At the end of another great week here in Israel. Here is the run-down:
- Very late this past Monday night, rockets were fired from Lebanon into the north of Israel. It is believed that they were fired by Islamic Jihad. Thankfully, there were no deaths or severe injuries, but there was some major property damage. The Israeli government came out with a warning the next day against continued strikes. We will have to see what happens with the situation.
- On Tuesday this past week, my Comparative Religion class had the privilege to go to Hebron. Before I delve deeper into this topic, I need to provide some background information. There are a lot of people in the international community who make the claim that Israel is a racist state, due to certain measures taken during the conflict with the Palestinian minority. Living here, I can tell you with full confidence that this accusation is a lie. When I go to volunteer at Ammunition Hill, I have to ride on the newly constructed and opened light rail, which goes past the Damascus Gate, the primary gate of the Muslim Quarter of the Old City and very close the area known as East Jerusalem. When I ride this light rail, I ride next to both religious and secular Muslims, Christians, and Jews, be they Israeli citizens or not. In three months of making this ride four times a week, I have never seen any signs of friction or discomfort among the people on the train. This issue is complicated, but what I can tell you all is that there is no wish among the majority of Israelis that measures such as the building of the security barrier in the West Bank or the closing of Gaza’s borders are done to oppress the Palestinian people. The Israelis on the ground here do not hate Palestinians. Anyone who doubts this fact can look up the myriad of polls that show that despite all that has happened in this country, an overwhelming majority of Israelis still want peace.
But there must be at least one example of at least one place in Israel where the tensions among the populace are so high, that the feelings are so extreme, that the precautions taken to try to protect people end in oppressive actions. If this were not true, then the accusation would have zero evidence, and no one would believe it, which is not the case. And unfortunately, that one example of that one place is a city in Israel called Hebron.
So, what is Hebron? Conveniently, those of you who follow the Parashat Torah (Torah Portions) every week should already know. Hebron, in biblical times, was a minuscule village in the Hills of Judaea, and nearby were a large number of caves. The people of that time commonly used it as a mausoleum, because back then, a cave was a nice place to bury a deceased relative, since the grave would be kept safe from the elements. Because of its prime real-estate status, Abraham, a major patriarch in Judaism, bought a cave near Hebron called Hama’arat Hamachpelah for 400 pieces of silver (quite a lot back then), because his wife, Sarah, died. Sarah was buried in this cave, along with Abraham when he died, Abraham’s son Isaac, Isaac’s wife Rebecca, Isaac’s son Jacob, and Jacob’s wife Leah. These six figures are crucial characters in the story of the Jewish people, making this cave, known today as the Cave of the Patriarchs in English, the second most holy site in the world for Jews (and if you know anything about Islam, you can probably see where I am going with this). As the bible goes, when the Israelites left Egypt and came to the land now known as Israel, the Israelites re-populated Hebron and used the surrounding caves as premium mausoleum, not unlike the Mount of Olives today. Then, of course, came the Diaspora (when the Romans scattered the Jews all over the globe), and the last Jews left. Eventually, when Islam took over the land, Hebron turned into a very large Islamic city, because Islam is also very closely linked to Abraham, although it is through Ishmael, his son through Hagar. Many religious Muslims wanted to live near and pray near the grave of one of their major patriarchs. Thinking the same way, some Jews returned to Hebron in the 1800s, and the communities actually coexisted very well until 1929, when 67 Hebron Jews were killed by Arabs. In 1948, after Israel declared its independence, the remaining Jews fled, fearing the invading Jordanian Army. But Hebron was taken back by Israel in the 1967 Six Day War, by then as the second-largest city in the West Bank. After a time, some extremist religious Jews decided to start a settlement in the center of the city, mainly geared towards trying to maintain a Jewish prescence near the Cave of the Patriarchs. This presents the following problem: the Jews who settled were Israeli citizens and subject to Israeli law, while the Palestinians of Hebron were not and are therefore subject to military law, since they live in a non-annexed territory. In 1994, an extremist Jewish settler entered into the Cave of the Patriarchs and shot and killed 14 Muslims. Afterwards, the Israeli military and the Israeli police force were sent in to try to prevent reprisals by either side, and the government divided Hebron into H1 (exclusively Palestinian, Israelis are denied entry) and H2 (both Israelis and Palestinians are allowed).
Military prescence did not help Hebron, because the military can only affect one side (and this is where the problem from before becomes more pronounced). Adding a direct military prescence can help enforce the military law that the Palestinians live under, but it is illegal for any action by the military to take action against its own civilian population. Only the police force can take action against Israeli citizens. Why is this an issue? For a variety of reasons:
There are three main types of civilians in Hebron: extremist religious Israelis, extremist religious Palestinians, and Palestinians who, unfortunately, lack the money to move away from the tension. In other words, everything that the moderates of both sides would like to hide about their own side is all jammed into one city and forced to live together. This creates the afore-mentioned tension, leading sometimes to fights in the streets. If an Israeli soldier does anything to stop an Israeli civilian in one of these fights, that soldier is therefore committing a crime, because an Israeli civilian is outside of military jurisdiction.
The demographics of Hebron must also be considered. There are around 18,000 Palestinians in Hebron, with 800 Israeli settlers, and 500 Israeli Army personnel. I asked our tour guide for the number of Israeli police personnel, and he did not know, but what both he and my teacher confirmed was that policemen are not a common sight in Hebron. The police force is undermanned and under-equipped, because there is no real Israeli government prescence in Hebron that can do something real about it. So it is much more common, when there is a fight that breaks out, that a soldier who can only take action against a Palestinian is on hand, and an Israeli policeman is not.
Another problem with Hebron is that anyone who has an understanding of the Israeli Army as a body is that it was never intended to act as an urban mediator force, which shows. As stated before, the Israeli Army can not set any rule that an Israeli citizen is obligated to follow. So the only way that the Israeli Army can try to preserve peace is by attempting to separate the two sides, by closing certain streets to Palestinians in H2. The rationale was that by allowing no Israelis in H1, but by separating the two sides in H2, violence could be reduced. Unfortunately, because H2 is near the center of the city, there are areas where Jews and Palestinians cross paths with regularity, and that is where fights break out.
I was given two tours of Hebron by Year Course, which was trying to give a balanced look at the situation. The first tour was given by a settler couple who gave us more insight into the settler mentality. The other was given by a former Israeli soldier who is part of a group called “Breaking the Silence”, a group of Israeli soldiers who give tours of Hebron and speak out publicly in Israel against the military prescence there. While I am a Jew who loves Israel and is proud of it, Hebron is a difficult issue for all who look at it, myself included. Hebron is a tragedy that needs to be fixed, for the sake of both sides who live there. It is also important to understand that no other place in Israel is like it.
Those were the two most notable events from my week. I only have a few more weeks in Jerusalem, and I am hoping to get as much out of it as I can. Thank you all very much for reading my messages, and I hope you all have a great weekend.
P.S. The biggest game of the season comes up this week for the Orange and Black, as we go through our second Steelers week. Let’s hope it ends better than the first one did.