Trusting my chaver, colleague and friend, I signed up for a trip with T’ruah, a U.S.-based organization of rabbis active in promoting human rights and Breaking the Silence, a group of former IDF soldiers dedicated to fighting the Israeli occupation, who collect and publish personal testimonies about their military service in locations like Hebron. The trip to Kiryat Arba and Hebron was intended to teach rabbis about the realities and current situation in the occupied territories.
Breaking the Silence is an inspirational group of former IDF soldiers who, after serving in the settlements, have come out and publicly shared their experiences and views of the missions and orders given to them on a daily basis. After years of collected testimony, they firmly believe that the practices of the IDF in the settlements are not solely designed to ensure safety but are also used to keep the Palestinians in their place.
Our guide, a phenomenally intelligent and articulate young woman nicknamed Merphie, spoke perfect English, since her two Canadian parents had made alyiah to Israel long ago. Her experience growing up in a religious family allowed her to speak about the conflict from both the progressive view and the traditional perspective. She shared her unique understanding why Machpela, the graves of our biblical ancestors, have such deep meaning to Jews. In the air-conditioned bus ride, she gave us a brief history and background of the area, describing the different groups of Jewish people who have lived in Hebron, starting with the time before the establishment of the State of Israel and continuing to the present. We learned that the IDF has a 1:1 ratio of soldiers to settlers in Hebron at all times and more on holidays.
Before arriving in Hebron, we stopped in Kiryat Arba to visit the burial site of Baruch Goldstein, the Jewish-American doctor who had settled there and, on Purim in 1994, walked into a room in the Cave of the Patriarchs used as a mosque. Dressed in his IDF reserve uniform, Goldstein opened fire on the praying Palestinians, murdering 29 people and wounding 125 others. The words of praise inscribed on his tombstone were shacking at best: “His hands are clean and his heart is pure.” How could anyone think that? Still, today, Israeli extremists visit this site to pray for the expansion of settlements and renewal of an all-Israeli Hebron.
Next we entered into Hebron, where we looked at a very colorful map of roads in Hebron showing which roads were open to all travelers, which allow only Israelis to drive and Palestinians to walk, and which are sterilized.
Every time I heard the term “sterilized,” I cringed, unable to avoid images of the Third Reich. These sterilized roads are not open to the Palestinians by car or foot. These are not inconsequential roads, either. There are buildings along these roads, businesses that had been forced to close due to lack of foot traffic, businesses that had their doors welded shut by the IDF, many with merchandise inside. Along these sterilized roads were Palestinian homes. To simply get out of their home to buy food, go to school or visit relatives, these people must climb to the rooftop and hop (Aladdin style) from rooftop to rooftop until they reach a road that has not been sterilized from their presence.
During our tour we heard testimonies of former IDF soldiers who had spent months enforcing curfews and learned about the ways in which the Palestinians are shown the Israeli power as a preventative to violence. It was saddening, but not surprising, to hear about the bureaucratic red tape between the IDF and the Israeli police within the settlements. The police are there to enforce rules and laws on the Israelis; the army is there to keep the Israelis safe. The nuance is best described with examples.
If a Palestinian 12-year-old were to throw rocks, either the IDF or the Israeli police has the authority to stop him. Yet, if a 12-year-old Israeli is throwing stones right in front of an IDF soldier, the soldier can’t do anything. They are only allowed to call the Israeli police, who could take too long to arrive. The punishments for the same crime are also vastly different. The military courts take sentence the Palestinian criminals and the civil courts take care of the Israeli children.
A Palestinian spoke with us about the occupation, how long and hard it is for children to travel sometimes through four security checkpoints just to go to school, how curfews have been imposed for such lengths of time, humanitarian aid has been brought in so that people didn’t starve to death in their own homes. The curfews and street closures have made unemployment rates soar and the area is now impoverished. Ambulances have not been permitted to enter Palestinian neighborhoods; we heard about a Palestinian man who unnecessarily died of a heart attack.
We did not have the opportunity to speak first-hand to an Israeli settler, but I am looking forward to hearing from one later this summer. The Israeli settlers that were closest to us during our visit were two men who pulled up in a red car attempting to intimidate our group by following us and filming us. Since we were escorted by IDF soldiers while in Hebron, Israeli settlers who do not approve of the message Breaking the Silence is teaching did not harm us. Even though the IDF does not support or approve of Breaking the Silence, they do not want anyone on the tours to be harmed. However, a few weeks ago, a group had rocks thrown at them by Israeli settlers.
I am not completely sure how to solve the occupation and end the hatred. I don’t know how we can ensure access to holy sites without safe roads and a constant presence surrounding them. I know that removing anyone from his or her home has a high emotional price tag, but I also believe that this situation is not sustainable. The emotional price our young Israeli soldiers pay by serving in these territories is high, and the understandably bad press Israel receives about these autocracies is high. I know I don’t want My Israel to treat anyone in this manner. What I saw was oppressing the stranger!
The entomology of the name “Hebron” in both Hebrew and Arabic is “friend.” The city is referred to in the Quran as Abraham Khalil Al-Khalil, “Abraham, friend of God.” The city I saw was a filthy, impoverished ghost town. The people we came in contact with were going about their business with sadness in their eyes. In fact, I didn’t see one smiling face. The separation is not working and the occupation cannot be a sustainable solution. My wish is that the holy land of Hebron can soon reflect the meaning of its name for everyone.