A Visit to Hebron

July 2, 2009

robin-yassin-kassab-Robin Yassin-Kassab is the author of The Road from Damascus, a novel published by Penguin, and co-editor of PULSE, one of Le Monde Diplomatique’s five favourite websites. The opinions expressed are his own.-

There’s no pretty way to describe what I saw in Hebron, no tidy conceit to wrap it in.

I visited as a participant in the Palestine Festival of Literature, the brain child of the great British-Egyptian novelist Ahdaf Soueif. I was in the company of many wonderful writers and publishers, among them Python and traveller Michael Palin, best-selling crime novelist Henning Mankel, Pride and Prejudice screenplay writer Deborah Moggach, and prize-winning novelists Claire Messud and MG Vassanji.

Our first stop was Hebron University, where I ran a workshop on “the role of writing in changing political realities.” The students were bright and eager; the only discomforting note was struck by a memorial stone to three killed while walking on campus, by rampaging settlers, in 1986.

After lunch we visited Hebron’s historic centre. The usual way on the West Bank is for Israeli checkpoints, towers and settlements to encircle Palestinian population concentrations. But here 400 gun-wielding settlers, guarded by 1500 soldiers, also occupy the centre of the Old City.

The delight of any Arab old city is the sensation of freedom it offers; you can disappear under arches, around corners, through dark passageways. But Hebron’s freedom has been robbed by iron gates and concrete blocks. There are military positions and “Jews-only” roads. Such slogans as “Gas the Arabs” are daubed on the green-shuttered shops. Some 77 percent of Old City shops are closed by military order. Settlers squatting the upper storeys throw excrement, kitchen rubbish and stones at pedestrians in the souq.

Hebron’s Arabic name is al-Khalil, meaning “the friend”, referring specifically to God’s friend Abraham, buried here with his wife Sarah and son Isaac. The tombs are sacred to both Jews and Muslims, and in quieter times were shared, but the struggle between Zionism and the Palestinian natives has changed that. In 1994 Brooklyn-born settler Baruch Goldstein shot dead 29 Palestinians at prayer in the Ibrahimi Mosque, injuring 150 more. Rather than compensate the community for the massacre, Israel imposed a two-week perpetual curfew while it confiscated 65 percent of the mosque for use as a synagogue. Which means a physical wall now divides this historic building, to add to the other walls shadowing the towns and refugee camps of Palestine.

Outside, Zionist songs blast from a Judaic centre day and night, so nearby residents can neither sleep nor hear the call to prayer. A settler swaggers with a science-fiction sized gun hanging off his shoulder, and his three dogs ranging off the lead (for Middle Easterners the dog is an unclean animal, to be kept away from mosques and churches.) Another settler is filming us, up close. When writer Bridgid Keenan asks him why, he replies, “Because you will go to hell!” But later we were told the real reason, beyond the intimidatory flourish, was to send our faces to be registered as enemies of Israel by American Zionist organisations.

Carmen Callil, founder of Virago books, was wearing a bracelet in the colours of the Palestinian flag. The camera-brandishing settler reported this misdemeanour to a nearby soldier, who pointed his gun at Carmen and ordered her to remove the bracelet immediately. She did so openmouthed. A few metres away an old man tended a surviving shop. When I spoke kindly to him, he embraced me and heaved tears. He wasn’t used to kind speech.

Hebron is beyond grim, beyond Kafkaesque. There’s no good way to describe this vandalised, rotting city. Not much left of the centre, and very nearly nothing left of Palestine, not physically. What remains is a gleam of light: the ingenuity and endurance of the Palestinians.


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Posted by A Visit to Hebron « Qunfuz | Report as abusive

The single best thing the american government has to do to ease tensions around the world is obvious and plain to see.

Posted by Dan | Report as abusive

When will the USA begin to consider listing Isreal among the “terrorist” states?!

Posted by Nabil Sultan | Report as abusive

The author forgets a few facts:
1. Hebron Arabs today have access to 98% of the entire city. Jews have access to 3% of Hebron.
2. Close to 100 Jews have been killed in the Hebron region by Arab terrorist, in cold blood.
3. The above number does not include 67 Jews murdered in Hebron 80 years ago, during the 1929 riots and massacre.
4. Concerning noise: the Muslim call-to-prayer begins at about 4:00 AM and is repeated five times daily, with other public interludes, until after 11:00PM, waking up sleeping people and preventing them from sleeping, with this noise being broadcast from numerous points in the city.
5. The Arab stores on the Jewish side of Hebron were closed by the IDF due to numerous shooting attacks and a suicide bomber who killed a couple from nearby Kiryat Arba. All the Arab vendors have opened businesses on the other side of the city, where they do a thriving business. See Danny Rubinstein: The safest place in the territories – http://www.haaretz.com/hasen/spages/8573 08.html

Posted by David Wilder | Report as abusive

What bias.
No mention of the massacre of scores of Jewish men, women and children in 1929 and the ethnic cleansing of Jews until they returned in 1967. Some of the homes where Jews live today belonged to Jews then.
Of course, no Jews were permitted by the Muslims to enter the holy shrine of the Patriarchs until 1967, and even today the largest hall, the Isaac Chamber, is off-limits to Jews so that Moslems may hold their prayers there.
Most of those 400 settlers are children, and they aren’t gun-wielding.
Mention is made of the memorial to Arabs killed, but of course no mention of the Jewish toddler Shalhevet Paz shot and killed by a Palestinian sniper as she sat in her pram.
Be fair.

Posted by neighbour | Report as abusive

I am curious how Mr. Yassin-Kassab knows that the songs that come from a Judaic center are Zionist songs and not simply Jewish songs?

Or is he meaning to imply that the songs are somehow anti-Arab?

Posted by Elder | Report as abusive

David and Neighbour

You are quite right about the massacre of Jews in Hebron in 1929. The fact that the massacre happened in the context of the struggle against Zionist plans to turn Palestine into a Jewish state does not change the fact that the massacre was a terrible crime. I should have mentioned it, but didn’t because I was given only 600 words. I stuck to what I saw, to what is happening today. I speak as as somebody who is very aware of Arab sectarianism and its negative effect on Jews, Shia Muslims and other minorities. Sectarianism is one of the things that make Arabs weak, and I and many Arabs revile it. (It so happens that I have a Syrian Jewish aunt). However, the anti-Jewish feeling amongst most Palestinians and other Arabs today is directed not at Jews in general but in the faces of the Jewsish state that has dispossessed the Palestinians.

Neighbour says the child settlers are not gun-wielding. True, but I have been shown many films (they’re on Youtube) of settler children hitting, kicking and throwing stones at Palestinian men, women and children. When they do this, they are protected by gun-wielding adult settlers and by soldiers. Again, I should have mentioned this, but was stopped by my 600 word limit.

As for Jews only having access to 3% of Hebron – Israeli Jews are forbidden access to the rest of the city (unless they are soldiers, who move in at will) as a result of Israeli laws. However, I met French and American Jews (pro-Palestinian activists and academics) who live and work in Hebron, Ramallah and other West Bank cities. The apartheid system was brought in by Israel.

Then there’s the small matter that according to international law, there should be NO Israeli civilians living in occupied territory. The Palestinian leadership (which I’m not a fan of) has in any case said that in the event of a two-state solution, any Jewish settlers who will accept to live under Palestinian sovereignty can stay on the West Bank.

And, yes, I am biased. I was also biased against apartheid South Africa.; If this was the 1930s, I’d be biased against Nazi Germany, and also aginst the pro-Zionist but anti-Semitic immigration policies of the US and British governments. (which blocked access to fleeing European Jews, forcing them to go to Palestine instead).

Posted by Robin Yassin-Kassab | Report as abusive

Elder – An Israeli citizen, Hebrew-speaking was with us, and he told me the songs were ‘Zionist.’ I didn’t check myself.

Posted by Robin Yassin-Kassab | Report as abusive

My photos to go with this piece can be seen at www.qunfuz.com or www.pulsemedia.org

Posted by Robin Yassin-Kassab | Report as abusive

I am non Jewish and non Arab.
I beleive that the reporter gives a true picture of what is going on in the occupied territories.
The terrible vindictiveness of the Jewish state against any non-Jew and especially the Arab who dare to oppose them is despicable and can and will only lead to future suffering.
I am old enough to remember that the white rulers of South Africa had the support of the West and thought they were impregnable in their bunker, the same lesson should and shall be experienced by the racist state of Israel. Lets hope that when that day comes the Jewish settlers are treated as humanly as the whites are now treated in South Africa.

Posted by francis jones | Report as abusive

It is not just a simple matter of bias towards apartheid regimes.

By trying to equate Israel to an apartheid regime, one shows a further, deeper anti-israeli bias.

The origins of this current situation involve a civil war, a recognision of independence by the UN, and three ill-advised wars fought by Arab nations against Israel.

To equate it with the situation of colonisation is oversimplified. And does nothing to reach a solution, as trying to make unilateral demands against a far stronger party will never work.

The moment the Palestinians are ready to accept and ensure the safety of the settlements, and make concessions to ensure Israel’s safety, there may actually be a nation called ‘Palestine’ for the first time in sixty years.

Posted by Anon | Report as abusive

Can anyone answer a simple question. When Israeli’s build their settlements – does any Palestinian land owner ever receive compensation? Are all the settlements confiscations without compensation?

Its strains credulity that the Palestinian areas are characterized as so dangerous to non-Arabs – a never ending argument of who shot who first – and yet it never deters the Israelis from building more settlements.

The South Bronx has less violence and yet an area with so much underutilized land is almost off limits to serious development pressure. Few New Yorkers want to live there.

I can never understand how The Israeli settlers can sincerely complain about the violence against them – and by them in the occupied West Bank – when they could stay on their side of the UN line – wherever that is now?

If it looks like a land grab , and it acts like a land grab and smells like a land grab – it must be a land grab? And it sounds very like a land grab by theft and brute force. Lebensraum on the cheap.

The attitude of the settlers is obviously obnoxious and less forgivable when one remembers that they don’t actually have to live in the occupied territories at all. Obviously the Palestinians could not set up settlements in Israel. The entire occupation sounds like pig headed obstinacy that could not exist anywhere else but in that land of religious obsession. It hardly deserves the name “Holy Land”.

Posted by Paul Rosa | Report as abusive

Robin, your closing statement to David is the crux of the matter. Britain and the U.S. refused Jewish refugees. We accepted Nazi war criminals and gave them asylum. The Jewish refuges did have no where else to go. Another case of screwed up cold war priorities.

The U.S., Britain and other allied powers were responsible as they were the victors of that war. It is time the leaders of these nations take responsibility for what their predecessors did not.

Posted by Anubis | Report as abusive

To Anubis: “Nowhere to go” is an absolute exaggeration. In fact, it’s about time exaggerations were replaced with calm realism and sober perspective. I don’t see anybody raising a finger to any jew in any country, be it in Europe or South America today. To the latter continent immigrated Jews and Nazis both and they moved on with life, in spite of difficulties in entry just as equal or worse from USA’s and UK’s, so why this insistence on blaming the USA and the UK of not having been welcoming to Jews, if not for sentimental blackmail? I see Mexicans and other South Americans being denied entry too and they get plenty of persecution back home TODAY, not 70 years ago.

Posted by Dan | Report as abusive

Anubis – the cold war didn’t start until after World War II.It didn’t really start until The USSR exploded it’s own atom bomb. During the war there were millions of European refugees. The Jewish victims of Hitler were just millions among many more millions. The UN has also recently revised the estimate of the number of people destroyed in the concentration camps and other slave labor camps by the Nazi machine. About 6 million were Jewish. Another 12 million were comprised of any number of “undesirables” from all over Europe and the Soviet Union. What happened to all the black people in Europe? No one ever mentions the fact that the Nazi’s didn’t spare them either.

I’m sure many of those millions of refugees would have gladly left the theater of war too.

It wasn’t until the 60’s that the issue of Jewish refugees became almost the only story anyone mentions about the war. In the movie “Judgment at Nuremberg”, the issue of Jewish exterminations wasn’t even top most on the author’s mind. There were other lives just as important as Jewish lives. The great scandal in that movie was the treatment of the aged, infirm and mentally ill.

There were tens of millions of European refugees who were not accepted by other countries either, you should know. The US did accept Jewish refugees but they tended to be people with wealth, influence of special skills.
The quota system still favors the well off, those with special skills and the connected.

Posted by Paul Rosa | Report as abusive

Paul Rosa,
The people moving into the settlements tend to be those at the bottom of the economic food chain. These are people living in poverty who can either choose to live in the ghetto’s or live in a new house that is way underpriced (underpriced because people know how dangerous the location is). It’s a choice, but really only a dangerous choice at a particular time because odds are good that if you’re living in a settlement now you’ll probably have a new settlement the next year built even further out and if not a settlement a big wall.

Posted by Michael Ham | Report as abusive