“Processing Hebron”

My first priority was to write about my spontaneous trip to Ramallah this past weekend; but, you know… life got in the way and the next thing you know I’m crossing that imaginary Green Line into the West Bank yet again. That’s twice in one week, this time on an organized trip to Hebron. Ramallah later, for now I just wanted to make a quick note about how frustrating this country can be.

The particular history of Hebron was new to me, considering its special place to both Jews and Muslims alike. But unlike Jerusalem or settlements in other areas of the West Bank and Gaza Strip, the conflict in Hebron is more about religious conviction than national identity, not surprisingly creating more of a balagon (בלגן) than anyone is equipped to understand or handle. A brief history of Hebron can be found via wikipedia (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Hebron), but for my purposes here I will reduce the narrative to the two sides of the story I was presented with.

The first half of the day we had a walking tour of the H2 district of Hebron (the Jewish area and center of the city) with sterilized streets (Arabs not allowed) and the location of the holy burial site of the Patriachs and Matriachs of Judaism (including Abraham, making it holy to Muslims and Jews alike). The tour was led by an IDF soldier from an organization called Breaking the Silence, whose aim is to illustrate IDF brutality during the more tumultuous times in the shared city, and specifically to emphasize the inhumane ways the lively Palestinian market space has turned into a ghostown. I must admit, the center of Hebron looked like a Los Angeles movie set, with only a few Arab boys aggressively selling bracelets to tourists before an armed IDF soldier makes them scatter back behind a fence. Palestinian families living in homes, where the front door is bolted shut to avoid “de-sterilizing” the street, if someone chose to walk out their front door. An Arab cemetery on the other side of Shuhada Street created the ambiance for the beginning to a True Blood episode or some other gothic tale of biblical vampires and woe perfect for Halloween, but the sweltering heat and presence of armed IDF soldiers, barricades with “Free Israel” and “Arabs not allowed, this is apartheid street” graffiti made the reality of it all seem too surreal to grasp. It was clear that it was July, the year, however, was not so easily discernible. After an ideological lunch (a choice between purchasing falafel from the Arab stand or burekas from the Jewish restaurant), we met with a settler, who has been living in Hebron for over 20 years. He gave us a quick overview of the Jewish history of the city, citing it as the “the holiest city” for Jews second only to Jerusalem. His Zionist ideology brought him into conflicted land, into Hebron, because he believes that ALL Jews must live in Israel. He justified his individual place in the larger context of things with biblical proof, of history in context, that “we” belong here and “they” want to kill us. He made sure to undermine Palestinian national identity – which, in my opinion, only strengthens “their” argument – as well as the impossibility of a two-state solution. He didn’t really answer questions we posed to him, directly or indirectly, but he made his point very clear.

I’m grateful for the experience of being able to come to a microcosmic city, which illustrates so well the larger Arab/Palestinian-Israeli conflict that plagues the rest of Israel and its territories. I am happy to listen to people’s opinions on the matter, even if there is no justification besides personal ideology and conviction (which, in some cases suffices to convince me, but not here); However, I truly believe that nothing productive can come out of looking to the past to try and change a situation that is in dire need of recitation. The old methods are not working, the goal is clear to everyone and we all share the same will to make this world a better place and not live in fear, but the methodology of both sides is something I cannot stand behind. I am left with a feeling of more confusion than 24hrs prior and a clearer understanding of how hopeless the situation is.

One thing I am sure of, the names of things matter enormously:  “Change the name, change the identity,” the settler said, which is one thing I was able to agree with (see previous post about names in Israel). Under the British Mandate, before Israeli independence in 1948, the land of milk and honey was called “Palestine”, before this name suggested the identity of an Arab in the Jewish state of Israel, it was just something to call the geographic region between the Mediterranean Sea and Jordan River. There was no Israel v. Palestine, there was just Jews and Arabs living in a land called “The Holy Land” or “The Southern Levant”. For more Palestinian etymology. Before Israeli independence in 1948, there was no Palestinian identity, as we know it now; However, the more Zionism becomes an antiquated notion in the modern political sphere, the stronger this Palestinian national identity becomes. The conflict is no longer about religion alone, it is about territory, it is about alliance to a group, it is about ideology, and national identity. The more settler’s I come in contact with and the more I learn about Zionism and they way it is practiced today, the more I see a clear distinction between Arabs and Israelis as nations. The existence of a Jewish state is of monumental importance now as it was in 1948, but the ongoing concept of Zionism is not productive or healthy for any party involved. This concept involves looking backwards instead of forward (very similar to the way Palestinians refer to Israeli Independence day as the Nabka – Day of Catastrophe). What good is it getting anyone to keep dwelling over a past that cannot be changed?

Bradley Burston’s opinion in Haaretz Newspaper last week, argued that Zionism as a movement, has already achieved it’s goals – that of creating a Jewish State. Israel exists, Baruch Hashem! But what exactly is this “ism” doing for the state of Israel today? What good is coming out of this settler movement except igniting more hostility from Palestinians, which just leads to more violence and more casualties on both sides. I get it, keep the violence at bay, push it as far back to the outskirts of the big cities as possible to keep more people safe. It’s all very strategic, but it’s not working and Palestinian national identity – that of anger and frustration – keeps growing, brewing, and boiling over.

    There is no cohesive beginning or end to this rant, much like the situation itself. But, for now, Processing Hebron will have to be just that – a process.

“I must studiously and faithfully unlearn a great many things I have somehow absorbed concerning Palestine.” — Mark Twain


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