I travel to H2 with Breaking the Silence, an organisation of former Israeli soldiers who have been collecting testimonies from Israeli military personnel. To get to Hebron we have to pass through Qyriat Alba – a fully functioning settler town in the heart of the West Bank. The settlers don’t take kindly to liberal types turning up to see for themselves what’s going on, so the Police won’t let us enter Hebron without an escort. As our bus waits beyond the first of four checkpoints we have to pass through to get into town, I get chatting to my neighbour Assaf. Assaf is an Israeli linguistics student, born and raised in Jerusalem, he is 29 years old and this is the first time he has been in the West Bank.
“What about the army?” Military service is most Israelis first experience crossing the green line.
“I had an epileptic seizure,” he tells me. “So they let me go.”
“So what do you think of it here?”
“Actually, it’s quite nice.” He’s surprised. He was expecting squalor and jihadis. And it is nice, there are vineyards, dry stone walls, a man drives a donkey cart up the hard shoulder. Despite the lack of suicide bombers, Assaf is still visibly on edge. Only in Jerusalem could it take a man three decades to cross town…okay, maybe Sunderland. “You know,” he says with a disbelieving shake of the head. “The police escort is to protect us from the settlers, not the Palestinians.”
Later, when we arrive in Hebron, Hami will ask us if we were attacked on route. We tell him no. “Ah, that is a pity,” he says. “I like my visitors to get attacked by the settlers. Get the full Palestinian experience.” He laughs. But he really does want us to ‘get it’.
Israeli settlers are free to move around H2. Razor wire and roadblocks keep the Palestinians at arms length. Only Israeli cars are allowed to drive here. Palestinians living in the area are only allowed to walk on certain streets, and then often behind barriers and only at certain times of the day. When they do, they are stopped, searched, held, harassed and, if the soldier on duty feels the urge, beaten. When they don’t the searches and beatings do house calls.
“Most [of our activities] are intended to make Palestinians know that the army is there, that they musn’t relax for a second,” says one former IDF soldier in Soldier’s Testimonies from Hebron produced by Breaking The Silence. Breaking The Silence have been publishing (and internet broadcasting) accounts from former soldiers in an attempt to show wider Israeli society exactly what the occupation entails. It makes for horrific reading. The Hebron accounts include stories of soldiers regularly harassing families at 2am, taking cars, IDs, tear gassing mosques, making fake arrests (dragging a named individual from his home as ‘practice’), humiliating and beating Palestinians at checkpoints and shooting ‘to maim’ from rooftops.
None of this is news to Hami. “When the settlers burn our cars or crops or attack our children we go to make a complaint and they say, sorry the computer is broken. My grandmother has a supermarket full of ailments. If we want an ambulance to get through to the house we have to negotiate with the military. If we’re lucky we’ll get one in 48hrs. When it comes the settlers stone it and the army say, ‘You asked for an ambulance not protection for it’.”
“We live under two different laws,” says Hebron H2 resident turned video activist, Essa Amro. “I am under occupation law and the settlers are under Israeli law. I am not allowed to defend myself but the settlers are allowed to walk around with guns. Once I was attacked in front of a policeman, but they told me I had to go to the police station to make a complaint.”
Complaints are fairly useless, settlers are rarely arrested and almost never make it to court. The courts consider them patriots. As in the case of Nahum Korman who received a six months community service order in 2001 after beating an 11 year old Palestinian boy to death.
“A settler shot three members of my friend’s family,” says Hami. “He was arrested and later released.” The military response was six months curfew for Hebron’s Palestinians. That means no one leaves their house for six months, only during a permitted 2-3 hour window to get water and supplies. Needless to say, all that close contact lead to a baby boom – curfews, it would seem, don’t help Israel’s plans to tip the demographic balance in their favour.
H2 bristles with security cameras. Some watch the, ostensibly, larger Palestinian controlled H1 zone, but most watch the settler enclave. An IDF soldier explained to Breaking the Silence what happened when an H1 settler was confronted with footage of him beating a Palestinian: “He called up the brigade commander and said, ‘Those cameras are there to protect Jews, not Arabs. This must not be misunderstood, what happened there was a criminal felony not part of the insurgency.’ Since then no policeman has been allowed to enter the CCTV monitoring room.” All the cams take their power from the settlers’ homes, so if they are planning something particularly brutal for a Palestinian family they just pull the plug for an hour or so.