Two Days Late

Originally published in 2007.  This one is a little political, so feel free to skip it if politics or foreign policy aren’t your gig.

Two Days Late…

The flow of information in Jerusalem is somewhat slow and censored, generated mostly from word of mouth. At times, I feel as though I’m staying in a small bubble, and engaging in the outside world is an effort. So when news of Jewish settlers being forcibly removed from the homes they were illegally occupying in Hebron hit the Times and the BBC, I figured we should make an effort to seek some breaking news. One note, western media is seven hours behind my current reality- a point that seems obvious, but not so for this ‘journalist.’

A boy rides his bike through Hebron.

While sitting on a packed local bus with people smoking and yelling into cell phones, I think to myself there is a reason that journalists have expense accounts, translators and drivers. Oh, what luxuries! After an hour long trip, we hop off the bus while stuck in traffic and head off to the market to find our news. We meet a local Arab shop owner who graciously volunteers to act as our guide. Weaving our way through the bustling old Arab market of Hebron, we enter yet another Israeli check point. After passing the first checkpoint, we make our way to another gate with an armed guard and our gracious guide says he can go no farther. Arabs are not allowed entry into certain streets and neighborhoods, despite the fact that Arabs have lived in Hebron for hundreds, even thousands of years.

Deserted store fronts in Hebron.

We walk the empty streets and ask people where the house is located; some look at us as though we have three heads, others tell us to be careful because of the IDF guards and the large number of journalists. Arabs were forced to abandon the buildings and homes they owned in this area when the IDF blocked the streets; yet the Jewish settlers have no legal right to be in these dwellings. Blocks of homes and shops sit empty and abandoned, giving Hebron the feel of a modern day ghost town.

A Quiet Anger

An IDF soldier is standing watch outside the homes which two days ago were plastered about the news as though a major pullout of the West Banks had begun. Two small, two story homes adjoined by one wall look as though their guts have been ripped out in haste just moments before we arrived.

An IDF soldier watches as we tour the occuppied apartment.

Inside the first home, bottles of shampoo sit open on the sink, the windows are missing, a child’s drawing decorates the hallway and two holes speckle the wall in the room adjacent to the other home. Peering through the holes I can see the damage done to the other home where soldiers knocked down the door to reach the settlers. The holes were created to reach the settlers who had built a pillbox to barricade themselves within on the other side of the wall.

The pillbox used by protesters.

The soldier then takes us to the other home and we see the pillbox. He explains how the squatters built the box, filled much of it with cement and fashioned a large metal pipe to receive oxygen. The box is quite small, and off to the side there is a tiny entry hole. The soldier then states that the squatters had taken a baby into the box with them to participate in their protest. Such a statement takes a moment to digest. Who in there right mind would build a tiny wooden box, fill it with cement, use a 10 inch diameter metal pipe for air in order to hide from heavily armed soldiers and then bring an infant into the box as well? What would possess someone to do such a thing? Particularly in a home which is not owned by them and which an Israeli court ordered the Jewish settlers to vacate.

I notice a number of settlers stopping by the site of the extraction to view the carnage of the home. I wonder what is going through their minds. I can see the dismay and the anger on their faces. To them the IDF committed a crime against their own people and the squatters had a right to the home and the land because of some divine reasoning and due to various creative assertions of property rights. As I look through the holes from the other home, I notice a young Jewish boy looking at the pillbox and I can see the look of curiosity turn to a quiet anger as his elders talk about the situation. The boy can not be much older than ten and his impression of the Jewish right to this Arab land is being cemented in his mind. Misunderstandings and misinterpretations are being formulated as he stares at a box where his neighbors barricaded themselves to make a stand against the IDF and the property rights of these buildings.

A young boy walks through the apartment in question.

Stoned Soldiers

After lunch we decide to visit Abraham’s tomb. Christians, Jews and Muslims all refer to Abraham as a major part of their religious beliefs and the relevance is not lost on the security measures. There is an extensive check point to enter; passports or Palestinian papers, statements of religious affiliation and the justification of camera equipment. In 1994, a Jewish man opened fire on the Arab side of the tomb, killing 29 Arabs and wounding over one hundred. The tomb is now separated by bullet-proof glass and the extensive security is understandable, to a point.

My entry to the mosque and tomb is denied due to my cameras, so I wait for my friends just outside the guard stand. Every five minutes or so, some young boy with a large AK-47 asks why I am standing there and I point to the other soldiers and say ask him. My patience for these soldiers is at a low-point and having a cocky 21 year-old soldier harass me about my cameras and flirt with me as he denies my entry into a tomb is just beyond my threshold of tolerance. As I wait, I notice the fumes of marijuana coming from nearby, a point my friend made repeatedly every time we passed this spot. Confirmation that these soldiers were getting stoned came a few minutes later as my friend talked with one of the soldiers and he could tell the soldier was wasted. (College students have an astute ability to make such assertions).

Our guide takes us around the city pointing out the locations where Arab families recently left and Jewish settlers moved into empty homes.

The streets are empty except for the IDF trucks and police cars, stores are locked and kids wave at us from barred windows over the empty stores. Our guide takes us close to a major Jewish settlement but states he can go no further. He warns of guards and electric fences that can kill you when touched. We thank him and tell him we hope to see him soon.

You Want a Rose from Me?

As we are walking up the street towards the settlement, a man working outside his home asks if we would like to join him for coffee. Another man walks up at the same time, and invites himself in as well. We tell them we are journalism students and want to ask some questions about living in Hebron as a Palestinian.

Our host’s home is beautiful, large spacious rooms filled with marble and ornate furniture and the rooms echo with the sounds of kids running throughout the halls. We enter a living room and our host’s son serves the best Arabic coffee I have tasted on this journey. One of the men is eager to practice his English and answers our questions with passion and emotion.

(His story deserves its own entry, so I will elaborate soon about this conversation, but some of his words are relevant to the present topic of discussion.)

“I have many Jewish friends, is good people, when alone. But when dressed as Army, is not person, is without feeling, is without respect,” our visitor emphasizes his words by pressing his finger on the table and lighting his cigarette. He chain smokes as his emotions intensify. “IDF closed the road and take which places they wanted, said [Arabs] killed 4-5 people. Said to the press, they killed our children. Both Arab and Jewish people have children, why destroy the world when one person dies. When Arabs die, they are dogs, is no problem. Why I give you respect? They close everything, say Arabs are terrorists. They kill my wife, kill my father, take my land- and you want rose from me?”

Our friend goes on to explain that only IDF vehicles are allowed on the streets, Arabs have to use donkeys if they want to haul goods.

His eyes begin to water and his voice waivers as he speaks of his wife and two children- ages 5 and 7. They live in Haifa, an hour and a half away, and the three of them have Israeli papers, meaning they can travel freely throughout Israel. Our visitor does not have such papers. He is confined to the borders of Hebron and claims the IDF has turned Hebron into a prison. He has not seen his family in three months and each time he goes to the IDF to get permission to visit Haifa, they deny him the proper paperwork. I feel a pang of guilt when I realize that Haifa is one of the locations I hoped to visit before leaving Israel and I am free to visit when I please.

We eventually make our way to the bus station, which is located inside a large and beautiful Jewish settlement. The guard asks us our religion and looks at our passports and asks if we know any Arabic. He then pulls aside my colleague; she was born in Pakistan but has an American passport. After five minutes of notifying everyone within range of his radio that a Muslim was stepping through the gates, he allowed us to enter. A car filled with soldiers slowly followed us to the bus stop, making several loops around the block to see that we were not straying from our declared path of travel.

Adopt a Soldier

Later that evening, our fellow travelers that separated for lunch show us some literature they gathered at the pizza shop in the Jewish section of Hebron. An “adopt-a-soldier” placemat asks patrons to offer their support of the soldiers who keep them safe by donating $15 to buy them lunch. I can not help but think that a stoned soldier came up with a method to cure his case of the munchies and asked the store owner to create the program. Several fliers state the justification to the property rights of Hebron for the Jewish stem from the fact that Abraham purchased this land over 3400 years ago at “fair market value.” What exactly is the fair market value during that time period; two chickens, a goat and several camels?

The flier also complains that the separation of the tomb after 1994 is unfair because it gives the Arab side more space and better scenery, yet fails to mention the reason for the division in the first place. A multitude of mis-staments and falsities were stated throughout the fliers and I can not help but think of all the people who have read this literature and believed it. For if words are printed and if the paper has the guise of professionalism, people tend to believe the words are true.

A Distant Hope

I can only hope that people actually seek to verify what they read. I can only hope that visitors to Hebron and Israel can see the disparity between the two populations living here and the strain that living with such a separation causes for both populations. I can only hope that the mass media will stop playing with peoples lives and manipulating reality to create a perception of terrorists lurking in the shadows waiting to kill you while you are safe within the walls of your home. I can only hope that the media will begin to tell all sides of a story, to tell the side that people don’t want to hear, and stop using these people to promote the political agendas of our leaders.

When I see the human cost of our political agendas in the face of a man separated from his family or in the hunched shoulders of a young man who can not cross the road because he is Arab or I see the look of quiet anger on the face of young Jewish boy who is formulating an ingrained perception of his neighbor; I harbor little hope for the current paths of society.

A young boy plays in some discarded furniture on the streets of Hebron.

I do hold hope that one day, the powers that control the media and our leadership will be discarded by people who will demand better for their world. People who will demand that citizens of countries in distant lands will cease to be used as pawns for someone else’s agenda; people who will demand that their tax dollars be used to fund American inner city schools and health care for every US citizen and not have their money fund the oppression and destruction of citizens in other countries. People who will demand that their leadership use their power to benefit the greater good, not the minority of corporate leadership using politics to reap society of its natural resources and strip people of their dignity and identity. I harbor a hope that one day people will seek to control their destiny once again, as the founders of America once did, but the more I witness throughout the world, the more distant that hope becomes.