Sunday, December 14, 2014

A U.S. Activist’s Last Days in the West Bank City of Hebron

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A U.S. Activist’s Last Days in the West Bank City of Hebron

Richard Hardigan

Wednesday, December 10, 2014


Anti-Arab slogans were not new to me. “Tomorrow there is no school in Gaza; there are no children left”, had been chanted during the recent Gaza massacre by angry fascist mobs in Tel Aviv. I had seen “Gas the Arabs” spray painted in black letters on the walls of the closed shops in Hebron’s H2 district. But I had never heard such sentiments uttered so calmly before. The effect was chilling.

A young Israeli soldier, a sniper, was talking to us, and we were in Hebron, in the West Bank, which has been under Israeli military occupation since 1967. The soldier did not tell us his name, but he said he would be very proud if we would publish his photo, and he posed for the camera with two members of his sniper team. All three were carrying their rifles over their shoulders, and they were smiling. One was flashing a victory sign. I couldn’t help but wonder what the victory was to which he was referring. He had just shot an unarmed eighteen-year-old Palestinian boy who had thrown two stones from the roof of a building three hundred meters away. Whom had the soldier defeated? What was the struggle that our hero had endured before finally emerging victorious? Perhaps the struggle had not really been between this soldier and his Palestinian victim, as the western media would have us believe. Maybe it had been a conflict between humanity and compassion on one side, and oppression, racism and intolerance on the other. I knew which side had won today.

I had spent the last two months working for the International Solidarity Movement (ISM) in Palestine. On the ISM website, it describes itself as “a Palestinian-led movement committed to resisting the long-entrenched and systematic oppression and dispossession of the Palestinian population, using non-violent, direct-action methods and principles”. I had been in Hebron for the last two weeks, and I was supposed to fly back home from Tel Aviv two days later, but I was concerned. ISMers are always worried during the days before they are scheduled to leave the country. They anticipate intense questioning and searching at the airport, so it’s crucial for them to have their stories in order. One wrong answer and one could be prohibited from ever entering Israel again. Jason, a sixty-year-old activist from Liverpool and one of my ISM colleagues, kept telling me not to worry.

“The soldiers at the airport are so stupid that they’ll believe anything you say.”
Helga, a German ISMer in her early twenties, on the other hand, insisted that we practice my story.

“What were you doing in Israel? Why were you here for so long? Israel is small. How can you spend two months in such a tiny country? Why do you have a beard? You’re forty years old. Why are you not married?” I didn’t have an answer to most of those questions (especially the last one), but I was prepared to tell them that I was a divinity student working on a paper, and that I needed to conduct my research in Bethlehem. I even had a working title. “Does Luke’s claim that Jesus was born in Bethlehem at the time of Quirinius’ census match the historical record?” The officials at the airport couldn’t possibly question that, could they?

If your goal was to pass through the exit procedure at the airport smoothly, there were several basic rules you had to follow. You were not allowed to have entered the West Bank (except to visit Bethlehem), and in fact you would be tempting fate if you even mentioned the West Bank at all. You had to have spent your entire visit in Israel. This meant you needed pictures. Lots of them. Of Israel.

My hard drive contained shots of events I had witnessed all over the West Bank. There are weekly demonstrations in the village of Kufr Qaddum, south of Nablus, where the Israelis closed an access road to Palestinians, allowing only settlers to use it.

Here Israeli soldiers routinely attack protestors with everything from tear gas to live ammunition to skunk water, a foul smelling substance fired from a water cannon that is so malodorous that you can detect its presence on your clothes up to five years later. I attended four of these demos, and I had several images of the bloodied victims of a particularly brutal Israeli attack. Then there were the pictures of the funeral of a mentally handicapped man murdered by Israeli soldiers in the El-Ein refugee camp in Nablus.

The IDF routinely enters refugee camps at night to make its presence known, and on this occasion they had come upon a man returning home from the local mosque. After the man did not follow the army’s instructions to put up his hands, presumably because he did not understand them, soldiers shot him four times – three times in the stomach and once in the chest. My video showed an angry crowd carrying the victim’s body, wrapped in the red, green, white and black Palestinian flag, through the narrow streets of the camp. I’m sure these were not the kinds of pictures the border officials were looking for.

Jason provided me with an SD card filled with pictures of the Wailing Wall, the Church of the Holy Sepulchre and the Mount of Olives, among other tourist destinations in Jerusalem. But I still believed my colleague Charlie had the best advice of all regarding getting out of Israel.

“If you want to make it through the airport, just wear an IDF t-shirt.”

El Khalil (Hebron is its Hebrew name), with approximately 250,000 Palestinians, between 500 and 850 Jewish settlers, and 4000 Israeli soldiers to protect them, is the most populous city in the Occupied Territories. Hebron is a city under occupation, and just like in the rest of the West Bank, Israel uses both its armed forces and its settlers to punish the people of Hebron for their existence. But Hebron is different in another way. Only here do the Israeli settlers actually live inside the city itself, including many who live in an area close to the hub of the city, designated as H2. (H1 is the part of the city over which the Palestinian authorities have control.) H2 contains the famous Shuhada street, a formerly busy shopping area that was closed to Palestinian access in response to the Goldstein massacre of 1994. In February of that year Baruch Goldstein, a thirty-seven-year-old American doctor and religious zealot, opened fire on Muslim worshipers in the Ibrahimi mosque, continuing to shoot until he had no ammunition left. He killed 29 Palestinians, wounding another 125 and was himself beaten to death after the carnage.
On Goldstein’s tomb, which became a pilgrimage site for Israeli religious extremists, are written the words “He gave his life for the people of Israel, its Torah and land”.

The area around Shuhada street is now a veritable ghost town, since the only Palestinians who are allowed to enter, which they must do through one of the checkpoints, are those who live in H2. This rule was instituted by the Israeli authorities shortly after the massacre and has destroyed the neighborhood’s once thriving economy. Today settlers live in various parts of H2, including Tel Rumeida, a hill that overlooks the old city.

The ISM apartment in Tel Rumeida is a safe haven to us. Not only is it where we live and eat and sleep, but it also provides a respite from the violence and the injustice that we witness almost on a daily basis. Although I had been there for only two weeks, I definitely felt a strong connection to it. My favorite part of the house was the roof. I would sleep there every night and be awoken in the morning by the muezzin of a nearby mosque. The roof afforded me spectacular views over all of Hebron. Since the house is located on a street used both by settlers and Palestinians, the roof also allowed us to witness some of the daily conflicts that occurred between the two groups.

The apartment is known by the Israeli soldiers and settlers as the “Anarchista House”. It felt strange to know that the people that think of you as their enemy know exactly where you live. And these weren’t ordinary people. All soldiers and some settlers are heavily armed, with the shoulder-slung M-16 seeming to be the ubiquitous weapon of choice in Tel Rumeida. There’s a sign on the inside of our front door warning us not to ever let IDF soldiers enter the apartment, not under any circumstances. But how do eight unarmed volunteers stop one of the world’s most powerful armies from entering if it wants to?

Twenty four hours a day there are at least two soldiers keeping watch about ten meters down the hill from our house. Some of the soldiers are friendly and will smile or nod at us, but most simply glare at us hatefully. They resent our presence. Charlie tried to give them the benefit of the doubt. “They don’t want to be here. They’re just following orders,” he said. It was a tired refrain that you find in armies all over the world and in my mind is most often associated with former Nazi soldiers who try to justify their actions during the Holocaust. We sometimes try to communicate with them, but most often their English is too broken for any meaningful exchange, even if that was what they desired.

Today the soldiers below us were excited. Four of their colleagues commandeered the roof of a nearby house that is owned by a Palestinian family. It was a sniper team. We were on the roof of our building, almost directly behind them, and we could follow the direction of their gun sights to see where they were aiming. Three hundred meters away there were two Palestinian youths milling around on the roof of a not-yet-completed three story building.

Juan and Miguel, two Spanish ISMers, joined Jason and me on the roof, and we considered our options.

“Yell at the soldiers! Throw stones at them! Run up to them and distract them!” None of the ideas seemed reasonable. Jason and Miguel decided to run down to the three story building to warn the youths, while Juan and I stayed on our roof to monitor the situation. After fifteen minutes I received a phone call from Jason, who passed me on to a young Palestinian man.

“Tell those kids to get off the roof! There are snipers, and they’re going to kill them!” I yelled into the phone with my limited colloquial Arabic. After a few seconds, the phone went dead.

My heart seemed to be beating in my throat, as I watched the boys and the soldiers and waited. Did they understand my advice? Would they heed it? Would the soldiers shoot them before they had a chance to escape?

Every evening we have a meeting in the apartment at which we discuss our failures and successes of the day, and we make plans for the next twenty-four hours. We also talk about our feelings. ISM work is difficult, and it can be emotionally taxing. When you witness extreme injustice and you constantly see unnecessary suffering, it can wear on you. That’s what this component of the discussion is about.

To give us all a chance to share our thoughts and worries and to know that we are not alone in what we fear. It is my favorite part of the meeting. Yesterday Miguel, in his thick Spanish accent, asked, “It is useless. These fucking soldiers do what they want anyway. Why are we even here?” It is a feeling and a fear we all share to some extent, and it is a topic that seems to come up a lot.

I was reminded of Miguel’s words as the young men on the roof suddenly scampered behind a water tank, appearing to hide. I felt euphoric. There was no doubt now. I had made a difference. It was because of me that these kids had not been shot.

The euphoria vanished quickly as the teenagers on the roof re-appeared from behind the water tank. Even worse, one of them languidly picked up a stone and tossed it from the building. Then another one. I picked up my camera and started filming, because I knew that this was the moment the soldiers had been waiting for. According to the Israeli human rights group B’tselem, “the army’s open-fire regulations clearly stipulate that live ammunition should not be used against stone-throwers, except in cases of immediate mortal danger.”

But I knew better. A shot rang out, the sound loud enough to startle me, although I had been expecting it, causing my camera to shake. One of the men on the roof fell down and then hobbled to safety behind a pillar. It turns out that he was shot in the calf, and later pictures appeared on the ISM website of a cast covering his whole leg.
What happened next was possibly even more disturbing. One soldier grabbed the marksman’s leg, another slapped his hand on the ground in celebration. The mood appeared light. There were smiles and laughter. A soldier imitated the hapless victim’s motions after he was shot, grabbing his leg, limping around. They appeared to be entertained by the whole incident. It was almost as if they were acting in a movie, which, unbeknownst to them, they were.

My friend Charlie became incensed, and he ran downstairs and out into the street. A short, pudgy, unassuming Australian, he was one of the colleagues of mine that I admired most. Four years ago, walking down the street in Tel Rumeida, Charlie had been attacked by a group of Hebron settlers that had beaten him unconscious with a metal pipe, breaking his nose in the process. He remembered little about the incident, but it did take him several years to work up the courage to return to Palestine. But now he was back here in Hebron, confronting soldiers and settlers alike.

“Do you feel good, shooting unarmed children like that?”, he yelled at one of the soldiers, snapping his picture. The soldier grinned.

“I hate Arabs. I wish I could kill them all.”

After a week ISM published the video I took on its website [1] and on Youtube. It received quite a bit of attention, and the Israeli army even responded by sanctioning the soldiers for their behavior, although it did not reveal the terms of the punishment. Military officials did insist that the boys on the roof had been a legitimate target, since they had been throwing Molotov cocktails, a statement that was a complete and utter fabrication. Instead, they explained that it was the soldiers’ celebratory behavior that had been deemed inappropriate and had been the cause for their punishment.

The mood at the meeting the evening of the shooting was somber. We had all been in demonstrations where the army used live ammunition, and most of us had seen Palestinians get shot, but usually the bullets seemed to come from nowhere, out of a cloud of teargas. The connection between the shooter and the victim was tenuous, and we usually saw only the victim. We did not see the shooter, and we could pretend that he didn’t exist, or at least that he was not human. This time it was different. This sniper was real. He sweated, and he smiled. And he had shot that boy. For no reason. And he had laughed about it. I just couldn’t come to grips with it.

But tomorrow I would go to Jerusalem, and then the next day I was to fly out of Tel Aviv, and I needed to practice what I would say to the airport officials. What was the title of my divinity paper again?

Richard Hardigan, who worked for the International Solidarity Movement in Palestine for two months, is a university professor in the United States.

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