Gangnam Style, Hebron style

I saw some surreal things when I was working as a human rights observer in the Palestinian city of Hebron last summer. But a video which surfaced on YouTube this week showing two Israeli soldiers – that is, soldiers from the Israeli army who for more than four decades have occupied Hebron and the rest of the West Bank – wandering into a Palestinian wedding and start dancing with the crowd is far beyond anything I witnessed with my own eyes.

Here is the clip:

The video shows two Israeli soldiers entering the marquee  – they were on patrol, but were apparently drawn in after hearing the sound of PSY’s ‘Gangnam Style’  – and start dancing with the revelers. And not just kind of dancing. By the end of the clip, one soldier is sitting on the shoulders of a Palestinian man, grooving around and waving his gun in the air like it’s a toy made of hollow plastic. In those moments, the tip of his gun – which carries live rounds – swings aimlessly between the heads of those dancing.

The raucous crowd – all men – seem to welcome the soldiers. And for a few seconds, they’re all just young men, pumped on testosterone, dancing to a pop song. (And not just any pop song; the pop song whose ability to bring us all together for a moment of shared silliness has racked it up YouTube hits getting on for a quarter of the planet.)

Even if you factor in – as you absolutely must – the principle dynamic operating here, which is that these young Israeli soldiers wield outrageous power over these young Palestinian men – it’s still a glinting moment of shared… I don’t know, shared something.

And that’s the tempting thing to say about this video: that it shows how, beneath it all, our common humanity runs deeper than whatever divides us – and that even amid the infinite complexity of Israeli-Palestinian relations, a simple pop song can tap into that. Or perhaps it would be were it not for the fact that the entire Israeli patrol got suspended after the video emerged, as the Israeli website +972 mag reported.

I have no place speculating what this surreal episode says about bored young Israeli soldiers, about Palestinians living under occupation, about the prospect of co-existence, or anything else for that matter. It’s profoundly beyond the boundaries of my knowledge and experience.

All I can say is this: having monitored these young Israeli soldiers every day for three months, having seen them humiliate Palestinian men, women and children at checkpoints, having seen them mockingly make the Islamic call to prayer through their loudspeakers during Ramadan, and knowing that they shot dead the cousin of our translator a few months after we left; and meanwhile having chatted with some of these soldiers and heard them say they hate what they do and can’t wait to finish their national service and go study literature or philosophy, or train to be a social worker, or go traveling – anything but follow these insane orders to suppress an entire population; having heard some of them say that the occupation “sucks” but what can they do about it, and others say they had relatives killed by Palestinian suicide bombers during the Second Intifada – all I can say for certain is that beneath the instantly recognisable sounds of Gangnam Style beats a darker and far more enduring rhythm of mistrust and grievance and suffering which everyone in Hebron – whether Israeli teenagers with machine guns bussed in from Tel Aviv, or proud elderly Palestinian Hebronite men who have watched their city suffocate since the sixties – is shaped by in ways I can’t imagine.

So I could offer up some ridiculous theory about how Israel’s occupation of the Palestinians will finally crumble as social media unites both peoples around innocent memes like Gangnam Style. In fact, I really do hope that is what happens. But I suspect the reality is that it’s going to take much, much more than that to bring peace and justice to Hebron.

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“The occupation is only going to end with outside pressure” – an interview with Jeff Halper

Jeff Halper is a legendary Israeli peace activist. The decades he has spent campaigning against Israel’s policy of demolishing Palestinian homes has won him the respect of Israelis and Palestinians alike. But in this typically candid interview, a version of which was first published on openDemocracy, Halper explained to me why opposing Israel’s occupation of Palestine from within Israel just keeps getting harder – and why international pressure is the answer.

“The Zionist left still supports the two-state solution. The problem with that, of course, is that it’s gone.” Jeff Halper, co-founder of the Israeli Committee Against House Demolitions.

We’re sitting outside a café on trendy Hillel Street in West Jerusalem. Off-duty Israeli soldiers, Orthodox Jewish families and beautiful young couples are drifting past. Not far from here, in East Jerusalem, Israel has for years pursued a policy of demolishing Palestinian homes, and illegally building Israeli-Jewish ones. Against this backdrop, Jeff Halper is explaining the paradox of the Israeli Committee Against House Demolitions (ICAHD), the NGO he co-founded in 1997 to fight Israel’s occupation over the Palestinians.

“We’re one of the best known Israeli organisations abroad,” says Halper, who was nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize in 2006. “But we’re one of the least known Israeli organisations within Israel.”

Internationally, ICAHD’s stock has never been higher. In recent years it has spawned chapters in the UK, Finland, Norway and Australia. Two years ago it became a special consultant on the UN’s Economic and Social Council. However, when ICAHD recently held its 10th annual summer building camp – where volunteers rebuild Palestinian homes that have been demolished by Israel – something was conspicuously missing: Israelis.

“We had internationals, we had Palestinians, but we had no Israelis, not even activists,” says Halper. “They just don’t come. It’s not on their agenda.”

ICAHD takes Israel’s policy of demolishing Palestinian homes as its main focus and “vehicle for resistance”.  Some 27,000 Palestinian structures have been demolished in the occupied Palestinian territories since 1967, according to ICAHD’s estimates. This year alone, 467 structures and 140 houses have been demolished, displacing 702 people.

Over the years, the organization has won the respect of many Palestinians – not easy for an Israeli group – by physically blocking Israeli bulldozers sent to demolish homes, and mobilizing hundreds of volunteers to rebuild them as acts of resistance.

ICAHD doesn’t limit itself to direct action, though. Its staff and activists produce analysis of the occupation, give tours of the Palestinian territories, and vigorously advocate on the international stage for Palestinian rights and a just peace.

But why are leftwing Israelis largely indifferent to ICAHD’s work? Halper has plenty to say on this. For starters, he notes, the Israeli left is not a coherent movement, but instead is made up of three “concentric circles” –each of which has its own confounding problems.

From Halper’s topography of the Israeli left, a picture emerges of the difficulties of strategically opposing the Israeli occupation from within.

The first circle is the “mainstream liberal Zionist left” – typified by the Israeli Labour Party. This camp “fell asleep” after the failure of the Oslo process, says Halper. “They internalized (the then Israeli Prime Minister) Ehud Barak’s declaration that Israel had no partner for peace.” Since then they have been largely silent.

“[They] only woke up again last summer with the protests in Tel Aviv,” says Halper, referring to the domestic Israeli protests for social justice which continued this summer, making international headlines after one man fatally set himself on fire.

Halpers criticizes this movement for being solely concerned with “creating an equal situation within Israel”, without looking beyond its borders into the Palestinian territories. “They’ve completely erased the occupation as an issue,” he says. “It’s not finished, it’s not normalized; it’s just non-existent.”

The second circle is what Halper calls “the activist Zionist left”, typified by veteran Israeli NGOs such as Peace Now and Meretz, and more recently joined by groups such as Breaking the Silence, Rabbis for Human Rights and Gush Shalom.

“This group is still active against the occupation. The occupation for them is the issue. They are Zionist, so if there has to be a Jewish state, then there has to be a Palestinian state.” But this, for Halper, is where the problem with this camp lies.

“They all support the two state solution. The problem with that, of course, is that it’s gone.” This is a point that Halper has been making for many years now. In 2003, he presented a paper at the UN called ‘One State: Preparing for a Post-Road Map Struggle Against Apartheid’. “So they’re caught. They’re depressed. Because the only solution they can envisage is gone – or, in their terms, going.” Halper pauses, wryly adding: “It’s never gone – it’s always ‘going’.”

“These groups are not going to get too much into the politics, because they can’t go there. So these groups are drifting away, because they can’t deal with the reality.”

The third circle – where Halper places his own organization – has many names. “You could call it non-Zionist, anti-Zionist, post-Zionist…”, says Halper. “This group says, forget Zionism: we’re Israelis. We’re not defined by ideology.”

“Because these groups are not Zionist they can think outside the box. They can think in terms of, ‘Okay, so now what?’ They can talk about all kinds of possibilities – one state, bi-national state, a confederation, etc… but for the left groups that are still Zionist, there is no ‘now what?’”

But meanwhile these groups have their own problems, says Halper. “Because it is essentially a collection of activists – pure activists – they have no impact on policy. In my view, you can only be useful if you effect policy – if you have a strategy.”

“These activist groups have no political programme,” he continues. “One week they’re at Sheikh Jarrah [a Palestinian neighbourhood in East Jerusalem whose residents are struggling against eviction and demolitions], then they’re in the south Hebron hills giving food to the Bedouin communities, then the next minute, boom, they’re in Tel Aviv protesting against the government. There’s no strategy.”

Halper believes this is one reason why few Israelis are showing up on ICAHD’s rebuilding camps. “Israeli activists are very reactive. Home demolitions, for example, are not on their agenda. If one happens, sure, they’ll be there. But it has to be immediate, it has to be happening right now. They are not interested on a strategic level. So we are very separate from the activist community, sadly.”

Relatedly, Halper notes: “There are just a lot of actions going on – against the wall, about olive trees, in Sheikh Jarrah and Silwan, etc – and not enough activists to go around. It’s true the young activists work less with organizations today than in protest groups, but I would say there are just a lot more actions going on”.

For these reasons, Halper sees ICAHD as something of a lone-rider on the critical, post-Zionist Israeli left.

“There are no other strategic players in the third camp – the only other one you could say is the Alternative Information Centre. Otherwise we have no partners – not in terms of ideology, where we have plenty in common, but in terms of being strategic in our work.”

Halpers cites two problems with the activist groups as currently operating in Israel. “One is a general one – not limited just to Israel – whereby the left doesn’t believe it can be a political actor. It believes it’s marginalized, powerless – it can protest, but it can’t change policy, that’s the belief. So this is a self-limiting element on the left.”

“That’s something I’ve never accepted. ICAHD, small and radical as we are, is I think still a political actor.”

The second problem is that some activists groups are exclusively wedded to a model of anarchistic practice based on popular resistance, but which doesn’t engage in the political process.  “Today, activists in Israel are active, but they’re not engaged. If you simply see yourself as an activist, that’s just one part – you’re not going to change the world through popular resistance alone.”

Another problem that Halper sees with this group is that, currently, there is very little cooperation with Palestinian counterparts. This is mainly because Palestinian NGOs have pulled back on the grounds of anti-normalization, leaving Israeli groups floundering.

Given his views on the Israeli left, you might think Halper sees no reason to carry on. However, the opposite is true. “The occupation is only going to end with outside pressure,” he says, “so why waste time trying to get through to Israeli society?”

Halper has his sights set on the global left. With ICAHD, he’s developing an international network of peace groups, with the ambitious aim of creating a global forum for leftwing activist actors. So far, the group’s founders include a museum in South Africa, the Palestinian peace centre Beit Arabiya, and an activist squat in Poland. This international collaboration could be one way to bring about what Halper calls ‘Global Palestine’, which is also the title of the book he is writing.

Despite this, Halper remains keenly aware of the precarious position the Israeli left is in without Palestinian direction. “As Israeli groups, we are the junior partners. Without the leadership of Palestinian groups, we’re stuck.”

Gazing down Hillel Street, past the soldiers, families and young couples, the scenes of ordinary Israeli life, Halper concludes: “Besides being activists, the critical Israeli left doesn’t know where to go. We can’t liberate the Palestinians by ourselves.”

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Leaving Hebron, but not quite

I left Hebron three weeks ago today, and I haven’t written anything since. Back in London I’ve been moving house, training in public speaking with EAPPI (stay tuned for details of my public talks about life in Hebron) and trying to make sense of what I’ve seen over the past three months. And I’m still trying to figure out how a city with such a reputation for violence can so thoroughly steal your heart.

But there are many more stories to tell from this divided city – I have a stack of notebooks and a head full of memories – so I’m going to start blogging again soon. Thanks to everyone for their encouragement, kind words and useful feedback so far.

With Badia Dwaik from the Hebron-based nonviolent activist group Youth Against Settlements. Hebron, August 2012. [Photo: Eero Mantymaa]

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“He’s Arab, it’s forbidden for him to be here” – an everyday tale from Hebron

A settler boy on his horse points at Badia Dwaik: “He’s an Arab.” [Credit: Mondoweiss]

The excellent Mondoweiss website recently ran a story about my friend Badia Dwaik, a Hebron activist with the nonviolence resistance group Youth Against Settlements. The story illuminates the power imbalance and racial discrimination that determine daily life in Hebron for Palestinians.

The Mondoweiss team witnessed an encounter on Hebron’s Shuhada Street – once the beating heart of Palestinian life, now a lonely strip, most of which is closed to Palestinians but open for Jewish settlers – in which a teenage settler boy riding a horse sees Badia on the street. The boy calls out to a nearby Israeli soldier, in Hebrew: “Hoo aravi, asoor lo lehiyot po.” (‘He’s Arab, it’s forbidden for him to be here.’)

In the central H2 area of Hebron, which is under Israeli military control, around 500 illegal Israeli-Jewish settlers live among 30,000 Palestinians. In the name of security, the Israeli army openly purses of policy of preventing ordinary Palestinian life in proximity to the Jewish settlements, many of which are on Shuhada Street. The result is that thousands of Palestinian businesses have closed, and hundreds of families have been forced out of the area. The policy was introduced in the mid-nineties after a Jewish settler opened fire in Hebron’s Tomb of the Patriarchs, killing 29 Palestinian Muslims and wounding 125 more during Friday prayers.

In the video, after the boy has complained to the soldiers they come and tell Badia to move back to the checkpoint at the start of the street. He stands his ground, telling the soldiers he is not breaking the military law, but eventually agrees to move.

As Mondoweiss notes,

‘The irrationality of the odd event [we] witnessed that day in Hebron was in fact the backdrop the boy emerged from, the backdrop of an utterly distorted system. A system can become so distorted that meanness itself takes over; injustice itself takes over. People are human, but if you keep them in a system that is absurd, the framework of life becomes so distorted that they cannot avoid doing harm…  This is true of all people, and all distorted systems. It has nothing to do with being a Jew, a Muslim, a Christian. The person has no channel and no outlet for fairness, for simple human back-and-forth, when the system is unjust and absurd. An unjust system backed by one-sided force is like a foolish boy on a horse. Something childish driven by something powerful.’

Despite all this, Badia says he feels sorry for the settler boy who is growing up being taught to hate. “He learns it from his parents. It does not come from his mind. It comes from the environment around him.”

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Clowning with humanity

A clown working with Psychologists for Human Rights entertains children in Hebron. [24 August, 2012.]

You could be forgiven for thinking that Hebron, reputedly the most violent city in the West Bank, is no place for a clown. But on suggesting this to a man in enormous yellow trousers in Hebron last week, I heard a very different opinion.

“For me, this is the best place to be a clown,” said Roberto, an Italian clown who, along with four brightly-dressed colleagues, had just entertained the children of Cordoba primary school in Hebron’s Old City.

“It situations where there is a lot of tension, children need…” Roberto breaks off here to make expansive hand gestures – not because he is back in clown mode, but because I’m stretching his English to its limits.

“A release?” I suggest.

“Yes!” he says. “A release.”

That was just what they got. For forty minutes, the French and Italian clowns leapt over barriers of language and culture, wordlessly whipping the children into gales of laughter with nothing more than red noses, an accordion, and a tendency to fall flat on their faces.

For children in Hebron’s Old City, which is occupied by 2,000 Israeli soldiers and 500 hardline Jewish settlers, release can’t come often enough. They grow up learning things children shouldn’t be taught: divisions, restrictions, exclusive identities, and the constant prospect of violence.

At the entrance to Cordoba school, which nearly closed a few years ago because its pupils were so afraid of routine attacks by settler children from a nearby Jewish school, pictures drawn by the students show their daily reality: soldiers, guns, separation walls and barbed wire.

Earlier this summer, settlers painted ‘Death to Arabs’ in huge letters across the outside wall of the school. The graffiti, which has since been blacked out, ruined artwork that was put there to make the school more inviting. The importance of this shouldn’t be underestimated for children who have to pass through military checkpoints and risk abuse from soldiers and settlers just to get to classes each morning.

So, what does a clown make of all this?

Roberto, who has worked in Kenya, Argentina, the Ukraine and problem towns in southern Italy, is not an ordinary clown. Having been invited to the West Bank by Psychologists for Human Rights, he and his colleagues have been entertaining children in hospitals, refugee camps, and schools. They have also been holding workshops giving Palestinian children a space to explore their emotions through humour.

Removing his red nose, Roberto is serious for a moment.

“When you are clowning,” says Roberto, “you are clowning with humanity. There are no borders, no politics, no ideologies. You are making a direct connection.”

Then he says goodbye and, with his fellow humourists, climbs into a taxi, leaving me considering one of the most hopeful, human sentiments I’ve heard since I’ve been here.

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Hebron: Microcosm of the occupation

In this guest post, my EAPPI colleague, teacher and human rights activist Jane Harries, reflects on her recent visit to Hebron

‘I try to imagine what it must be like to bring up one’s children in fear and hate.’ (Photo: Jane Harries)

In the streets of H1 – the Palestinian sector of the city of Hebron – people are preparing for the Iftar meal, which breaks the Ramadan fast. Stalls are piled high with different types of bread and trays of the sticky sweets that traditionally finish off the meal. Everywhere there is life and bustle: the cries of vendors, people hurrying home with their purchases, the sound of music and taxis.  The atmosphere is busy, warm and relaxed – almost festive.

We pass into H2 – the Israeli-controlled centre of the city – into a space that has the quality of nightmares. This was once the heart of Hebron, home to a vibrant ‘suq’ (Arabic market).  Now the area is dead,  pervaded by an atmosphere of tension and fear.  This is Shuhada Street, the main street leading through the centre of the Old City to the Tomb of the Patriarchs. It’s ‘off limits’ for Palestinians – a practically deserted street lined with closed shutters, some daubed with Stars of David, and houses whose windows are protected by wire meshing, and with graffiti that says ‘Welcome to Apartheid Street’.

Some historical context is necessary before we proceed any further down Shuhada Street. Hebron is home to the traditional burial site of the biblical Patriarchs and Matriarchs, and is therefore considered the second-holiest city in Judaism after Jerusalem. The city is also, however, venerated by Muslims for its association with Abraham (known as ‘the friend of God’ – Ibrahim al Khalil in Arabic), and was traditionally viewed as one of the ‘four holy cities of Islam’. Jews have an ongoing and significant connection to this place. It was, for instance, the capital of King David before Jerusalem.  Following the Spanish Inquisition, many Sephardic Jews emigrated to Hebron, and became well-integrated with their Muslim neighbours, learning Arab and adopting Arabic dress.

Unfortunately relationships were not always smooth, particularly following the constitutional uncertainty created by the 1917 Balfour Declaration and the rise of Zionism in the 20th century. There have been atrocities on both sides.  The events most often quoted are those of 1929 and 1994.  In 1929, following a dispute over access to the Western Wall in Jerusalem, riots broke out and 67 Jews were killed, 60 injured and homes and synagogues ransacked.  An equally shocking event took place in 1994 when Baruch Goldstein, an Israeli physician and resident of Kiryat Arba settlement outside Hebron, opened fire on Muslims at prayer in the Ibrahimi Mosque, killing 29 and wounding 125.

We are reminded of the 1929 massacre by several exhibition boards pinned to buildings as we walk down Shuhada street.  What these boards don’t tell us is that the reality is more complex than the ‘official’ version.  As well as the 67 Jews who were killed in 1929, 118 Arabs lost their lives.  Some 435 Jews also survived because of the shelter and assistance offered them by their Arab neighbours, at the risk of their own lives.  It is, however, the black-and-white version of history that is displayed on the boards.  The justification for the existence of exclusively Jewish settlements in the heart of what is otherwise a Palestinian town is that Jewish people were violently expelled and are now reclaiming their homes. Five hundred settlers living in the midst of 175,000 Palestinians, and guarded by 2,000 Israeli soldiers.  The atmosphere of fear and antagonism which this situation generates can be felt everywhere.  Not just in the ugliness of the deserted streets, the concrete walls in front of the entrance to the settlements, and the presence of armed soldiers everywhere.  It pervades everything. I try to imagine what it must be like to bring up one’s children in fear and hate.

The move to re-establish a Jewish presence in the centre of Hebron took hold in the 1960s and 70s, largely planned and financed by the Movement for Greater Israel.  At Passover in 1968, a group led by Rabbi Moshe Levinger rented the Park Hotel in Hebron, and then refused to leave.  After a considerable amount of lobbying, this led to the establishment of Kiryat Arba settlement in an abandoned military base.  In 1979, a group of women settlers led by Miriam Levinger moved into the former Hadassah Hospital in the centre of Hebron, and turned this into a bridgehead for Jewish resettlement inside the town itself.  Supporters of Jewish resettlement within Hebron see their program as the reclamation of an important heritage dating back to Biblical times, which was dispersed or – it is argued – stolen by Arabs after the massacre of 1929. Settlers in Hebron make the lives of their Palestinian neighbours unbearable through harassment and violence which is virtually unchecked by the Israeli military.  The figures speak for themselves: by 2009, 1,000 Palestinian homes in H2 were lying empty, and 1,900 businesses had been forced to close – either for economic reasons or by order of the Israeli army.

The army plays an important role in defending the no-man’s land around the settlements, controlling the local population and creating an atmosphere of fear.  Avner Gvaryahu, a former Israeli soldier and now member of campaign group Breaking the Silence, tells us how his unit received orders to ‘stir up the everyday life of the Palestinians’.  This included performing mock arrests and ‘straw widows’ (taking over Palestinian homes for strategic purposes). The ultimate aim of his unit, he says, was to ‘encourage’ Palestinians to leave H2. The soldier at the checkpoint on our way into H2 seemed to be of the same mind set. He pointed his gun at everyone, aggressively telling us to move away from where we are standing near the checkpoint observing, although he refused to tell us why. This is his patch, and he is in control. And so a microcosm of the Occupation is kept in place here.

As we walk around the Old City, we get a glimpse of how beautiful this city could be.  Since the establishment of the Hebron Rehabilitation Committee in 1996, money has been donated to renovate some of the old houses.  At the same time, the Jewish settlements in the city centre are supported by funding from abroad. And so these two peoples continue to co-exist in frozen antagonism, perpetuating feelings of victimhood.  We are not aware of any talk of conciliation or cooperation in Hebron, although we know that some of the descendants of the Jews who were expelled in 1929 don’t agree with the Israeli settlement project.

We return to our flat in H1 and an invitation to join our landlord and his family for their Iftar meal.  We are generously welcomed and included in the family circle, then sit on the balcony drinking coffee and taking in the delicate scent of jasmine flowers.  A jasmine flower falls and lands in my coffee.  ‘Magic,’ says Chris.  ‘We could use a bit of that,’ I think.

Jane Harries is currently working for EAPPI in Yanoun, West Bank. She is blogging here.

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Voices in Hebron: “They are killing us slowly each day” – Murad Amro, 23, from Hebron

Murad Amro [Photo: Eero Mantymaa, EAPPI]

Murad is 23 years old and still remembers Shuhada Street before it became a desolate strip lined with soldiers, settlements and checkpoints. He used to come here each week with his mother, he tells me. The place bustled with life. The street wasn’t just the heart of Hebron; it was the heart of the southern West Bank.

This was nearly twenty years ago. Today, the shops have been welded shut by the Israeli army, and the markets lay empty. Hundreds of Palestinian families have been forced out. Since 1994, Palestinians have been banned from driving on the street. Since 2001, they have been banned from walking on all but a short section. This is all done on behalf of the few hundred settlers living on the street, whose presence violates international law.

Silently I wonder what it’s like, looking past soldiers down the street of your childhood, where you haven’t walked in years.

Instead of the locked doors and stray dogs, the smashed windows and armed settlers – and of course the soldiers – perhaps you still see the dairy market, the leather market, the chicken market. Maybe you hear the fruit sellers greeting your mother. Maybe you still feel them rustling your hair.

Then I wonder how it feels now, when you pass through a military checkpoint onto Shuhada Street each day – that small strip still open to you – to be greeted by a soldier pointing his gun at your face.

Then Murad breaks the silence and I stop wondering. “They could shoot me and it would be okay,” he says. “But this is worse. It’s killing me slowly each day. It’s killing all of us each day.”

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