Who's in Charge in Hebron: Israeli Security Forces or Settlers?

A settler orders soldiers to block foreigners from walking down a Hebron main street because they are wearing kaffiyehs. Why did they even have to check whether there really is a rule to that effect?

Amira Hass
Amira Hass
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Anat Cohen, a settler in Hebron.
Anat Cohen, a settler in Hebron. Credit: Screenshot
Amira Hass
Amira Hass

One woman, about 60, another around 30 and a man, about 70, are walking down Shuhada Street, Hebron. They are speaking English. The three are volunteers for the International Solidarity Movement and just finished their first task of the morning: walking preschool teachers and children afraid of harassment by settlers and Israelis in uniform to school in the old city.

The street is empty. The stores on it have long been closed. The three walk towards the Hashoter checkpoint on their way out of the old city. They run into an Israeli settler. They do not yet know that her name is Anat Cohen.

She speaks to them in Hebrew but they don’t understand. She switches to broken English and they discover, to their surprise, that she’s stopping them from proceeding. Here is a truncated transcript of a video clip that lasts about eight minutes.

Anat Cohen says, in Hebrew, to anybody listening: “The Foreign Ministry says that they are going to deport [the international volunteers], right?” The volunteers say they just want to proceed.

Cohen says in Hebrew spiced with English: “Not with that, not on our street. You can’t pass with this on our street. Go back. Get away from here.”

To the astonishment of one of the volunteers, Cohen pulls a kaffiyeh off her neck and throws it to the ground. One of the women says in English: “Let us go through.” Cohen repeats they cannot pass through, and then in English: “Go from this way,” pointing back in the direction they came from. The volunteers explain in English that they only want to continue on: “Let us just go through the checkpoint.” Cohen insists they turn back.

Volunteers' encounter with settlers in Hebron.

And then the two women begin to exchange words: Cohen tells the woman not to touch her, and the woman says the same, and so on. Cohen says in Hebrew: “She shall not pass here with that kaffiyeh. She shall not,” and in English: “We aren’t the PLO. Don’t go with this smartut” — Hebrew for “rag.”

The volunteers understand nothing. One says, as a soldier approaches that she will do what the soldier says.

Cohen tells him, “Soldier, come here. They must not pass here with the kaffiyeh. The police decided that, not me. Let them walk by the spring.”

Again, Cohen then speaks to the volunteer in Hebrew: “I’m speaking to you nicely. I don’t want to lift my hands. I don’t want to touch you. But I’m telling you that here you can’t pass with a PLO kaffiyeh. What I’m saying is very clear. If you want to go to the school, to bring them pigs to eat, to teach them what you want, if you want to teach the Muslims about Christmas, do it from that street, not from here. Here we don’t pass with kaffiyehs. You may not provoke us and may not goad us, this too. You may not walk down our street with it.” Cohen suggests they take an alternative route, around the top.

The volunteer responds in English that she does not know the other route. Cohen knows better: “You don’t know? Liar, you spend all day among the Arabs, in their homes, in their rooms. Why are you saying that you don’t know? You know very well, you live among them, you live with them. I really don’t know why you bring old ladies, what do you bring old ladies for? Why, do Arabs like old ladies? I don’t understand you. There’s no problem, you’re completely okay, with your language you can go to the crematoria at Auschwitz. Here, no. Not here. You know the way. It won’t take you a lot of time either to go up from there, go up from there,” says Cohen.

The volunteer tries to persuade a soldier to let them pass. He is almost persuaded. But Cohen explains to him: “Listen, with this provocative kaffiyeh she cannot pass here. What is she doing with a kaffiyeh? She is Christian. Why does she don a Muslim kaffiyeh? Let them go via the spring. The police also say they cannot come here with provocative symbols. They want to pass through here like tourists, then let them go like tourists. They want to go through here like provocateurs.” And another Israeli woman joins in telling the soldier why they cannot pass.

A soldier signals that he intends to let the volunteers pass, at which Cohen once again takes command. The volunteers realize finally that only their male colleague will be allowed to go through because he is not wearing a kaffiyeh. They laugh in surprise, declare they will not give up on wearing their kaffiyehs - and the three take the longer detour.

Asked by Haaretz whether a police ban exists as Cohen says with her characteristic self-confidence, and whether soldiers obey the settlers out of fear or because they received orders from their commanders to obey the settlers, the police spokesman’s unit said: “No such instruction or order exists about such a ban.”

The IDF Spokesman’s Unit commented: “There is no instruction that forbids passing through Shuhada Street based on items of clothing or any religious symbol, and the instructions on the matter have been made clear to the soldiers. IDF soldiers receive orders from their commanders, not from civilian bodies. The soldiers in the video clip checked with their commanders how to act in this case and did not allow passage until the matter was clarified. After they checked, the soldiers returned with the intention of allowing [the volunteers] to pass, but the three were no longer at the location.”