In my first few days working as a Human Rights Observer in Hebron, I kept looking for logic in the things I saw. I quickly learnt to stop. “Don’t ask why,” seemed to be the mantra of many of the people there.
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I first visited Israel nearly 10 years ago with the UK's Union of Jewish Students. I’m not Jewish but was a student leader in Scotland and worked closely with UJS. It was just after the second intifada and the palpable fear of suicide bombings that hung in the air has stayed with me. The visit was special because for the first time I felt connected to part of my own history - my great-grandfather was a Polish Jew who, my family believes, was killed in the Holocaust. Walking in the Valley of the Communities at Yad Vashem was especially emotional.
After a second visit that again focused on Israeli perspectives, particularly on the conflict with the Palestinians, I decided to see the West Bank for myself. I was shocked at how it differed from what I had heard in Israel. The military occupation caused enormous disruption to everyday Palestinian life, and further visits deepened my sense that something was very wrong. That was how it came to be that I have just spent three months working in Hebron, deep inside the occupied Palestinian territory, with the Ecumenical Accompaniment Program in Palestine and Israel.
I had briefly visited Hebron itself twice before and – despite its being holy to Jews, Muslims and Christians – it was the strangest place I had ever been. Under the Oslo Accords, Hebron was divided into H1, controlled by the Palestinian Authority, and H2, controlled by Israel. H2 houses around 500 Israeli settlers, protected by hundreds of Israeli soldiers, alongside 30,000 Palestinians. Many of the settlers are religious extremists who do not shirk from using violence and intimidation in their oft-stated aim of ridding Hebron of Palestinians.
As Hanna, an Israeli in Jerusalem, told me, “Hebron is impossible to understand.” What goes on makes no sense, neither for Israel’s security services nor for the Palestinians who live there. Heavily armed soldiers on the street; frequent detentions and arrests of Palestinians, including children; 122 road and other closures, including the banning of Palestinian cars, and even Palestinians walking on what used to be the busiest street in the city - at one point a soldier told me Shuhada Street was “Jews only.”
I learned that harassment of Palestinians is routine. I witnessed, for example, a Palestinian man called Zidan detained for two hours for taking biscuits to a kindergarten. They obviously didn’t set off the checkpoint metal detector but soldiers wanted him to open every individual packet, ruining the lot.
I kept asking: Why?
British-born Israeli friends said the criminal behavior of many of the Hebron settlers would see them in prison if they lived in the UK. Having witnessed their actions almost every day for three months, words cannot express my bafflement at why Israel sends its army to protect them.
On Shabbat Chayyei Sarah, October 2013, settlers attacked the Palestinian Al Khamerie family as they were taking sweets home with their four-year-old daughter and disabled son. The group of settlers called others to “come and attack the Arabs.” The parents, Mohammed and Ramsina, were hospitalized; Ramsina has still not recovered. Soldiers were there but did not prevent the attack and on their release from hospital the victims were threatened with arrest by the Israeli police unless they attended the police station for questioning.
Another Friday night, settlers from Tel Rumeida in Hebron blocked the Palestinian Azzeh family from entering or leaving their home. Neither the police nor the nine watching soldiers responded to our requests for intervention. A settler child then threw a bucket of bleach at us, directly into my colleague’s eyes. She had to go to hospital and later made an official complaint to the police. Rather than act to bring the perpetrators to justice with the help of the IDF witnesses, the police next day arrested a fellow international who had been injured by the same settlers. Watching settlers cheered.
If the justification for what goes on in Hebron is Israel’s security, then I can only say that, from the bottom of my heart, what happens there - especially to the young people - makes Israel less secure.
One recent Sunday, a couple of 12-year-old Palestinian schoolboys threw pebbles at the fence by checkpoint 29 (I say 'pebbles' advisedly – I have also witnessed rocks being thrown by both Israelis and Palestinians - this was very different.) Israeli soldiers quickly advanced in full combat gear, threw a stun grenade and then fired tear gas at the children. The tear gas went into the school playground. Dozens of terrified smaller children huddled next to me.
I asked the soldiers why this was a sensible response. There was no answer.
While I was there, Gal Kobi, a 20-year-old soldier from Haifa, was sadly shot and killed in Hebron: A terrible waste of a young life. I imagined a debate might ensue in the Israeli media as to why that young man had been sent there by his government in the first place. But it did not.
Aside from the danger to their lives, I wonder what effect it must have on the young Israelis who are sent to protect the extremist settlers of Hebron. I don’t believe that these young men, sent to Palestinian land to use weapons against children, detain people twice their age for carrying biscuits and stand idly by as people are attacked and hospitalized, will walk away undamaged from such experiences.
Why does Israel think that what goes on in Hebron is in its best interests? Why are ordinary Israelis willing to send their sons and daughters to be soldiers in places like Hebron?
I walked away from Hebron feeling like I am one of the only people asking these questions. I ask out of genuine engagement and concern, as someone who has seen and heard both sides over the years. Despite the self-harm, it seems that too many Israelis prefer not to ask why.
I hope I am mistaken, but if you too think it sounds like there is something wrong, maybe you will join me in asking: “Why?”
Melanie Ward is from Scotland, studied at the University of Stirling and the School of Oriental and African Studies, and works for a global anti-poverty charity in London. She lived in Hebron for three months in late 2013 when working as a Human Rights Observer with EAPPI. She blogs at www.melanieward.org and tweets @melanie_ward