‘We must fix this for the settlers, soldiers and the Palestinians’
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‘We must fix this for the settlers, soldiers and the Palestinians’

Controversial Israeli group Breaking The Silence attracts increasing numbers of diaspora Jews onto its 'occupation tour' in West Bank cities like Hebron. Jewish News joined one.

Lee Harpin is the Jewish News's political editor

IDF soldiers run towards potential situation in the West Bank city of Hebron, July 2022
IDF soldiers run towards potential situation in the West Bank city of Hebron, July 2022

Israeli human rights groups such as Breaking The Silence (BTS) are reporting an increase in bookings from diaspora Jews for ‘occupation tours’ of West Bank cities like Hebron to witness for themselves the situation faced by Palestinians.

Jewish News joined a tour of Hebron’s H2 area – the section of the city controlled by the Israeli military – last month along with groups of young Jews from Belgium, Italy and the United States to get an insight into the realities of life in the second largest city in the West Bank.

Along with groups such as Peace Now, the Association for Civil Rights in Israel and B’tselem, BTS has been heavily criticised by some communal organisations for presenting a one-sided version of the impact of Israeli military control of Hebron.

But our guide from the organisation, Amir, who had served three years in the IDF, with the 5Oth battalion of the Nahal Brigade in Hebron and Gaza made no attempt to hide the impact of violence committed by settlers, soldiers and Palestinians in the region.

Standing beside a memorial plaque in downtown Hebron to Gadi and Dina Levi – a couple expecting the birth of their first child, who were killed by a Palestinian terrorist wearing a bomb while they were on their way to pray at the nearby Cave of the Patriarchs in 2003 – Amir opened up about the impact of violence, having recently become the father of a baby girl.

Recalling another Palestinian sniper attack in the same area, which killed a young child, he said: “Each death, each attack, each time you see violence… it pushed me further away into the realisation we need to fix this. It won’t stop on its own, we have to end it, for the settlers, and soldiers who come here, and for the Palestinians.”

Memorial to Gadi and Dina Levi killed by a Palestinian terrorist while they were on their way to pray at the nearby Cave of the Patriarchs in 2003

I interrupted a family holiday, spent mainly in Tel Aviv, to travel with my 18-year-old daughter Ruby to join a trip to Hebron organised by BTS, so that we could experience the tour ourselves.

Ruby, like many young British Jews, had complained about the one-dimensional pro-Israel teaching she received at her Jewish secondary school.

“My social media is flooded with ‘Free Palestine’ propaganda,” she observed, contrasting this with the “failure” at school to address the conflict with the Palestinians.

Ruby insisted that the visit to Hebron would help her make up her own mind.

Having witnessed Ruby argue with someone holding up a pro-Hamas banner at a previous Palestine demo she had attended with me in London, I had no reason to doubt her judgment, or her right to make up her mind independently.

“More and more diaspora Jews are visiting the West Bank and coming to terms with the reality of occupation, and of the desperate need for a political resolution,” Bett claimed.

Joining us on the drive out of Tel Aviv and into the West Bank in a minibus with Amir was Danielle Bett, from Scotland, now working as a spokesperson for pro-peace group Yachad in Israel.

“More and more diaspora Jews are visiting the West Bank and coming to terms with the reality of occupation, and of the desperate need for a political resolution,” Bett claimed.

“Hebron is often referred to as a microcosm of occupation. In a short space of time you can see the impact that occupation and settlements have on every aspect of Palestinian life.

“Israel is important to Jews in so many ways; so we must be aware of the things that are done in our name, such as settlements and settler violence and speak loudly against them.”

Former IDF commander Amir, now with Breaking The Silence, Danielle Bett, from Yachad, and Ruby Harpin

Earlier on our tour we had stopped in Kahane Park, named after Rabbi Meir Kahane, the ultra-nationalist politician who co-founded the Jewish Defence League, who served a term in the Knesset before being convicted of terrorism, and was assassinated in 1990.

Behind the park is the grave of Baruch Goldstein, the New York-born extremist who in 1994 murdered 29 Palestinians at the Tomb of Patriarchs, wounding hundreds more.

“If the first thing we need to keep in the back of our mind about Hebron is the 1929 massacre, the second is the Goldstein massacre,” says Amir.

The date August 1929 looms large in any history of the conflict-ridden city. It was then that 67 Jews were killed in Arab riots in Hebron and hundreds more were injured, raped and robbed, after rumours that Jews were planning to seize control of the Temple Mount.

Jewish homes were pillaged, synagogues ransacked, while some of the 400 Jews who survived were hidden from murderers by sympathetic local Arab families.

For the British Mandate, the massacre was confirmation that Jewish existence in Hebron should be brought to an end. The Jews were removed from the area, and placed to begin with in refugee camps.

Four decades on, after the conclusion of the 1967 Six Day War Israel, having tripled its size, declared the West Bank, Sinai desert, and the Golan Heights under “temporary military rule”.

And Jews, many of the them deeply religious, began to return to Hebron and the surrounding areas, leading to the growing international concern and outrage about the settlement issue.

The Goldstein massacre, condemned globally by Jewish leaders, serves as a reminder that extremism has dogged both sides in the conflict.

On the day of our visit, last month, we counted 64 stones placed on Goldstein’s grave, some almost certainly by visitors earlier that day, who clearly wanted to pay their respects to him.

“He gave his life for the people of Israel, its Torah and land,” state the Hebrew words on his tomb.

Grave of Baruch Goldstein, the New York born extremist who in 1994, murdered 29 Palestinians at the Tomb of Patriarchs, wounded hundreds more.

As we arrive at the entry gate to Kiryat Arba, the settlement Israel established in 1970, Amir is asked in Hebrew if passengers in the minibus are Jewish.

Stating we are, the guard, who does not check us or appear to even look at us in the back seats, waves our vehicle through.

Despite Hebron and the surrounding area’s violent reputation, tours to the region are relatively safe.

Thousands come to visit Hebron’s Tomb of the Patriarchs each year. On the Jewish side of the building, containing the tombs of Abraham and Sarah, Isaac and Rebecca, and Jacob and Leah, and known to Muslims as the Ibrahimi Mosque, the walls are lined with religious texts.

Buses run from Jerusalem to Hebron throughout the day, with fortified windows to protect passengers from occasional rock-throwing incidents en route.

Nothing quite prepares you for the sight, and smell, of the dilapidated ‘Old City’ area in Hebron, close to the Tomb of the Patriarchs.

Muslims only road leading to Tomb of Patriarchs

Under the 1997 Oslo agreement, signed by Israel and PLO, Hebron was divided into two areas: H1 and H2. Responsibility for security and civilian matters in H1 – where most of the Palestinian residents of Hebron live (about 115,000 at the time, now about 166,000) – was formally handed over to the Palestinian Authority as was done in all other West Bank cities.

As for H2, Israel retained responsibility for security matters there, and the Palestinian Authority received authority only for civilian matters relating to local Palestinians. About 32,000 Palestinians and 800 settlers now live in H2.

The military has set up 21 permanent staffed checkpoints in the city. Palestinians who need to go through any of these must endure lengthy, and often humiliating inspections.

To protect settlers living in the heart of the centre, about 650 IDF soldiers operate a system of severe movement restrictions for Palestinians, including what’s known as the “sterilisation” of entire roads and areas.

At weekends, as the settlers walk to synagogue, the number of soldiers in Hebron rises to 1,200.

In the city centre we speak with Mohamed Fakhore, a Palestinian business student in his 20s, about life in Hebron under Israeli military control.

“We want the world to know what is happening here,” he says. “I will be arrested if I step there,” he says, pointing to the floor five metres in front of him. “I have been arrested for this one time before.”

It is heartbreaking to realise Fakhore cannot continue walking alongside us. Strict separation rules mean as a Palestinian is not allowed to walk on the same road we all can.

Later, in one the few Palestinian souvenir shops still open in downtown Hebron, an elderly store owner, who pours us all coffee, explains that his own wife is unable to visit him at work as a result of the separation policy in operation.

It is, he says, a “humiliating” situation.

‘Death To Arabs – Kahane was right’ reads the graffiti on the outside of a now empty garage, once used by Palestinians.

Garage in Hebron sprayed with the words ‘Death to Arabs – Kahane was right’

The BTS tour also offers a glimpse into the lives of the settlers, living not just inside Hebron, but also the thousands now living in Kiryat Arba, established by Israel in 1970, and nearby Tel Rumeida.

We pass a large sign, hung up across gates in Giva, close to Kiryat Arba, with Hebrew wording in bold blue, yellow and purple colours.

“Happening,” declares the sign, put up by the pro-annexation group Nachala. “Setting Up New Settlements.”

On the left side of the same sign, children are invited along with the promise of “art stalls”.

Advert starting:’Happening Setting Up New Settlements’ by pro-annexation group Nachala in Giva 26, next to Kiryat Arba

Joining the settlement expansion on Thursday July 21st at 5pm, the sign announces, will be Daniela Vyse, head of the Nachala movement, a rabbi, and Eliyahu Libman, head of the Kiryat Arba council.

Ayelet Shlissel, a spokeswoman for the Nachala movement, insists the settlement initiative has Biblical roots and was meant to keep land out of Palestinian control.

“We [the Jewish people] were promised the Land of Israel in the Bible. The Land of Israel was promised to Abraham our forefather,” she said.

“If we don’t establish settlements then the Arabs will take this land.”

A video message put online by Nachala director Tzvi Elimelech Sharbaf confirms the group’s aims: “We are making a clear demand. Say ‘no’ to Arabs taking control of open spaces [in Area C of the West Bank], and say ‘yes’ to Jews taking control of all these open spaces.”

Amir grew up in Jerusalem, joining left-wing Zionist groups when he was young. He said these years “shaped the way I see the world”.

After initial military training he decided “that was not enough” and went to commanding school for a few months, before being deployed in the Gaza Strip for about five months in 2009.

He said it “took about a week” of service, before he already had questions he could not answer about the operations being carried out.

IDF soldier talks with you settler boy in downtown Hebron, with shut down stores behind them.

Amir, who joined BTS in 2013, and is one of over a thousand former IDF soldiers to speak out about occupation, described taking part in dangerous operations as his service continued, including taking control of Palestinian houses, and moving entire families into one room while searches were carried out.

Amir says he would now like to play some part in the ending the “zero sum game” of Israeli military control in areas like Hebron.

“This is an occupied territory that is governed by the IDF,” he adds. “The bottom line is the Palestinian Authority has the freedom to do what we allow it to do.”

Jewish News contacted the Israeli Embassy in the UK for comment.

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