Hebron, Sansana, South Hebron Hills, Tarqumiya, Tue 1.7.08, Morning
Reporting in English - Erik (a guest)
Sansana - Meitar checkpoint
We arrived a bit before 7:00 am. It was pretty quiet today, I was told. It looked like a normal border crossing in any country, except perhaps for some extra security forces, a few more fences than usual, a few more feet higher than one would find in other places in the world. At the checkpoint, there were two busloads of mostly women and children waiting to cross. They were being brought over the border by the Red Cross to visit their sons and husbands who are in Israeli prisons. We were there for about 20 minutes and they were still mingling around the bus. I wasn’t sure what the hold up was. There were a few workers who passed through, but the majority of people (mostly men) who were there had set up kisosks and food trucks outside the waiting area of the checkpoint. I thought to myself about how amazing it is that people can accommodate (and make money) from desperate situations.
We left the checkpoint to continue our way to Hebron. On the way, Hagit wanted to check the situation in one of the nearby villages. A roadblock of dirt and boulders had been put up by the army that would have blocked our access to the main road that led to the village, but luckily parts of it had been removed apparently by local residents. While a “pill box” lookout station had been reported, one of the local shop keepers said it had been removed a few weeks earlier.
We backtracked to the road to Hebron, and along the way, I saw the stream of open sewage that meandered down the hill along the side of the highway. I couldn’t smell the stench, for the windows were closed, but from the green translucent water, I could tell it would smell.
The road to Hebron, open only to Israeli cars, was newly paved in places. Along the way, as we passed various Palestinian villages and towns, I saw more of the make-shift roadblocks made of dirt and boulders. I think almost every (if not every) road leading to a Palestinian village or town had been blocked off. Places where locals had tried to go around these roadblocks, or divert them had been blocked off as well. I was told that rather than using the main road to Hebron, which was open only to Israelis (settlers), there were back roads linking the towns and villages, and eventually led to a road that had access to Hebron as well. I could imagine the bad shape the road probably is, as it meanders through the towns and villages. There were no road signs for any of these towns or villages along the way (a 30-40 minute drive)—only road signs for the settlements that dotted the land, and which had full access to this road.
When we got to the cross roads that would bring us into Kiriat Arba (a large Jewish settlement near Hebron), we stopped to assess the space. Large concrete blocks (roughly 5’X5’) stood on both sides of the roads on all four corners of the intersection. Each block had a large heavy metal gate that was open today. On the East side of the intersection lay an Palestinian town, on the West side lay Hebron and Kiriat Arba. I came to understand that these gates are opened and closed pretty much at will (of the Army). On the Hebron-side of the intersection, a number of taxis stand idle waiting for passangers, on the chance that on this day the gates would be closed. If they had been, Palestinians who had traveled all this way to get to this intersection, would have had to leave their transportation by which they got to the intersection, cross on foot from one side of the intersection to the other, and then catch a taxi or transport into Hebron. I can imagine the exasperation of such a day of travel.
I had seen pictures and heard stories about the difficulties of travel in the west bank, but for the first time--only when I stood at this intersection and surveyed the landscape--did I understand the implications of all these roadblocks. The Palestinians have no freedom of movement within the west bank whatsoever. I thought the main problem was the wall that was being built to keep Palestinians out of Israel. But the wall is only the tip of the iceberg. Behind the wall, lies a labyrinth of roadblocks, checkpoints and Israeli patrol cars that protect not the security of the citizens within the green line, but only the security and freedom of access of the settlers in the West Bank. My eyes, which have viewed the pictures of these things, had failed to express to me the oppressiveness of this system. It was with my body, which was finally engaged in this space, that I felt the dire predicament of the local Palestinian population. If a Palestinian resident would want to go from his or her village to Hebron, a normal 15 minute trip by way of the most direct road to the intersection, would take him or her on a circuitous trip, and perhaps require multiple means of transportation.
We entered into Kiriat Arba, and a strange sensation came over me. For some reason, I had expected the settlements to be different from other Israel towns and cities within the Green line. Yet, it was uncanny, as I felt I was entering any other Israeli town. Being on a hill, it actually reminded me of the entrance to Carmiel, in the Galilee. The first thing I saw was the Mercaz Pise (a community center supported by the weekly lottery), that lies at the center of most Israel development towns. The Egged bus stops lined the streets, along with the many Israeli women, children, and men who were waiting for busses (all, from the looks of their garb, were religious). This could have been any city, anywhere in Israel, yet I knew it was Kiriat Arba, which for me was the symbol of one of the most problematic settlements in the West Bank, in terms of its relations to the Palestinians.
As we drove down the hill from Kiriat Arba, I saw the first sign of the division of the city. As Jewish Apartment buildings spilled into the Arab neighborhoods of Hebron, huge road blocks were installed, each guarded by multiple soldiers on the ground, as well as some in the pillboxes. Patrol cars stood ready at many of the road blocks. I was stunned by the visible division of the neighborhoods by these roadblocks…some of huge boulders, others of closed gates.
The disputed house
As we meandered our way through the city of Hebron, we stopped by a cobbler’s shop, who offered us some coffee. He told us, through an interpreter, that the night before, the settlers had complained to the army about an Arab wedding in the neighborhood, and the families were asked to stop playing music. From the cobbler’s shop we crossed the street on foot and went up a set of stairs. At the top of the stairs, and behind a mosque and a Muslim cemetery, stood a house that had recently been bought by Jewish settlers. Our “guide” Hagit told me that many houses in Arab neighborhoods were being bought up by Jewish settlers. The house was being guarded by 3 Israeli soldiers (I think magavnikim) outside. One was in a pillbox/lookout post. The street in front of the house had been closed off to Palestinian transportation with a large gate blocking the street. As I understand it, for every house bought by a settler in an Arab neighborhood, this is more or less the situation. I realized how much disturbance this caused the Palestinian residents, as a truck which came down the narrow street had to turn around because of the blockade. In a make-shift parking lot, several Palestinian men were fixing a flat tire, as I came to understand was a result of the driver’s having to find alternative, and often hazardous (to their tires at least) improvised routes as a result.
The Shuhada street
After returning to the car, we descended into what was once a thriving shuk (market) in the midst of Hebron. Along the way, I noticed the amount of Hebrew Graffiti written on the walls and doors of the Palestinian’s buildings. “Kahana Chai;” “Revenge” were the only two I remember, along with multiple Stars of David. The symbol, now used to establish power over one’s adversaries, gave me a different sense of feeling than the one I associated with growing up as a Jew in America. It was used here not as a symbol of religion, but as a symbol of aggression. I don’t think it is going too far to say that it reminded me of the graffiti of Swastikas that neo-Nazis use throughout the world to intimidate Jews.
When we got to the abandoned market, I saw installed at one end of the street a huge road block, which allowed no traffic to enter to this side of the city. I realized then, that the entire neighborhood we had descended into, and the adjacent neighborhood we would soon go up into had not automobiles or trucks whatsoever. One half of the blockade was a gate, while the other half was a small structure that looked like a storage shed. I saw several people walking out of the structure and came to understand that the shed was actually a large metal detector. Besides these few people who walked through, there was no one on the streets. All the buildings of what looked like was once a thriving commercial center were closed up. I felt like the neighborhood had been deserted and left as a ghost town. The quiet in the street was ominous, as if something disturbing was to happen. Luckily, nothing did.
We drove up the street a bit, along the sides of which more people were walking. It was a hot day, and a lot of labor to make it up the hill for them, especially for the old man who wiped his brow as he rested for a moment. A high (9 foot or so) concrete wall was put up in sections of the street where there were no buildings along the side. It was ugly and oppressive, put in place to prevent local Palestinians from throwing rocks at their Jewish neighbors (and soldiers) down below. Murals were drawn on parts of it.
At the top of the hill, we got out to survey the topography of the city. I saw how it had been divided up, and the places where Jewish settlers were encroaching, and hence, disturbing the normal goings-on of city life in Arab neighborhoods. As we were about to leave, to descend to the square of the Ma’rat Ha’Machapla, a Palestinian man in his thirties greeted us, and reported to Hagit that the week before, he had been harassed and beaten by some of the settlers. Hagit informed him that there was nothing she could do about it now, but that if it happens again, he should immediately call her, so she can inform army contacts as to the incidence.
The cave of Patriarchs
We descended through the narrow and wandering street to the square just below the Ma’arat ha’machpala. We parked in front of a gift-shop, where there were no tourists, and got out. Nurit went to the bathroom, across the square. No more than half a minute later, a tall man in his late thirties, with a knitted kipa and holding a video camera approached us and began to verbally harass Hagit, and then Joyce, the other American and me: “what are you doing here, you traitor?” “why did you come here to help these killers?” His presence was very menacing toward Hagit, and came within inches to her with his video camera. Hagit crossed the square, wanting to make sure that no harm would become Nurit, who was alone. Once she got to the other side, a car pulled up to where we were standing, and another, younger man got out. He was wearing a talis and had on his taphillan. I was shocked by his behavior, considering the fact that he was wearing these. As the man with the video camera continued his harassment, saying that Hagit and her left wing fanatics were aiding those in Ramala who had lynched two Israelis years back, the man in the taphillan repeatedly yelled loudly “you traitor,” “you belong to the fifth column” (a term used for nazi-supporters in vichy France). They called a hired security guard to intimidate Hagit and the rest of us as well. He added to the verbal assault, and turned to Joyce and me, speaking in English. The whole time, perhaps 4 minutes or so, not one of us said a word. As we went to the car, the old man began to repeatedly yell at us in English “stupid.” The man with the video got on his walkie-talkie to inform others in the area that people from machsom watch were in the area.
I was shocked by the hate and irrational behaviors these men showed. The thought of the settler in his religious gear yelling such hateful things unnerved me. I can’t help but think about how un-jewish these actions were. I felt physically threatened by these people, and immediately thought about the brownshirts—groups of vigilante hoodlums--who intimidated Jews in Germany in the 1930’s. I also realized that ultimately these people were fearful of these women in machsom watch. I cannot help but think that their hatred stems from the fact that they unconsciously are aware that what they are doing is unjust. They have been caught in the act by people with a conscious, and simply cannot justify their action, and hence react with deep fear and hatred.
Hagit asked the driver to make a short cut through a local neighborhood, rather than risk going back through Kiriat Arba, where people had been alerted. On our way through yet another road block, we stopped so that Hagit could explain to us some of the structures along the way. A young soldier, who got unnerved by our car stopping at the entrance to the road block told the driver to pull over. Hagit tried to explain to the soldier that we came from the square below, and didn’t want to go through kiriat Arba. A bit nervous, he called his superior, who told the soldier all was in order, and waved us on.
After leaving Hebron, and making a few more stops along the way, we drove to another border crossing, Tarqumiya, just east of Kiriat Gat. This one seemed a bit larger than the one we saw in the morning. Normally, Israeli vehicles can drive straight through, but we parked where Palestinians need to cross. It was the middle of the day, and besides the local vendors, there was nobody around. A few trucks were going through the checkpoint to exchange their loads with Israeli trucks on the other side. Unlike Sansana checkpoint, this one had high fences, through which Palestinians had to pass in order to go through. While the fences are used to keep the lines of people organized, like the tape in an airport, these fences reminded me more of a jail, or the fences used to corral cattle, then anything. There was a large waiting area with concrete seats at the end of the fences, I assumed for days when there were large numbers of people waiting to cross. Since there were no people crossing at this time, we quickly left the checkpoint and returned to Beer Sheva.
On the ride home, I reflected on my day. I was astonished at how much control the settlers had in the area. Everything in the area was set up for their convenience and security. I was astonished by the amount of Israeli resources that have been squanderd in order to build the roads, roadblocks, and support the army units to protect them. While the benefits of the wall that has been built to separate Israel from the West Bank can be debated, there is no doubt in my mind that the multiple road blocks, restriction of access to Palestinians, and the huge presence of the army has not been established for the security of Israel, or Israelis within the Greenline, but solely for the purpose of securing the settlements themselves. In supporting this huge mechanism of oppression, the frustration and hatred that has surely been built up among the Palestinians can only be reinforced, and further destabilize and threaten the security of the lives of Israelis within the greenline