By Markus Balázs Göransson
The center of Hebron is surreal and terrifying. It is strange and overwhelming to see this schizophrenic place with my own eyes. As I walk along the streets, my senses are heightened yet I cannot fully process what I see. It feels like I am walking in a dream or on an empty movie set. The legacy of violence is stark and in your face and I am reminded of the ruins and craters that I saw when visiting Srebrenica in Bosnia several years ago. Yet, unlike Srebrenica, there has been no attempt to move past the divisions in Hebron. Instead, the divisions have been frozen and institutionalized and today Hebron is relatively quiet only because people are kept physically apart.
A handful of Jewish settlers – 800, in a city of 170 000 – have moved into the heart of the city and to protect them the Israeli army has created “sterilized zones” where the movement, residence and business of Palestinians are sharply restricted. On parts of some streets Palestinians are allowed to pass but when they do so they walk swiftly with their heads down to escape notice by Israeli settlers and soldiers. Other streets are closed to Palestinians, who cannot work or walk there. Technically, they are allowed to live in some buildings but the front doors of these buildings have been bolted shut and the residents are able to enter and leave them only through back windows or over rooftops.
Some Jewish settlers living nearby harass the Palestinians regularly with impunity. The Israeli army division stationed in Hebron is there to protect Jewish settlers and is not authorized to defend Palestinians against settler violence which is frequent and vicious. Five hundred Israeli soldiers are deployed to protect eight hundred Jewish settlers. And since the Palestinian police are not allowed to enter the sterilized zones there is little or no safeguarding of Palestinian rights. Most Palestinians who could escape the zones have escaped. Only the poorest families – and the criminals seeking a refuge – remain.
In one courtyard, where a thick stench of trash and rotting food hangs in the air fifty Palestinian families used to live. Today only two remain. They live in a building scarred by violence, where the front door is blocked and the windows covered with iron bars and metal nets. They enter and exit through a back window leading to the Arab part of the city. The courtyard in front of their apartment used to be full of life but is now covered in trash. Alleyways leading from the courtyard are blocked with slabs of concrete and giant rolls of barbed wire. An Israeli soldier is standing nearby, eyeing us uneasily as we move around listening to our guide explaining the history and nature of the conflict in Hebron.
My visit to Hebron was arranged by the Israeli NGO Breaking the Silence, a veterans organisation which collects and publishes testimonies of Israeli soldiers about the abuses they have committed in the occupied Palestinian territories. The founder of this organization, Yehuda Shaul – a bearded Jewish man who wore a kippa and described himself as Orthodox – guided us around the deserted streets of the now Jewish parts of Hebron, showing us destroyed architecture, boarded-up Palestinian homes and the ubiquitous presence of the Israeli army. He had himself taken part in the occupation, serving as a grenade launcher operator with the IDF in Hebron during the Second Intifada (2000-4).
Explaining the military logic of the occupation, Shaul stressed two messages. First, he insisted that there is no such thing as a “good occupation” and that the Israeli public is simply soothing its conscience with the myth that the Israeli Defense Force is enforcing a moral occupation. On the contrary, he argued, an occupation cannot be effective without involving serious abuses of the rights of the local people. This is irrespective of the virtues and morality of the individual soldier. The logic and pressures of the situation will lead soldiers to treat certain categories as security threats and hence deprived of certain rights. Add to this, he noted, the psychological stress that many soldiers suffer on account of being stationed in hostile territory and the widespread atmosphere of impunity around them and you have a combustible mix.
Shaul went on to say that many of the abuses committed by the Israeli army have a clear military purpose. They are not the result of indiscipline or frustration but part and parcel of the very strategy of the occupation. He gave as an example that Israeli forces systematically disrupt the daily life of local Palestinians in order to keep them on their toes and thereby discourage them from engaging in organized violence. He also recalled from his own military service in Hebron that Israeli soldiers would repeatedly break into Palestinian homes to snatch with them young boys that they would force to walk in front of their vehicles during patrols. This was not an act of cruelty but an effective tactic to prevent other Palestinians from throwing stones at them.
Shaul’s central message was that the occupation, despite the lofty rhetoric surrounding it, carries a dark underside, and it is this underside that Breaking the Silence wants to expose and bring to the attention of the Israeli public. He emphasized that Israelis must take responsibility for the crimes committed in their name. There is a large moral price tag to the occupation, Shaul insisted, and the Israeli people must face up to this.
Unsurprisingly, our tour group was not greeted warmly by many Hebron settlers. Many shouted abuse at us, and at one point a group of children, aged 7-8 years, took a hose and sprayed us with water as we passed a settlement. Two of them ran after us and punched, kicked and jumped on Shaul, calling him names. I was disgusted, not because of their obvious hatred, but because they were so steeped in a sense of self-righteousness and impunity that they felt safe and entitled to attack a group of adult visitors.
It is difficult not to be outraged by the situation in Hebron. The visit brought home some of the injustice and intractability of the Israel-Palestine conflict, and the structural logic and powerful interests that sustain it.
– Markus Balázs Göransson is currently studying for a PhD in International Politics at Aberystwyth University. He has previously worked as a conflict researcher and written on conflicts in the Philippines, the Balkans and the Middle East. He contributed this article to PalestineChronicle.com.