
Two soldiers walking a muzzled German shepherd.
Soon I would be in Beit Jala, next to Bethlehem, where Christ was born, surrounded by a huge concrete barrier.