Monday, June 27, 2011

A bit of humanity in Hebron . . . of all places

Today I took a trip south to Hebron. Hebron is a controversial city, in which some hundred number of Jewish settlers have taken residence in the old portion of the city, often right on top of the Palestinians (see picture below). Hebron is home to the supposed tombs of Abraham and the rest of the biblical patriarch and matriarch gang, so it’s a holy site for Judaism, Islam, and Christianity. Besides religious reasons (go figure), it’s also controversial because of the way Jewish settlers have treated the Palestinian residents over the years. The city is divided into two areas of control, H1 and H2. The Israeli military controls H2, the old city of Hebron where the tombs are located and where Jewish settlers have taken residence. Over the years, due to the burden of living with curfews, settler harassment, checkpoints, and a foreign military presence, the Palestinians have mostly moved out of H2, leaving the old city of Hebron devoid of its former life.

I can confirm. Old city Hebron is a. ghost. town. It’s eerily quiet. There are only a few Palestinian shops still open, and they rarely have customers. We chatted over tea with one shop owner, Munir, located just outside the Tomb of the Patriarchs. He has a wealth of knowledge on all that has happened in Hebron old city over the years; he also has a great sense of humor about it all. I left Hebron with the same attitude, actually.

One of the streets that lead to the tomb is divided into two lanes by a short concrete barrier. Palestinians walk on one side, Jewish on the other (see picture below). Now, this barrier is 3 feet tall, maximum. Jews and Palestinians can easily see the other walking; in fact, they could give each other high fives over this barrier (one day?). So, what’s the point in having it?? There are a few soldiers standing around making sure everyone stays on their designated side, but REALLY people!? We have to split them up like little children? We have to make this separation even more artificial? One little boy, Ahmed, decided he was going to walk down the Jewish side with us (as foreigners we can choose either side to walk down). The soldiers ignored his actions at first, maybe because he was walking with us, but once he arrived to their “booth,” they shooed him onto the Arab side. I think he must do this a lot, because they weren’t that serious about shooing him. Thanks to Ahmed for driving home the idiocy of the barriers we build!

About the Israeli soldiers hanging around on this day. Let me restate that old city Hebron is a. ghost. town. In other words, the Israeli soldiers are beyond bored. They have no real unrest to tamp down. Since the streets are empty, there are no suspicious characters to intimidate. So, the Israeli soldiers on this day were pretty much like every other soldier around the world - killing time on some lame assignment. Or, flirting with American girls that walk by. . .

I’ve seen enough to be biased. I’m fully against the occupation and I hope that in the near future Israeli soldiers are not permitted to enter Palestine. But today, in Hebron, I wasn’t able to just throw the IDF into the “bad guy” category (they usually make it pretty easy). Today, they – the “occupier,” the “bad guy” - were much more human to me than they normally seem behind thick glass or sternly demanding IDs at random intersections.

My friends and I were the only people walking around the ghost town this afternoon. Two Israeli soldiers shuffled about on top of a roof nearby where we were standing. I’m certain we were the only people they’d seen in hours, so they were naturally curious. We’re standing in the middle of a deserted round a bout, and we hear from a distance:

“Where you from?” (thick accent; rising intonation rather than the usual bark)

We look up at the soldiers, and move toward the building on which they’re standing.

He asks again: “Where you from?”
Us: “We’re from America”
Soldier: “America?”
-Pause. The two boys exchange something in muffled tones. And out comes. . .
Soldier: “You love Israel?”
-I imagine the previous muffled conversation was about whether or not to ask such a stupid question. Not like they could leave the roof and take us home or anything, so why not leave us totally unimpressed. We’re not sure how to reply to this, because a) we know what they want to hear and, well, they do have guns and power b) it’s one of the dumbest questions we’ve been asked in awhile.
Me: “No, I’m from America. I only love my own country.”
-Even getting that out was hard. Love is a pretty strong word, and my feelings for my country are much more nuanced.
Soldiers: giggles
Me: “And you’re welcome . . . for that gun and for your uniform since my country paid for it.”

I know, I know - such a bratty third grader thing to say, but I couldn’t resist after his ignorant, ethnocentric question. But in the end, we were laughing with the two soldiers. Everywhere we went that day, the Israeli soldiers asked “where you from?” and tried to make conversation.

Now, some Palestinian sympathizers would be quick to make the case that the Israeli soldiers were only being friendly to gain legitimacy with foreigners, when in reality they are actually really evil and do evil things. And while I’m absolutely certain that as a whole the IDF have done horrible things to Palestinians, today they were just boys. Just curious, bored, 19 year old boys flirting with American girls because it’s the most excitement they’ve had in weeks. I bet some of them don’t fully understand what they’re doing, politically, morally, whatever, and maybe some of them understand but also think it’s wrong. Today, in Hebron old city, they were human. And that’s something that’s easily forgotten in the midst of so much “us” versus “them.” We’re all guilty of the destruction that stems from that mentality. 

Above live the Jewish settlers. They throw trash down.
 There hasn't always been a net there.
Barrier. Jews to the left, Arabs to the right. Sound familiar? It's been done before.

P.S. I tried to add the location of this entry via a google map tool, but it only listed "Hebron, Israel"as an option. Ekh. Zionism.

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