Fear and Loathing in Hebron

Amira Hass hears about the travails of Arab residents and finds herself exposed to settler wrath.

HEBRON - Every weekend, including this past Friday, at around 5 P.M., soldiers take up positions on the roof of the home of Hussam Jaber in Wadi Nasara in the eastern part of Hebron. The three-story home is located on a narrow street that turns southward from the "worshipers' way" from the Jewish settlement of Kiryat Arba to the Tomb of the Patriarchs. The entire wadi, the hills that surround it, the houses of the neighborhood, the grapevines and the olive and peach groves spread beneath the roof like a relief map.

On the railing around the roof the soldiers set up a floodlight ("At our expense," notes a member of the family) that illuminates the wadi. This happens every Friday and every Saturday, to ensure the safety of the many Jewish worshipers who walk the kilometer or so between Kiryat Arba and the old city of Hebron.

"On Fridays and Saturdays we don't go out," relates a neighborhood resident last weekend. "Because of the many Jewish settlers that go through our valley and because of the military reinforcements, we don't dare go outside."

The weekly observation post on the roof of the Jaber family home is not the only one that overlooks the wadi. Another three permanent military positions surround the wadi and light it up at night. The residents of the upper stories in the neighborhood, which is just a few dozen meters south of Kiryat Arba, do not dare turn on their lights during the weekends, lest they attract the attention of those who are walking along the path and lest it stimulate them to throw a stone or, heaven forbid, fire shots into the air.

Many residents do not even dare go up to the upper stories or get near the windows. And when they do go upstairs, they speak in whispers.

Therefore, on Friday at about seven in the evening, when the inhabitants of the neighborhood heard shots, they were convinced that soldiers or Jewish settlers were shooting. No one could have imagined that right under the spotlights and the nearby military positions, Israeli soldiers were being killed by Palestinian gunfire.

H. was perhaps among the few and among the first to realize what was happening. He was spending Friday with relatives in one of the houses in the valley, among the groves. According to him, he saw two Border Police Jeeps that had been standing among the trees in the valley since 3 P.M. He also saw four soldiers who were walking among the trees, the houses and the Jeeps; a routine Friday patrol, aimed at securing the "worshipers' way."

During the course of the afternoon, one of the Jeeps departed, he related. At around 7 P.M., H. saw a group of people running down the southernmost street of the neighborhood, from east to west. They opened fire on the soldiers who were in the valley. He thinks the soldiers ran forward to attack them, but he himself ran to hide inside the house.

In the home of Hussam Jabber, on whose roof was the military observation post, the shooting caught the members of the family engaged in their usual activities after the meal that breaks the Ramadan fast: chatting, napping, watching television. They rushed to huddle together in a corner of the house, and they say they did not dare peek out the window so they did not know from where the shooting was coming. They figured that the soldiers were firing from the roof of their house. They also heard shots exploding on the southern walls of their house. Later they would find bullet holes in the water pipe and in the water tank on the roof. At some stage the soldiers from the observation post came down to them and made them gather in one room. Throughout, the shooting continued, from various places and in various directions. Panicky shooting, concluded one member of the household. On the soldiers' faces they read confusion and panic. Perhaps, they would conclude later, the soldiers had been shooting at one another.

They had no way of knowing that in the meantime soldiers had broken into a one-story house that is below their home. Alongside this house stretches the path that links the valley to the street where the running Palestinians who opened fire were seen. This is the home of Hamad Jaber. Most of the family members were away visiting nearby relatives. Only the father of the family, Hamad, and his married son Najib were at home. The shooting very near also sent the two of them into a corner of the house. From there they could see that the valley was flooded with light flares.

The shooting continued; they heard the bullets bursting on the roof and on the water tanks there. Then the explosion of stun grenades informed them that the soldiers were very close to their house. They opened the door, and were ordered to come out with their hands up and their shirts rolled up. Outside, Najib saw the corpse of a man wearing a mask and gloves. He could see that the man had been shot in the head.

"Who is that?" the soldiers asked him.

"I don't know," he replied.

"He was here in the house," said the soldiers.

"But we were inside. We don't know him and he wasn't in our house," answered Najib.

After a search of the house, the soldiers put the two into a Jeep with their eyes and their hands bound. They were driven to an unknown place, apparently a military base, taken out of the Jeep and put into another Jeep that was driven away - they do not know where - and then they were let out somewhere. Over unfamiliar hills, they began to walk home. Part of the way, Najib had to carry his 71-year-old father on his back.

Hours later they came across a house: The owners told them where they were. From there they set out for home. But when they arrived, at 9 A.M., their house was no longer there.

Toward midnight, the residents of the Wadi Nasara neighborhood, who are imprisoned in their houses because of the shooting, heard the frighteningly familiar growl of a bulldozer. Hamad and Najib were already in the Jeep that took them to the unknown location. The rest of the family watched from afar: Within 20 minutes, the house was demolished. Another two houses nearby were also demolished: One belonged to another son of the family, who they say was visiting his family in East Jerusalem; the second house was unoccupied.

In the morning the family members returned to try to gather whatever remained: They did not succeed in finding the money and the gold that were in the house - savings for an approaching wedding, for times of need. The mother, 61-year-old Suheila, found her good wooden leg. She is a native of Jerusalem. When she was seven, during the 1948 War of Independence, she was injured by gunfire and lost a leg. For short distances, she uses her other, second prosthesis, which is not as good. With a face red from crying, on Saturday she indicated her good wooden leg, its foot broken when the house was demolished.

She really weeps when she talks about her eldest son: A year-and-a half-ago, when soldiers fired tear gas into the neighborhood, he was very frightened, and choked and died.

During the home demolishing, the bulldozer tore up several of the neighborhood's electrical cables, so that most of the houses had their electricity cut off. By morning, most of the people of the neighborhood had no idea that 12 Israeli soldiers and security men had been killed. Soldiers entered one of the houses near the "worshipers' way" and made the members of the family (including an elderly grandfather and a six-month-old baby) go outside while the shooting was going on. Until morning they were taken out of the house and were brought back inside several times - each time by a different group of soldiers. They formed the impression that one group of soldiers did not know what the other was doing. Finally, at 8 A.M., the son was ordered to go out with the soldiers. An Israeli identified as an officer of the Shin Bet security service demanded that he look at three corpses that were lying on the side of street. Despite his protests, he was ordered to identify them. "I don't know them," he said.

As journalists and military spokespersons flooded the valley and the residents of the neighborhood huddled around the demolished houses, two Israel Defense Forces bulldozers began to uproot trees in the valley. Another ancient olive tree with thick roots was pulled up, and another slender peach tree; a few more grapevines vanished as if they had never existed.

A hand snatched my glasses

On Saturday afternoon an urgent call came through to the Christian Peacemaker Team (CPT) in the old city of Hebron. This is a group of Christian volunteers from various countries that has set as its aim peaceful intervention in places where there are crises and conflicts: Colombia, New York City, Iraq, Hebron. The members of the group, who live in the old city of Hebron, were asked to come and stay in the home of one of the families that live near the "worshipers' way." The members of the family knew that on Saturday evening the Jewish settlers from Kiryat Arba and Hebron were intending to hold a rally in the large plot of land in the northern part of the Wadi Nasara neighborhood, right at the exit from Kiryat Arba. From experience, they said, they knew that such events led to attacks on the houses. One family in the neighborhood had already hastened to flee from its small, old, isolated stone house, which is opposite the lot, and having no alternative, had to accept hospitality from the neighbors.

Thus, at 8 P.M., the members of the CPT found themselves in the midst of a mass of Israelis who had gathered there. They did not understand what the speakers were saying, and they did not know that the moderator repeatedly said: "We are calling upon people not to take the law into their own hands." They just watched dozens of children of the Jewish settlers as they spread out among the ruins of what had been, until that morning, a vineyard and groves, run toward the houses of the neighborhood and throw stones at the windows of the houses on the edges. They saw some of those soldiers mingling with them and trying to stop them from getting too close to the center of the dark neighborhood.

Later they saw a large group of police, who also came down into the valley where the trees had been uprooted. But they did not see that any of the police were trying to prevent teenage boys and girls and a few women from throwing stones at the windows and using sticks to break windows of houses and about 10 cars.

I asked some police who were sitting in a Jeep with the license plate 80-503 why they were not stopping the children from smashing windowpanes right at the corner, 10 meters away from them. "Thanks for reporting to us," they said, and slowly, one by one, they came out of the Jeep. Later it would turn out that their job was to protect the police photographer.

One of the women who passed by heard the question or guessed what the question had been and began to scream things like: "Bitch. She called the police. Where were you yesterday?"

She was joined by other women with a variety of curses. Other people began to crowd around and they were joined by more women, teenagers, all of them screaming, hitting out and pushing. The CPT people tried to intervene, but the circle grew tighter and the screaming increased.

Somebody grabbed my jacket, snatched my notebook and threw it up into the air. Others prevented me from picking it up. More people crowded around and one woman began to hit me. A man with a long, gray beard tried to calm her down and to explain to her that she was overwrought because of the massacre. He suggested that I get into a car and get out of there fast. A teenage girl secretly returned the notebook to me and disappeared quickly.

"Let's get her out of here, otherwise it will be bad," urged one woman.

A teenage boy was heard saying: "Let's grab her glasses."

The circle around me grew tighter. A hubbub of shouting and imprecations in sabra, Russian, American and French accents rose from the circle. Suddenly a hand reached out and snatched my glasses.

"Let's get her out of here," the woman continued to plead.

"Without glasses I can't leave," I said.

"Your glasses are gone. Forget about them," said someone. Twenty or 30 meters away stood dozens of soldiers and police. None of them showed up.

The CPT did all they could to calm the crowd down. Suddenly Channel One reporter Muki Hadar appeared. Somehow, his tall frame worked as a restraining influence. The circle began to grow looser. Only then could I safely reach the military Jeep that was parked opposite. Only then did representatives of the IDF show up, who suggested waiting until the people dispersed. A soldier suddenly held out a black plastic bag to me: One of the children had asked him to give it to "that woman." Inside it were my glasses. Broken.

"Wait" was also the delayed advice of the policeman, from whom only a direct appeal extracted a promise to "protect." One policeman passed the mission along to another who, in turn, as in a relay race, passed the mission of "protecting" along to a third policeman. Ultimately, when that third policeman got ready to ride a bus back home, made it clear that it was not his job to protect. "Go to the policeman who promised you protection," he said.

Until midnight, scores of inhabitants of Kiryat Arba remained in the valley, many of them boys and girls under the age of 18. A few teenage girls showed up with a bucket of paint and wrote "Am Yisrael hai" (the people of Israel lives) and "Vengeance" on the iron door of one of the neighborhood shops. In the houses in the Palestinian neighborhood, no one dared to sleep, from fear. They left the lights extinguished.