Wednesday, October 04, 2006

Stoned in Hebron--(by settlers)

Hebron, southwest of Bethlehem about 45 minutes, is the most intense place I’ve been to here so far.

It felt totally surreal—with zealous settlers right downtown in the middle of a conservative Palestinian city. Much more conservative than Bethlehem, everyone on the streets wore a headscarf and clothes that covered all arms and legs. Upon entering Hebron, we went straight to the old city, where our guide warned us there is great tension between Palestinians and die-hard settlers who live right in the old city, near the Abraham mosque/synagogue, where the tombs of Abraham, Isaac, Rebekah, Jacob, and Sarah all reside.

We walked through the maze of old city streets, where we were certainly cause for excitement as foreigners. We got constant, “Welcome to Hebron. Where are you from?” Kids followed us most of the way and one guy said that we were the first tourists he had seen in months. As we got closer to the middle of the old city, the streets became more and more deserted and all the shops were closed. Our guide said that the Israeli army had cleared out the area and shut it down for “security reasons” and people were just now starting to come back. All along the top of the market, there were nets protecting shopkeepers and shoppers from the trash that the settlers living above throw intentionally down on them.

The Abraham mosque/synagogue had been both in one but was completely divided into two parts (one side a mosque/one side a synagogue) since the 1994 shooting inside by an Israeli (actually American) extremist who killed 21 people. So, one side of the structure is now used as a mosque and the other as a synagogue. Since it was Ramadan, we were not allowed to go into the mosque so we walked around the building to see if we could go into the synagogue part. You go through a mini-checkpoint and all of a sudden you are in a different world. Israeli soldiers everywhere and humvees, signs in Hebrew, and women in long skirts and men with long beards. We were allowed in and I went in to the area reserved for women to pray. There were even Israeli soldiers inside the synagogue and we had to go through a security check before entering. We were asked why we wanted to go and our response that we were Christian was apparently good enough! Since our Palestinian guide was not allowed in, I asked people inside to tell us a little about the place. They pointed out the tombs of Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, and Sarah, around which people were fervently praying by swaying back and forth. (Apparently, the actual tombs are way below the synagogue.)

After the Abraham mosque, we visited the home of a Palestinian lady whose house is near the market, but whose balcony overlooks a street that has been closed to all but settlers moving from their respective neighborhoods to the Abraham mosque/synagogue. She told us how settlers (usually teenagers) throw rocks every night at her house and have broken all of her windows. Having spent her entire life in Hebron, she shared countless stories about life under occupation and the treatment of her family and her friends by the Israeli army inside Hebron.

We walked out on the balcony and saw different groups of teenagers walking by along the street, each group armed with a huge M-16 gun. In some cases, the gun looked bigger than they did. (see picture). The freedom to carry weapons here makes cowboy US look like gun-shy Europe. We got many dirty looks from the settlers, who probably wondered what these foreigners were doing on the balcony of a Palestinian home. Later, my roommate was standing out there and was jeered at by some teenagers. Three seconds later, she popped her head back in and our guide yelled at us to shut the window. THWACK!! A big rock hit the window! We were actually stoned by settlers. Unbelievable.

On the lady's roof, we saw that there are actually five settlements inside the old city alone. In each direction, one can see a military encampment, a settlement.

The lady’s comments about her experience echoed a common complaint. She understands that these troops are doing their job—each Israeli Jew (Israeli Arabs are not allowed) must serve in the army. She shared that it’s not so much the fact that the troops are there. The main irritant is that the soldiers don’t treat the Palestinians as humans. The Palestinians feel they are treated worse than animals. And they have no recourse to the law. Many times the lady said she has threatened to report the behavior of certain officers to the "authorities" and they have said, “go ahead and report it to whoever you want; tell Sharon even, " knowing full well it doesn’t matter what she says. Nowadays, she resorts to calling the Christian Peacemaker Teams, who are there in Hebron to act primarily as international observers. When they show up, inevitably the soldiers change their tune and do not want to be documented as being unfair.

After that harrowing experience, we visited a glass-blowing shop and watched the glass-blower sit in front of the hot oven and make a vase. He normally does not work during the day during Ramadan, he said, but made an exception for his visitors. We were all in awe at his skill and bought several items as gifts.

After our incredibly long day, we had to hurry back to the West Bank because at sundown Jews began their 24 hour fast for Yom Kippur--which includes not using anything electronic (cars, phones, etc.) We had heard that they even stop and fine people driving on the streets. (Indeed, my friend drove back later that night and kids threw rocks at his car and tried to stop him from driving!) We made it back in time to Ramallah and hung out at the Christian Orthodox club, chatted with people there, played basketball, and finally made it home exhausted!

No comments: