Monday, March 12, 2007

Holy Hebron - A State of Mind

For any visitor to the Jewish settlement in the Palestinian city of Hebron, the first encounter with the local Jewish residents takes place through the screen of a digital camcorder. As soon as a group of visitors with assumingly critical views on the settlement movement arrives to the gates of the Jewish quarter of Hebron, a local resident rushes up to the group. As he films he proclaims that when the Jewish revolution is complete his footage will serve as evidence to convict the group of treason. Within moments of arriving in Hebron, you quickly understand that in spite of being a 40 minute drive from Jerusalem, you have reached an utterly distinct reality.

Hebron is the second largest Palestinian city in the West Bank with an Arab population of 150,000. It has a rich and extensive Jewish history dating back to Biblical times when the Patriarch Abraham purchased a field and a cave within the confines of the city as a burial place. According to the beliefs of all three monotheistic religions, Abraham, Sara, Isaac, Rebecca, Jacob and Leah are buried in the cave. Later, King David was anointed in Hebron and reined some time in the city. Thus, Hebron is one of the four holy cities of Judaism and recognized by Islam as a holy place and the burial spot of its forefather Ibrahim (Abraham). However, despite the religious significance of Hebron, the void of God can never be felt more so then throughout a tour of the hallowed Jewish quarters.

Hebron has continuously harbored a Jewish population until a massacre of its residents perpetrated by Arab nationalists in 1929 and the annexation of the city by Jordan following the Israeli war of independence in 1948. Jewish settlement in the city underwent a resurgence following the occupation of the West Bank during the Six-Day-War in 1967. Today approximately 500 Jewish settlers have made Hebron their home and an additional 6,000 Jews reside in the adjacent settlement of Kiryat Arba.

Due to the existence of a Jewish minority in Hebron, governing authority was not transferred to the Palestinians within the framework of the Oslo agreements and Israel did not withdraw forces. In 1997 the Hebron Protocol was implemented which decreed the withdrawal of Israel from 80% of the city and divided the city into two areas: H-1, the larger part of the city, which contains most of the Palestinian population, was transferred to Palestinian authority. H-2, approximately 20% of the city remained under Israeli military control. This area is currently home to 500 Jewish settlers and a dwindling Palestinian population of 35,000. Consequently, the concentration of a Jewish settlement within an urban Palestinian center has ignited tension since the Jews started aspiring to make this patch of earth a homeland. These conflicts have been confounded in recent years by the outbreak of the incessant Al-Aqsa Intifada in September 2000. The Intifada triggered a wave of mutual violence between Hebron settlers and the Palestinian residents. In an effort to quell the violence IDF, in conjunction with the Israeli government, took measures to contain the spreading fire of perennial conflict between settlers driven by uncompromising expansionist ideals and a resentful Palestinian populace. These measures have left the H-2 section of Hebron a comatose ghost town.

In an attempt to break the circle of violence between the rivaling divisions in the city IDF has implemented an extended curfew on the Palestinians residents of H-2, prohibiting Palestinians to evacuate their homes for extended periods of time. Some curfews have last for months, in which residents have been unable to go to work, attend school or refurbish existential supplies. In addition to prolonged periods of being shut in, Arab residents of H-2 freedom of movement is impeded further as certain roads, notably the main road intersecting the town, have been proclaimed “off-limits”. In the military lexicon the aforementioned roads are referred to as being “sterilized”. These restrictions on the Palestinians, especially those living within the areas with larger numbers of Jewish residents, have had catastrophic implications. According to independent research by B’tselem, an Israeli information center for humans rights in the Occupied Palestinian Territories, 2,000-2,500 businesses have been shut down or abandoned, most businesses were concentrated in a central area that previously flourished as a marketplace. Economic activity in Hebron has dropped by as much as 50% following the regulations implemented after 2000. A lack of hope for development and restriction of movement has led to an exodus of Palestinians from their homes to the autonomous section of town.

Soul by soul and stone by stone, the town of Hebron is being “re-claimed” into greater Israel. The extreme settler ideology dictates that Hebron is a city for Jews and aspires to expand the settlement. As a means of realizing the ambition of expansion settler leaders utilize methods of illegal squatting, generally by minors in order to evade severe punishment, in abandoned structures thus fixating their hold of another centimeter of land. Testimonials also show that settlers use methods of organized intimidation and harassment of Palestinians as a means of expediting the transfer of non-Jews. Recent cases have portrayed that military police have been unable or unwilling to enforce the law on the settlers, who roam the forsaken streets of Hebron like cowboys of Judea. Victims are dissuaded from filing complaints with Israeli police and complaints are infamous for “getting lost within the bureaucracy.”

Traveling sullenly down the narrow street leading to the entrance of the old city quarters of Hebron, scenes of a contested city play before a visitor's eyes: A Palestinian laborer presenting his ID card to a wary Israeli solider, A Jewish settler boy rides in circles around the tour group incessantly ringing his bell and sporadically yelling "Death to Arabs". Political graffiti and posters calling for Arab expulsion litter every vacant wall across this part of the city. In Hebron, one is standing in the junction of the Israeli occupation and a battleground over modern definition of the Zionist ideology.

The bottom line of any explanation given by settlers for the hardship for all sides due to the situation is that Hebron is ours and any other explanation is redundant. That simplistic answer explains why Hebron is the silent struggle for modern meaning of Zionism. Most Israelis are raised to believe that they are always moral, always ethic, enlightened occupiers. Yet if Israel as a country is willing to sacrifice those values most of its people hold dear as an enlightened society for the sake of land, regardless of history or theology, then somewhere along the line the ideals upon which the country was founded have been tarnished. David Ben-Gurion. Israel's founding prime minister, read during the proclamation of independence: "We extend the hand of peace and good-neighborliness to all the States around us and to their people, and we call upon them to cooperate in mutual helpfulness with the independent Jewish nation in its Land. The State of Israel is prepared to make its contribution in a concerted effort for the advancement of the entire Middle East."

Somewhere during the journey the state of Israel has taken through its short history, the hand of peace that Ben-Gurion mentioned was hi-jacked by a blind eye to the suffering of others. Since Israel was founded as an island of enlightenment and democracy in the stormy Middle East, and much of its outside support rests on these pillars, it cannot afford any longer to trade the humanistic values of Zionism against the value of the land, as holy as it may be.