Hebron, located just 30 km south of Jerusalem, is the second biggest city in the West Bank of Palestine. Hebron is home to about 200,000 Palestinians and 500 Israeli settlers, and under the Oslo Accords is divided into two sections: H1, which covers 80% of the city and is under control of the Palestinian Authority, and H2, which is completely under Israeli military control. Hebron is also the center of the ongoing 60-year conflict between Israel and Palestine, mostly because of land disputes over Israeli settlements in the city.
It’s 1:00 AM when I finally bid farewell to Ben after hours and hours of trying to solve world peace over beers and falafel in Jerusalem. We’re both exhausted from an emotionally draining day in Hebron, but the conversations we’ve had all day and long into the night have been stimulating and enjoyable for both of us.
We met for the first time this morning at Abraham Hostel, where, along with 22 other people, we embarked on the “Hebron
Dual Narrative” tour. Our guide is Eliyahu McLean, founder of Jerusalem Peacemakers, a grass-roots organization consisting of a half-dozen Jewish and Muslim religious leaders committed to using religion as a means for peace. Eliyahu is a Berkeley-educated Hawaiian Orthodox Jew living in Jerusalem. He is passionate, articulate, and most important, unwilling to pass judgment on either side of the conflict.
“Welcome to the Dual Victim Narrative Tour,” Eliyahu jokes. “Today you will hear both sides of the Israel/Palestine conflict tell you that they’ve been victimized by the other side. Your job is to sift through the stories and make your own opinions.” Easier said than done. Just coming to Hebron is a big deal. I was prepared to lie to the Israeli immigration officer if they asked if I planned to go to the West Bank or Gaza because if I said yes, chances are I could be detained for hours of interrogation. And when I told my Israeli friends my plans, their reactions ranged from “why?” to “you’re going to die.” Hebron, it seems, is Ground Zero for the ongoing conflict between Israelis and Palestinians.
As our chartered bus drives from Jerusalem, we pass a large wall with a strange concrete overhang. Our side of the wall is Israeli territory; the other side is the West Bank. The wall has been specifically designed to protect vehicles on the Israeli side from rocks launched by Palestinians. This is starting to feel very real.
Our morning will be spent with Mohammed, a member of the Volunteers for Peace organization based in Hebron. At only 26, Mohammed has had his strong opinions shaped by years of run-ins with the Israeli Defense Force (IDF), starting with his first arrest for rock throwing at age 11 that included a month in solitary confinement. Every male member of his extended family has spent time in Israeli prisons, he tells me.
Mohammed ushers us away from the modern part of Hebron and points out a Palestinian policeman, noting that they are not allowed to carry guns. Yet on every corner I see groups of Israeli soldiers
with automatic rifles – even though we’re in H1, the section of the city that is under Palestinian Authority control. Mohammed takes us through the old city market, which is backed up to Shahuda Street, the site of some of the highest tensions in the city. Shahuda Street used to be a main thoroughfare through town and a bustling commercial center with modern shops run by Arabs. In 1994 an Israeli settler massacred 29 worshippers at the Ibrahim Mosque on that street. The IDF’s response: shut down the street to the Palestinians, the victims of the massacre, in order to protect the community of Israeli settlers that spawned the killer. Stores were shuttered with no compensation to the owners, and now the street serves as an armed checkpoint beyond which no Palestinian may pass. I begin to understand why the Palestinians are so bitter.
Shuttering the street to Palestinians has enabled some Israelis to illegally move into apartments above the old stores on Shahuda Street. The backs of the apartments look down on Hebron’s old market. As I walk the streets of the old market I notice netting above the shops that’s filled with trash. I ask Mohammed about it and learn that the settlers dump their trash onto the Arab shops on a daily basis as a form of harassment. “They’re trying to push us even further out of our own city,” he tells me.
Hebron is Palestine’s largest industrial center, with over 14,000 factories at its heyday before the second Intifada. “We are not just asking for peace,” Mohammed tells me. “We need it. Unemployment is over 50%. We don’t build new factories because we know they will be destroyed in the next war. We have nothing left to give up. We need peace.”
Mohammed introduces us to some shopkeepers, who share different stories about living under Israeli occupation. “It’s a 30 minute drive from Hebron to Ramallah,” one of them says, “but with all the checkpoints it takes at least two hours. With traffic can be six hours. And for what? This is land that’s supposed to be under Palestinian Authority but the IDF makes all the rules.”
Another tells about his cousin’s family, who live in a refugee camp since their home was destroyed by the IDF. Camps are much more crowded than the cities and villages, but they often have no sewage or other infrastructure, even though they are managed by the UN Relief Agency.
By now, lots of things are bothering me, so I start asking some tough questions of Mohammed, like why rock throwing at settlers and soldiers is so pervasive. “Don’t you think they might loosen the reins a bit if there wasn’t so much violence being directed at them?”
“We grow up angry,” he tells me. “We listen to our older brothers and our cousins who can’t find work in Hebron and can’t cross into Jerusalem to work. We look up to them and we want to emulate them, so we start young. By the time we’ve been in prison a few times, the anger becomes our own. Besides, the Israelis never retreat. We could go 20 years without throwing a single rock and they’d keep just as many soldiers here because of the settlers.”
“The settlements are illegal,” Mohammed says. “The Oslo Accords were meant to start the Israeli withdrawal from Palestinian lands, but 20 years later the IDF is still here and the settlements keep growing. In Hebron there are 2,200 soldiers to protect 500 settlers. It’s legal for settlers to carry pistols and M16s but not Palestinians. We get 10 years in prison if we throw one rock over the check point, but in the last Intifada, Israeli citizens shot and killed Palestinians with no punishment. Of course we’re angry over that. We feel powerless and there’s no end in sight.”
I ask if his family has always lived here, and he says no. “They moved here after the Nakba,” he tells me, using the Arabic word for catastrophe or disaster that Palestinians use to refer to the 1948 Israeli declaration of their new state. Several wars, border realignments and generations later, Mohammed’s generation is caught in the same limbo his grandparents experienced in 1948. This prompts me to ask if it wouldn’t have been better if his family had stayed put – after all, thousands of Arab Israelis live peacefully side by side with their Jewish neighbors. “It’s too late for that,” he says pragmatically. The “right to return” is one of the hot buttons for peace negotiations because land formerly belonging to families like Mohammed’s has long ago been taken over by Israelis. More important though, is that allowing Palestinians to return would disrupt the Israeli majority in population and government and could put the state at risk of collapse.
I go back to the tough questions again, asking, “Can you understand why the Israelis feel threatened by Palestinians, especially with all the civilian attacks, the rockets from Gaza, and the tunnels built underground into Israeli neighborhoods?” I’m hoping to see a glimpse of compassion, anything to give me hope that there could be a middle ground. No luck. “They came in and took over our land,” he says. “We just want it back. Is that so wrong? Wouldn’t you fight for your home if someone came in and took it away from you?”
Mohammed’s final comment to me is the most interesting. “I don’t want to see a two-state solution. This has always been one land, and that’s how it should stay.” “Under whose rules?” I ask, but Mohammed just gives me a sly smile. “That all depends on who has the votes,” he says.
It’s only halfway through the day and I’m already exhausted by the time we meet the other side of the story. Tsippi is the head of the Tel Rumeida settlement and begins her part of what I’m now calling the Propaganda Tour with a tale of an Arab uprising that spawned the massacre of 67 Jews in Hebron in 1929 and led to all Jews abandoning the city for decades. She’ll come back to this tale several times in our hours together, but in between she also tells us of the death of her father, Rabbi Shlomo Ra’anan, at the hands of an Arab terrorist in 1998.
For centuries, Jews and Arabs lived peacefully side by side in Hebron. Then in the 1920’s, when Jews from Europe and the United States began immigrating to Israel in larger numbers, a handful of firebrand religious leaders on both sides began fanning the flames of fear. This led to the fateful three-day massacre. “Each year we hold a commemorative ceremony to remind ourselves of the danger we still face,” Tsippi tells us. “Do you also commemorate the Arabs who sheltered and saved over 400 Jewish citizens during the massacre?” I ask. Tsippi looks at me with daggers in her eyes and responds sharply that “we shouldn’t have to celebrate people doing the right thing.”
In 1984, Rabbi Ra’anan and a handful of other settlers from the nearby Kiryat Arba settlement on the outskirts of Hebron moved trailers to what is now Tel Rumeida. For a decade the Israeli government steadfastly refused requests to erect permanent buildings on the site or expand the community. That all changed with the rabbi’s murder. The first permanent structure built was a Hebrew learning center built in the rabbi’s bedroom by his widow. Today the community consists of nearly 500 residents.
“This land has been in my family for over 200 years, and we have the titles to prove it,” Tsippi tells us. And even though it is situated behind lines that most of the world considers Palestinian territory, she is unwavering in maintaining her right to stay on the land. “Why don’t you apply for Palestinian citizenship?” I ask. She looks at me like I have three heads and replies, “They would never accept me.” I push a little harder and finally she tells us that it’s more important to her to stay in Hebron than it is to remain an Israeli citizen. “My family has been here for centuries and I will not leave here. Even if Hebron gets annexed into a Palestinian state I would still stay. If our government does something so irresponsible as to leave us here unprotected then we will have to protect ourselves.”
Tsippi leaves us with this final thought: “”My ideal solution is a dream. It’s that the Arabs recognize that Jews belong here in Hebron and accept us here peacefully.” I ask the same question I put to Mohammed: “Under whose rules?” but Tsippi won’t answer.
As we leave Tel Rumeida I ask Ben if he noticed that Tsippi used the word “terrorist” rather than “murderer” for the man who killed her father, and we both agree we’ve heard it used far too liberally since we’ve been in Israel. The media’s emotional manipulation of a population by subtle word choices is a subject we’ll come back to several times in our late-night conversation.
We walk through Hebron past settlements that look like any suburb in the U.S., complete with mini McMansions. Eliyahu points out that real estate is much cheaper on this side of the Green Line than in Israeli territory, so settlers can afford to build bigger homes. “Do you think that’s what draws them here?” I ask. “Not that they’d ever admit to,” he replies.
As we turn a corner we run into an IDF patrol. Unlike the other five we’ve seen during the day, these guys are laid back and chatty. I ask if they’re all native born Israelis, and the leader points out the two who immigrated from Ethiopia. There’s no prejudice, they assure me. “He treats us all like shit equally,” they joke. We spend several minutes chatting and taking selfies with them, and they tell me that most of the time it’s mind-numbingly boring to patrol these streets and that they rarely have real confrontations with Palestinians. None of us know that in just a few days’ time this will change and they’ll be back at the center of tensions again.
We head to our final stop, a grove of olive trees that is being hotly contested in a court case. Both the Jewish and Arab contestants have documentation showing ownership, one going back to Ottoman rule and the other to Jordanian rule, which brings up again the question of “right to return.” If your family left property behind during war, do you get to return to it? And if so, when does the statute of limitations run out? Ben and I pick up on the hypocrisy of the issue in both Tsippi’s case and that of the olive groves: Israelis don’t want to allow Palestinians to return to their former homes in what’s now Israel, but Israeli settlers are demanding the right to return to land formerly held by their families on the Palestinian side.
Adjacent to the olive grove is a small shack that serves as headquarters for Youth Against Settlements, an activist group that protests the Israeli settlements through non-violent civil disobedience. Just weeks after I visit, their headquarters will be raided by the IDF and all electronic equipment will be confiscated or destroyed as part of the IDF’s response to escalating violence that began on September 12, 2015 – just a few days after my visit to Hebron – and as of today has left 77 Palestinians and 10 Israelis dead. Read more here about the raid from Al Jazeera.
Both Ben and I are troubled by what we’ve seen and heard today, but most of all what we’ve learned is how complicated the issues are and how deeply rooted each side’s feelings are. “This morning when you asked Mohammed all those questions I was sure you were pro-Israel,” Ben tells me, “but then this afternoon you hit the Israelis just as hard. So which side are you on?”
I am pro-peace, I tell him. I am pro- get your head out of your ass and stop acting like toddlers saying “he did it to me first.” I am pro- be willing to look at it from the other side’s perspective and be willing to let go of what’s happened in the past so you can move forward and make peace. But after my time in Israel and the West Bank, I am less optimistic than ever. Still, I hold a glimmer of hope. Here are my observations and opinions:
- Not one Palestinian that I spoke with has a problem with the Jewish religion. For them it’s not about religion, it’s about land and freedom of self-rule. Virtually all of the Jewish people mention religion and biblical history when they speak of their right to live there.
- There are thousands of Chinese people living in San Francisco, but they live under the laws of the United States and China does not send their army to protect them. Moreover, if there was a Chinese army in my backyard, I can guarantee that I would be throwing stones and launching rockets to get them out. Israeli settlers want to live in land that has been allocated by treaty to the Palestinians, but they want to do it under Israeli law and under the protection of the Israeli military. I can’t find anything reasonable about that.
- Both sides indoctrinate their children with their own biases and instill fear and hatred before their children can talk and walk. There’s no peaceful future in that.
- A few religious leaders on both sides use their position to stir up passions against the other side. Stop. Just Stop. And people, stop listening to it.
- Not one person I spoke with on either side was willing to show any empathy or compassion for the other side. That depressed me more than anything else.
- It’s not all bad. There are groups out there that have been very successful at bringing people from both sides together to make meaningful change. Seeds of Peace brings teenagers from conflict areas together for three weeks of conflict resolution training and dialog every year in an effort to disrupt the pattern and usher in a new generation of open-minded leadership. They have graduated over 5,500 Seeds, many who have gone on to careers in government and business, and often the friendships made with campers from the “other side” can last for decades. At a more grassroots level, Peace-Factory serves as an open forum where people from all sides can connect and show their support and love. Like them on Facebook at http://facebook.com/the.Peace.Factory/?fref=ts