Monday, November 20, 2006


I had always assumed that during my year in Israel there would be certain places I would be unable to visit, in particular the West Bank and Gaza. So imagine my, and everyone else's, surprise when we were informed that the Machon would be taking us right into the heart of the West Bank to the ancient, violent and hugely contreversial city of Hebron. I had never even considered the possiblity that this might happen, so was taken completely off guard with the news.

To prepare us for the trip we were given a talk last night by an Israeli Arab called Mohammed Darawshe, an eeducator on the Israeli Arab conflict, a representative to the Kenesset during the Rabin administration, and the Capaign manager to the Israeli Arab community for Ehud Barak. Considering this it is not surprising to here that he set out a very articulate and reasonable look at the conflict, and it was very interesting to here the story from the Arab narrative. It was a positive talk and he spoke of both the struggle and successes of the Israeli Arab community, and the talk was truly enlightening, although it only really concerned the plight of Israeli Arabs and not the Palestinians living in the occupied territories. The only criticicsm some had after the meeting was that we were hearing a voice of reason and there was a general feeling that this was not the way the majority would present the situation, although there are solid statistics to show that nearly all Israeli Arabs are happy to be Israeli and see there future in the land of Israel.

As a prelude to Hebron however, the talk failed, nothing could have prepared us for what we saw. We arrived in Hebron at around two, following a 45 minute drive. We started our tour in the Jewish neighbourhood of Avraham Avinu. In Hebron there are 90 Jewish families, and most of them live in the neighbourhood of Avraham Avinu. We were taken into the house of an alumni of JFS who had made aliyah around twenty years ago, and soon after doing so moved to Hebron where she lived with her family of eleven children. As we sat in her living room she told us of a Jewish life in Hebron, the way she and her family had spent a year being shot at from across the valley and why the Jews should be in Hebron. I got the feeling that she was trying to moderate her words, but the disdain in her voice when she said the word 'Arab' was highly noticeable.

Following this talk we went to the Cave of Machpela. The Cave of Machpela is the reason why Hebron is a place that inspires so much conflict, as it is the resting place of the patriachs and matriachs of the three major religions, and anywhere that says it is the last resting place of Abraham is bound to cause conflict. The Cave itself can not actually be seen as it is covered by a rather large building built as a memorial to the cave. I have to say that I found it very difficult to connect with what I saw there, the synagogue there was like any other and the memorials which had been installed to commemorate the patriachs and matriachs seem to be of an Arabic design, and I must admit I had the feeling of 'what on earth is all the fuss about'.

Outside we were greeted by Mihael a member of a society called "Breaking the Silence', an organisation set up by former Israeli soldiers, who took it upon themselves to educate those who come to the area on what they as soldiers were asked to do in the reigon during the time of the Intifada. He introduced us to the area outside the cave and then took us on the tour of the area, it is this tour which if you will forgive me I intend to spend some time over.

Before I describe the tour I should explain something about the situation in Hebron today. Up until 1929 there had been a thriving Jewish community in Hebron but in 1929 it was massacred and driven away, a fact that is quoted by many Jews in the area. Under the partition plan Hebron became part of Jordan in 1948, but being part of the West Bank it was captured by the Israeli's in the Six Day War of 1967, soon afterwards a smal Jewish community moved into the area. In an attempt to keep the peace in Hebron it was divided into two, as part of the Second Oslo Accords in 1996, the far larger Palestinian area known as H1 and the, smaller Jewish area called H2. There are around 130,000 Palestinians living in Hebron, in comparison to about 600 Jews settlers, which include residents and Yeshiva students. The army presence is huge with about one soldier to settler.

Our tour was limited to the street of H2. Very quickly, as we moved away from Machpela, we walked down roads which used to contain vast thriving markets with thousands of people, the same streets were now deserted. Soldiers guarded either end of the street. Palestinians are limited as to what streets in H2 they can use, and even those who live over the street are not permitted to make use of it, instead the roof serves as the only way into H1. The silence was eery, and it was exacerbated by the frequent army posts, constant grafitti and closed shops, it was a ghost town. Occasioally a small patrol comes down the road, or a group of small children run down the road but quickly dissapear into the side streets, signs of life are infrequent.

But underneath the silent surface there is a constant tension, which frequently boils over, and small incidents between Settlers and Palestinians cause 15-20 minutes of chaos, before everything returns to the dead normality of H2. Both the settlers and Palestinians of Hebron are the most violent of their kind. The tension was unquestionably noticeable, although that could have been down to the vast amount of barbed wire, which will always make you feel uneasy. It is apparently normal for settler children to throw stones at Palestinian children as they return to school. Considering this the army presence seems completely necessary, whilst the settlers remain. Even worse the settlers resent the army, and there is a constant tension between those who are doing protecting, around the same age as myself, and those they are trying to protect. A poster on the wall reads 'Soldiers the uniform you wear does not cover the crimes that you do against Jews'. It does seem a tad ungrateful that the army does so much for the settlers without even the slightest gratitude from the settlers.

We finished our tour at Yona Menachem Renneret Yeshiva, this was an almost unheard of event that a Yeshiva excepts a mixed group into its walls. Luckily for us the head of the Yeshiva is the half brother of Chaggai, one of the educators on the Machon. Two things were different for me about this visit the first being that I had never been inside a Yeshiva before whilst people were studying, but far more importantyl I agreed with what I heard inside the Yeshiva. We were spoken to by two people the Head of the Yeshiva Chaggai's brother, and one of his students. The Rosh (head) Yeshiva had in the past told his students they were not to engage in any violence and thus on the whole the students are at peace with both the Settlers and Palestinians. He said that the reason they were there was for religious and not political reasons. The student that spoke had been born in England and had made aliyah with his family at a very young age. He told us that there were around 200 students and that they came from places like Jerusalem and Tel Aviv, and were drawn away from there relative comfort to the hard life of a student at Yeshiva in Hebron for spiritual reasons. In the past the Yeshiva had brought most of its goods from the Arabs but since the division this option was no longer open to them, and thus the Yeshiva is very self-contained, yet it is a hard life at the Yeshiva with a poor quality of life, although it seems that spiritual nourishment is all that is needed. There are also benefits for going to that particular Yeshiva as those who have studied there often get into the best army units.

I feel that I should say a word or two about my feelings on the issue. It would seem that the only logical soloution other than the tough restrictions in place, would be to remove the settlers. Yet Hebron is one of the four religious cities in Israel and one of the holiest Jewish sites, and there are many people in Hebron who are there not as a Davka (spite) but for real religious reasons, and no matter what my feelings are about religion I cannot advocate moving those who are there because they believe withall their heart that they should really be there, because of its religious significance. What the correct soloution is I do not know, but perhaps I should mention the words of Mihael our guide who said that no matter what we do we must be aware of the cost of our actions, and only when we do that can we progress. After hearing these words I walked towards the Yeshiva, before entering I turned and looked at the sky, all that was left of the setting sun was a splash of blood red across the darkening sky, and that together with the deserted street is how I shall remember my time in Hebron.


Anonymous Anonymous said...

Dear Daniel
Thanks very much for your very eloquent account after my very rushed and vague conversation with Gidi!

10:21 AM  

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