Sunday, 12 December 2010
Chapter 24 Hebron - part 1: a taste of occupation
It was still early morning when we were stopped at the check point leaving Nablus. The swarthy IDF soldier had a short conversation with our taxi driver in Arabic about the origin of some nature of equipment in the car. I was somewhat confused as to what he was referring to but was distracted by his well accented, note perfect Arabic.
‘Where are they from?’ asked the soldier waving his rifle in our general direction.
‘How should I know?’ responded the driver curtly. ‘Ask her. She speaks Arabic.’
‘Damn’ I think to myself as one of my friends murmurs ‘wow he outed you big time there,’ from the back seat of the van.
I open the window and look out, squinting in the sunlight.
‘Where are you all from?’
‘Around. America, Britain…’
He takes another look around the car and waves us through as I slouch back in my seat.
‘You know where he’s from?’ calls the servees driver to me, catching my eye in the rear view mirror.
‘Where?’ I respond, leaning forward to hear him above the wind, wishing I could get back to my nap.
I am snapped out of sleepy mode.
‘What? What do you mean?’
The driver and the man in the passenger seat began to explain as I took in the fact I had just been stopped at a checkpoint, in Palestine, by a Lebanese guy, with a gun, who was also an IDF soldier. Too much to take in at 8 am on my day off.
According to the two men, there are communities of Lebanese and Palestinian Druze living around the border with Lebanon. They are nationalized Israeli Arabs, are loyal to Israel and serve in the IDF.
They shook their heads in disappointment speaking of political game playing and Arab betrayal. They said by comparison, the Syrian Druze communities of the Golan Heights are also nationalized Israeli Arabs yet refuse to serve in the IDF and are loyal to Palestine.
‘You should have known he was Arab,’ chuckled the driver. ‘He only stopped the car because there were many girls in it. Everyone knows the Arabs like the girls. The Israelis, they stop the cars for security reasons. The Arabs are trying to get a phone number.’
Now I realized what the ‘equipment’ the soldier was referring to was.
The taxi driver then went on to give us a history of the check points themselves. They all date back to the days when the West Bank was under Jordanian military control in the 1950’s while many are even older going back to the Ottoman Empire or British Mandate.
We all take a minute to gaze at one as we pass by it in the car, thinking of the many different faces and nationalities that have manned them. Seems like they’ll always be there; focal points for oppression being meted out by ever changing sets of hands.
A continuous cycle of conflict.
We reach Ramallah and head over to find a servees to take us to Hebron, home to the Tomb of the Patriarchs (Abraham, Isaac, Jacob and wives); an important site in Islam, Christianity and Judaism.
In Hebron, settlers and Arabs inhabit the same space, divided and separated by chunks of walls and barbed wire. In theory, 80% is controlled by the Palestinian Authority and the other 20% by the IDF.
Since Abraham, it’s gone from one ruler to another. From the days of early Judaism through the Crusades to the Ottomans to British rule in the days of the mandate to the Egyptians in ’48 to Jordanian military rule shortly after and another change of leadership during the wars of ’67. Just to name a few.
We spent about four hours in Hebron. Not enough time to know anything. Barely enough time to see anything. Yet, it was the most intense day of my life.
The atmosphere of occupation is dense around you.
Walking through the market street you think how interesting that there is a blanket of chicken wire above you. How strange that there is so much garbage lying on top of it.
Then you remember the stories. Then you realize what you’re seeing.
Settlers living in the neighboring houses along the dividing line between the Jewish Quarter and the Arab section are notorious for throwing things out of their windows and off their roofs on to the Arabs below. These include, but are not exclusive to, empty glass bottles, old tyres, massive cement bricks which have torn through the wires, and any variety of unwanted goods and general trash.
The older part of town, next to the old market is incredibly run down. Bombed out building fronts with nothing behind them, tattered old shop signs and empty streets surround you. The dividing line is made up of buildings, clunks of walls with barbed wire fillers.
The Jewish Quarter was established in and around vacated Palestinian homes. Our short lived, self appointed tour guide told us the method of choice was throwing Molotov cocktails into the houses until residents left.
The Jewish Quarter is closed off and no Arabs are allowed in. Hence the disappearance of said tour guide.
We pass through a checkpoint and walk down the street of the old market – Shuhada Street – which has now become a settlement of mostly ultra orthodox Jews.
It feels deserted and, as we are walking down the middle of the road, Ciaran makes the apt observation that it is like walking through a post apocalyptic zombie land. We explore bombed out houses with broken down walls, climb into an abandoned watch tower and wander through streets that are deathly silent.
The Arab shopkeepers are long gone and the streets are lined with shops that haven’t been opened in years. In some cases vines have grown over them almost completely – hiding the doors from view.
We near the end of the street and notice a young boy sitting quietly holding on to a long blue rope. The other end of the rope is tied to a vegetable basket standing upright.
He is trying to catch a bird. Next to his feet are two forlorn birds in cages, waiting to be sold.