Whatever you say about Hebron, say nothing

Palestinian girls behind the segregation barrier on Al-Sahle Street in Hebron. Israeli settlers can walk and drive on the main section; Palestinians can only walk behind the barrier. The graffiti, commonly seen around the city, is a stencil by Israeli settlers. [July 2012]

When the Troubles were raging in Northern Ireland, Seamus Heaney’s famous 1975 poem ‘Whatever you say, say nothing’ served as a warning to visitors: don’t presume you understand what’s going on here. Before you speak, listen.

For the past 10 days, since arriving in Hebron, this advice has echoed in my head.

Hebron, an infamous Palestinian city in the Israeli-occupied West Bank, has seen more violence than most places in Israel/Palestine over the past century. Since 1997, following the second intifada, it has been divided into two parts: one under Palestinian authority, the other under Israeli military rule. The military controls the Old City, once Hebron’s thriving commercial centre. And this is where you find the defining feature of Hebron: the presence of 600 Israeli-Jewish settlers, living among the Palestinian population and protected by a large military presence.

There are three things to note upfront about this particular settler community. One, their presence here is illegal under international law, which states that occupying powers must not transfer their civilian population into occupied territory. (Israel has occupied the Palestinian territories of Gaza and the West Bank since 1967.) Israel disputes this, but from the perspective of practically everyone else concerned, each Israeli flag fluttering on a Palestinian home is a belligerent act.

The second is that the Hebron settlers are notorious for cruel, grinding aggression towards the local Palestinian population. This has included physical assaults, vandalism, and hurling garbage, chlorine, empty bottles and verbal abuse. The Israeli human rights group B’Tselem has noted that Israeli soldiers rarely do anything to stop such attacks.

The third is that the Israeli military have secured the settlers’ presence in central Hebron by pushing Palestinians out: each settlement is surrounded by closed shops and empty Palestinian homes, creating what perfectly fits the description of a ghost town.

So there’s plenty to say – but at the same time, nothing to say right now.

After all, what can you say about Palestinian children who have nowhere to play; who run around barefoot on broken streets peppered with broken glass, while Jewish children tumble around on cordoned-off grass nearby? What can you say when those Palestinian children – already highly vulnerable to settler attacks – are brutally kicked on the street by Israeli border police? Or when you see, as I did yesterday, one of those policemen casually pointing his machine gun at a child as they arrive at the mosque for Friday prayers?

What can you say about streets that are open to Israeli settlers – and foreigners like me – but closed to Palestinians? Or the hundreds of Palestinian shops welded shut and sprayed with the Star of David?

And what can you say after you’ve reminded yourself that the settler population, too often lazily caricatured as psychotic, have their own human reality too? One leading  figure among them, Anat Cohen, has been documented abusing Palestinians and starting fighting with internationals – including one of my colleagues. In May 2001, her brother, Gilad Zar, was ambushed and shot dead by Palestinians. That excuses nothing; but it’s her reality, and needs respecting, especially when you’re looking from the outside in.

So at this point, I’m saying nothing. But something I heard last week has stayed with me since, so I’ll share that instead.

On Shuhada Street – once the beating heart of Palestinian Hebron – I met a Canadian Jewish man who was leading a group of North American Jewish students around Israel, introducing them to Israelis from across the political spectrum. I asked him what he thought about the situation in Hebron.

“Honestly? I think there should be a Jewish community here. We have a connection to the city that dates back 3,800 years.”

Then he stopped. Looking at the boarded-up Palestinian shops, the racist graffiti on the walls, the Israeli soldier next to us fingering his gun, and the lone Palestinian child watching us all nervously nearby, he added: “But I’m not sure it’s worth this.”

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3 Comments

Filed under Hebron

3 responses to “Whatever you say about Hebron, say nothing

  1. florence

    I really liked your article, Chris. The absurdity, viciousness and humanity are all there. Thank you.
    Florence

  2. Ariel Kahn

    The careful and challenging balancing act of the caring observer is omnipresent in this thoughtful and moving posting.

  3. You start this article in exactly the same words I start my talks on IOPT.Thanks for sharing your thoughts.

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