Make Hummus, Not Walls
by Larry Zuckerman

An American Jew travels to the occupied Palestinian territory of Hebron with an ex-Israeli soldier leading eye-opening tours of understanding.

Hebron travel

The shabby charter bus opened its doors, as an olive-clad soldier toting an M-16 watched from concrete steps above. Forty travelers from northern Europe and the Americas filed out under a bright January sun to visit Hebron, an embattled city less than an hour from Jerusalem. As we straggled behind our Israeli guide, Shay, wiry Palestinian boys in worn cotton trousers wove deftly among us, hands outstretched. A woman opened her purse and placed coins in two palms, explaining in ragged English that she'd give no more. But a third boy let out an ear-piercing, wordless cry, an angry keening, and marched up the steps after her. His path, I saw, would take him past the soldier, whose facial muscles tightened.

I tensed too. The boy must know he'd get nowhere, yet he continued to scream. Did he risk a confrontation because he felt publicly humiliated? And did the soldier resent being pushed to discipline a ten-year-old?

I had more at stake than revulsion at bloodshed or anxiety about a child. I'm Jewish, and I identify with Israel as a Jewish homeland and haven from anti-Semitism. My wife speaks fluent Hebrew and taught it to our kids. So it pains me to see Israel inflict suffering on itself and others, and I came to Hebron wondering how that looked.

It took no time to find out, at least in one small way. As the boy passed the armed man, the soldier hooked his arm and spun him away, maybe harder than he had to, but measured for effect. The screaming stopped, but both people looked angry.


Shay (pronounced "shy") told us that violence against Palestinians happens daily in Hebron. The flashpoint is the Cave of the Patriarchs, where lies the prophet Abraham, revered in Islam and Judaism as a man of peace. The book of Genesis relates that Abraham did not fear to negotiate with anyone, even God. Yet to Israeli religious extremists, his tomb justifies, a priori, their settlement in Hebron and exclusive possession of his shrine. So it was that in February 1994, Baruch Goldstein killed 29 Muslims praying there and wounded 125 with an assault rifle, before he himself was killed. His grave, which Shay showed us just outside Hebron, proclaims that the deceased was "innocent and pure-hearted," and that "he gave his life for the sake of the nation of Israel, his Torah, and his land." Ever since, increasing restrictions on the Palestinians' rights of movement and access have driven thousands from their homes. The mere presence of so many armed men guarding the tomb of a man of peace speaks volumes.

Today, Shay said, 650 soldiers of the IDF (Israeli Defense Forces) patrol a city of 120,000 to 160,000 Palestinians—the exact figure is unknown—to provide security for less than 1,000 Israeli settlers. And the settlers, through political connections, are the ones to define what security means.

Breaking the Silence
A trim, handsome man in his late twenties, Shay was born to religious parents in the Occupied Territories, settlers themselves. Yet when he did his IDF service in Hebron and other occupied towns, he hated his orders to conduct random, round-the-clock house searches and enforce strict curfews, intended to keep the Palestinians afraid and off balance. His shame at treating people this way, which he freely acknowledged to us, has moved him to lead tours for Breaking the Silence, an organization of IDF veterans opposed to the occupation. When I asked whether they believe in defending Israel, he said, "Of course. We are not pacifists." Security is a given, the organization says, but the implementation must not be extreme, unequal, or unjust.

boarded up

Not surprisingly, our tour met grudging acceptance by the Israeli police in Hebron, which must give permission for us to walk our itinerary. However, the IDF seemed not to mind, and Shay greeted one or two soldiers as friends. Nevertheless, officialdom kept us waiting outside a souvenir store, where stray cats foraged in a garbage container—a familiar sight in Israel. Palestinian friends of Shay's repeatedly offered to sell us plastic bracelets emblazoned with the Palestinian flag. I smiled and shook my head.

When we finally moved, our progress apparently required a soldier wearing a bullet-proof vest to signal an all-clear via walkie-talkie, after which an armored SUV with steel mesh over the windows escorted us. All this to walk fifty yards down Shuhada, a deserted street closed to Palestinian traffic since a sniping incident in 2000. The remnant of a thriving commercial district is a row of two-story apartment buildings whose front doors are barred and where fine-mesh grilles cover all windows. The few Palestinian families allowed to live there must leave or enter their houses by rooftops or other circuitous routes. Shay told us that bored Israeli schoolchildren sometimes throw rocks at the windows, hence the grilles. But the IDF has no authority to arrest or punish the wrongdoers, and the police, if and when they arrive, typically do nothing.

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