Monthly Archives: December 2013

If you only knew…

…now you do.

“The arc of the moral universe is long but it bends towards justice.”

This quote is from Martin Luther King. In my three months in Hebron I thought of it many, many times as I walked around seeing all of the injustices that are done there.

I also thought: if only more people knew what really goes on there then surely things would change.

When I witnessed some of the things that I did, one of my first thoughts afterwards was always: how do I tell people this? How can I explain what it is like to see these almost unbelievable things happening before your eyes? How do I explain what the Israeli army’s occupation does: the daily humiliation that it inflicts upon so many Palestinians?

There are so many things I saw and experienced there that I haven’t told you about in my writing. I haven’t told you about the enormous checkpoints at Bethlehem and Tarqumiya and Qalandiya where thousands of Palestinians have to squash into barred walkways that resemble large cages as part of their journey to work each day (although I made a short film from the Bethlehem checkpoint which you can view here).

p://melaniecward.files.wordpress.com/2013/12/img_1137.jpg”> Palestinians queue to go to work beneath the separation wall at checkpoint 300 in Bethlehem at 4.41 am on 4 November 2013

[/caption]I haven’t told you about the barbarism of the house demolitions. I haven’t told you properly about the separation wall and how it cuts up lives. I haven’t told you about the problems with water and how I met Palestinians who get running water once a month yet they live right next to the irrigated lawns of the Israeli settlement of Kiryat Arba.

melaniecward.files.wordpress.com/2013/12/img_1033.jpg”> Ahmed, a Palestinian, telling me about his family’s trouble with access to water – they collect all they can in the canisters around us. Behind, the Israeli settlement of Kiryat Arba has irrigated lawns even in the summer heat[/caption]I ha

I haven’t told you of the problems in East Jerusalem where the Israeli authorities are trying to reduce the Palestinian population to 20% by 2020. Or the true impact of the dual legal system in the West Bank, where the Israeli authorities apply civil law to Israeli settlers but military law to Palestinians.  Or the farcical yet terrible proceedings at the Israeli military court in Ofer where I saw Palestinian children shackled at the ankles and handcuffed to each other.

There are two peoples’ stories which, for me, help to express the situation there. They are the stories of an Israeli and a Palestinian, both in their 80’s and born one year apart.

The first is a Jewish woman called Esther* who I met in Haifa. Esther was born in 1933 in Hungary and, as a little girl, she and her family had to hide from Hitler’s Nazis. Surviving this, in 1949 she fled the Soviet Union authorities in the dead of night and travelled for two weeks without her parents. Finally she made it to the safety of the newly created state of Israel. She has been an Israeli citizen ever since, and raised her own family there. I enjoyed lunch with Esther and her family on the beach in Haifa.

The second is a Palestinian man called Abd who I met in Hebron. Abd was born in 1932 in what was then British Mandate Palestine. He worked as a shepherd and survived British and then Jordanian rule in his homeland. In 1968, after the 1967 war when the Israeli army occupied the West Bank, soldiers set up camp near his home on a hillside in Wadi al Ghrous, Hebron. After a while the soldiers’ tents were replaced by the caravans of Israeli settlers. This became the huge settlement of Kiryat Arba in Hebron, now home to around 8000 Israeli settlers. All settlements are illegal under international law. The expansion of Kiryat Arba saw it move closer and closer towards the home of Abd and his family.

Then one day twelve years ago, the Israeli army came and demolished Abd’s home, citing “security reasons” – this often happens to Palestinians who have the misfortune to live near expanding settlements. Only the rubble remains.

.files.wordpress.com/2013/12/img_0450.jpg”> The remains of Abd’s house, demolished by the Israeli army. The settlement of Kiryat Arba stands in the background

When they came t

[/caption]When they came to destroy his home, a soldier pushed Abd, breaking his arm. Abd and his wife then lived in a bus on the land next to their demolished home for ten years. When I met Abd he was ill and still unable to use his arm, which has never healed properly from the injuries he sustained the day his house was demolished. Abd is deeply pessimistic about the future, “There will be more wars unless God intervenes to help us.”

es.wordpress.com/2013/12/img_0444.jpg”> The bus where And and his wife lived for 10 years after their home was demolished by the Israeli army

Both Esther and Abd

[/caption]Both Esther and Abd have stories that could make you weep with sadness. Esther’s best friend, who she fled Hungary with, went on to have a daughter who is now a leader of the settlers – the people whose behaviour has led to Abd’s misery.

Why does Esther’s safety have to mean Abd’s tragedy?

Esther and her son Shlomo*, also an Israeli, told me that it doesn’t. Shlomo was disgusted by the behaviour of the settlers. He told me that sometimes they are as bad as Palestinian militant organization Hamas. But Shlomo said that achieving peace would not be as complicated as it is often presented to be, “Everyone knows what the basics of a peace deal look like. The question is whether they want it.”

A just peace and the end of the Israeli occupation of Palestinian territory may seem very far away. But there is something that each of us can do to help bring that day closer. On the ground in Hebron, my Palestinian friends in Youth Against Settlements including Badia, Issa, Abed and Murad constantly find new ways to non-violently resist the attempts to force them from their homes in H2. They recently succeeded in renovating a building to become a kindergarten for over 20 Palestinian children.

ss.com/2013/12/img_1273.jpg”> A little Palestinian girl plays at the new kindergarten established in H2, Hebron by Youth Against Settlements

Israeli soldiers and settlers

[/caption]Israeli soldiers and settlers tried to stop their work some 15 times but the Palestinians succeeded nonetheless. This kindergarten is now one of Youth Against Settlements’ own facts on the ground in H2.

om/2013/12/img_4747.jpg”> The view of Israeli settlement Beit Haddassah from the new kindergarten

Israeli activists from Ta’ayush (w

[/caption]Israeli activists from Ta’ayush (which means living together) risk arrest every Saturday to support and protect Palestinians from Israeli soldiers and settlers whilst they do simple tasks like picking olives and grazing their sheep in the West Bank. One of the Ta’ayush activists, a university lecturer in Classics, told me that he had been arrested by the Israeli authorities more than 40 times for what he does at the weekend.

013/12/0a.jpg”> Israeli Ta’ayush activist Yair playing with 3 year old Palestinian boy Lyth at the olive harvest in Susiya, South Hebron Hills[/caption]In the face of such acts the things th

In the face of such acts the things that we, who are not in Israel and Palestine, can do to help bring about change seem small – but they are no less important.

You can email your MP and ask them to write to the Foreign Secretary to help stop new settlements in Hebron.

You can be careful about what you buy in the supermarket: new guidance from the British government and EU means that products which come from Israeli settlements now have to be labeled as such. You can choose not to buy these, and tell your supermarket manager why you are doing this.

Look out for labels like this in the supermarket. This one is from dates sold by Tesco

ettlement-label1.jpg”> Look out for labels like this in the supermarket. This one is from dates sold by Tesco[/caption]You can tell your friends, family, colleagues
You can tell your friends, family, colleagues and community about what is going on – point them to this blog or the thousands of other sources available on the internet.

All of these things will help to build up the pressure for change.

When I was out there in Hebron, I thought that if only you knew then you would do something.

Now you do know.

So what will you do?

*not their real name

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You destroy the soldier himself

“You destroy the soldier himself”

A little Palestinian boy faces Israeli soldiers in the Old City of Hebron

A little Palestinian boy faces Israeli soldiers in the Old City of Hebron

That was the response of Munir, a Palestinian who is faced with Israeli soldiers at the checkpoint opposite his shop in Hebron every day, when I asked him how he thought being in Hebron must affect the soldiers.

I have had so many encounters with Israeli soldiers during my time in Hebron – it is impossible not to due to the intensity of the military occupation.

Israeli soldiers in violent clashes with Palestinian youth in H1 in Hebron city centre

Israeli soldiers in violent clashes with Palestinian youth in H1 in Hebron city centre

I have passed the time of day and talked with some of them about what we are each doing here. Some have told me of their boredom, that they would much rather be on the beach. One helped keep a stray dog away from Palestinian school children who were frightened and I thanked him. Another told the police to leave me alone when they were harassing me about where in the street I was standing during the school run, and I thanked him too.

They have also spat at me, shouted at me, threatened to arrest me and called me stupid in Hebrew and a “sharmoota” (“whore” in Arabic). I have refused to follow their orders to move or stop taking photos. I have watched heavily armed soldiers throw stun grenades, and tasted the tear gas they shoot at Palestinian children on their way to school in response to small stones being thrown at their checkpoint. I have seen them harass and detain Palestinians trying to go about their lives, push kids for “facing the wrong direction” as Israeli settlers walk past, and arrest children. I have watched them laughing and joking many times in situations that are far from funny – most recently in the aftermath of an extremely serious attack by Israeli settlers against a Palestinian family.

An Israeli soldier fires tear gas at Palestinian children on their way to school after small stones were thrown at a fence near checkpoint 29 in Hebron

An Israeli soldier fires tear gas at Palestinian children on their way to school after small stones were thrown at a fence near checkpoint 29 in Hebron

I have come to know some of the Givati Brigade of the Israeli army, currently serving in Hebron, by sight and a few by name. You can often tell how many schoolbags will be searched or Palestinians detained for ID checks by who is on duty. Almost without fail, the local Palestinians say that their treatment on a given day depends on the mood of the soldiers. I have often wondered what must be going through their minds and wished that I could talk to them properly about what they think. Amidst the tension and violence of Hebron, this is normally impossible.

Palestinian children on their way home from Cordoba School encounter a group of Israeli soldiers at the bottom of the school steps

Palestinian children on their way home from Cordoba School encounter a group of Israeli soldiers at the bottom of the school steps

One Friday night settlers blockaded a Palestinian family’s gateway and stopped them from leaving their home at Tel Rumeida in Hebron. I asked the nine watching Israeli soldiers to please help. They wouldn’t. One of them, whose name is Kawalski*, said “everything is fine.” 34 Israeli settlers were stopping a Palestinian family from walking down the street and thus from entering or leaving their home. Many of the settler children were shouting abuse, hitting our cameras and spitting at us.

An Israeli settler child hits my camera during the incident when settlers blockaded Palestinians in their home, and went on to attack us. Soldiers stand stand by in the background

An Israeli settler child hits my camera during the incident when settlers blockaded Palestinians in their home, and went on to attack us. Soldiers stand stand by in the background

They went on to throw two buckets of water at us, followed by a bucket of bleach. It was an awful scene and I cannot see how he could have thought it was fine.

Most of the soldiers in Hebron are young, ranging from 19-22 years old, and are conscripted into military service for three years. This is compulsory with a few exceptions, so most of them have not made a positive choice to be in the army. Yet in Israeli society there is real kudos attached to being a combat soldier like those in Hebron – just take a look at the Israel Defense Forces Facebook page. Only a tiny minority ever refuse to serve and spend time in prison as a result. Kawalski, the soldier on that Friday night, must be no more than 22 years old. After the incident, I wondered a lot about his “everything is fine” comment and thought maybe it was actually his internal reasoning – him trying to persuade himself it was all ok and he was in control (he most definitely was not).

An Israeli soldier gives first aid to our journalist colleague after refusing to intervene in a situation which culminated in the settlers throwing bleach in her eyes

An Israeli soldier gives first aid to our journalist colleague after refusing to intervene in a situation which culminated in the settlers throwing bleach in her eyes

Later, when he called an ambulance for my colleague after the attack on us that he had failed to prevent, he must have been forced to acknowledge that everything had not been fine.

Israeli soldiers tell a young Palestinian boy he is not allowed to ride his bike in H2 in Hebron. Israelis can drive on this street but Palestinian are not allowed to

Israeli soldiers tell a young Palestinian boy he is not allowed to ride his bike in H2 in Hebron. Israelis can drive on this street but Palestinian are not allowed to

Thousands of settlers and their supporters came to Hebron recently for Shabbat Chayei Sarah, which commemorates Sarah of biblical times, who is buried in Hebron. It was a difficult weekend, with heightened tensions and violence. Movement restrictions were even tighter than usual – the Ibrahimi Mosque and nearby Palestinian shops were forcibly closed. Most of Shuhada Street, which Palestinians are never allowed to walk down, was closed to my colleagues and I as well – “Jews only” as the enforcing soldier told me. Extra soldiers drafted into H2 checked the ID of Palestinian men every 50 metres.

Me intervening to stop Israeli soldiers harassing young Palestinians who were sitting on a wall chatting as Israeli settlers walked past on Shabbat Chayei Sarah

Me intervening to stop Israeli soldiers harassing young Palestinians who were sitting on a wall chatting as Israeli settlers walked past on Shabbat Chayei Sarah

I was patrolling with a colleague and we went to an area with a few Palestinian homes and many settlers nearby. I felt nervous because large groups of settlers, some armed and some drunk, are not normally a great thing to encounter. A Palestinian family was harvesting olives on a hill where many settlers were hanging around. We checked if the family was ok and sat down under a tree, hoping to deter the settlers from coming to bother them, throw things at them etc (there was a fence between us and the Palestinians so we couldn’t help with the olives). A couple of Israeli soldiers were standing nearby.

After a bit, a group of male settlers tried to make their way towards us and I stood up, worried about what would happen next. But rather than standing back and letting them come over, the soldier stepped in the way and asked the settlers to leave. They did. I had never seen such a thing before and, when the settlers had moved away, I thanked the soldier. “Don’t worry” he said. Shortly after, a second group of settlers tried to come and the soldier and his colleague again turned them away. After this the soldiers came to ask if we were ok. I was slightly stunned that they were looking out for us and for the Palestinians. I thanked them both and said that we would move on soon. They told us there was no need for us to leave and not to worry, they would make sure everything was ok with the Palestinians. This was the opposite of what I am used to in Hebron, where the soldiers will often do whatever they can to get rid of us, and simply stand by as settlers harass and attack Palestinians. The first soldier told me that his name was Yossi* and he was not normally based in Hebron.

Later, when there were no settlers watching, I bumped into Yossi again. I asked him if he understood what I was doing there. “You want peace” he said, and told me that he wanted peace too. He told me that after my colleague and I had gone, the settlers had pushed him and thrown stones at him. He was astonished by this and couldn’t understand it. I asked what he knew about Hebron – not much. His orders that day had been to keep the Jewish and the Palestinians apart. I told him what it is like in Hebron – the settler violence, the soldiers refusing to help, the clashes, and showed him pictures. It was all news to him. “It’s good that you are telling me this, I will tell my commander”, he said. I really appreciated this but told him I didn’t think it would help – his commander was 24 years old and decisions about what happens in Hebron are made high up in military and political circles. None of those in charge will be unaware of what actually goes on in Hebron.

Yossi told me that he loved being in the army. He told me that he loved his gun. “Why do you love your gun?!” I asked him, “It’s for killing people.” “No!” he said, “I love target practice, I don’t want to kill anyone.” “But why do you think they give you a gun?!” I asked. I learned that Yossi was 19 years old. He seemed like a good, decent young man and I believed him when he said he wanted peace and didn’t want to kill anyone. But, as I have previously written about other discussions I’ve had with Israelis, I was surprised by his lack of understanding about the facts of the conflict he is part of. I asked him to keep being nice to the Palestinians and he told me to take care in Hebron.

My encounter with Yossi really made me think. That I was so surprised at his fair conduct says a lot about the norm for soldiers in Hebron.

An Israeli soldier detains Palestinian boys aged 8 and 10 years. Photo by Maria Schaffluetzel

An Israeli soldier detains Palestinian boys aged 8 and 10 years

I wonder how it comes to be that so many of the young soldiers behave in the morally unacceptable ways I have so often observed or seen evidence of: arresting children and beating them up; demolishing Palestinian houses with bulldozers and then preventing tents and emergency aid from being delivered; even deliberately shooting innocent people, as veterans’ organisation Breaking the Silence has documented. Sometimes they will be following their orders in doing these things, and sometimes not. Mohaned, a 13 year old from the town of Beit Ummar, told me how soldiers raided his house at 3am, blindfolded and arrested him wearing only his underwear. He was held for 10 days, in which he was slapped, hit with the butt of a rifle, beaten and then released.

An 11 year old Palestinian boy arrested by Israeli soldiers in Hebron

An 11 year old Palestinian boy arrested by Israeli soldiers in Hebron

Surely it is important to ask how young men, most of whom start off as normal, decent guys like Yossi, end up doing these things?

On a day off I visited the Golan Heights and got talking to some soldiers about their jobs. One of them said that they themselves had been discussing these issues, “Some of us were talking – we are children and they give us guns.” I met another soldier in Haifa, Israel. He was 23 years old and had previously served in the Golani Brigade in Hebron. He recalled an army education week when there had been a discussion about putting the heads of dead Palestinians on poles. He had been in the minority 20:1 to say that such things were wrong. Another former Golani soldier simply refused to speak about what he had done when he served in the army.

A Palestinian looks out of his window to find armed Israeli soldiers using the roof of his home in Al Arrub refugee camp near Hebron

A Palestinian looks out of his window to find armed Israeli soldiers using the roof of his home in Al Arrub refugee camp near Hebron

My friend Sam Lebens is an Israeli-British Jew who I got to know in our student days. After my blog about my some of my experiences in Israel, he emailed me saying, “I think another big reason why it’s hard to convince Israelis about what’s going on in the territories is that almost every Israeli knows somebody who serves in the territories… it’s hard for us to believe that they are monsters.”

His use of the word “monster” really stuck with me. I don’t believe the soldiers are monsters – perhaps with a few exceptions, as with all people. But sometimes they end up doing monstrous things on a regular basis. They are born into a system which takes apparently normal teenagers and seemingly trains them to behave in these ways.

One soldier who served in Hebron told Breaking the Silence, “In Hebron, I was disturbed and frightened most of all by the unregulated and uncontrolled power, and the things it made people do.” Another said, “Another thing that has stayed with me from Hebron? I think of myself as a little injured maybe, I don’t know. Not physically injured. More emotionally injured.”

Rather than monsters, I think it makes the young soldiers part of the tragedy of the conflict. I am pretty sure that it will damage them too, that they will suffer in the long run. Aside from the terrible harm that the military occupation does to the Palestinians, I am sure that Israel also hurts itself and its own young people in what it does. What kind of society, what kind of country, will Israel end up as?

Avraham Shalom is in a position to know. He led the Shin Bet, the Israeli intelligence service, between 1980-86 and in the film The Gatekeepers he says,

“We have become cruel. To ourselves as well, but mainly to the occupied population.” The Israeli army has become “a brutal occupation force.”

*Not his real name

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In Hebron, you don’t ask “why?”

National Israeli newspaper Haaretz published an article by me about Hebron on 11 December 2013. It is online at http://www.haaretz.com/mobile/.premium-1.562723. Here is the text of the article:

In Hebron, you don’t ask ‘why?’

Three months of living in Hebron taught me what goes on there makes no sense, either for Israel’s security or for the Palestinians who live there.

In my first few days working as a Human Rights Observer in Hebron, I kept looking for logic in the things I saw. I quickly learnt to stop. “Don’t ask why,” seemed to be the mantra of many of the people there.

I first visited Israel nearly 10 years ago with the UK’s Union of Jewish Students. I’m not Jewish but was a student leader in Scotland and worked closely with UJS. It was just after the second intifada and the palpable fear of suicide bombings that hung in the air has stayed with me. The visit was special because for the first time I felt connected to part of my own history – my great-grandfather was a Polish Jew who, my family believes, was killed in the Holocaust. Walking in the Valley of the Communities at Yad Vashem was especially emotional.

After a second visit that again focused on Israeli perspectives, particularly on the conflict with the Palestinians, I decided to see the West Bank for myself. I was shocked at how it differed from what I had heard in Israel. The military occupation caused enormous disruption to everyday Palestinian life, and further visits deepened my sense that something was very wrong. That was how it came to be that I have just spent three months working in Hebron, deep inside the occupied Palestinian territory, with the Ecumenical Accompaniment Program in Palestine and Israel.

I had briefly visited Hebron itself twice before and – despite its being holy to Jews, Muslims and Christians – it was the strangest place I had ever been. Under the Oslo Accords, Hebron was divided into H1, controlled by the Palestinian Authority, and H2, controlled by Israel. H2 houses around 500 Israeli settlers, protected by hundreds of Israeli soldiers, alongside 30,000 Palestinians. Many of the settlers are religious extremists who do not shirk from using violence and intimidation in their oft-stated aim of ridding Hebron of Palestinians.

As Hanna, an Israeli in Jerusalem, told me, “Hebron is impossible to understand.” What goes on makes no sense, neither for Israel’s security services nor for the Palestinians who live there. Heavily armed soldiers on the street; frequent detentions and arrests of Palestinians, including children; 122 road and other closures, including the banning of Palestinian cars, and even Palestinians walking on what used to be the busiest street in the city – at one point a soldier told me Shuhada Street was “Jews only.”

I learned that harassment of Palestinians is routine. I witnessed, for example, a Palestinian man called Zidan detained for two hours for taking biscuits to a kindergarten. They obviously didn’t set off the checkpoint metal detector but soldiers wanted him to open every individual packet, ruining the lot.

I kept asking: Why?

British-born Israeli friends said the criminal behavior of many of the Hebron settlers would see them in prison if they lived in the UK. Having witnessed their actions almost every day for three months, words cannot express my bafflement at why Israel sends its army to protect them.

On Shabbat Chayyei Sarah, October 2013, settlers attacked the Palestinian Al Khamerie family as they were taking sweets home with their four-year-old daughter and disabled son. The group of settlers called others to “come and attack the Arabs.” The parents, Mohammed and Ramsina, were hospitalized; Ramsina has still not recovered. Soldiers were there but did not prevent the attack and on their release from hospital the victims were threatened with arrest by the Israeli police unless they attended the police station for questioning.

Another Friday night, settlers from Tel Rumeida in Hebron blocked the Palestinian Azzeh family from entering or leaving their home. Neither the police nor the nine watching soldiers responded to our requests for intervention. A settler child then threw a bucket of bleach at us, directly into my colleague’s eyes. She had to go to hospital and later made an official complaint to the police. Rather than act to bring the perpetrators to justice with the help of the IDF witnesses, the police next day arrested a fellow international who had been injured by the same settlers. Watching settlers cheered.

If the justification for what goes on in Hebron is Israel’s security, then I can only say that, from the bottom of my heart, what happens there – especially to the young people – makes Israel less secure.

One recent Sunday, a couple of 12-year-old Palestinian schoolboys threw pebbles at the fence by checkpoint 29 (I say ‘pebbles’ advisedly – I have also witnessed rocks being thrown by both Israelis and Palestinians – this was very different.) Israeli soldiers quickly advanced in full combat gear, threw a stun grenade and then fired tear gas at the children. The tear gas went into the school playground. Dozens of terrified smaller children huddled next to me.

I asked the soldiers why this was a sensible response. There was no answer.

While I was there, Gal Kobi, a 20-year-old soldier from Haifa, was sadly shot and killed in Hebron: A terrible waste of a young life. I imagined a debate might ensue in the Israeli media as to why that young man had been sent there by his government in the first place. But it did not.

Aside from the danger to their lives, I wonder what effect it must have on the young Israelis who are sent to protect the extremist settlers of Hebron. I don’t believe that these young men, sent to Palestinian land to use weapons against children, detain people twice their age for carrying biscuits and stand idly by as people are attacked and hospitalized, will walk away undamaged from such experiences.

Why does Israel think that what goes on in Hebron is in its best interests? Why are ordinary Israelis willing to send their sons and daughters to be soldiers in places like Hebron?

I walked away from Hebron feeling like I am one of the only people asking these questions. I ask out of genuine engagement and concern, as someone who has seen and heard both sides over the years. Despite the self-harm, it seems that too many Israelis prefer not to ask why.

I hope I am mistaken, but if you too think it sounds like there is something wrong, maybe you will join me in asking: “Why?”

Melanie Ward is from Scotland, studied at the University of Stirling and the School of Oriental and African Studies, and works for a global anti-poverty charity in London. She lived in Hebron for three months in late 2013 when working as a Human Rights Observer with EAPPI. She blogs at http://www.melanieward.org and tweets @melanie_ward

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