The Horrors Of Israeli Settlements

September 28, 2010 1:33 pm ET — MJ Rosenberg

It looks like Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu will get away with his refusal to extend the settlements freeze.  Actually, it wasn't much of a freeze in the first place (it had the consistency of ice cream after the freezer door has been left open overnight).  But it was better than nothing and maintaining it was the one thing the Palestinians demanded as a condition to keep negotiating.

Palestinians rightfully believe that they can not negotiate with Israel about who is going to keep the occupied West Bank while Israel is building permanent structures all over the very land being discussed.

The usual suspects (the lobby and its cutouts on Capitol Hill) don't think settlements are such a big deal. 

They should go to Hebron, a major city on the occupied West Bank — one that right-wingers say Israel will hold on to no matter what.  It won't change their calculations on the Middle East, but at least they will know what they are defending in the name of political expediency.

I have visited Hebron a half-dozen times, most recently as part of an official U.S. government delegation. Much of what follows comes from a report I wrote then. (Note: the situation has only deteriorated.) 

Hebron is considered holy by both Jews and Muslims because of the presence there of a cave thought to be the burial place of Abraham, the patriarch of both Jews and Muslims. 

Predominantly Palestinian, Jews also lived in the city, adjacent to the tomb, until 1929 when a pogrom launched by Arab fanatics resulted in the murder of 69 Jewish civilians and the end of the Jewish presence in the city.

In 1967, following the Six Day War — with Israel now in control of the West Bank, including Hebron — ultra-religious Jewish nationalists pressured the Israeli government to permit Jewish settlers to reclaim, and move into, properties that had belonged to the Jewish community prior to 1929.

The government refused.  It arranged for Jewish worship inside the tomb but not for civilian settlement inside the city, which it considered to be both impractical and provocative.  Defense Minister Moshe Dayan was personally close to the Palestinian mayor and opposed any Jewish settlement in the city, but especially settlement by the most fanatical and racist elements of the population. Besides, only a tiny group of extremists (many from the United States) had any interest in living inside Hebron.

The settlers snuck in anyway, establishing illegal outposts in the heart of Hebron, which have been tolerated by successive Israeli governments ever since.  Following the Oslo agreements of 1993, the Israeli army withdrew (temporarily) from all Palestinian cities except Hebron, where troops remained to defend the settlers. 

In 1997, the Israeli army withdrew from 80% of Hebron, remaining only in an area labeled H-2 which includes Abraham's burial place, the souk (Arab market) and the Jewish settlement.

Some 400 settlers live in H-2 in the midst of 20,000 Palestinians, protected by soldiers from the IDF.

On my last visit to Hebron, I walked into the heart of H-2 following a short inquisition by a soldier.  The soldier was pretty nasty and, when I complained, he asked me how I would feel if I was risking my life to defend settlers who routinely called him and his fellow Israeli soldiers "Nazis."  (The settlers hate the IDF because the Israeli army prevents them from tormenting the Palestinians even more than they already do.  The army imposes restraints and the settlers want to be able to attack the unarmed Palestinians whenever they feel like it.) 

My first stop was the mosque which encompasses Abraham's tomb.  As I walked down the steps toward the mosque, a young Palestinian made the point of informing me that I was following the same route Jewish zealot Baruch Goldstein took when, in February 1994, he burst into the mosque and shot dead 29 Muslims at prayer.

Goldstein is a hero to the Hebron settlers.  His burial place (in a tourist park named after Meir Kahane) was turned into a shrine where settlers annually celebrate Goldstein's murder spree with parties and games. (In 2004, police arrested some of them for holding an illegal celebration of both the Goldstein murders and the assassination of Yitzhak Rabin.) For Palestinians, of course, the Goldstein massacre is a symbol of the ultimate threat.

I left the mosque and walked through the mostly deserted souk toward the settlers' neighborhood. There wasn't much to see, just settlers strutting around with rifles and a few Arabs trying to sell their wares in what was once a thriving market and is now mostly abandoned.  And there is the graffiti in English and Hebrew promising death to all Palestinians.

But the most striking thing was the steel mesh screens that the Arabs installed just above the heads of pedestrians to protect them from the garbage and excrement routinely dumped by the settlers from their second floor windows.  The screens catch all sorts of disgusting stuff and lethal objects like cinder blocks, although liquid debris does make its way to the ground or on the heads of anyone below.

It's an appalling sight.  Imagine looking up and seeing and smelling the foulest debris just above your head, stopped only by mesh.  But then everything about H-2 is appalling, including the fact that Israeli soldiers are forced to serve there.

In 2005, a group of 70 soldiers who had served in Hebron created a photographic and video exhibit at a Tel Aviv college about their experiences there called "Breaking Silence."  The exhibit, which was a huge success, described from the soldiers' point of view the dehumanizing experience that serving in Hebron had on them.  Many spoke of the fear they had — not only of the Arabs or of the Jews — but of being terribly transformed as human beings by the experience.

One soldier spoke of being frightened by the "rush" he felt from giving Arabs orders:

I was ashamed of myself the day I realized that I simply enjoy the feeling of power...Forget for a moment that I think that all these Jews are nuts and that I believe we should leave the territories. But how dare [a Palestinian] say "no" to me? I am the Law! I am the Law here!

Once I was at a checkpoint, a so-called strangulation checkpoint, blocking the entrance to a village. On one side a line of cars wanting to get out, and on the other side a line of cars wanting to get in. I stood there, gesturing "you to do this," "you do that." You start playing with them, like a computer game. "You come here, you go there." You barely move, you make them obey the tip of your finger. It's a mighty feeling.

A second soldier wrote:

The thing that...affected me emotionally...was when we had just arrived in Hebron.  I was on guard duty, when suddenly, from one of the small streets, a settler girl shows up and shouts at me very urgently: "Soldier, soldier, come quickly, there's an Arab here who's attacking a girl." I got very alarmed and advanced with my weapon cocked. The scene that unfolded was of an Arab with his two children. He's trying to protect them from another settler girl who's throwing stones at them. I blow my fuse and start screaming at her....She's screaming back that they are Arabs and should be killed...and the father, poor guy, says, with helpless eyes, "We're used to it, we've been here a long time now, it's alright."

A third soldier spoke of the day a group from abroad came to visit Hebron for the Jewish holidays:

One morning, a fairly big group arrived, around 15 Jews from France. They were all religious Jews. They were in a good mood, really having a great time, and I spent my entire shift following this gang of Jews around and trying to keep them from destroying the town. They just wandered around, picked up every stone they saw, and started throwing them at Arabs' windows, and overturning whatever they came across.

There's no horror story here: they didn't catch some Arab and kill him or anything like that, but what bothered me is that maybe someone told them that this is one place in the world where a Jew can take all of his rage out on Arab people, and simply do anything. Come to this Palestinian town, and do whatever they want, and the soldiers will always be there to back them up. Because that was my job, to protect them and make sure that nothing happened to them.

Note that this soldier said that he had no "horror story" to tell, just an ordinary day for soldiers, not to mention Palestinians, in Hebron.  And that is, of course, the greatest horror.

That is why Hebron is significant.  In one neighborhood, in one city, on any given day, anyone can experience the settlement enterprise in all its reality — terrible for the Palestinians and terrible for the Israelis, too.

If anyone tells you that settlements are no big deal, just ask him if he's seen Hebron.