Jewish Settlers and Palestinians in Hebron Apartheid in a Cage

Hebron is a divided city. Settlers live next to Palestinians with Israeli soldiers trying to keep them apart. Violence and hate are the result. But one young man wants to bring peace to the divided city.

By Leonie Schultens in Hebron


"As long as you want to maintain the Israeli settlers in Hebron and give them a semblance of a normal existence, you must destroy everyone else's existence." (An Israeli soldier serving in Hebron).

Like every young Israeli, 23-year old Yehuda Shaul served in the army. And like many military postings in the country, his was not an easy one. Yehuda spent one year of his three-year compulsory military service in Hebron, a city south of Jerusalem -- and on the front lines of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Since the 1967 Six Day War, Israeli settlers have taken over large chunks of the town, and many of the Palestinians who live there would like them gone. Yehuda was in Hebron during the most intense phase of the so-called Second Intifada -- the period of Palestinian uprising lasting from 2001 until 2004.

After military service, it's not uncommon for young Israelis to bolt the country. A year of travelling through the Latin American jungle, the rice fields of Asia, or the mysticism of India -- the perfect antidote to the violence of day-to-day military life in Israel. Yehuda, though, stayed at home. And founded "Shovrim Shtika" instead. "Breaking the Silence."

It's a group that wants to do just that -- to break the silence under which many soldiers in Hebron serve -- and the inner blockade which, for many soldiers who have served in the violent city, can lead to suffering. Yehuda and his colleagues offer former soldiers the opportunity to share their experiences in Hebron with other Israelis. And recently, the organization has begun growing beyond Hebron.

In a country where conflicts dominate everyday life and those who refuse military service are imprisoned, this organization not only breaks the silence but also the norm. But Yehuda is no typical leftie. He hasn't yet distanced himself from the army or his annual military reserve duties by becoming a "refusenik" (objector). He wears the kippah and is an Orthodox Jew. Although he still organizes tours of Hebron on Friday mornings, by the afternoon he is hurrying home to Jerusalem to celebrate the start of the Sabbath. And on the Sabbath itself he cannot be contacted by telephone. "Breaking the Silence" also has its day of rest.

Yehuda's interest in Hebron goes deeper than just his military posting. The city is likely the most complex of the many multifaceted cities in the West Bank. Holy for both Jews and Muslims, it is where Abraham, the patriarch, is buried. Demographically Hebron is Arab. But, unlike other Palestinian cities, Jewish settlers here live in the heart of the city. Strictly religious, they justify their presence with the word of God -- He told them to live here.

"They're devouring more and more," says Yehuda, referring to the settlers. "One house, then two and then finally the whole road. They send their children ahead and slowly establish themselves. Soldiers aren't allowed to arrest children. The whole area has to be protected by soldiers so that they can live here safely -- and the Palestinians' existence is transformed into a living hell."

Hebron is a "sterile" city in military jargon -- meaning the city is empty. Palestinians who might have sullied these "sterile" surroundings have either moved to the part of the city where the Palestinian authorities are in control or they remain intimidated and quiet in their houses. An ex-soldier says: "After half a year there, I finally understood that we need to protect the Palestinians against the Jews. Not the other way round. It's the Jews who are threatening the Palestinians here."

Considering his family background Yehuda's work in Hebron is surprising. He grew up in religious home -- just like the settlers in Hebron. His elder sister lives in a settlement near Bethlehem. But Yehuda lives his faith differently. During his service in Hebron, he didn't even wear the kippah because he didn't want to be identified with the radical faith of the settlers.

These days, though, Yehuda wears the Jewish head covering again. He walks through Hebron's streets and, whenever possible, he avoids turning his back to anyone. "You have to be careful. The police could arrest me at any time because I am, apparently, provoking the settlers with my presence. The settlers have often thrown stones at me." Yet he doesn't let himself become disheartened. "Someone must do something," he says.

Yehuda, it seems, wants to make good all that happened in Hebron during his military service -- as though he wants to overcome not just his own trauma but that of others as well. And others have suffered here as well, as a report from another soldier shows. "I only understood later," the soldier says. "This place really alienates you emotionally, so that you don't really get what's going on here. I only realized later how inhumane it was. How terrible it is to do such things to others."

By "such things," he means breaking into Palestinian homes; he means protecting settlers who themselves throw stones at Palestinian children; he means the lockdowns that force residents of Hebron to stay indoors for months on end; he means pretty much everything Israeli soldiers are ordered to do in Hebron. "After a while, you think it's OK when you break into a house," Yehuda says. "Only when you get out of this upside-down world do you see what it's really like and can understand what you were capable of in the vacuum of Hebron."

Today, when Yehuda, tall with a full beard and long, curly hair tied back in a ponytail, goes through Hebron, he has a problem. No one, whether Palestinian or Israeli, knows how to react to him. He greets both soldiers and Palestinians on the streets -- it's only the settlers he ignores. Some Palestinian children look at him suspiciously -- with his kippah and his Hebrew language he fits into their image of the settlers. But then he stands and laughs with them and kisses his Palestinian friends on the cheeks like an Arab. Today, he's the one turning the Hebron world upside down. An Israeli sitting together with Palestinians? Now that's strange.

Hani, a Palestinian, lives with his family in a house near a barracks that shelters settlers. The house is like a cage; the entrance and the entire front of the house are covered with a close-meshed grill. The chicken-wire is not to keep the family inside the house, but to prevent the rotten eggs and stones thrown by the settlers from constantly damaging the windows. Hani's sister -- speaking both Arabic and English -- tells of the constant attacks: as soon as she leaves her home, eggs and stones rain down on her. "You have to try and imagine what it's like," Yehuda says. "These people can't even meet their friends for a coffee without it being cleared with the military and planned. Exit permits have to be issued. It's simply not possible to maintain a group of friends here."

Hebron is not a very peaceful city.
AP

Hebron is not a very peaceful city.

Hani's father died a year ago. Because the way into the city, through the settlers' quarters and the "exclusively Jewish" roads, was closed to them, the family had to carry the body of their dead father through the fields to the checkpoint -- on their backs. From here, a Palestinian ambulance collected him, Hani's sister continues. Settler ambulances don't come for their Palestinian neighbors when they are ill. The woman breaks down in tears.

The whole reality in Hebron cries out, "Why?" But Yehuda says: "This is an upside-down world. Here the answer is, 'Why not?' Why shouldn't the settlers throw stones at Palestinian girls on their way to school? Why shouldn't they break into a Palestinian house and smash everything up? Why shouldn't they cut down trees to deprive Palestinians of their connection to the land? Why shouldn't they take over, road by road, until the Palestinians are left with nothing?"

As a soldier, you are caught in Hebron's crazy reality. "It takes you over. You can't fight it. You want to do something, say something, but you can't refuse orders," says Yehuda. "If the order is 'seal off the whole city' then we have to do it. We were often told: maintain a high profile! This means nothing less than breaking into one house after the other on searches while the family is locked in a room. What would I think if someone broke into my house -- just like that?"

Yehuda visits another Palestinian friend. Suddenly, the small children start shouting, "Soldiers, soldiers!" Next door, a unit of Israeli soldiers are prying open the door to the neighboring house with a crowbar. The owner, apparently, didn't respond to the soldiers' knocking. Yehuda goes to the terrace and talks to the soldiers in Hebrew: "Hey lads. Why don't you come back in an hour? The man has only gone shopping. I'm sure he'll open the door for you. You'll save yourselves work and his door won't be destroyed." After a moment of surprise, the soldiers reply, "Get lost! Otherwise we'll come to your house too."

Back in the house Yehuda smiles. "Now, the soldiers are confused. Something isn't quite right -- I'm an Israeli yet sitting with the Palestinians. That's made them uneasy." Hani shows a video of attacks by the settlers on children. He can't put them on the Internet because the settlers have cut his telephone line and no one dares repair it. He's been living for a whole year without a landline. Even his children have experienced attacks. Once, a female settler smashed Hani's youngest son's teeth in with a stone as he was on his way home. Since then, the little boy only smiles with his mouth half open.

Despite the attacks by settlers, the army and the police; despite the fact that there is settler graffiti on almost every street corner in Hebron with slogans like: "Arabs to the gas chambers;" despite all that, Yehuda doesn't let himself get intimidated. Since June 2005, he and his colleagues from "Breaking the Silence" have brought more than 900 Israelis to Hebron to witness the conditions here, including Yossi Beilin from the Yachad party, one of Israel's top politicians and who is committed to Israel's return to the 1967 borders and a division of Jerusalem.

It's getting late on this Friday in Hebron. Yehuda runs to catch the last bus to Jerusalem. The Sabbath is about to start. When it does he doesn't want to be on the road. It's a funny image -- Yehuda running whilst Palestinians wave to him and soldiers look on confused. On the bus he gets quiet. He quietly hums the sounds of a Hebrew song "Shalom lach eretz nehederet" ("Shalom, you great land"). Yet on the way back to Jerusalem as the bus passes one Jewish settlement after another, he murmurs, "Apartheid. What's happening here is like apartheid in South Africa."

To find out more about Yehuda Yehudaand his organization, see  www.breakingthesilence.org. Another international group which is active in Hebron can be found at: www.telrumeidaproject.org. The perspective of the settlers in Hebron can be found at: www.hebron.com/1st.html.

Translated from the German by Andrea Edwards

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