Wednesday, February 23, 2005
by M.J. Rosenberg February 21, 2005
M.J. Rosenberg is is Director of Policy Analysis for Israel Policy Forum, a long time Capitol Hill staffer and former editor of AIPAC's Near East Report.
The Sharm el-Sheikh summit was a success by almost any reckoning. But let's not get carried away.
Even the complete end to terrorism and reprisals would not signify an end to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. It would only free the two sides to start negotiating over the issues which produced the violence in the first place.
This reality was brought home to me during my stint as an official US observer of the January 9th Palestinian election. Our eighty-person National Democratic Institute group was broken into forty teams and then dispatched throughout the West Bank and Gaza. My partner and I were assigned to a dozen polling places in Hebron, the second largest city in the West Bank.
Hebron is a city considered holy by both Jews and Muslims because of the presence there of the Cave of Machpela, traditionally thought to be the burial place of Abraham, the patriarch of both Judaism and Islam. Predominantly Arab, Jews also lived in the city, adjacent to the tomb, until 1929 when a pogrom launched by Arab fanatics resulted in the murder of 69 Jews and the end of the Jewish presence in the city.
In 1967, following the Six Day War -- with Israel now in control of the West Bank, including Hebron -- ultra-religious Jewish nationalists pressured the Israeli government to permit Jewish settlers to reclaim, and move into, properties that had belonged to the Jewish community prior to 1929.
The government refused. It arranged for Jewish worship inside the tomb but not for civilian settlement inside the city, which it considered to be both impractical and provocative. Only a tiny group of extremists (many from outside Israel) had any interest in living inside Hebron and ? in the midst of a city of 160,000 Palestinians ? they would need to be defended by hundreds, if not thousands, of soldiers.
The settlers moved in anyway, establishing illegal outposts in the heart of Hebron, which have been tolerated by successive Israeli governments for 36 years. Following the Oslo agreements, the Israeli army withdrew from all Palestinian cities except Hebron, where troops remained to defend the settlers. In 1997, the Israeli army withdrew from 80% of Hebron, remaining only in an area labeled H-2 which includes the Cave of Machpela, the Casbah (Arab market) and the Jewish settlements.
Some 400 settlers live in H-2 in the midst of 30,000 Palestinians.
Last month, I visited H-2 despite being told by an Israeli friend that it is "the worst place in the West Bank." How so? "The settlers there are religious fanatics and dedicate their lives to terrorizing the Palestinians with the goal of driving them all out. The Palestinians can't fight back because the army won't let them. On top of all that, the settlers hate the soldiers almost as much as they hate the Palestinians because the soldiers try to curb their activities. These soldiers are in a situation where they have to defend fanatics who routinely refer to them as Nazis."
But, he added, "so long as the settlers are there, the soldiers must remain as well. Snipers, shooting from the hills, have killed Jews [including a two year old, Shalhevet Pass] and, so the soldiers need to be there, no matter how much they hate it."
I walked into the heart of H-2 following a short inquisition by an IDF soldier. My first stop was the Ibrahami Mosque, which encompasses the Tomb of the Patriarchs. As I walked down the steps toward the mosque, a young Palestinian made the point of informing me that I was following the same route Jewish zealot Baruch Goldstein took when, in February 1994, he burst into the mosque and shot dead 29 Muslims at prayer.
Goldstein is a hero to the Hebron settlers. His burial place (in a tourist park named after Meir Kahane) was turned into a shrine where settlers annually celebrate Goldstein's murder spree with parties and games. (In 2004, police arrested some of them for holding an illegal celebration of both the Goldstein murders and the assassination of Yitzhak Rabin). For Palestinians, of course, the Goldstein massacre is a symbol of the ultimate threat.
I left the mosque and walked through the mostly deserted Casbah toward the settlers' neighborhood. There wasn't much to see, just settlers strutting around with rifles and a few Arabs trying to sell their wares in what was once a thriving market and is now mostly abandoned. And there is the graffiti in English and Hebrew promising death to all Palestinians.
But the most striking thing is the steel mesh screens (see photo) that the Arabs have installed just above the heads of pedestrians to protect them from the garbage and excrement routinely dumped by the settlers from their second floor windows. The screens catch all sorts of disgusting stuff and lethal objects like cinder blocks, although liquid debris does make its way to the ground or on the heads of anyone below.
It's an appalling sight. Imagine looking up and seeing and smelling the foulest debris just above your head, stopped only by mesh. But then everything about H-2 is appalling, including the fact that Israeli soldiers are forced to serve there.
Last summer a group of 70 soldiers who had served in Hebron created a photographic and video exhibit at a Tel Aviv college about their experiences there called, "Breaking Silence." The exhibit, which was a huge success, described from the soldiers' point of view, the dehumanizing experience that serving there had on them. Many spoke of the fear they had -- not only of the Arabs or of the Jews -- but of being terribly transformed as human beings by the experience.
One soldier spoke of being frightened by the "rush" he felt from giving Arabs orders. "I was ashamed of myself the day I realized that I simply enjoy the feeling of power. Forget for a moment that I think that all these Jews are nuts and that I believe we should leave the territories. But how dare [a Palestinian] say 'no' to me? I am the Law! I am the Law here!
"Once I was at a checkpoint, a so-called strangulation checkpoint, blocking the entrance to a village. On one side a line of cars wanting to get out, and on the other side a line of cars wanting to get in. I stood there, gesturing 'you to do this,' 'you do that.' You start playing with them, like a computer game. 'You come here, you go there.' You barely move, you make them obey the tip of your finger. It's a mighty feeling."
A second soldier wrote: "The thing that affected me emotionally was when we had just arrived in Hebron. I was on guard duty, when suddenly, from one of the small streets, a settler girl shows up and shouts at me very urgently: 'Soldier, soldier, come quickly, there's an Arab here who's attacking a girl.' I got very alarmed and advanced with my weapon cocked. The scene that unfolded was of an Arab with his two children. He's trying to protect them from another settler girl who's throwing stones at them. I blow my fuse and start screaming at her. She's screaming back that they are Arabs and should be killed and the father, poor guy, says, with helpless eyes, 'We're used to it, we've been here a long time now, it's alright.'"
A third soldier spoke of the day a group from abroad came to visit Hebron for the Jewish holidays. "One morning, a fairly big group arrived, around 15 Jews from France. They were all religious Jews. They were in a good mood, really having a great time, and I spent my entire shift following this gang of Jews around and trying to keep them from destroying the town. They just wandered around, picked up every stone they saw, and started throwing them at Arabs' windows, and overturning whatever they came across. "There's no horror story here: they didn't catch some Arab and kill him or anything like that, but what bothered me is that maybe someone told them that this is one place in the world where a Jew can take all of his rage out on Arab people, and simply do anything. Come to this Palestinian town, and do whatever they want, and the soldiers will always be there to back them up. Because that was my job, to protect them and make sure that nothing happened to them." Note that this soldier said that he had no "horror story" to tell, just an ordinary day for soldiers, not to mention Palestinians, in Hebron. And that is, of course, the greatest horror. That is why Hebron is significant.
In one neighborhood, in one city, on any given day, anyone can experience the occupation at its worst -- terrible for the Palestinians and terrible for the Israelis too.
The Sharm el-Sheikh summit was a start toward a full ceasefire and the end of the Intifada. But it won't change much in Hebron or in the rest of the West Bank either. As for Gaza, Ariel Sharon is getting out. That is if extremists in the Knesset, and settlers very much like their brethren in Hebron, let him. But a start is certainly better than the status quo.
If anyone tells you that the status quo is tolerable, just tell them about Hebron.