Two Tales of One City

A film of a settler cursing a Palestinian focused attention on Hebron again this week, but the demise of what was once the Arab city's social and commercial center has been under way for years.

Aryeh Dayan
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Aryeh Dayan

There is something sad and perhaps even pathetic about the way Muhammad Abu Aisha pulls out the old and wrinkled paper he always keeps in one of the pockets of his clothing. He lives on the second floor of the house surrounded by a metal screen that is across from the Jewish settlers' compound in Tel Rumeida in Hebron, and he is the grandfather of Rajaa Abu Aisha, the young woman of 19 who lives in the same building and who made headlines this week in the wake of the short film she made. In it, her neighbor, Israeli settler Yifat Alkobi, is seen cursing her again and again.

The paper that Abu Aisha keeps in his pocket, and which he hastened to display this week to everyone who visited his home, is a faded photocopy of a page of "The Hebron Book," a deluxe album that was published at the start of the 1970s in order to perpetuate the memory of the Jewish community that lived in the town until the massacre in 1929. Even though he does not read Hebrew, he knows very well what is written on the page, an account of those among the Arabs of Hebron who risked their lives to save their Jewish neighbors. At the bottom of the page is a blurred photograph of two men embracing. "This is Ya'akov Ezra and this is my father, Hamed Abu Aisha," says the elderly man.

At the beginning of the 1980s, he relates, Dr. Yosef Burg, who was then interior minister, and whose wife was born in Hebron, visited the town. According to Abu Aisha, Burg "told the settlers that they must not harm the Abu Aisha family, because everyone knows that members of the family saved Jews. But Burg departed and left us with Baruch Marzel."

Yifat Alkobi and Rajaa Abu Aisha, the two women who gained momentary fame thanks to the repulsive film that set the country on edge this week, are clear representatives of the communities to which they belong. The Jewish settlement mustered behind Alkobi, while Abu Aisha became the heroine of the day for the Palestinians in Hebron and the West Bank, as well as many on the Israeli left. Their tale is not just a story of two neighbors at odds, but rather and primarily the story of the impossible reality that has developed in Hebron as a result of the presence of the Jewish settlers in the heart of the Palestinian city. The Abu Aisha family's home, surrounded by a metal screen and looking more like a cage now than a residence, can be understood as the symbol of this reality. The curses that Alkobi hured at her neighbor on the other side of the metal screen are the soundtrack of this film.

Muhammad Abu Aisha, who is 72 and now lives on the second floor of the house with his wife, who is younger than him by 20 years, and their three small children, built this house back in the days of Jordanian rule. During the first decade of Israeli rule, after 1967, the family did not experience any unusual incidents, and also after 1982, when the first settlers came to Tel Rumeida, the Abu Aishas continued to live undisturbed. "In the beginning we even had good relations with the Jewish neighbors," he relates. "I would bring them peaches and grapes from my orchard and my vineyard and they also related to us well."

The problems started later

This idyllic reality began to change during the course of the 1980s, as the number of settlers increased and their age changed. "At first," relates Abu Aisha, "there were mature people here, who were like the Jews who lived in Hebron until 1929. The problems started later, when the older people left and in their stead people like Baruch Marzel and Noam Federman came," he said, referring to the two right-wing extremists who have had frequent run-ins with the law for attacks on their Palestinian neighbors, among other things. He had to erect the dense metal screen in 1996, when stones hurled at the windows of his home became a daily phenomenon. Rima Abu Aisha, his daughter-in-law, who lives with her family on the house's first floor, says that ever since the mid-1990s, every exit from the house has become a real danger for her seven children.

"In the morning I send them to school only after I see that the vehicle that takes the settler children to school has already left the neighborhood," she relates. "If our children leave the house while the settler children are still waiting in the street for their vehicle, my children will be the targets of stone-throwing and spitting." In the afternoon, at the end of the school day, she goes up on the roof and does surveillance of the surroundings. If she sees a clustering of settler children, she phones her sister-in-law, whose house is along the route of her children's return from school, and asks her to wait for them and bring them into her home until the settler children have passed.

They have been living this way for many years now. About two years ago her daughter Rajaa told an investigator for B'Tselem, The Israeli Information Center for Human Rights in the Territories, that her father had bought bicycles for her brothers but they do not dare use them outside for fear of the settler children. Instead, they ride inside the house, in a large room where from time to time their mother moves the furniture aside for that purpose. "It pains me when I see the settlers' children playing soccer and happily riding bikes under our house, with soldiers protecting them," she said in her testimony in 2005. "We can't do that, and all the time we're looking at them enviously through the window. We even have a problem with their games. My father bought Ashraf [her brother] a soccer ball. One of the soldiers came into our house and said that the ball wasn't ours and that it belonged to the settlers' children. The soldier took the ball from Ashraf and gave it to the [settler] children. My brothers can't even buy toy rifles because this is prohibited. To tell the truth," she continued in her testimony, "there isn't anyone in my family whom the settlers haven't attacked."

This week her grandfather displayed a plastic bag, in which he keeps copies of more than 20 complaints against the neighbors that he and his family have submitted to the police. In most of the complaints the subject is listed as "Assault." In a few, it is stated as "Curses," "Spitting" or "Violent Behavior." He relates that "every time we complain, the police demand that we say exactly who attacked us, what his name is, what he looks like, what the color of his eyes is, what shape of skullcap he has and what his father's name is. If we can't answer all of those questions, they don't deal with the complaint."

And indeed nearly all the files that the police have opened in the wake of their complaints were closed after a short time. This is not exceptional or unusual. From data gathered by B'Tselem, it emerges that in 2005, 176 complaints against settlers were submitted to the Hebron police. Of the cases that were opened in the wake of the complaints, 87 were closed immediately, and in 43 of the cases it emerged that the acts were committed by minors who had not yet reached the age of criminal responsibility. Only in five cases did the police recommend filing an indictment. The figures relating to the first 10 months of 2006 show that during that period, the police dealt with 352 incidents of settler violence, and that only in 27 of them did it recommend filing indictments.

Two of the four Palestinian families who lived adjacent to the settlers in Tel Rumeida got fed up with this reality and abandoned their homes. The members of the Abu Aisha family, on whose front door settlers painted a large Star of David, see this as a declaration of intentions and are convinced that the aim is to cause them to leave as well. Muhammad Abu Aisha promises that he will not leave his home. "They don't understand that as long as I am living here, they are protected," he says. "Allah and His Prophet Muhammad command me to protect my neighbors, and I really do tell Palestinians in other parts of Hebron that they should not harm my neighbors, even though they harm me. The moment I am no longer here, they will be exposed to attacks."

This could happen anywhere

The wall of the settlers' compound is less than five meters away from the screen surrounding the Abu Aisha family's home. There they see a different reality and present an opposite picture, according to which they, the settlers, are victims of organized Palestinian violence and also of an Israeli law-enforcement system that time and again is deceived by an efficient propaganda machine, in which are partners Palestinians, international organizations and elements from Israel.

David Wilder, a Hebron resident who serves as the spokesman to the foreign media for the Jewish settlement in the town, claimed this week, in an interview with CNN, that "the Alkobi affair" is nothing but an ordinary dispute between neighbors, "of the sort that could also happen in the United States or Japan." It has been exploited, Wilder added, by a coalition of leftist Israeli and international organizations, to shame the Hebron settlers and damage the legitimacy of their presence in the town. He also claimed that the Palestinians who eight years ago killed Rabbi Shlomo Ra'anan succeeded in penetrating Ra'anan's home in Tel Rumeida, thanks to "prior information" provided to them by "the Arab inhabitants of the neighborhood."

Like Muhammad Abu Aisha, Wilder tells of the decent neighborly relations that once prevailed in Tel Rumeida. One member of the Abu Aisha family, a carpenter by trade, once repaired a broken chair for one of the settlers and refused to accept payment. "It seemed as though the days of the Messiah had come," says Wilder. "Children from the two families, Jewish and Arab, started playing together." Abu Aisha, incidentally, confirms the story of the chair but says that there had never been friendly relations among the children.

Wilder asserts that the friendship between the Jewish and the Palestinian children ended when a quarrel broke out between them. Children quarrel everywhere in the world, but what it led to here, according to Wilder, was different from what happens in other places. In the wake of the quarrel, a member of the Abu Aisha family came to the home of the setter family and yelled for a long time at the woman who opened the door to him. "A soldier who was there asked the woman of the house whether she wanted to file a complaint about the man who shouted," he relates, "and she answered him that she did not understand Arabic and that she had no idea what he was saying. The soldier said to her that he did understand Arabic, and that the man had said that he intended to come back with a knife and kill all of them. Of course the children stopped playing together." Wilder says that this was the start of the quarrel that led to Yifat Alkobi's curses.

It was only the continuation of the quarrel that had a political context, according to him. "About a year and a half ago," Wilder explains, "groups of Arab extremists got organized, headed by an Arab-Palestinian organization that is funded by the European Union, and together with other organizations, like Anarchists Against the Wall, they decided to focus on the Tel Rumeida neighborhood, with the aim of causing as much disorder as possible, so that they would be able to blame 'the monstrous Jews.'" He claims that activists of the foreign organizations "are inciting against the security forces" and fomenting "provocations against civilians, in an attempt to draw adults, youths and children into violent situations, which they film in a very selective way and distribute on sites on the Internet." Thus, he says, was created the short film in which Alkobi appears.

"What happened? What do you see in the film?" Wilder asks, with the aim of playing down the conflict that is seen there. "One woman is shouting at another woman. Is this material for a news headline? For a reaction from the prime minister?" He acknowledges that "her language was not all that refined," but is convinced that there was no justification for the uproar that the film caused.

Only a few dozen shops remain

However, a short visit to Tel Rumeida and its environs suffices to confirm that what is happening there is very far from an ordinary dispute between neighbors, and that the policy implemented by the Israel Defense Forces in areas where settlers live has led, in fact, to the demise of Palestinian life in the area. The IDF prohibits the Palestinian families living there from moving around the area in vehicles, a prohibition that extends as well to other quarters of Hebron where settlers live. And Palestinians from other neighborhoods, or from outside Hebron altogether, are prohibited by the IDF from entering these areas even by foot. Thus total social isolation has been imposed on the Palestinians who still reside in areas around the settlers' houses.

The city was divided in the 1998 Hebron agreement. Most of it was handed over to the full responsibility of the Palestinian Authority, but Israel retained security responsibilty for a small part of it, where today some 400 Jewish settlers and about 30,000 Palestinians live. This part of Hebron, which surrounds the Tomb of the Patriarchs, was until 1998 the commercial and social heart of Palestinian Hebron. For decades, the Casbah, which is adjacent to the Tomb of the Patriarchs, and the streets around it constituted a huge market that supported thousands of families and provided varied services to the villages of the entire large rural area surrounding Hebron. All this died out entirely in the wake of the prohibitions on movement that the IDF has imposed in recent years. In the Casbah, where in the past many hundreds of shops had been active, only a very few dozen remain. In the afternoon hours of Thursday of this week, for example, the lanes of the Casbah were nearly deserted with only a few shoppers moving among the small number of shops that have not yet been abandoned.

The scene outside the Casbah, in the huge commercial area that used to surround the buildings where the setters live, is much bleaker. The entire quarter, which is comprised of many streets that until about a decade ago were vibrant and lively and thronged with people, has become a ghost town, which looks as though it is a cardboard movie set. The thousands of shops, workshops, offices and business centers that were active there for decades and formed the center of Hebron have been abandoned and closed. Cars do not travel on the roads, pedestrians do not walk on the sidewalks and the glass in the windows in the upper stories of the buildings is shattered. The gas station has been dismantled and it too is abandoned. Only a few faded signs that have not yet been ripped out testify to what had been there in the past. Next to Beit Romano, one of the settlers' buildings in the town, it is possible to make out, for example, the sign that Dr. Muhammad Tamimi, General Practitioner, hung at the entrance to his clinic to announce his reception hours. Further along the street, one can still see the sign of the Halil al Rahman Travel Agency, which specialized in organizing pilgrimage trips to Mecca. Not far from there is the sign of the pharmacy that was managed by Dr. Idris al Keisi. Across from there, on the iron door of what was once the office of the Al Andalus Taxi stand, it now says, in big, black Hebrew letters: "Death to the Arabs."

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