This trip is hardening my heart, and I am grateful for it.
Driving into Hebron, we went down what used to be the thriving economic center. Today, all the shops are closed, the locks welded shut. Stars of David were spraypainted on almost every door. No one was in sight.
Our first stop was a meeting with with David Wilder. A prominent leader of extremist settlers, Wilder claimed that Palestinians occupy Jewish Hebron. There are, according to Wilder, roughly 700 settlers living in Hebron, and 240,000 Palestinians. He claimed that settlers have access today to 3% of the city contained within four "Jewish neighborhoods." The basis of the conflict, for Wilder, is "100% religious".
Every adult on the compound carries on gun on their person. Wilder was the only person I spoke with. His discourse, like his weaponry, was straightforward, curt, and tense.
When asked the effects of the militarization of this settlement, he replied that "it's not bad." Wilder went on to posit that this lifestyle is "not something that has a negative effect on people."
This, however, was not my experience of Hebron as a whole. After our meeting with Wilder, we met with Issa, a representative of Youth Against Settlements, and a resident of Hebron. He took us on a walking tour of Hebron, which was almost cut short. We started by walking around a field, upon which settlers almost daily attack the farmers that work it.
After about thirty minutes, the police showed up and immediately hassled our guide, followed soon after by members of the IDF. (These soldiers, by the way, looked like they were about thirteen years old.) One of the policemen told Issa "I'm not a commander. I am a crazy. If you come here again I will shoot you. What are you going to do about it? This bus of tourists will leave. Then what are you going to do about it?"
And what could we do? We waited for a period, and then drove away. Thankfully, Issa met us down the street about twenty minutes later, and the tour continued.
There is no law in Israel that prohibits Issa, or any Palestinian, from driving down all the streets of Hebron. Unfortunately, Israeli Law is superceded by Settler Law. Issa does not dare walk down Shuhva St., for fear of being maimed or worse. Because this street is closed, people cannot get in to their houses through their front doors. One family on Shuhva St. has to climb a ladder up the back of their house and get in through a door in the roof.
Guard towers stand blatantly on many street corners, housing videocameras and snipers. Free to walk down Shuhva (and any other street they want) settlers smash windows, destroy water tanks, and throw stones. They are protected by the police and the military.
Worse, however, are the hidden settlements. Looking around the Hebron skyline, you'll notice flags, half red, half white, flying from several roofs. These are settlements. The process, as explained by Issa is as follows: the military occupies Palestinian homes for "security reasons," ousting the family. They raise the flag, and shortly thereafter, settlers go into the homes, and the military comes out.
Many of these homes are situated above a crowded Palestinian community, which has been pushed, quite literally, underground. We walked through a metal turnstyle, and found ourselves suddenly in a market, bustling and rich with colors and the smell of sewage. A chain link fence hung above where there was no roof to stop the litter and bricks thrown by settlers from hitting Palestinians in the head. In some parts, tarps were hung under the fence to protect the inhabitants from small bits of metal, water, and even urine - anything small enough to fit through the holes.
I have never seen poverty like this. Cincinnati is ranked third worst city to be in if you're homeless, and I have never seen so many children begging on the street.
Our guide was worried about future prospects of peace with this young generation. If the settlers are the only Jewish people that children from Hebron grow up seeing, they are, by default, the ambassadors of all Jewry. These children then learn that not only are the United States government, US NGOs, and US citizens paying for all of this, but that many of these settlers (Wilder included) were born and raised in the States.
Yet, Issa's anger never translated into hate. He was rational. "I would like to have Jewish neighbors," he said, "but they come and say it is Israel. I could not go into your neighborhood in the United States, hang up a Palestinian flag and say 'This is a Palestinian state and we have our own laws.'"
And he's right. This place has been the land of contradictions. I feel like I've gone down the rabbit hole.
It's about 3am, and I leave Palestine tomorrow evening after a meeting with the US Consulate.
Stay tuned for my reflections on: Bi'lin/Ni'lin, children + trauma, New Profile, Other Voice, the US Consulate, and future actions.