Who's promised land? A day in Hebron.
Trip Start Mar 10, 2011
8Trip End May 06, 2011
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Really I have to start by giving you, as best as I can work out, the highly summarised history of this much disputed and contested land. Until 1948, the date of Israel did not exist. This area has had all sorts of people all over it for all eternity. The biblical clans aside, the Jews were essentially expelled from this area when the second temple was destroyed by the Romans 2,000 years ago, until it fell into the hands of the Arab Muslims in the late 600s AD/CE (Christian Era as the Jews and Muslims refer to it) and essential the area was under Muslim control right up until the fall of the Ottoman empire in WWI in 1917. At this time the Brits took over control of the area (finally 700 years after the crusades they had it) and released the Balfour Declaration, which essentially promised a Jewish homeland in 'Palestine'. So the Jewish population started flooding back to the area, and tensions escalated and then WWII happened, it all got a bit too hard and the Brits handed the problem over to the newly formed UN in 1947, who decided to partition the area between what we refer to these days as Israel (Jewish) and Palestine (Muslim) with Jerusalem as a 'shared' location. The Jews agreed, the Muslims didn't, the Brits left and a war broke out and the Israeli's won. They celebrate their independence day on 14th May 1948, and the following year the UN essentially ratified the boundaries, with Golan Heights with Syria, the Sinai with Egypt and the West Bank with Jordan.
So now lets move forward to the 6 day war in 1967 - after six days of fighting Israel tripled in size - they captured the Golan Heights from Syria, Gaza and the Sinai from Egypt and Jerusalem and the West Bank from Jordan. Whether I agree with it or not, I must admit that is a pretty impressive effort in six days. One version I heard of why it was so easy is that the surrounding Arab states (Egypt, Syria, Jordan) had told the Palestinians to get out of the area as they were going bomb Israel to pieces, so the Israeli's just walked in and took over. Or the Arab armies fell apart when faced with the might of the Israeli army. So the bulk of the Palestinians refugees that we still hear about to this day are from this 1967 war. There have been plenty more before and since, but the outcomes of this war are really significant, as other than the Sinai going back to Egypt, these are pretty much the borders that the currently exist, which is the main point on contention with Syria to this day, because they want the Golan heights back (and the Palestinian refugees to go back as well, they don't want them either).
So where does that leave us now - pretty much in the exact same position. So if you think of Israel as a country with Jerusalem as its capital, and within this country are the Palestinian Territories of Gaza (on with Egyptian border and the Med Sea) and the West Bank, which is spread out all over the place from an area to the West of the Dead Sea/Jordanian border, with Ramallah serving as the Palestinian capital.
Are we all confused yet? Its about to get worse.
So the best I can work out, how they make this function in practice is that all of Israel is divided into zones - zone A (for Palestinians only), Zone B (shared) and Zone C (Israelis only). But the reality is the Israelis kind of do whatever they want, despite UN resolutions that they have agreed to, to stay out of Zone A. So that brings me to the purpose of my trip to Hebron, while according the Australian Government I'm not supposed to go there, I wanted to see for myself to understand what better what is going on.
So the West Bank, a zone A area, basically includes a series of towns - Ramallah, Jerico, Hebron and Bethlehem being the ones most people have probably heard of before. The first disgraceful site that you come across if the 200km plus wall that the Israelis built ( I think around 2002) which is over twice the height of the Berlin Wall that surrounds Bethlehem and beyond. Its a disgrace. Not only did they build it, they have actually built a lot of it on the Palestinian land (zone A), not their own, in other words, not in line with the 1967 agreed boundaries. What this means is that to get into Hebron we have to pass a checkpoint at Bethlehem - the first of many for the day. It feels like a border crossing, and all the Palestinians have to carry around papers for identification purposes which the Israelis can demand to see whenever they . Sounding familiar, WWII Nazi Germany maybe? They can’t go to Jerusalem, to fly out of the country, they go to Amman, not Tel Aviv. Its unbelievable.
As our guide isn't allowed out of the wall, we had to make out way through the labyrinth crossing to get to the other side. Our first stop, a refugee' camp'. When I think of the word camp, I think of tents, not so. From the outside, these camps are like any other town, well other than the big UN flags everywhere. Honestly to drive past them you would think they are just run down towns. So who are the refugees? They are the people who were displaced in the 1967 war (mostly) and are waiting to go back to their homes. Many apparently still actually have the keys to the houses for 'when they go back' (I'm sure its more symbolic rather than them actually believing that their house will still be there). Even people who have lived all their lives in these camps, including children, will refer to their home village / town as the place their ancestors were uprooted from all those years ago. These camps have school and medical facilities provided by the UN, corner shops, the even use Shekels (the Palestinians don’t appear to have their own currency, but for a reason I still don’t understand they have an issue with the Israelis calling the currency that). Going into a house is just like any other house. So while I don’t agree with how they all got there. I do think that their day to day life isn’t as bad as maybe we envisage. Although I don’t really know what they do, as there just seems to be a lot of people hanging around doing nothing. And of course outside every camp is a Israeli post of some description – basically a tower with two young kids with lots of arsenal. So they can’t really leave the camps, they’re just stuck.
So then we continued on to Hebron. This is where the shock and tears really started. So we were dropped off in the centre of Hebron at the entrance to the market, at this point it looks like any middle eastern town. Then we headed into the market. As we got further and further, things started to change. Firstly, what was an open market, started to become covered with wire and tarps. Why is this – because the Israeli settlers throw things down on them – rubbish, bottles, rocks, even bricks. So that had to cover it to protect themselves.
So a side bar – settlements. Again I don’t think I appreciated when they talk on the news about the Israeli settlements and them agreeing to leave what that really meant in practice. The Israeli settlements are basically a place in the Palestinian designated areas (Area A) that the Israelis have decided to literally settle on. This could be a few houses, building a whole village or town, or in the case of Hebron, removing Palestinians from their homes, and moving in. They might just move straight into their homes, or knock them down and rebuild something much nicer in the same place. And in Hebron, this is the area right on top of the market, right in the middle of town. So yes, they have settled on top of them.
So the further and further you get into the market, the more and more shops start to be shut – the steel doors are welded shut by the Israelis so they can’t open them, until you basically get to what ends in a ghost town. All shops shut and there is no one but lots of Israeli soldiers. In fact, there are 400 Israeli settlers in Hebron, guarded by 2,000 soldiers. The settlers in Hebron and all the Palestinian areas have their own bus network which only than can use. What a effective and efficient use of resources, we should all be so lucky.
We went into the home of a shop owner who lives in a building that is surrounded by the settlers, there was 3 observation towers with soldiers surrounding this house. They live in constant fear of being pulled from their homes and/or shop or being shot. The mans who’s house we were in, his brother was thrown in jail for 6 months when his shop was shut down, showed us the burn marks where he had been tortured with electrical prods of some sort. Then they showed us the DVD shot by a French journalist of the Israeli troops removing people, including the brother. At this point I really lost it, I just couldn’t believe what I was seeing – six troops attacking and dragging off one man. And the Israelis go the UN and agree to pull out of the settlements when they are in fact doing the exact opposite. It is an absolute disgrace.
In our travels we bumped into a couple of men from the TIPH (Temporary International Presence in Hebron). Its basically civilian observers from European countries that monitor and report back to their respective governments on breaches in humanitarian law in Hebron (and now other places in the West Bank and Gaza). They were set up after a massacre at the Ibrahimi mosque where Abraham’s tomb is. They have no authority as such, but are there with the support of both the Palestinians and Israelis. Quite inspiring work I think. They are unarmed and said that they don’t feel unsafe, but they said that when things happen, such as people being dragged off, they just have to stand back and watch and report back, they can not interfere under any circumstances. They were reluctant to share their opinions openly, and really they are there for the Palestinians, not the Israelis (after all they have 2,000 soldiers to look after them), but they need to be objective, or at least seen to be. Whether they do any good, I don’t know, but its better than doing nothing. They were interesting to talk to.
So the question really is why??? Why Hebron. Hebron is where the tomb of Abraham is located, a significant person for all three religions. Which leads me to the thing that disgusted me most during this day, the take over of the mosque. The tomb of Abraham sits in the Ibrahimi mosque. When they talked about seeing the Muslim and Israeli tomb, I assumed that they had just built their own tombs, so they were symbolic rather than actual tombs. No it’s the one tomb from different sides. So we went into the mosque to view it from the 'Palestinian side’. So the process of entering the mosque is a usual, I had to put on a robe to cover myself up, went to see the tomb. At the end of the tomb there was this sheet of perspex. On the other side of that, through a window, was the ‘Israeli side’. I was kind of confused. So we came out of the mosque, did this big circle through not 1 but 2 Israeli checkpoints (where we had to show passports and get questioned about our religion), to go to the ‘Israeli side’ of the tomb, through a synagogue. It was at this point that I realised I had never been in one before and had no idea of the protocol. But this wasn’t really a synagogue; it was actually the courtyard of the mosque, which they had effectively taken over, all so they can see the tomb. Unbelievable. I just wanted to get out of there, and we did.
Then the thing that appalled and even shamed me the most. So we stopped for a cuppa just outside the mosque / synagogue and the guy was chatting to us, asked us where we were from. When I said Australia, he got all excited and told me some Australian guy offered to buy the guys next door shop for $1m USD, then he pointed across the road and what was there – the Gutnick Centre! Yes the Gutnciks from Australia sponsor A Jewish cultural centre in the Israeli settlement in Hebron. What a lovely gesture, we should be so proud. NOT!!!
Over lunch we talked a lot with out guide about the situation. The feelings from our guide ranged from anger to disbelief, and I think there really is a feeling of a lack of hope, which I feel myself. His summation of the situation with the mosque / synagogue is ‘a least they left us with the mosque’. He can’t even go to Jerusalem; he can’t walk in his own town without having to carry around papers, why is this necessary. After lunch from there we wandered through the ghost town that is the Israeli settlement. They have cleared all these shops and houses, and there is neither no one there or a handful of people. There are still some Palestinians within the settlement and they shuffle around quickly with their heads down to get through the area. At one point we turned a corner and met about 20 Israeli soldiers, I say soldiers, but kids with guns is more accurate, who told us to turn around and go back. And we did, and we left Hebron and made our way back to the relative calm of Jerusalem.
I’m finding it very hard to process what I have seen, heard and experienced in Hebron. I can not believe this is happening and I have a feeling of helplessness. I also can’t believe that any religon or truly religious person thinks this is an acceptable way to act in the following of their beliefs. There is nothing I can do, nothing. More to the point I find it almost impossible to find any hope in the situation. It will not get better and it will not change. Rather than passing more UN resolutions that continue to be ignored and planning for peace that is never coming, they need to be focusing on what the situation is and work with that. Even that will require compromise and acceptance from both sides, which just won’t happen. This has been going on for thousands of years and the divide between the two is a modern day David and Goliath. America heavily back and fund Israel, none of the Arab states really want anything to do with the Palestinians so it seems, I suppose they have their own problems and we are all seeing for ourselves. I don’t believe the Palestinians are complete innocents and blameless, but they are using slingshots on missiles, there just isn’t a comparison.
But I suppose the reason for the struggles here echo that of many struggles in the world throughout history – a lack of respect for others and their beliefs. A place like Hebron is sacred to all three religions for the same reasons, and instead of embracing that and using it as an opportunity to unite, it’s a source of division of who is more right or entitled. The answer is no one. But I suppose that is the heart of the problem, neither side can see that and are unlikely to anytime in the near future.
But in my eyes, the oppressed have become the oppressors. There is only so long that the holocaust can be used as an excuse to treat other human beings in the way that they are in places like Hebron.
I must say I write all of this with a heavy heart and a sense of helplessness. We can only pray and hope, or just wait for the next flood which I’m sure is coming soon, I might start building my arc when I get home.
Cindy Hargrave, Foreign Correspondent, Hebron