Thursday, December 23, 2010

Breaking the Silence in the South Hebron Hills (Part 3 of 3)

"To Control Them, They Must Fear Us"
Life in the South Hebron Hills

On a bright Thursday morning, Davo and I met a large group of internationals on a central street in Jerusalem. We piled into a charter bus, and off we went.  After only a few minutes on Highway 60, we had passed the green line from Israel into the West Bank.  The only change I noticed was a tall, concrete barrier on the side of the highway:  the separation barrier (yes, there is even controversy regarding its name).

the separation barrier
We drove to several viewpoints around the settlements at Susiya, Metzadol Yehuda, and Ma'on.  The landscape there was three colors only:  beige rocks and dusty dirt, dark green scrub and trees, and a big, blue sky.  The sun felt hot and strong, even though the air was cool.  Silence, except for the voice of the BTS guide.  It felt like there wasn't much around me, just emptiness and tension.  "Is this what people are fighting over?" I wondered again and again.

the land of the west bank
I had a hard time writing about the stories our guide told us.  He didn't talk about flagrant human rights abuses--it's easy to get worked up over rape, murder, torture.  Instead, he told us numbing, maddening, frightening little anecdotes.  He told us about Arabs chafing under the infuriating hassles of Hebron life, about "mapping" houses, checkpoints, curfews.  He told us about rock-throwing "pay the price" radical settlers who have declared that they will punish their Palestinian neighbors if the Israeli government enacts a settlement freeze.  He told us about 18-year old Israeli soldiers with automatic rifles, too much time on their hands, fear in their minds, numbness in their hearts.

In short, the situation just sucks.  For everyone.  Suffering exists, and it exists here.

the group at a viewpoint
Our guide explained the process of "mapping" an Arab home.  A soldier checks to make sure that the place is considered "innocent"--one doesn't want to wander into a den of terrorists.  Once an "innocent" house has been identified, the soldiers enter the home, segregate the male and female residents, question them about anything they want, go through their home, poke into closets, make a literal map of the layout of the rooms.  The point is to destroy any sense of privacy, of "this home is my castle," to ensure that the occupants know that the military is always present and has absolute power.

Concerning the IDF, the ease in which you actually do whatever you want to do unsupervised, that is, enter people's homes, conduct random searches.  Every officer, every commander can decide now I'm entering a home, ordering the family out, ransacking the house...  [...]  There are things, I believe, that an army should't do, like close schools; simply enter a school and: no school today.  Without asking too many questions.  That's it, in a nutshell.
Soldier testimony, Breaking the Silence: Soldiers Speak Out About Their Service in Hebron, page 8, Published by Breaking the Silence

Our guide explained that checkpoints are seemingly placed arbitrarily and enforced arbitrarily.  This person gets through, this person does not.  Open today, closed tomorrow.  Closed today, open tomorrow.  It becomes impossible to run a business, to hold a job, to make a doctor's appointment, to maintain family ties...  never mind trying to work your land.

Same deal with curfews.  Now it's possible to go outside.  Now it's not.  The orders come from above.  The soldiers can't explain why--they don't know.  "You just can't.  No." 

There’s a city, and a road that runs through it, and then one day someone decides “this road is a strategic asset”. In other words, we need it. We, the State of Israel, need it. So Palestinians may no longer use it. So what do they do? Go all the way around it. For a Palestinian to cross a street that is not even a main road, just a mere… street, he has to bypass the whole center of town in order to get to his destination. SO if a guy wants to visit his cousin across the road - and this is a hill-town, mind you – he’ll walk all the way around the city center in order to get there. Of course he’ll be running into countless barriers on the way.
This is not a normal life routine. You can’t live like that. You can’t get through the simplest day. 
You can send your kid to school in the morning, but no one can guarantee that 10 minutes later soldiers won’t come along and close the school, or at noon time… 
And always the uncertainly, and all within army routine. Everything is decided in seconds. A message comes through, originating somewhere among the top brass, God knows where, and ends up with the simple soldier that has to set this curfew: “Today there’s curfew in H-2” . “Wait, so School X is now under curfew or not?”. “Ask the company commander.” “He’s in a meeting.” Back and forth a few times, and then it’s “Go ahead and close it. No more time.”
Soldier testimony, Breaking the Silence: Soldiers Speak Out About Their Service in Hebron, page 18, Published by Breaking the Silence

This is the reality of life under martial law: no predictability, no protection, no control over anything.

If I go to the sergeant now and tell him: "There's this woman and her child is ill, and she wants to take him to the hospital," and could I let her through, he asks me: "How does she seem?" 
I think she's okay, I tell him.  Not suspicious.  
The company commander and HQ get on the line and tell me: "No way.  There's curfew on.  She's not going anywhere."  
And sure enough, she doesn't.
Soldier testimony, Breaking the Silence: Soldiers Speak Out About Their Service in Hebron, page 34, Published by Breaking the Silence

Our guide did not paint a flattering picture of settlers' actions and attitudes toward their Arab neighbors.  Settlers throw rocks at Arabs.  Settlers can have guns--in fact, our guide noted that it's easier to get a firearm if your address is in the disputed territories, so some Israelis who live outside the disputed territories will register an address inside.  Arabs, unsurprisingly, may not own firearms.  Settlers trash stores, occupy dwellings, make threats, act on threats.  Arab children are beaten on their way to school.  I would like to note that, unsurprisingly, settlers have their own stories of violence at the hands of Arabs, including a quadruple-murder just six months and a stone's throw from where I stood on Thursday.

It was curfew, the streets totally empty of Arabs, and a 12-year old kid with a skullcap and side-curls was walking around, all jolly. He went into a yard, as we walked by, and we saw the Arab family that lives in that house, sitting behind the barred windows on the second floor, peeping out. In the garden of that house grew a pomegranate tree. 
The kid picks a pomegranate, and throws it at the window, breaking the glass right where they’re sitting. They yell at him from upstairs, so he picks another pomegranate. 
I started stepping in his direction, to stop him. I asked him to move away, perhaps lay a hand on his shoulder to try and stop him. 
Two adults walked by just then, so I was glad I could ask them to take the kid away, he was only causing trouble. To make a long story short, they yelled at me for being just another leftie-softie soldier: 
“Go handle Arabs and leave us in peace” or something of that nature. 
Anyway, another incident where you suddenly realize that the children’s violence is nurtured by their environment.
Soldier testimony, Breaking the Silence: Soldiers Speak Out About Their Service in Hebron, page 9, Published by Breaking the Silence

Soldiers must deal with constant flux between boredom and fear, always on edge.  Soldiers have the power to detain, to break, to play.  Most of these soldiers are young, 18 to 20 years old.  Our BTS guide told us about one soldier who spoke of being in charge of a bulldozer.  What happens when you give a bulldozer to a 19-year old?  He plays with it, of course.  Arab cars picked up and moved here and there.  Terraces uprooted.  Things of that nature.  Because he could, and because Arabs couldn't do anything about it.  In order to control a people, they must fear their controllers.

...I remember a very specific situation:  I was at a checkpoint, a temporary one, a so-called strangulation checkpoint, it was a very small checkpoint, very intimate, four soldiers, no commanding officer, no protection worthy of the name, a true moonlighting job, blocking the entrance to a village. From one side a line of cars wanting to get out, and from the other side a line of cars wanting to pass, a huge line, and suddenly you have a mighty force at the tip of your fingers, as if playing a computer game.
I stand there like this, pointing at someone, gesturing to you to do this or that, and you do this or that, the car starts, moves toward me, halts beside me. The next car follows, you signal, it stops. You start playing with them, like a computer game. You come here, you go there, like this. You barely move, you make them obey the tip of your finger. 
It’s a mighty feeling. It’s something you don’t experience elsewhere. You know it’s because you have a weapon, you know it’s because you are a soldier, you know all this, but its addictive. 
When I realized this... I checked in with myself to see what had happened to me. That’s it. And it was a big bubble that burst. I thought I was immune, that is, how can someone like me, a thinking, articulate, ethical, moral man—things I can attest to about myself without needing anyone else to validate for me. I thought of myself as such. Suddenly, I notice that I’m getting addicted to controlling people.
Soldier testimony, Breaking the Silence: Soldiers Speak Out About Their Service in Hebron, page 9, Published by Breaking the Silence

meeting with Arab residents of Susiya
After visiting a few viewpoints to observe Jewish settlements and outposts and Arab villages and camps, we visited the Arab camp at Susiya.  The history of this little piece of land is so complex that I can't figure it out from my scribbled notes--suffice to say that the Arabs here have been kicked out, moved, allowed back theoretically, allowed back in reality, kicked out again, and allowed back temporarily and possibly illegally...  or something like that.

In my opinion, they are living in a makeshift and precarious position.  Since their waterhole was destroyed by combined action of the Israeli military and settlers, they must purchase their water in the nearest city.  It's extremely expensive.  They have wind- and solar-generated electricity, however, provided by various not-for-profit groups.  This electricity allows them to have a cell phone to call the police, should they need protection. It also lets them charge a video camera battery to document any interactions they have with settlers.  Electricity has provided them more security than the Israeli military could every provide.  They're happy to see us--the more international attention is brought to their lives here, the less likely they are to be attacked by settlers or removed from their land, forcibly, legally, illegally, or otherwise.

For the record, we did not visit any Jewish settlements or outposts, nor did we speak with any  Jewish settlers or active duty Israeli soldiers.

After this visit, we piled back on the bus and head back to Jerusalem.  I watched the olive groves and concrete buildings fly by my window.  No problems at the checkpoint as we passed to the other side of the Green Line.  Dave and I didn't say much on the drive back.

Over the intercom of the bus, our BTS guide made a few closing remarks.  He noted that many people say that the anecdotes collected by BTS are the stories of the "bad apples," and that overall Israeli soldiers do not destroy property, humiliate Arabs, or make life unduly difficult for occupants of the disputed territories.  He counters that BTS has never found a soldier that contests the reality of daily life the disputed territories, both for residents and soldiers.

He is adamant that we not blame the soldiers.  He is a former soldier himself, and it's easy to sympathise with the 18-year old version of him, fresh out of secondary school, given a gun and told to protect his people, given a bulldozer and no supervision.  These young men have barely started shaving, yet they are in charge of determining who goes where, when, if at all, for an entire community.

Surprisingly, he is equally adamant that we not blame the settlers.  Of all the players in this game--soldiers, Arabs, settlers, Israeli society--they are the only ones who are honest, brutally honest, about their motivations and aims, he says.

If there is blame in this situation, he says, it falls squarely on Israeli society as a whole.  He said that this attitude--"this doesn't happen everywhere, all the time," or even "this doesn't happen at all"--is what allows the suffering of this reality to continue.  Israeli society as a whole does not know, does not want to know, what is happening in its own backyard, he asserted.  Rather than talk about their experiences, most soldiers simply want to bury the memories and to forget.  Soldiers' silence allows the rest of Israeli society to live in denial.  He tells of meeting with mothers of soldiers, and how one mother indignantly said, "My son would never take part in such activities!"

So what the hell can be done?  BTS itself proposes no solution to the conflict in disputed territories.  They only want to expose Israeli society to the reality of life for all parties involved in the disputed territories.

I've tried to keep my own opinions out of these posts and tried to report only what I was told.  My own opinion on the situation?  No group is completely wrong, completely evil.  Yet each side vilifies the other.  Since I've been in Israel, I've been inwardly shocked at the casual racism I've heard coming from educated Jews directed toward Arabs and Muslims.  I can only imagine the rhetoric that extremists on both sides are teaching their children.  To me, sometimes it seems like neither side truly wants peace, only to win, whatever that means, at any cost.  Like I said...  so sad.

To read more first-hand accounts of Israeli soldiers serving in disputed territories, visit Breaking the Silence, or read their PDF booklet here.

1 comment:

  1. Three great posts. The saddest part, like you said, no one truly wants peace, only to win. What will our world be like in 100 hundred years, I shudder to think.
    Missing you on this Christmas Day. Sending our love to you and Dave. Love Mummers