Tel Aviv Israel
Santa Barbara Calif
Hello from Hebron Palestine,
My old, poorly maintained bus looks like something salvaged from a junkyard. It needs paint. The seat covers are torn or missing. It does not appear to have been cleaned for quite some time and smells vaguely of Cardamom. The other passengers, mostly young men in casual or working clothes, keep up a constant chatter in Arabic... seemingly ignoring my presence. Time passes quickly and we reach the Hebron area in about an hour.
Getting off in the outskirts of town, I walk toward "city center." A friendly Arab storekeeper smiles at me. I smile back. "Welcome!" he says and we begin to chat in English. "Trouble? No trouble here, but in the center of the town there is trouble."
"Trouble" it turns out is code for the presence of unwelcome Jews in this nearly all-Muslim conservative community, which claims to be the home of the traditional gravesite of the prophet Abraham. "What kind of trouble?" I ask.
"Israel is taking Arab land for Jewish settlers. That's the trouble," he replies, elaborating at length. I thank him for sharing his insights and move on.
A little further along the road to town, another very Arab-looking man is standing in front of a building bearing a sign identifying it in English as the "Islamic Cultural Center." "Perfect!" I think and ask: "Do you speak English?"
He answered in spitting Arabic in a tone of voice and with body language that said: "What do you mean English? This is Arabia and I naturally speak Arabic!!!" I catch "Arabic" and "English" along with the sharp irritation in his voice. I smile and move on. As I walk I wonder what he might have told me, wonder if all my English-speaking informants might have a general bias not shared by their Arabic-speaking neighbors. Does speaking to foreigners somehow taint their perspective or dull their passions?
As I approached the "hot" central market district of town, a cold wind gusts as if to remind me of the chilling effect Israeli presence here has on the Muslims. Then, flying low and just under the speed of sound, an Israeli fighter zips over the center of town, reassuring the Jewish "settlers" and aggravating the majority Arab population; an unmistakable reminder of who is in charge here, militarily speaking. The lopsided military imbalance infuriates the Arabs, making them think of themselves as the underdogs.
Stopping to consider what I am feeling, I notice I am standing in front of an imposing structure marked "UNIVERSITY GRADUATES UNION." "What luck!" I think and wander in, not knowing what reception I might get. My first encounter is with the entry guard-receptionist, a 30 something male with middle eastern features, sitting at what appears to be a security desk. I stammer in English my desire to learn about the situation in Hebron and after a few moments of obvious non-comprehension he motions me to go on up the flight of stairs behind him.
At the top I find a long hall full of open doors. All of the offices contain mature men working intensely at their desks. One looks up and motions for me to come in. He greets me in cultured, but halting English and I quickly summarize my reasons for being in Hebron: I want to learn first hand from the people embroiled in the conflict itself what has led to this tragic situation and if there is any hope for a peaceful settlement. He asks and I answer that I am not a journalist, that I am just one of many ordinary Americans who is puzzled by the frequent news reports of ethnic, religious and political strife that has persisted in this region for so many generations. He is attentive and interested in my questions, but after a few minutes asks me to sit down and calls in one of his staff who offers me Arabic tea. He translates the young man's Arabic questions and then apologizes for his own poor English, adding that he is anxious to see that all my questions are answered and while the tea ritual is performed calls a colleague who appears almost instantly, followed by three other distinguished looking men all wearing ties; a couple in jackets.
Dr. Abdulqadir Jebarine approaches me and I stand to meet his greeting. Shaking hands with all five men now in the room, I turn to Dr. Jebarine who offers me his business card:
Dr. Abdulqadir Jebarine
As I study his card, the others offer theirs as well. My original host is director of the University Graduates Union here in this building. Another is Prof. Dr. Sufian Sultah, President of the Palestinian Environmental Authority under Yaser Arafat's appointed Palestinian National Authority governmental body. The others are volunteer instructors at a polytechnic college in the area. All speak a smattering of English, but only Jebarine is fluent and articulate. All seem to be moderate, rational men and interested in my self-assigned fact finding mission. I am comfortable with them and feel I will get honest, thoughtful answers to the difficult questions in my mind. I am right.
Carefully answering all my questions, Dr. Jebarine, with occasional interjections from the others, gives me an unvarnished lesson in the history(1) of religious, political and ethnic conflict in Hebron.
Prior to 1929, a large Jewish community of perhaps 500 people organized around the traditional gravesite of the Prophet Abraham, lived in relative harmony amidst the overwhelming Islamic majority. In that year, Muslim zealots massacred a large number of Jews and the others fled in terror. About ten years earlier, the British initiated their campaign to create a "Jewish Homeland" in Palestine. Now exclusively in Arab hands, the mosque structure grew into a vast market complex wrapped around the holy place of worship, the Abraham Mosque.
After the 1947 annexation of the West Bank (Palestine) by Israel, a trickle of idealistically motivated Jewish conservatives and ultraconservatives began moving back to the area. The new settlers arrogantly pressed what they considered their historical right to ownership of the area, predictably infuriating the Muslim majority. Arab frustration and irritation occasionally spilled over into violence with increasing frequency. The Israeli government responded by increasing the number of security personnel assigned to protect the settlers.
Jebarine points out that this is a very conservative Arab community, many long time residents are ultraconservative and intolerant of foreign views. This explosive mixture attracted the radicals of both sides: The Hamas and other radical arms of the Palestinian Liberation Organization on the Arab side, and the most idealistically motivated and radical ultra-orthodox on the Jewish side.
One day in 1994, a crazed (American born) Jewish extremist from among the settlers enclave, entered the Abraham Mosque while Muslim worshippers prayed and massacred several dozen men before one of the survivors killed him. The Arabs went berserk, rioting and attacking anyone on the street they thought might be Jewish. The Israeli government acted swiftly to contain the eminent Arab rampage and moved in massive military force to the area. Tight curfews and restricted Arab access to all parts of the Mosque-market complex effectively prevented what surely would have been a blood bath.
All of this new restriction on their freedom angered the Arabs, but the new Israeli limits on access to their Mosque for prayer particularly infuriated them. Then, the mosque complex was divided by the Israeli Security forces into a Muslim half and a Jewish half and barriers erected to minimize direct confrontation between the two groups. The Jewish settlers seized the opportunity and began developing their half, building an apartment complex that currently houses about 30 Jewish families (settlers) immediately adjacent to the old Muslim holy place dominated by the Mosque and completely surrounded by hostile Arab neighborhoods.
In an act that cannot be characterized as other than insensitive and provocative, the Jewish settlers erected a monument HONORING the martyrdom of the settler responsible for the mosque massacre. It doesn't take much imagination to see what effect this must have had on the Arabs. They were furious and the Israeli government had the monument moved out of the area.
At the same time, new feverish activity began to enlarge the existing Jewish settlement complex and another one a short distance from the town center was started. Work is in progress on both sites as I write this: "Ready mix" trucks rolled out every 15 minutes or so while I watched. Angry protests from the Arab community are continuous. Two young Israeli soldiers try to ignore defiant taunts of several teenage boys. The young soldiers are restrained and polite; the taunting boys are persistent. This scene is repeated with variations as I walk the lines of confrontation. I have no difficulty at all imagining the small groups of Arab kids frequently banding together and the taunts escalating to rock throwing altercations.
At one point I wandered far into an all-Arab neighborhood. Everything seemed more or less normal: kids returning home from school, an old lady hanging out the wash, a couple old men chatting on the steps of a war damaged stone house, the smoke from the small fire they tended momentarily stinging my eyes.
As I passed one group of elementary school age boys I smiled and said "hello" in English. They giggled and a couple scowled at me. About ten meters on down the street a small rock landed near my feet. I stopped and looked back at the boys who now seemed to be chiding one of their group. Suddenly all became friendly and wandered over in my direction, smiling, laughing, and making welcoming gestures sprinkled with English words like "hello" and "Welcome."
I continued on deeper into the neighborhood and farther and farther away from the heavily guarded market center. I planned to walk around the outskirts of town and return to the city center from a different direction. The twisty turny street layout and a labyrinth of tunnels and narrow passageways connecting streets soon had me completely disoriented. Lost and no longer sure which direction to walk I spotted a bunker up the hill to my left manned by three Israeli soldiers. All wore flak jackets and carried automatic weapons. Not wanting to retrace my steps the way I had come, I walked up to the bunker. One of the soldiers stepped out to meet me. He spoke good English and I explained my predicament asking for directions back to the market area. Pointing at an alleyway through the shells of buildings, obviously casualties of previous war activities, he explained how I could get to the middle of town only two blocks away.
As I started off in the indicated direction a spatter of Hebrew conversation among the three ended when the one who spoke English yelled that they would accompany me. "There probably is no real danger, but we have had some recent provocations in this area and it is no trouble at all for us to show you the way back." In all of my time in many areas where angry people confront one another, I have never been afraid or felt in personal danger. Now, walking through deserted streets surrounded by partially destroyed buildings and flanked by two soldiers carrying automatic weapons, I wondered what angry Arab kid might be hiding amidst the rubble out there, waiting to use his AK47 on one of the uniformed boys at my side. Fear tingled up my spine spreading out to my shoulders for the five minutes it took us to crest the hill and spot another Israeli military checkpoint. I thanked the two soldiers, snapped their picture and hurried back to the relative safety of plainly visible lines of confrontation where Israeli soldiers are vigilant and Arab citizens are openly resentful of the "foreign occupation forces."
A few days ago, an Arab sniper hidden in one of the houses overlooking the Israeli settlement buildings in the market area, fired several shots at the Jewish apartment buildings. The next day, angry Jewish settlers (under the watchful eyes of wary Israeli soldiers, no doubt) marched into the hillside Arab neighborhood where the shots had been fired. Jebarine notes that such incidents are a daily occurrence, and that every one of them is instigated by provocations thrown down by the idealistically motivated settlers. He admits that the majority here resent the Jewish presence and makes their resentment known in non-violent ways. It is only some particularly offensive provocation by the Jews that Arab anger shows itself in violence.
He repeats that the settlers are idealistically motivated; none work here and have jobs 30-60 minutes driving time away from their homes. "They think this is their land and want the Arabs kicked off it,” he says, shaking his head. Later, I note a sign erected over the Jewish settlement apartment building compound in the town center:
MARKET WAS BUILT
The sign is in both English and Hebrew. I wonder why they did not include an Arabic version.
Jebarine says Jewish children in the settlements are being trained to hate Arabs and supports this claim with the observation that everyday he sees Jewish children spitting on Arab adults. I find this hard to believe and tell him so. I see hurt in his eyes as he elaborates. Looking at his 4 colleagues also in the room, I ask if they too have seen such outrages. All agree and elaborate with Jabarine translating their lengthy comments. Later as I walked around the market area, one of the most picturesque I've seen in the Middle East, I watched carefully for any sign of such abuse. I saw none during my hour of wandering the market compound. There were plenty of resentful looks aimed in my direction, but these were far outnumbered by friendly greetings and reactions that are so characteristic of Arab merchants all over the region.
During my time in the center of town I saw a conspicuously dressed orthodox Jewish elder being escorted through the streets by four Israeli soldiers. Later, two giddy British journalists hopped around like kids in their first candy store, snapping pictures every time they paused, all under the watchful eyes of their four security guards. As far as I could tell, the Arabs completely ignored both groups.
Perhaps one day I'll find the time and motivation to add to these preliminary comments. There is much more to tell about my 1998 day in Hebron.
See a comprehensive outline of the "History of the Arab Israeli Conflict" at this (need new link).
Page last maintained 1 May 2002 Peace Fred L Bellomy
Fred L Bellomy