When day turns to night, many of the fruit and vegetable vendors leave their carts in the street overnight, the produce simply covered with a tarp. In the morning, the food remains untouched. Bags of bread are left hanging on the doors of closed bread shops in the evening. Like the produce, the bread is still there in the morning.
A few days ago I had lunch with a Palestinian friend from a village outside of Hebron. As a gift, he gave me olive oil made from his family’s olives and zatar, a delicious thyme spice mix.
That day a butcher in the Old City gave me pieces of candy as he often does, one as I was leaving the Old City, another as I was returning. He always does so with a smile that radiates joy and peace.
On Friday as a teammate and I were walking home from monitoring near the Ibrahimi Mosque during noon prayers, we ran into a shopkeeper from the Old City, who invited us to his home for tea. We accepted the invitation and once we were inside, he also invited us for lunch - maqlubah, a delicious dish of rice, cauliflower, and chicken (I didn’t eat the chicken). We tried to refuse that invitation, but soon found ourselves enjoying food and laughter with his family.
People are afraid to come here.
Over the weekend we ran into a German tourist who was visiting Hebron for the day. He was watching Palestinians on our side of a closed checkpoint who were trying to talk the Israeli soldiers into letting them through. They weren’t successful. The German had tried, too, but had no luck crossing. He asked if he could take pictures, afraid of doing so because of the soldiers and video cameras pointed towards us. We assured him it would be OK.
We accompanied him through the Old City. His eyes grew ever wider as we told him that the horizontal fencing over the market was to prevent Israeli settlers from throwing things onto to shopkeepers and their wares below. We pointed through the fencing to the Israeli soldiers standing guard above. We talked about the massacre at the Ibrahimi Mosque in 1994 that prompted the initial closing of Shuhada Street, which at the time was the main commercial area of Hebron. Baruch Goldstein, a Jewish extremist, carried out the massacre, killing 29, and Palestinians were put under curfew while Israeli settlers were still allowed to wander freely. That initial closing led to a complete ban to the area for Palestinians, with the exception of one very small stretch. The very small stretch was recently declared a closed military zone (CMZ), meaning that most Palestinians can no longer pass, nor can internationals like us who are human rights defenders. We don’t know when or if the CMZ will be lifted. Settlers still walk freely down the street.
When we arrived with the German to the mosque checkpoint, I chose not to go through since I was wearing my CPT vest and didn’t want to take if off ahead of time or deal with the possible hassle of not being let through because I was wearing it. Our ability as CPTers to pass certain checkpoints with our CPT vests has been hit-or-miss, so we’ve often not worn them or we’ve been putting them on after passing through the area.
My teammate and I told our German acquaintance about the settler tour that used to happen every Saturday. Israeli settlers and Jewish tourists, surrounded by soldiers, would walk through the Old City, disrupting the lives of Palestinians working there or trying to pass through. Soldiers often made them wait, show their IDs, or be subject to body or bag searches. There have been no settler tours since the escalation of violence in October that has continued for more than two months.
As we told our stories, our German friend was surprised. Maybe even horrified.
As I’ve reflected on our conversation with him, I was surprised, maybe even horrified, at how accustomed I am to the restrictions, hassles, and daily awfulness that happens here.
There is reason to be afraid to come here.
Last Friday I saw the first Hebronite I ever met - I couchsurfed with him three years ago. It was the day of the Open Shuhada Street protest, on the anniversary of the Baruch Goldstein massacre. That day I witnessed teargas, sound bombs, and skunk water for the first time. Military vehicles were seemingly everywhere. A journalist got hit by something and was bleeding in the back of his head.
I was wide-eyed and shaken by the experience. My couchsurfing host, who worked at the hospital, said several people had been admitted for teargas exposure. When I voiced my horror at what I’d seen, he replied, “It was a good day. No one was killed.”
What rattled me then does not shake me the way it used to. This stint more than others, I can relate to my friend’s words. If no one is killed, it is a good day.
On Friday, December 11 two Palestinians in Hebron were shot dead. One, Uday, was the brother of Dania, shot at the mosque checkpoint at the end of October. The Israeli military claimed that Dania had a knife in her bag. However, a witness says she had her hands up, no knife, and was backing away from the soldiers when they shot her. Her death is one Amnesty International has labeled an extrajudicial execution. On Friday Israeli forces shot her brother in the chest during clashes.
Their father is part of a group that keeps vigil at the solidarity tent for families whose children have been killed and Israel still has the corpses. He was in the tent when he got the call that his son had been shot. By the time he got to the hospital, his son was dead. Other Palestinians in the clashes were injured from live ammunition, but thankfully, no one else died.
As I was catching up with my couchsurfing friend, he said that during the Second Intifada, he never feared for his life. He is now afraid when he goes to his village. “They could just shoot me.”
Israeli forces are shooting people dead, sometimes after stabbing attacks or car rammings, sometimes after alleged attacks, sometimes during clashes. Whether any Israelis are hurt or killed is irrelevant; the Palestinians seem to keep ending up dead.
I’ve been reading about Donald Trump’s hate- and fear-mongering against Muslims (and, to be fair, other groups). I’ve been reading about the waves of xenophobia and racism making their way through the U.S.
I am surrounded by Muslims. But the reason to be afraid here is not the Palestinians, but the Israeli soldiers and settlers.
Last week we were documenting the arrest of two boys. As I was recording and trying to get information about the boys, an Israeli ambulance pulled up and a notorious settler stepped out. He started driving the ambulance only recently and, as far as we know, he doesn’t have medical training. The ambulance gives him access to wherever he wants to go.
Soldiers yelled at me to stop recording the arrest, but the settler stood closer that I was allowed, filming.
As he passed us, he spit. Thankfully he wasn’t close at the time. But he did come close, trying to block me from filming, all the while saying I-don’t-want-to-know-what in Hebrew.
Two days ago a teammate and I passed a settler who greeted us, “Good morning, friends of Nazis. Good morning, I hope ISIS is going to take your heads off.”
Settlers and soldiers are the people who cause me to fear, not the Palestinians who show me kindness, who teach me about hospitality, trust, love.
I lean into their kindness and lessons. I lean into the love and support from home, knowing that it is far greater than my fear. It is greater than the intimidation tactics I witness and sometimes am subject to.
People are afraid to come here and I can understand their reasons.
But I so want them to come. I want you to come. I want people to see life in Hebron: the reasons to be afraid, the reasons to be angry, the reasons to be hopeful, the reasons to be grateful.
I will leave here in a few days, able to let go of the fear that comes with this territory. I hope that my anger composts into the fertile ground of commitment, where seeds of openness, compassion, and justice may grow. Despite so many reasons to give it up, my hope remains. Despite so many reasons to turn away from it, my gratitude swells.
Fear shrivels; it will not win. Love expands. It envelopes fear and anger. It nurtures hope and gratitude. Love wins.