Hebron Hell 1 and Hell 2

Many friends have asked me how Asif is doing. He is still working hard and quietly in Palestine and has sent this profound despatch from Hebron which I reproduce below.

I recently visited, the city of Hebron or Al-Khalil after having tried a few weeks beforehand. The first time I tried to visit Hebron, it was on a tour with "Breaking the Silence" organized by former IDF officers who have taken the very brave step to speak out to Israeli's and the world about their experiences in Hebron.


Setters met us at the entrance to the city and denied us entry. The Israeli Police (who are responsible for settlers in the West Bank) asked us not to get off our bus as they "could not guarantee our safety". After we confirmed our intention to visit Hebron and not to demonstrate, they told us we would be arrested for "attempting to incite public disorder". After repeating our intention to visit Hebron, we were asked to wait so the police to confer with others. The entire episode was recorded on video as all parties (including the police) are armed with camcorders. After 45 minutes, the area was designated a "closed military area" so we could not enter.

It was only "a closed military area" for the tour bus and not to anybody else.

As we were not able to enter Hebron from the Jewish side and could not enter from the Arab side (it is currently illegal for Israeli's to enter areas administered by the PA) we went to the South Hebron Hills to meet with villagers who spoke about their situation with regards to the lawless nature of settlers and their activities. The settler police also followed our bus around for the entire day to ensure we were not going to harm outposts etc. As our tour guide and ex army officer Yehuda put it, "if I have to work on a Friday, so do they".

The situation in Hebron is one of the oddest here in Palestine in that it is the only city here with settlements in and around the city. The IOF has never withdrawn from this city for this reason. The Hebron agreement divided Hebron into 2 sections, H1 (under full Palestinian control) and H2 under Israeli security control. In 2002, the IOF reentered H1 as part of Operation Defensive shield.

Hebron is home to 150,000 Palestinians with 35,000 living in H2. There are some 500-600 settlers living in H2 many living in the old market area who are protected by some 2000 Israeli soldiers. Hebron also has more checkpoints in and around the city then the entire West Bank, so it is no wonder it's a hotbed for frustration, despair and hopelessness. I call them Hell 1 and Hell 2. (I'm sure I'm not alone in this)

As you drive to Hebron from Ramallah, you travel along winding roads, steep hills, and sharp turns. At various points you see small villages, settlements and olive groves. The road is old, not very well maintained and extremely accident-prone At some point on the way, we travel on a nicely paved well lit highway, but only for a few kilometers as the minute you come near a larger settlement, you must divert to the back road.

The colour of the license plate dictates which road you can use and where you can go in the West Bank. The colour that is issued to you is determined by your race or status within Israel and the West Bank. For a Canadian, this seems highly ridiculous and very problematic.

As you enter the areas surrounding Hebron you start to see many more observation towers, particularly at entrances to small towns and villages. Occasionally you see a gate at the entrance to these towns. This is not to keep trespassers out, I assure you, It's to keep the residents in. In many places the entrances to villages are only open for a certain times in the day for an hour or so, depending on the mood of the officer posted there. (These can change randomly as most IOF officers are young, pissed off, hungry, and unpredictable) Usually it's at the most inconvenient time say, 6:30-7:30 in the morning and 7:00-8:00 in the evening. So if you are say a university student and have classes at 10-4, you must leave your home at 6:30 since there is usually a checkpoint or two on your way and come home after dark in order to sleep in your own damn house.

Upon entering Hebron, you see a bustling, busy city, which looks like other Palestinian cities. The old city market is really quite beautiful; I actually liked it more that the old city market in Jerusalem. I think the fact that there were no fat Tourists walking around in shorts and visors, fake "holy land" stalls and other tourist advertising everywhere was a relief.

As you walk through the market towards the tomb of the Patriarchs and Ibrahim Mosque, you begin to see less and less people, and the shops get more and more sparse. At one point you realize that there is metal netting over your head with garbage, dirty diapers, bottles, bricks, and other rubbish thrown at it from the houses above. "That is what the settlers throw down on us as we walk in the market", our friend who is taking us around tells us, sometimes, it's dirty water, hot coffee, and even bleach. The netting is installed by the Authority to protect whomever is walking below. It doesn't always work.

Although this area we are walking through is 100% Palestinian, IOF soldiers wander the streets whenever they like, enforcing arbitrary curfews, area blockages checkpoints. On Saturday's (shabat for Jews), settlers walk through the old market harassing patrons, overturning shopkeeper display tables, abusing residents, all under the watchful eye of soldiers who are there for "their protection". They are not accountable to anyone, as their actions are accountable to the Israeli Police and not the military. There are several documented cases of setters abusing or attacking IOF soldiers who are trying to stop them from committing acts of violence against Palestinians.

We were able to visit a home of a poor family who lived next to some settler houses. They invited us up to their roof so we can get a better visual of what this odd situation actually looks like. We went up to their roof and we were ordered by a soldier from an observation post some 10 meters from the house to get off the roof, as we didn't have permission to be on it. We responded with a confirmation that we did by the owner of the house and that were just visiting the family. From the roof you can see the ghost town of what used to be the main vegetable market. The shops are closed, there are no people and the entrances to the houses are sealed off with stars of David spray painted on them.

To get an idea of what this situation looks and feels like, imagine a split level roof of a run down house. The to get to the roof you have to climb up a spiral staircase that is covered with a mesh netting as settlers throw garbage on you on your way up. (There is no protection from dirty water, bleach or god forbid urine.). You are forbidden to use the higher level of your roof as you might try something against the 20 settlers who live in a modern, gleaming townhouse complex next to you. You are forbidden to close your front door, as the army won't let you. Soldiers use one room in your home so they can have tea, coffee, or sleep whenever they feel like. Two of your children have been killed after two settler children set their bedroom on fire. No charges are ever laid since the perpetrators of this crime are under 16….after all, children cannot be held accountable. Your kids cry when they hear English because the associate with violence committed by soldiers and settlers. You have been offered $2 Million US to sell your home, but what's the point? 2 of your kids are dead and after they buy this one, you neighbours will be in the same situation you are.

Can you even imagine what this feels like?

Of course they offer us tea while we are hearing and seeing this horrific situation, because they have to be kind to guests. Alhan wa sahlan. They tell us about the orphanage nearby is being closed down because it's called an Islamic Centre for Orphans and clearly is a front for Hamas. 700 orphans will be thrown out onto the street.

As we headed towards the mosque we crossed 2 checkpoints. Our local friend is not sure if Ashraf, one of our volunteers in Nablus we are with can actually come into the mosque, as you have to cross a final checkpoint before entering. She suggests we stay together as a group and she can say we are all Internationals. We put him in the middle of our group (kind of the same way elephants do with their young when facing attacks) and we make it through the final checkpoint.

3 checkpoints to get into the place where the Prophet Abraham is said to have bought land to bury his wife and family.

The mosque itself is quite pretty and houses cenotaphs dedicated to Abraham, Sarah, Jacob, Leah, Isaac and Rebecca. The caves beneath are where it is believed they are actually buried. They are not accessible to the public. The mosque itself is divided into sections for Jews and Muslims. Jews cannot enter the Muslim side, and Muslims cannot enter the Jewish side.

Christians can enter both.

For ten days of the year, the entire area is accessible only to Jews, and 10 days only to Muslims.

So I was a Christian for the day. After we left the Muslim side, our Palestinian friends left us to enter the Jewish side, as they could not come in. Again 3 checkpoints, the final one consisting of me being asked if I had a gun, for my passport and being told I could not enter.

When I asked for a reason why, it was inferred that it was because I was Muslim. When I told them I was a Christian, I was given a confused and puzzled look because no one who was really a Muslim/terrorist/crazyArab would ever dream of pretending to be a Christian to see the tomb of Abraham.

Duh? You have to lie to do everything around here!!! The fact that I am a Muslim whose coming to see the situation in the "holy land" here through his own eyes would have denied me access to even step out of Ben Gurion Airport.

I was asked how long I would be in the Jewish side and to make it short. I prayed a secret prayer to Abraham (mostly to give sense to his disappointing descendents) and left.

After leaving this "sacred" space, I felt more contempt and hatred of religion then I have ever felt before in my life. The presence of soldiers, checkpoints, walls, hatred and suspicion erases any feeling of wonder, love, and reverence.

As we were leaving the tombs, one of our group members spoke with some of the dozens of soldiers "guarding" the area on how they felt about being in Hebron. Unsurprisingly, they all said they hated being there and were hoping to get out soon. We approached the area round the corner that was permissible to only settlers and the few Palestinian families that lived there. At the checkpoint, we spoke with 2 young soldiers about the situation. Our 21 year old Palestinian friend started to ask them what they thought of the situation and how they felt about closing access to streets, denying Palestinians to drive their cars or walk to their homes, closing businesses and markets based on race, and why everybody could not live together.

Had they known he was a Palestinian, they would have probably yelled at us to leave, but as we were an International group, he was able to blend in with us. The soldiers were both 21 and from Northern Israel and had only been it was their 1st year of military service. They explained to him that he did not know the situation and had only heard the other side. They did however recognize that the situation in Hebron was completely out of control and that the settlements were the cause of much strife to the local community.

It was the first time he had ever had a conversation with an Israeli officer that did not involve being barked at in line at a checkpoint or during one of the many military incursions into Nablus.

Thinking back on that day, I could not help but think of my youth I volunteer with in Toronto, and had if both he and the soldier had been out of this crazy situation, they would have just been two guys hangin' out.

What I saw in the old city of Hebron is only a small glimpse of the reality of what Hebron is like, only 1 settlement in a series of settlements that are designed to ensure that it's local population leaves it's chaos and madness. Many families have left their homes, business, and livelihoods, but many have stayed, as they really have no other places to go. It's not as if there are other places in Palestine that do not come with their own problems brought on by the 60 year old occupation and the worlds indifference to it.

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