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Posts Tagged ‘Palestine’

The excavation ended last week. In the days leading up to the end of the project, me and a couple friends were planning to stay in Jerusalem for a few days before our flights from Amman to America.  So, I’ve been in Jerusalem for the past few days.

Yesterday morning I was talking to a couple guys staying at the hostel I’m staying at who were planning on going to Hebron in the West Bank for the day. They would be leaving that hour and asked if I’d like to come along (safety in numbers). After a few minutes of debating with myself about exactly how stupid it would be to go, I decided to go for it.

Hebron, the second most holy city of the Jewish faith, has been a major point of friction between Palestinians and Israeli settlers for years. Hebron, within the west bank and overseen by the Palestinian authority, has major Jewish settlements within it, which are generally condemned as illegal and President Obama confronted the Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu about freezing any further construction of settlements like this in the West Bank. It would be a once in a lifetime opportunity to get a better perspective on one of the most important issues in the region today. I picked up my passport, a notebook, a full canteen, around 50 shekels and tagged along with two people I barely knew into one of the most dangerous parts of the middle east.

We left our hostel, walked through the old city to damascus gate and caught a bus to Bethlehem just across the street.Once in Bethlehem, we had passed through the Israeli separation wall and were within the jurisdiction of the Palestinian authority. we made a quick stop at the birth place of Jesus and several of the churches in the area before getting on a bus to Hebron. Once in Hebron, things got very, very strange.

The main souks (marketplaces) in downtown Hebron have had a history of violence and bitterness between Israeli settlers and Palestinian residents. The souk alleyways between buildings are, in part, free for Palestinians to wander about, but immediately above these souks on the second to third floors of the souk structures, are Israeli settlements.

We walked through the souks for a while. Many shops had been closed down and welded shut by the israelis, especially near checkpoints which led into the Jewish settlements. While we walked towards one of the checkpoints several palestinian shopkeepers were pulled us aside to describe the times their shops had been shut down, or burned and the abuse they often received from settlers and the Israeli army.

Some more background information might be useful here. Israeli settlers are allowed to pack heat, a lot of heat. It is no rare sight to see a guy with a kippah, dressed in a nice pair of slacks and collared shirt driving his wife and young children around Hebron with an M-16 or AR-15 nestled on his lap. When settlers walk through the souks, they are, as far as I know, also allowed to carry weapons with them (or at least it has happened on several occasions), if only because there is virtually no alleyway or street on the border of the Jewish settlement that does not have a guard post or sniper tower covering it.

While walking around the souks, one of the guys I was with who had visited Hebron a couple years ago described the Israeli security and checkpoints as being completely unyielding to Palestinian entry. We arrived at Hebron not believing that it would be anywhere near possible to enter the settlements. There were many relics of riots, and demonstrations all over the souks, from the welded doors, to barricades of barbed wire and wrought iron fences blocking entry to abandoned marketplaces. If you’ve seen the movie “Children of Men” you’ll have a good idea of the kind of scene we found ourselves in. Immediately above our heads were chain link fences hanging horizontally like a protective membrane between the Palestinian shops and the Israeili settlers’ windows and balconies. On the roofs were guard posts, sand bags and more razor wire overlooking the entire scene.

We had heard a few stories about how settlers would throw trash or sewage out there windows onto the souk below on particularly bad days. There were still pieces of furniture, bits of trash, and vegetables suspended above our heads in the chain link fence. We decided to try our luck at getting to one of the Mosques which was blocked by two checkpoints. We got past the first with no real problem but were not let into the second. So, we wandered around another souk which was populated only by some dust, welded doors and a pack of wild dogs. After a while we started noticing lots of star of davids and a few Israeli guys in the distance and we realized that we were now inside the part of the city reserved for israeli settlers.

Israeli security in the West bank is very fluid and does not seem to stay the same for a long period of time. Certain major roads which pass between areas in the west bank which have Jewish settlements are often reserved for only settlers unless the palestinians have permits which allow their passage. These roads can be completely shut off with no notice prohibiting any kind of palestinian movement between towns. Getting from one area to the adjacent one as a palestinian in areas which still have Israeli security requires a few leaps through several hoops.

Security on the day we arrived was lax, which seems a bit crazy to say considering the heavy army presence wherever we went, but we had few problems going wherever we wanted and there were Palestinians being allowed into the same areas we were in. Though it was obvious that few palestinians wanted to be in the areas which were predominantly occupied by settlers.

We stumbled upon the tomb of Jesse, the father of King David, which was completely surrounded by israeli army barracks. We had to speak to a couple of army officers before we were allowed inside. We had to walk through a narrow path defined by a corrugated steel wall and a barbed wire fence which snaked around the barracks and stations which led to the tomb.

What really caught us off guard was how well we were treated by the Israeli soldiers. We were never really bothered except for requests for passports and a couple questions about why the hell we would want to go to Hebron to tour around. Of course we were two Americans and a British guy. Along these lines we got a better idea of how exactly property ownership works in these areas. We came across a small shop within the Israeli zone and decided to buy some water and coke.

While I was paying, I noticed that some kids who just wandered in were yelling “yelleh yelleh!” at one another. I looked around and noticed some koranic verses on the walls and realized that the shop was palestinian owned, or at least operated. Up to that point we all assumed that Palestinians were rarely allowed into this area, let alone allowed to operate shops. But, it turns out that these sorts of shops aren’t uncommon. Later we learned that this does not go both ways. Jews aren’t allowed to own or operate shops outside of the settlements.

After a couple hours of wandering around, talking to Palestinians and Israelis, as well as running into more than a few independent observers from several organizations, we decided to head back on an Egged settler bus to Jerusalem. These busses, I believe, are reserved for settler use since they run from the border of the Palestinian zone, deep into the Jewish settlement and out towards Jerusalem.  While waiting for the bus, we met two Jewish guys, one who hailed from Brooklyn and the other who was from New Jersey. Both of them, while very kind to all of us were a bit confused about why we were there and the reasons for where we had gone in the past (one of use spent time in Syria studying arabic before arriving here, and I was in Jordan for two months). Nevertheless we parted ways with goodwill towards each other.

The egged Bus which we boarded was heavily armored although it wasn’t plainly obvious looking at the outside of it. Once inside, we could see that the thick windows were very bulletproof. The bus left the periphery of the Jewish settlement and drove deeper into what could easily be a nice suburb in the States. There were fountains, walkways, well watered green grass and families pushing their young children around on strollers (one other thing I noticed was that there seemed to be very few unmarried people, and very few elderly people in any part of the settlement. It seemed like the settlements were occupied almost entirely by soldiers, and young families with several children.) It was within this area where security seemed to be the most tight. This part of the settlement was basically a gated community and entry by a palestinian was at least very frowned upon, but more likely it was not allowed. Because we were in the area on Shabbat, the bus was just ending its operation and could only take us towards the highway leading to Jerusalem but would not leave the settlement. We would have to hitchhike to Jerusalem, which did not worry me much. I had always wanted to hitch hike in the middle east. In Jordan it is absolutely commonplace, and I would have done it with little hesitation if I had to.

The situation here though was a bit more complicated. One of us got into a car pretty early and rode off into the sunset towards Jerusalem with little difficulty. It was just me and the other American at this point, waiting around for a ride with about 15 other young settlers with children and a very young looking Israeli soldier keeping an eye on everything. We were on a road perpendicular to the highway, which had much more traffic than where we were standing. I wanted to get on the highway to hitch hike because I figured it would be faster than waiting with this many other people for a kind hearted settler to pick us up. The “Israeli” soldier might have overheard me and started talking to both of us. It turns out he had an unmistakable American accent (I don’t want to go into too much detail about this guy aside from some of the information we got from him). The Israeli army welcomes volunteers from all over the world, providing that they are of Jewish heritage. Young people like this guy can serve for at least two years.

He said that we should probably not hitch hike on the highway since Arabs used it as well as Jews and that this could likely result in us getting kidnapped or at least getting harassed given our proximity to a settlement. So, we stayed and talked to him for a while as we signaled passing cars.

Shabbat, we learned, is often not observed by soldiers simply because they cannot have every friday night off. They serve on a rotating schedule. 14 days in service, and 4 days off. These are timed so that the soldiers can observe Shabbat during their break. (Later, we met some israeli soldiers in Jerusalem who had the opportunity to celebrate Shabbat together in a hotel).

We asked the guy about his Arabic, how much did he know? Only things like “Stop” and “lift up your shirt” he replied.

After a while he asked us what were doing in Hebron, we replied that we were just getting a look at the political situation there. When he found out that we had been in the Palestinian zone he got visibly worried. He spoke a bit generally about the dangers of being in that part of Hebron and the problems that we could have encountered with the Arabs before stunning us with a few choice pieces of information. His unit and seven others had participated in a raid the night before, which resulted in the arrest of 7 Hamas members in the area we were walking just a few hours ago.

As we talked, some cars passed, others picked up settlers going in the opposite direction. But every once in a while, a fully loaded car would stop and a chinese fire drill style scramble would occur where some settlers in traditional Jewish dress of several different denominations got out and others got in. In this scramble I’d be able to see a few pistols flashing and perhaps an M-16 being adjusted as everyone got into their places and sped off towards the south, past the main city of Hebron.

When I leaned into windows to say “yerushalahim?” I’d often see the driver had a pistol on his lap or hanging out of his glove compartment. I could tell that most of the settlers were not too stoked at having an outsider practically within the settlement. Eventually a guy of Ethiopian descent picked us up and drove us towards the North, leaving Hebron behind us. This guy also had an interesting life story to tell. After the driver said that his parents had come to Israel from Ethiopia, my American friend asked if they were on “that famous plane”. I had no idea what he was talking about at the time, but he was referring to operation solomon which occurred in 1991 and transported thousands of Ethiopian Jews from that country which was politically destabilized to Israel.

The driver’s parents, though, had come to Israel as a part of much earlier Israeli operations. He may have been referring to operations Joshua or Moses. But in his parents case, they were in transit for three years before successful arrival in Israel. First, his parents had to get into the Sudan, where Ethiopian jews were on a waiting list to be transported. His parents had few connections so their time in the Sudan was prolonged, bringing the entire ordeal to three years of waiting.

In the end, he dropped us off at the gates of the old city. We thanked him and walked towards our hostel. This was not before we talked to him briefly about our time in Jordan and in Syria. He, like the other settlers, seemed a bit uneasy about the idea of us being in Arab countries and only said “well, maybe we will all be there soon too”.

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