Eyewitness to the agony of Hebron

August 9, 2018

Chicago educator Gabriel Paez describes his recent visit to the West Bank city of Hebron, where he traveled to show his solidarity with the Palestinian struggle to be free.

ISRAEL’S APARTHEID system in Palestine is not evenly enforced. Within the West Bank, there are places that feel like cages within a cage, where the limited rights of movement that Palestinians have elsewhere don’t seem to apply.

One such place is the city of Hebron, where I had the honor of volunteering with Youth Against Settlements this July.

In order to arrive in Hebron without incident, I was instructed to ditch any left-wing shirts or books, as well as any signs of my solidarity with Palestine, including all digital traces of these views in my e-mail and social media accounts.

I made a reservation at a hostel in Jerusalem that I didn’t intend on keeping and talked myself through my alibi repeatedly, practicing how I would respond to questioning.

Going into Israel for Palestine solidarity work feels like sneaking into a dictatorship where the wrong words could get you detained, deported or banned from entering for a decade or more. Because I have family that lives in Israel and do not have a Palestinian name, I was allowed in.

Israeli soldiers detain youth for raising the Palestinian flag in Tel Rumeida
Israeli soldiers detain youth for raising the Palestinian flag in Tel Rumeida (Gabriel Paez | SW)

My instructions were to take the settler bus from Jerusalem Central Station to Hebron. The bulletproof bus filled with soldiers and settlers zipped out of Jerusalem and whisked its passengers deep into the West Bank. This bus system connects all of the major settlements in the Hebron area, speeding through checkpoints and past watchtowers, up restricted roads, and past the fortified entrances of settlements.

Israeli flags flew from white townhouses built in rows. There was barbed-wire fencing and soldiers enforcing a no-Palestinian policy to maintain the racially cleansed suburbs in the heart of occupied Palestine. Eventually, the bus arrived in Hebron.

THIS ANCIENT city is in a particularly suffocating situation. Hebron is the only Palestinian city in the West Bank with settlements built inside and on top of it. In Hebron’s Old City, locals have built netting over narrow alleyways to catch trash, rocks, bottles of bleach and urine thrown down from the settlement above.

The Israeli army strictly enforces an official policy of segregation, with H1 areas for Palestinians and H2 areas for Israeli settlers. Palestinians who have resisted eviction in H2 areas live under constant threat from settlers who set fire to their ancient olive trees, vandalize homes, and physically attack them under the watchful eye of soldiers.

The house where I stayed is in the Tel Rumeida neighborhood and is one of the remaining Palestinian homes in this H2 area. To enter from H1, you have to pass through checkpoint 56, which is manned by young Israeli soldiers clutching M16s. These teenagers get complete control over the lives of the local population, detaining and killing at will.

The checkpoint also leads to Shuhada Street, which was shut off to Palestinians after American-born settler Baruch Goldstein massacred 29 people inside the Ibrahimi Mosque in 1994. This street was once the bustling center of commerce of the city. It now resembles a ghost town, heavily guarded by the enforcers of apartheid and littered with rubble, trash, barbed wire and collapsing buildings.

At the end of the emptied street is the Bet Romano settlement. Palestinians who cross into this zone can be detained indefinitely under a military court system — or just murdered on the spot. It was on this street where Breaking the Silence organizer Frima “Murphie” Bubis was attacked with paint thrown by a settler while leading a group of young Jews who walked off their “birthright” trip while I was there.

The settler violence is daily and an integral part of the ethnic-cleansing project that Israel has been carrying out for decades. Settlers can come from all over the world and receive financial incentives to do so — and then terrorize Palestinians and take the homes and land where they’ve lived for generations.

The house I stayed at had once been inhabited by a Palestinian family before it was taken over by settlers, and then converted into a military outpost. Years of civil disobedience and court rulings eventually forced the army to leave, but only after they destroyed the entire interior of the home.

The family was threatened with revocation of their coveted Blue IDs, which allows them access to Jerusalem and Israel. They either could stay in the house, or be damned to Green ID status, denying them access to vast Israeli-controlled portions of the West Bank, Jerusalem and Israel.

In order to keep settlers from retaking the home, Youth Against Settlements has established a permanent Palestinian and international presence in the home, which makes it a target for settlers and soldiers alike.

From the house rises the only Palestinian flag in the neighborhood. Two local activists were detained for attempting to replace it with a larger new flag. During our outdoor dinners, the army repeatedly flew drones overhead to watch our dangerous consumption of hummus.

During the night, settlers defaced Palestinian artwork facing the settlement, and when an event was held for children to repaint the wall, settlers retaliated by setting olive trees on fire.

ONE NIGHT, as I sat outside with a local activist, two stones were thrown from the settlement, missing us by about a foot. Soldiers rushed towards the house, repeatedly saying they knew who threw the stones, but did nothing.

Had the stones gone in the other direction, the neighborhood would have been shut down, homes raided, people detained. Soldiers have repeatedly raided the house to arrest activists for organizing nonviolent civil disobedience against the occupation.

The main organizer has 18 cases against him in Israeli military court, where lawyers are not given access to files or their clients. In detention, torture and human rights abuses are common, and Palestinians are considered guilty until proven innocent. Settlers, on the other hand, are tried by the civilian court system, and they are rarely arrested for their crimes in any case.

Even in the H1 Palestinian areas, everyday life can be halted by the occupation.

On one of my last days, after having just returned from viewing the apartheid wall in Bethlehem, I found an armored Israeli truck blocking a major street in H1 and soldiers going door to door, closing businesses and shops and removing people from the area. Clearly marked members of the press were pushed far down the street, making a busy intersection into a dead zone.

This was done so that a group of settlers could cross from H2 to H1 for a religious ceremony. Within Hebron, there are about 600 Israeli settlers, who get a personal entourage of about four soldiers each — compared to the 200,000 Palestinians who live without protection under daily assault by the army and settlers.

Israel is without a doubt an apartheid state, which has defined itself by the erasure of Palestinian existence. The ethnic-cleansing process is deep and multifaceted, institutionalized and cultural. This is a state that criminalizes critical thinking, even banning tiny antiwar organizations from visiting universities.

In the inverted world that Israel has constructed, children raising flags is an act of violence, and the army pulverizing refugee camps every few years in Gaza is self-defense. Settlers incinerate children in Duma, and thousands of new settlements are built on the last stretches of Palestinian land.

Israel must feel like the U.S. did in the years before the civil rights movement, where even the slightest recognition of systematic oppression is seen as a national threat. Jewish solidarity activists are treated as “race traitors” — and Palestinians are treated to apartheid and death.

AFTER MY solidarity trip, it is difficult for me to feel optimistic. The vast majority of Israelis, even liberals, just a few miles from the West Bank and Gaza, live in a state of delusion, endlessly regurgitating their racist talking points: “They don’t value life like we do,” “Their religion teaches them to hate,” “They’re terrorists.”

It’s the same Islamophobic rhetoric used by the U.S. to justify its imperialism throughout the Arab world.

Israel has excelled in marketing itself to diverse audiences. There is the religious right with its apocalyptic end-of-times mission; there are liberal environmentalists who love solar power; there’s the military hardware crowd; the LGBTQ people and feminists who insist on Israel’s tolerance despite the bigotry all around them; and the NGO do-gooders.

Everyone can find their place in Israel — unless you’re Palestinian. The July 19 passage of the nation-state law codifies the exclusion from Israel’s national identity of the 20 percent of citizens who are of Palestinian descent.

Although young people around the world are turning against Israel en masse, including in the U.S., Israeli society has sought to inoculate itself from global popular demands. By playing a central role in crucial global industries, Israel hopes to minimize the impact of anti-apartheid boycotts. They may succeed in limiting the economic fallout, but the political price is harder to evade.

As socialists we stand firmly behind our commitment to Palestinian liberation and self-determination. This includes through solidarity trips organized by locals themselves.

I urge those who can travel to Palestine for this purpose to do so. From October 20 to November 10, Youth Against Settlements needs international activists to help with the olive harvest, which is often attacked by settlers. The organization also needs activists for the Open Shuhada Street campaign held in the last week of February.

There is much to learn from the Palestinians themselves, and there is a tremendous amount of work to be done to spread the word and build solidarity. We will fight until Palestine is free.

For more information about Youth Against Settlement, send an e-mail to [email protected]. To read a more detailed account of Gabriel’s trip, read his blog.

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