Posted on June 12, 1995 in Washington Watch
“It was the best of times, it was the worst of times….” There is talk of peace and movement toward normalization, but in Jerusalem and Hebron there is only occupation, brutality and humiliation.
I visited both cities last week and left profoundly disturbed by what I saw and experienced. Daily life there is far removed from the peace process. Palestinians in both communities are forced to endure debilitating economic pressures and harsh repressive military control.
More than one year after the massacre at the Al-Ibrahim mosque, the nearly 300,000 residents of the Hebron district are still suffering from the consequences of that horrible act. Baruch Goldstein is presented as a hero and the Israeli military is providing extensive security for the extremist settlers who live in the heart of Hebron and in large settlements that border the Arab city.
In order to protect the 300+ Jewish settlers who have illegally moved into three large buildings in various parts of the center of Hebron, the Israeli military has over 1,000 well-armed soldiers currently deployed throughout the city; they have closed off major streets which has resulted in the closing of large sections of Hebron’s souq; and the complete closure of some of the city’s major streets. As a result of these actions, Arabs may no longer drive through Hebron. Instead they must travel around the perimeter of the city. A trip that once took five minutes now takes half an hour.
One dozen newly constructed metal gates provide the Israeli military with the ability to shut down the entire center of the city at will.
The scene in this once bustling souq area of Hebron is both frightening and pathetic. Where once thousands of Hebronites strolled and shopped, now there are empty streets, many closed shops (a number remain almost defiantly open, but no one comes to buy). Few Arabs can be seen, only the children of Jewish settlers playing in the street or harassing those Arabs who still work in the center of their city, and heavily armed Israeli soldiers and civilian settlers.
Hebrew graffiti abounds on the walls of Arab shops: stars of David, and Hebrew slogans reading “Death to the Arabs” and “Goldstein is our Hero.” The settlers’ children have free reign here to play, to harass and to deface.
The stress and hardship this environment places on Hebron, a city of over 120,000 people, is obvious. It is equally disruptive to the economic and professional well-being of the additional 150,000 Palestinians who live in the neighboring towns and villages of the Hebron district.
To protect the settlers traveling from the nearby settlement of Kiryat Arba, the Israeli military has established numerous checkpoints and closed side roads. The situation borders on the absurd. Residents from two Palestinian villages with combined populations of 30,000 can no longer drive the short distance to Hebron to shop and visit with relatives and friends. The road they would travel has been cut by military blockades at two points, roughly 50 meters apart. Arabs driving from the villages must park on one side, walk to the next barricade where they can take a taxi into Hebron. On their return they must reverse the same process.
The checkpoints are even more disturbing. On a virtually deserted road, a few Arab cars wait at a checkpoint while young Israeli soldiers ignore them. The drivers bake in the sun for 10 minutes or more as the Israeli’s decide, at whim, to let one pass and then, many minutes later, to let another pass. Holding them and letting them pass – for no reason.
Violence is a part of everyday life in Hebron. While shootings of Palestinians were a frequent occurrence in Hebron, an Israeli human rights organization, in a recently completed study, concluded that the Israeli military have apparently changed tactics and now use random and wanton beatings to make their points. The report documents hundreds of beatings per month. The reasons given by the soldiers for the beatings range from punishment for illegal parking to “just having fun.”
Other examples of the violence visited upon the people of Hebron abound. A little over a month ago, while the city was in the midst of a six-week long curfew, the Israeli military acted in the middle of the night to massacre over 100 of the city’s dogs. The action was a brutal and shocking reminder to the Palestinians of Hebron just how vulnerable and precarious their situation is.
When I first entered Hebron I attempted to enter the building housing the offices of Hebron University for an appointment with the President and the Director of Islamic studies. I was stopped by three Israeli soldiers who yelled at me from the building’s roof: “Get away! Why are you here?” They had just commandeered the building to use as an observation point. When I told them my business, a very agitated young soldier pointed his gun at me and shouted for me to go away. He demanded that I not look up at him and “Just go away.”
This hostility and repression is tragically part of the daily life of the Palestinian residents of the city and district of Hebron.
The picture in the nearby settlement of Kiryat Arba is a completely different. It looks like a strangely peaceful suburban town, showing no external evidence of the fact that it is the base of the most militantly fanatic settler leadership. Even the memorial to Baruch Goldstein, who lived in the settlement, appears to outsiders to be more innocent than it is.
Settler rioting, empty Arab shops, police beating Palestinians, the closure of the city and the destruction of its economy, the daily harassment and pressure: this is the daily life of Hebron in this time of peace.
Jerusalem and its 150,000 Arab residents fare no better. The physical and economic strangulation of the city continues to take its toll. The Israeli government was forced to rescind its most recent land confiscations – for now – but other confiscations are still effectively enforced, and everywhere in the Eastern part of the city huge settlement projects remain under construction. At the same time, construction continues on massive road projects that cut through Arab neighborhoods creating by-passes so Israeli settlers can travel in and out of the city without having to go into its Palestinian areas.
The absence of jobs and opportunities for the young Palestinians in Jerusalem has produced both cynicism and despair, as has the closure, which has for all intents and purposes, cut the heart of Palestine away from the rest of its body.
A visit to Orient House presents one with a sense not unlike that of occupied Hebron. Heavily armed Israeli soldiers with riot guns surrounding this office building on a peaceful street in East Jerusalem. But as unnecessary as their presence may be, they are there and they are threatening. The message they send is quite clear. It is a simple statement of power and intimidation.
What, one must ask, is going on?
Inside Gaza, there at last the beginning of a construction boom. Despite the persistence of harsh Israeli control at the border, projects are getting underway and a new atmosphere is developing. Visits to Jericho similarly reveal a new confidence and renewed optimism. Difficulties clearly remain but some progress is in evidence, and the administration of the Palestine National Authority is starting to function efficiently.
What can it mean? Negotiations continue in Cairo. German Chancellor Helmut Kohl and U.S. Secretary of State Warren Christopher visit Rabin and `Arafat and offer new hope for an accelerated process; Jordan debates the pace of normalization; Syria and Israel announce resumed talks – the U.S. hints at prospects of a breakthrough; and plans are underway for a second major regional economic summit in Amman. Yet all the while young Israeli soldiers shoot, beat and harass Palestinians in Hebron and elsewhere, and Jerusalem is choking to death.
Is this the “death agony,” the last twitching of an ending occupation? Or is it a statement of Israel’s intent to shape a final peace settlement their way and to allow only divided and surrounded Arab “cantons” or “bantustans” to exist in the West Bank?
Clearly the situation demands clarification. One Palestinian official in Hebron said to me that, “Rabin should be forced to pass through Hebron before he is greeted by other Arabs at the summit in Amman.”
The circumstances in Hebron and Jerusalem cry out for a response. Palestinians, more than anything, want and need real peace. They want to live normal lives and dignified lives. But in Hebron and Jerusalem, peace – which appears close elsewhere – is still very far away.
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