I stop in my tracks, panting and sweating, and turn around. I knew this was going to happen as I jogged past the soldier standing limp and bored on the side of the road. The soldier beckons me toward his little box with a slight twitch of the huge assault rifle draped across his chest. With a rough look on his 18-year-old face, he addresses me inquisitively in Hebrew, and I, in between gasps of air, say “Lo Ivrit (no Hebrew). English?”
“Where you from?”
“Can I see your passport?” His tone becomes the slightest bit nicer when he hears the holy name of Israel’s daddy-with-the-checkbook. I know I’m not required by law to give this kid-with-an-army-jacket-and-a-huge-gun my passport, he is only a soldier; but if I say ‘no, I don’t have to show you anything’, he would say ‘Yes you do, I am soldier, I make the rules here’, and if I persisted, he might radio in reinforcements, or police. So I give him the passport. He looks it over. “What are you doing?”
“I’m jogging, for exercise.”
“Why not?” Of course I know why he is surprised to see a sweaty Jewish-looking boy without a kipa jogging here with a shirt that has Arabic letters on it. I am not jogging down any old street, and I know it; I am jogging in Tel Rumeida, or Tel Hebron as the settlers call it.
The city of Hebron has a long and complex history that mirrors in many ways the travails of Palestine as a whole; suffice it to say that the Hebrew name for the city, Hebron, and the Arabic name for the city, al-Khalil, both mean ‘friend’. Jews lived here in ancient times; Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Sarah, Rebecca, Leah, Ruth and Jesse are buried in the city (patriarchs and matriarchs worshipped by Jews and Muslims alike); in recent history of the last 1000, Hebron was mostly populated by Muslims, except for a small Jewish community that maintained peaceful ties with its Arab neighbors. In 1929, as mounting anti-Zionist sentiment began to stir up the Arab world (understandable, as Zionists were settling Palestine in droves and had clear, British-backed intentions to create a predominantly Jewish state on land previously promised to the Palestinians), 67 Jews in the Jewish community of Hebron were violently murdered by Arab mobs (many more were saved by Muslims who hid terrified Jewish families in their homes, at considerable personal risk). After this, Jews left Hebron- until 1968, when Rabbi Moshe Levinger and a group of fanatical Israelis rented a hotel in Hebron for Passover, and barricaded themselves in, refusing to leave. Eventually, the Israeli government compromised with them and relocated them to a nearby settlement, which they called Kiryat Arba.
The rapidly expanding settlement still had eyes for Hebron, however, and in 1979 Moshe Levinger’s wife Miriam led a group of 40 women and children to occupy the abandoned Beit Hadassah hospital in central downtown Hebron overnight. When patrolling soldiers heard a chorus of Jewish folk song coming from the abandoned building the next morning, they knew they had a situation on their hands. The women and children refused to leave, though the building had no electricity or running water. When several of the children were becoming very sick because of the sub-human living conditions, the Israeli government installed running water and electricity; eventually, when it was clear the women and children were not going to leave, the israeli government allowed their husbands to visit them on Shabbat.
For about a year, a crowd of young yeshiva boys from Kiryat Arba would come to the Beit Hadassah building from the Cave of the Patriarchs (where all the above-mentioned founding myth-figures are buried save Jesse and Ruth) chanting and singing every Shabbat night, and set up vigil ooutside the building. One night, a year after the initial occupation, 6 of them were murdered by Arabs. Immediately following that tragedy, the Israeli government in the early 80s granted, and built, permanent housing for several families in downtown Hebron. Between 1980 and 1984, the other downtown settlements in Hebron were established- Avraham Avinu, Tel Rumeida, Beit Romano and Admot Yishai. The latter settlement, Admot Yishai, was originally a group of 8 families who one day showed up on top of a hill living in portable caravans; when one man inside one of the caravans was killed by an Arab man standing outside his flimsy window, the Israeli government rushed in to build permanent housing. A similar pattern, then, to Beit Hadassah- first, belligerent and unapologetically racist right-wing religious fanatics move in of their own accord, driven by the zealous belief that they are restoring a direct link to the Jewish past (as always, the truth or falsity of this claim does not matter in the face of the reality of the occupation); the Israeli government gripes and moans, but can do nothing to stop them, and so must in the meantime at least try to contain the situation; when one of the settlers is killed, he is turned into a martyr by the settler community, who demand help from a government that, if it refused, would be denounced by the larger Jewish community for failing to care for its citizens or respect the very ethnic legacy it uses to prop up its otherwise largely secular rule.
These Jewish settlers in the middle of the largest Palestinian city in the West Bank form a compact knot in Hebron’s exact cultural center; their separate settlements can be covered on foot in their entirety in 20 minutes. Surrounding this little pocket of Jewish settlement, dubbed H2 (and all else dubbed H1) after the Oslo Accords in 1993, are soldiers, checkpoints, watch towers, concrete walls, barbed wire, electric fences, and many other signs of occupation. Wikipedia-
Israeli organization B’Tselem states that there have been “grave violations” of Palestinian human rights in Hebron because of the “presence of the settlers within the city.” The organization cites regular incidents of “almost daily physical violence and property damage by settlers in the city”, curfews and restrictions of movement that are “among the harshest in the Occupied Territories”, and violence and by Israeli border policemen and the IDF against Palestinians who live in the city’s H2 sector. According to Human Rights Watch, Palestinian areas of Hebron are frequently subject to indiscriminate firing by the IDF, leading to many casualties. Hebron mayor Mustafa Abdel Nabi invited the Christian Peacemaker Teams to assist the local Palestinian community in opposition to what they describe as Israeli military occupation, collective punishment, settler harassment, home demolitions and land confiscation.
The presence of settlers in the city means the presence of an enormous military occupying force in the city, which makes life horrible for its residents. I have seen 15 heavily armed soldiers raid a home in the middle of the afternoon with guns pointed wildly in all directions, in full military coordination, to look for and apprehend an eight-year-old boy who they claim threw a stone at them while they were making their rounds. I have seen a gang of 8 year old settler boys, on a raised platform behind a barbed wire fence, spitting at a gang of Palestinian boys down below, who try to spit back, but cannot because of the difference in elevation and the fence (a fitting metaphor, if there ever was one). The Zionists respond ‘well life is tough for the settlers there too, they live surrounded by Arabs who would murder them, and many of them have been murdered!’ They attribute this Arab hatred to anti-Semitism, coupled with the intrinsically violent nature of Arab blood. They forget that they are hated here because they bring an occupation that chokes the life of the city, and they are a symbol of a larger occupation that has choked the life of all Palestine.
Littering the H1 side of the checkpoints one reads graffiti saying ‘Free Palestine’ and ‘Zionism is Racism’; inside, ‘Free Palestine’ and ‘Free Israel’ fight for wall space. There are about 500 settlers and 5000 soldiers to guard them in Hebron. The tragic absurdity and tense surreality of the situation is all the more concentrated by the fact that what used to be the cultural and economic lifeline of Hebron, downtown Shuhada Street, is now completely boarded up, a ghost street, because of the close proximity of Jewish settlers. Long stretches of silence on the once bustling street are punctuated by the occasional Palestinian family walking side by side carrying bags of groceries (which were freshly prodded through by the hands of soldiers at the checkpoint 50 metres away), the occasional group of fresh-faced Israeli soldiers or stern-faced older Israeli cops, the occasional steps of settler boys with a glint of macho, self righteous evil in their eyes (and this isn’t anti-Semitism, I love meeting the eyes of old rebbes wandering down the streets of Jerusalem, or exchanging a quick glance with religious yeshiva boys muttering to themselves as they pace down the windy roads- but these Hebron boys are something else, they look like dogs born and bred to hate, to fiercely, zealously, arrogantly and violently defend their Judaism. Shame on any interpretation of any faith that values such macho, ignorant defense of the tribe and hatred of the other over the universal virtue of humility).
Except on Shabbat, most settlers drive their cars up and down the street, honking angrily at the Arabs who get in their way (they drive like New Yorkers because many of them are, in fact, American). The electric tension in the air is amplified by the fact that not only the settlers, but also the vast majority of Palestinians in Hebron are religiously conservative and politically right-wing (70% Hamas), and, like much of the West Bank, have been driven to this belief in recent years thanks to the intensity of the occupation.
So there is a reason I go jogging down Tel Rumeida- because it is one of the most fucking absurd and terrifying places I have ever seen, terrifying because of its normality, unsettling because of the peace and quiet that lingers in the air as soldier boys walk by with guns or drive by in jeeps, as stern-faced looking settlers grow even sterner faces as they see me without a kipa and with Arabic writing and the word ‘Morocco’ on my T-shirt, as six-year old Jewish children play happily in the sunshine as policemen stand quietly on the street corner, as arabic men eye me with the confused look of ‘what the hell are you doing jogging in this war zone?’ And indeed, I feel disgusted at the image of myself sometimes, a boy coming from halfway around the world to spy on this conflict that concretely strangles the lives of those embroiled in it, a boy who has the privilege to jog by soldiers, and ironically scoff at the fact that he is waved through because of his american passport, while others live in constant fear that a wrong glance given at a soldier could send them to jail for two years.
Then you get to what is half- Cave of the Patriarchs, and half- al Ibrahimi mosque. Muslims enter from one side to worship Abraham, and Jews enter from the other side to worship the very same guy. Though the building is controlled by an Islamic waqf, it is surrounded on all sides by a thick layer of 18-year-old-Jewish-boys-with-guns. Before 1967, for 1400 years it was completely a mosque, and Jews could only ascend up to the seventh step on the outside staircase. In all honesty, speaking as a Jew and as a cosmopolitan secular citizen, I am glad that today part of the structure is a synagogue, and Jews can worship there freely; I am not glad, however, that this has been achieved through such a barbaric and racist occupation! And yes, it was wrong for Muslims to forbid Jews from visiting the tomb of their patriarch, but shame on those who use the memory of this past oppression to justify their present oppression!
The creepiest part is the room that houses the Tomb of Abraham. It lies in the middle of a circular vault; on one wall there are two windows, through which Jews in the synagogue can look into the room of the Tomb; on the wall next to it there are two windows, through which Muslims in the mosque can look into the room. Both Muslim windows are connected through a direct line of visibility with one of the Jewish windows; the 2nd Jewish window is actually a door, the only door that leads into the room of the Tomb, and it is blocked from Muslim view by the Tomb itself. Thus Muslim and Jewish worshippers, as they go to pay respects to the first patriarch of both of their religions, the mutual father of Isaac (who spawned the Jews) and Ishmael (who spawned the Muslims), awkwardly look at each other through this narrow, slanted, indirect, sidelong, askew line of sight. Each side can see, out of the corner of its eye, members of the other faith approach the tomb with eyes widened in awe, and lips moving in prayer. How sweet and pleasant it is for brothers to dwell together in unity! How awkward, unsettling and sad it is for these two cultures, with so much water under the bridge, and so much in common, to approach the same holy site from two different vantage points, with a plastic screen standing up in the room next to the Tomb, to block either brother from throwing something through the bars of the window at the other, over the father’s grave! And, as befits an occupying power, the Jews have the privilege of an undisturbed, solitary vantage point, that also doubles as the only door through which the Tomb can be physically accessed. The blanket that is draped over the Tomb, however, is adorned with beautiful cursive Arabic script. I went back and forth from the mosque side to the synagogue side, looking through each window, making sure the tragicomedy before my eyes was real.
On the way back to the ISM apartment, I am stopped again by another soldier. This happens at least twice every time I jog. This kid asks me my religion. “You are Jewish? Ah. Be careful, there are Arabs here, they have knives. Come back here and let me know if there is any problem.” I grab my passport out of his hand, turn around and walk away. I should’ve known, jogging in a war zone!