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Falling through the Looking Glass in Hebron
K.L. writing from Qawawis, occupied Palestine, Live from Palestine, 1 April 2005
The small village of Qawawis is the most peaceful place I have ever visited. Geographically, it is situated south of Al-Khalil (Hebron) in the West Bank. Here a handful of shepherding families live in caves cut from the stony hill by hand. We are four internationals are staying in the village with the families.
The days in Qawawis are seemingly alike: we get up at dawn and are invited to breakfast, consisting primarily of flat bread and hummus, in one of the caves. Afterwards the herds are let out and we walk with the shepherds as they graze their sheep in the open landscape. After three or four hours we return to the village, have flat bread and hummus and nap. Then we walk with the sheep for another three or four hours and return at dusk.
At dinner time (rarely with any surprises), many of the young boys from the village come to the cave we dine in to practice their English, and teach us new Arabic words. All socializing after dark is by light of oil lamps, since the village is without electricity. Nevertheless, I have yet to find a place in Palestine with better reception for my cellular phone. Paradoxically, the good reception is due to the surrounding illegal settlements, equipped with cellphone towers, new roads, running water, electricity, plenty of guns and telephone wires, primarily funded with Israeli citizens' tax money.
These settlements are the reason we are here. Harassment of Palestinians in the proximity of settlements is more the rule than exception, but a couple of years ago the violence against the village escalated, and when two villagers were shot, most of the families had already moved to the neighboring village of Yatta.
The Israeli army moved in and forced the rest of the inhabitants to move for "security reasons". Some Israeli settlers moved into the caves, but were also evacuated from the village by the army, which then bulldozed several caves and wells. The Israeli separation wall was planned to annex this part of the West Bank and the village was in the way of a new military base. After filing complaints and a hard legal fight, especially from Israeli peace organization Ta'ayush, there was a small change in the path of the separation wall, moving it closer to the Green Line, and the Israeli Supreme Court saying ruled that villagers had the right to return to their land.
One month ago some of the families moved back to the village along with peace activists from the International Solidarity Movement (ISM), on a rotational basis as an international presence. During this month the villagers have suffered daily visits from settlers threatening them with guns or throwing rocks at sheep and shepherds. On Shabbat (Saturday, the Jewish Sabbath), the settlers often make a tour of the village, showing the caves and telling make-believe stories of how they used to live in the caves, and how the original inhabitants moved out for better housing in Yatta. All this I already knew, and yet I was not thoroughly prepared for our first confrontation with the religious fanatics.
Purim mask and an Uzi
"Nazis! Jew killers! Go back to Germany!"
Suddenly everything seems chaotic. Five minutes ago a white pick-up came to a halt, and two young men exited. I and another international calmly approached them, remembering our training in de-escalation of possibly violent situations. One of the males was dressed in orthodox manner, complete with light colored loose clothing, head covered with a kippah and curly black locks of hair at the temples. The other was sporting a yellow Purim* mask, depicting a skull, and an Uzi.
After a couple of weeks in this country, I am still not comfortable with seeing guns, and the adrenalin was pumping through our veins as we got closer and diplomatically asked if we could be of any assistance, without response. The two men started running around screaming, tossing rocks at sheep and shepherds. Our de-escalation was seemingly a gross failure, since still more cars kept coming and everyone that got out seemed very angry with us.
"Nazis! Jew killers! Go back to Germany! You! Are you German?" An extremely animated woman in her thirties is pointing at me. Out of confusion I just answered her: "Ehm no, I'm from Denmark."
"Yeah, Danish people, you're really good at killing Jews too!"
The other two internationals come running and we all try to get between the shepherds and the 10 angry settlers, who are throwing rocks and telling us how easily they could kill us, whilst pointing at us with their machine guns. A military vehicle notices the episode and pulls up curbside.
Three young soldiers get out just to stand around and do nothing, despite the fact that we repeatedly ask, as the settlers begin to kick and beat us. Not until a grown man has thrown himself on top of our female American friend and punched her many times in the face, neck and chest, does one of the soldiers help to get him off of her. Afterwards the soldier decides to help the man find his glasses. We draw back toward the village with the shepherds, as the screaming settlers try to get past the soldiers.
We phoned the police as soon as the two youngsters got out of the pick-up, and were positively surprised that they promised to come quickly. I had heard that the police often don't really handle cases involving settlers out of fear. My positive attitude toward the Israeli Police did not last long. It took several calls before they finally showed up one and a half hour later.
We tried to explain to them what happened, but soon the settlers came driving down again and started yelling in Hebrew at the police. Before we knew it, the police had taken our passports, the settlers were going home, and we are on our way to the police station. The police station is situated in the middle of one of the largest settlements in all of Palestine, Kiryat Arba, a name with an ominous historical ring to it.
Kiryat Arba was Israel's first settlement, the approval of which former Minister of Defense Moshe Dayan would later call the most severe mistake in his career. The huge settlement is situated adjacent to the municipal boundaries of Al-Khalil (Hebron) and is home to about 7200 persons. As we were taken to the police station, we slowly drove through this Disneyland of neat streets, small grassy areas and hundreds of identical little houses, with the characteristic diagonal red roofs, placed on 6,000 dunams (1,500 acres) of confiscated Palestinian land. For some reason this place reminds me of Pennywise, the killer clown from the film based on Stephen King's It, which terrified me as a child.
The Hebron area is known as one of the most difficult in all of the West Bank, the cause of its problems the settler issue. One of the most tragic and fatal examples is the massacre in the Ibrahimi Mosque of 1994, when American-Israeli physician Baruch Goldstein, entered the mosque, shot dead 29 Muslim worshippers and wounded another 125. In the old city of Al-Khalil, 500 Jewish fundamentalists reside in four settlements. Once the economic and social centre of Al-Khalil, the old city has been transformed into a ghost town of shops welded shut for "security reasons", military raids and checkpoints.
The settlers claim to be a "continuation" of the original Jewish community of the city but, in 1996, 40 members of the original Jewish community signed a public petition asking for the evacuation of the settlers. As a result of countless violent confrontations, the daily life of the 150,000 Palestinian residents is troubled with harassment, curfew and seemingly innumerable security checks.
More than 600 days of curfew have been imposed on the Palestinian population of Hebron and more than 74 homes demolished, more often than not to give way to Jewish-only roads. All this is overseen by about 1,500 soldiers stationed in the old city. Their primary assignment is to secure the safety of the 500 settlers, many of whom are armed to the teeth and none of whom have to go through humiliating security checks. Soldiers reside in confiscated Palestinian homes and in Kiryat Arba, where we are taken for questioning.
Go to jail, go directly to jail
We arrived in the police station believing that we were going to file charges based on the assault against us and the villagers. When we sat down, we were told that we were now detained as the settlers had filed charges against us for attacking them. Welcome to Through the Looking Glass land. We found out that all the settlers had all been allowed to go home. We, on the other hand, are dragged through hours of questioning, where we only were allowed to defend ourselves against charges. After eight hours we were offered to sign a paper forbidding us to return to Qawawis.
We refused and were arrested and put in jail. Harsh punishment for getting assaulted, but in looking-glass land, it is not necessarily illogical to believe that unarmed, non-violent peace activists might attack crazy settlers armed with M-16s and Uzis. The next day we were taken to a judge who dismissed the charges against us, and acknowledged the importance of an international presence in Qawawis. The settlers continue their regular harassment in the area. Recently a flock of sheep was poisoned with rat poison in the neighbouring village of At-Tuwani.
The trouble created by mad, fundamentalist settlers, who believe in a literal interpretation of religious texts, is a well calculated part of the Israeli government's policy of colonization. The settlers, more or less knowingly, are doing the governments bidding, but also the judicial system seems very lenient when it comes to settlers. A grave example is the story of an eleven-year-old Palestinian boy, Hilmi Shusha who was "pistol whipped" to death by a settler from Betar, on the way to Bethlehem from Hebron, Nahum Korman. The perpetrator was arrested, tried and acquitted on the grounds that "the child died on his own as a result of emotional pressure".
On appeal, the Israeli Supreme Court characterized the act as a "light killing", and the settler received six months of community service and a fine. The settlers, making up 6-7 % of the Israeli population, are not at all alike. Many are simply attracted to cheap government subsidized housing, but they are all but threads in the Israeli cobweb of control over the Occupied Territories. Along with the areas unilaterally annexed with the "land grab wall", they are facts on the ground and can be used as arguments in future peace talks.
I feel like Alice who just stepped through the looking glass. Not just because the letters here are written from right to left. Not just because Al-Khalil (in Arabic) as well as Hevron (in Hebrew) means "friend". Not just because we were imprisoned for being assaulted. More likely so because we in "The Western World" seem to accept the image of Israel reflected in our societies, an image missing important details. The Israeli state does not care about the international commitments that it pretends to respect. The separation wall and the settlements have been declared illegal by the international community.
Unfortunately Israel will continue to act with impunity as long as American vetoes in the UN Security Council and beneficial EU trade agreements send a clear signal that we are more than ready to close our eyes to endless, inhumane violations. The story of Qawawis is in no way especially horrendous or extraordinary, it is just another day in Palestine, Looking Glass land.
* Purim is a Jewish religious holiday celebrated in a similar fashion to Halloween, with costumes and parties.
KL is a Danish activist working with the International Solidarity Movement in the West Bank village of Qawawis.