Hebron walk reveals a cruel Israeli occupation
As a burly Israeli settler shot video of our faces, we shivered in a late March chill, waiting in the street for permission to continue our walk through the West Bank city of Hebron. The Israeli soldiers at a checkpoint had apparently called for a military escort. Why, I wanted to ask? But I knew to keep quiet.
We were four days into a witness journey sponsored by the Tree of Life Educational Fund in Old Lyme, and our group of travelers, 22 Americans and one Australian, had been well-schooled before we left. Never challenge an Israeli soldier. Ignore provocations. Listen. Don’t preach.
“You hate Jews!” shouted the settler with the camera, followed by “Fake lies!” – the latter insult as nonsensical as the first. Was he channeling Donald Trump? It might have been scary, if it hadn’t been so absurd. Fortunately, our Hebron guide was as cool as the haranguer was hot headed.
The guide was Frima Bubis, a.k.a. “Merphie,” from Breaking the Silence, a network of Israeli Defense Force (I.D.F.) veterans who brave censure, and worse, to document the daily humiliations and often rank brutality of Israel’s 52-year occupation of the West Bank, and its ongoing control of Gaza. They know, because they had to enforce it.
Small, wiry and fit, Merphie is a familiar presence, and target, in Hebron. Last summer, as she led another tour, a settler child hurled a can of yellow paint at her head. She wiped the paint off while a soldier ignored the assault. Instinctively, we would have followed her anywhere.
Hebron, once a vibrant cultural center, a Palestinian gem, is lorded over by a hornet’s nest of militant Israeli settlers. We travelers only fleetingly felt the hornet’s sting. But Palestinians in the historic old city center, where we were beginning our tour, have had their shops shuttered and homes stolen.
Those who weren’t pushed out or fled are penned in, forbidden to host non-residents and barred, unlike foreigners or settlers, from walking on certain streets, including Shuhada, the one on which we stood.
You hear a lot about the international right of return — meaning to allow Palestinians to return to their ancestral homes inside Israel — which Israel refuses to honor. What you don’t hear so much about is all the Palestinians forbidden to return even to their homes throughout the West Bank.
After what seemed an interminable wait to resume our tour, the soldier called to escort us demanded our passports. We already knew this drill: Make us wait, make us fearful, and maybe we’ll go away. Five among us, Muslim women who wear the hijab, had been detained and questioned for several hours at the checkpoint crossing from Jordan into Israel.
That day in Hebron we had with us a young Palestinian woman, Dalia Shehada, who did not live in Hebron. Her last name is a variant of Shuhada, which in Arabic translates as martyr. If soldiers saw she had a Palestinian ID, she would be sent away, alone and vulnerable, possibly even arrested.
To protect her, Merphie curtailed our walk, and we retreated to a rare Palestinian souvenir shop open in that area. The owner set up chairs for us in his storeroom, and served us tea, a warm island of hospitality in a hostile sea.
In 1997, the “Hebron Agreement” split the city into two areas, H-1 and H-2. The latter includes the Israeli settlements, the historic center, and the city’s once famed, now mostly deserted historic squares and markets.
The Palestinian Authority controls Area H-1, where most of the remaining Palestinians live, and has nominal civilian authority over Palestinian residents in H-2. But the Israeli military controls all else in H-2.
Merphie pointed out an apartment building there that houses only one Palestinian family. Every time they go outside, she said, the I.D.F. searches the interior to make sure no other Palestinians have sneaked in.
You have to be there to fully comprehend the cruelty of these dystopian barriers, which exist throughout the West Bank. Hebron is noteworthy for its history of violence by both Israelis and Palestinians, but the saddest thing is that this city isn’t an anomaly. It’s the story of the occupation.
It’s amusing, in a tragicomic way, to hear alarm voiced over newly re-elected Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s campaign pledge to annex settlements in the West Bank. In reality, they are annexed already. The crucial campaign today is the one for human rights.
Dalia Shehada deserves to walk freely on the street bearing her name, in the land of her belonging. Everything must start with that.
Bethe Dufresne is a retired reporter, editor and columnist for The Day. In 2005 she traveled to the West Bank with Tree of Life on assignment for The Day.
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