Ghost Town

Yehuda Shaul
There is little we can write about our three hours in Hebron that will do it justice. The city is surreal. A twilight zone. This place considered holy by all three Abrahamic religions – and site of the Tomb of the Patriarchs –  encapsulates and magnifies the Occupation to a point of life-threatening absurdity.

Hebron has been a Canaanite, Hebrew, Roman, Byzantine, Mamluk, Ottoman, and Arab city. There has always been a Jewish presence there (except during parts of the Crusades), though often a very small one. In 1929, the British (then in control) moved the Jewish community out of Hebron in response to Arab rioting that killed 67 . This remained the status quo until 1979, when a group of 30 women from the nearby settlement of Kiryat Aba took over a hospital and refused to leave.

Yehuda in front of closed shops with army post on far right.
In 1997, as a result of an agreement between the Palestinian Authority and Israel, Hebron was divided into a Palestinian- controlled area (H-1) and an Israeli- controlled area (H-2), home to 150,000 and 30,000 Palestinians, respectively. All four Jewish settlements – Avraham Avino, Beit Romano, Beit Hadassah, and Tel Rumeida – with a total population of 650 (plus 450 Israeli soldiers) are located in H-2.

In our entire time in H-2, we saw fewer than two dozen Palestinians, although several thousand of the original 30,000 still live there – the poorest inhabitants of Hebron, most dependent on the U.N. for survival. Yehuda Shaul, a pony-tailed, religious, ex-soldier in Hebron from Shovrim Shtika / Breaking the Silence is our guide.  He takes us down the length of Al Shohada Street, once a bustling commercial district, now a string of hundreds of abandoned and vandalized shops. Palestinians are not allowed to drive on most roads in H-2, and the few remaining shop-keepers must therefore carry their products in and out by foot.


Palestinian Hebron
Settlement outpost between Hebron and Kiryat Arba
Say you’re a Palestinian and you’re sick – you must walk to the nearest checkpoint entrance to H-1 to see a doctor. Old? Be grateful you do not have to climb across rooftops to get to the street as do some of your neighbors. (Palestinians are not allowed in the “Jewish only” streets but in some parts they can still live in their homes.)

There are frequent curfews, though Shaul tells us this is an improvement over the past when there was almost always a curfew. The frequent checkpoints are manned by young soldiers (who alternately look bored and frightened), and marked by barbed wire or barricaded intersections. The old bus station has become a paratrooper barracks, with six settler families living inside, a direct violation of Israeli law – but no one challenges this “temporary,” 17-year long situation. Thirty houses have been taken over by the IDF. There is graffiti: “Death to the Arabs”, “Israel Lives!”

Tombstone in Kiryat Arba Park of Baruch Goldstein who massacred 29 Palestinians and wounded 150 others in Hebron in 1994.

The inscription reads:

Here lies the saint, Dr. Baruch Kappel Goldstein, blessed be the memory of the righteous and holy man, may the Lord avenge his blood, who devoted his soul to the Jews, Jewish religion and Jewish land. His hands are innocent and his heart is pure. He was killed as a martyr of God on the 14th of Adar, Purim, in the year 5754 (1994).

Shaul takes us to see the home of Hassam al-Aza and his family. They live in a small house situated directly below the 20-family Tel Rumeida settlement – to get there, we must climb up and down stairs, rocky hillside, and a ladder, just as the family members must every time they wish to go back and forth between their land and the rest of Hebron. Over sweet juice, al-Aza tells us of the stones, eggs, and taunts they risk each time they make the trip. We see how his olive trees were hacked up by settlers. We watch a home-made video in which Palestinian schoolgirls are attacked with rocks by settler children on Shabbat, as their parents and soldiers look on – and another where dozens of settlers demolish a doctor’s home and office.

We visit his brother’s home where the IDF is permanently stationed on his roof as a buffer between the settlers and the Palestinians. The settlers told him he should go to Jordan, that God gave the land to them. The soldiers sometimes get bored at night and walk around on the roof, making too much noise.

LOVERS OF ZION There is so much blood on these streets – Jewish & Arab. So much destruction. The Sharavati family re-builds their house during the day under the protection of 60 Border Police, and the settlers come at night and knock it down when the police leave. Two young male settlers follow us down a road in their car, hissing words at us (which thankfully only Yehuda Shaul can fully understand) until other young men in uniform tell them to back off. 

And most chillingly, there is the park in Kiryat Aba where the graves of Baruch Goldstein and Meir Kahana are located, graves inscribed with accolades: lover of Zion, beloved of God. To see these graves, to understand that it took the active involvement of every Israeli government (Labor, Likud, Kadima) since 1967 to create this terrible mess.... we are encouraged only by Yehuda Shaul and his fellow soldiers from Breaking the Silence who do what they can to serve as witnesses, to work with the Palestinians, to intervene on their behalf, and to awaken the conscience of Israelis.

As we are dropped off at a crossroads outside Hebron and make our way from Israeli to Palestinian roads, Yehuda Shaul gives us DVDs produced by Breaking the Silence, books of testimony, and tells us to talk about what we’ve seen with other Jews, other Americans, everyone.