Each day in Hebron brings new voices, new perspectives, new stories. This section of my blog will be an attempt to foreground these encounters.
When I meet Noah, we’ve just spent an hour watching four young Palestinian men being detained in the Islamic cemetery overlooking the Old City of Hebron. As well as the Palestinian men, I also feel for Noah, because you could say that this might not have happened if he wasn’t here today.
Noah is traveling around Israel and the West Bank for the first time. He lives in Tel Aviv, having moved to Israel from his native US last year. (When Jewish people move to Israel, it’s called making aliyah – meaning to make your ‘ascent’.) Noah – who asked me not to use his real name – is 24 years old, friendly, smart, confident, curious, and instantly likeable. He’s been interning at a high-tech company in Tel Aviv and is about to start his first permanent job. But before that, he’s doing something that many Israelis never do: seeing how Palestinians live in the West Bank.
“I think it’s important for Israelis to understand what’s happening here. I wanted to see it with my own eyes,” he says.
In the past hour, he’s had a pretty good introduction. We watched as four Palestinian men were made to sit for an hour in 33-degree heat while seven Israeli soldiers, with studied slowness, verified their identities over the phone. For whatever reason, they don’t have their Palestinian ID cards on them, which routinely creates situations like this one. As the men sat among the gravestones, one soldier paraded up and down in front of them, barking at them to stay quiet, treating them like criminals.
I can’t help thinking about the inequality between Noah and these young men sitting among the graves. Noah says he hasn’t been asked for his new Israeli passport once today. By contrast, these Palestinian men have to present their IDs whenever an Israeli soldier asks. This afternoon, Noah has been roaming around freely inside downtown Hebron. But Palestinians, especially young men, can be forced to remove their belts, bags and jackets, and present their IDs, at more than 30 military checkpoints, many times each day.
So here’s what happened before I spoke with Noah.
An hour earlier, he had been checking out a place nearby called ‘Abraham’s Well’. The well is owned by a Palestinian family, but local Jewish settlers claim it’s a holy Jewish site mentioned in the Bible. Over the past month, settler youths have been ‘renovating’ the site – something the UN considers illegal settlement expansion – which has created tensions on Tel Rumeida, a Palestinian community with a Jewish settlement planted in its heart. Recently, a Jewish man bathing at the well was hospitalised with head injuries after a Palestinian youth threw a rock. Last week, in an apparent reprisal, a group of settlers attacked two Palestinian youths near the well with gas spray and rocks, putting one in hospital.
While Noah was at the well, a group of Palestinian youths surrounded him. “It happens when you’re traveling,” he says. “People always want to see who the new guy is. They were pretty close to me and were fooling around, trying to touch me, but I wasn’t intimated – others might have been in that situation.” Noah is well-built, like a football player. He probably doesn’t get intimidated very easily.
But when a passing Jewish woman saw the group surrounding Noah, she deduced that Palestinians were harassing a Jewish man. She called the Israeli military, who are based minutes away and constantly patrol the area. By the time seven soldiers arrived, Noah was drinking cola and chatting with four of the young men. All entirely peaceful. But when the soldiers found the Palestinian men were not carrying ID, they detained them, and the ugly scene described above unfolded.
After the Palestinian men’s identities have finally been confirmed, and they walk away rolling their eyes, I ask Noah what he thinks about the treatment they’ve just received from the soldiers.
“I think it’s very sad,” he says. “I wish people could all live together peacefully here. But I know why these checkpoints are here. It’s necessary for security. And I understand why these soldiers behave the way they do.”
He continues, “Ten years ago they were dealing with suicide bombers. That’s still deeply rooted in their consciousness. It’s where they’re coming from. I know these soldiers are young and didn’t experience it themselves. But it’s in their institutional memory, you could say.”
That’s probably true. What it excuses, I don’t know. But I thank Noah for taking the time to speak with me. We swap details and he tells me to look him up if I’m in Tel Aviv. Then he starts down the hill, picking through the white tombstones catching the dying sunlight, towards the buses bound for Jerusalem.