Last week, I took a tour of Hebron with Breaking the Silence (שוברים שתיקה). Breaking the Silence (BtS) is an organization made up of veteran Israeli soldiers who served in the West Bank and Gaza and who seek to expose others to the realities of the territories.
Hebron is considered one of the holiest cities for Jews (along with Jerusalem, Tzfat and Tiberias). It is also a holy place for Muslims and Christians, as the grave of Abraham (and most of the patriarchs and matriarchs) is located there. The city is divided into two sections, H1 and H2. H1 is a thriving city, full of industries and life, and is under the control of the Palestinian Authority. H2 is under Israeli Military control, which protects the 500 Jewish settlers living there and dictates what the 35,000 Palestinian residents can and cannot do and where they can and cannot go.
Our tour of Hebron began at the Jewish settlement of Kiryat Arba, a settlement just outside of Hebron with a population of 7,000. Kiryat Arba was originally designed by the Israeli government as a way to ease tension in the center of the city by moving the Jewish population to the outskirts. But, instead of moving, a population of Jewish settlers stayed in the center of the old city, and many more came to inhabit the larger settlement on the outskirts.
In order to “protect” the Jewish settlers, the Israeli government has stationed almost as many soldiers as there are settlers. These soldiers are there to monitor the “sanitized” market area of Hebron. The streets that used to be bustling with shops selling spices, produce, meats, and precious metals are forbidden to Palestinians. They are not allowed to open stores there, not allowed to drive there, and those who claim residence outside of that area are not allowed to walk there. These prohibitions have emptied the market area of Shuhada St, leaving it a ghost area.
On the street opposite the deserted precious metal market area, we watched as a nonviolent protest was shut down with some sort of smokey gunfire (I was assured it wasn’t actually guns, but it wasn’t specified what it was). Since 1994, Palestinian residents have protested the closure of Shuhada St, but their voices are not recognized.
The relationship of soldiers to settlers enables settler violence towards Palestinians to have little to no repercussions. The entire system is engineered to protect the settlers at any cost. Palestinian homes’ windows and balconies are protected with barricades to prevent the rocks thrown by Jewish settlers to break them, while the settlers living on the other side of the street have homes full of open windows.
It just so happened that as our tour guide, Avner, began to explain this disparity and introduce us to the family who lived in one of these houses, we were standing right outside the open window of a grieving widow who was in the midst of preparing for Shabbat. Her husband had been murdered by Palestinians a number of years ago, and she began to yell at us, at first telling us to move away from her home. Her yelling escalated to throwing water at us, and then she came out of her home, still screaming.
When this began, the Israeli soldiers asked us to move. Either up the street, or down the street. Amidst the woman’s screaming and the commotion, we could no longer hear Avner’s voice, but he was continuing to speak. As things escalated, the police came too and told us more harshly to move. Avner refused, stating our right to stand on the street where we wished. While that might theoretically be true, as I stated before, the settlers have the power, and after arguments between Avner and the police, while the widow continued to yell, we made our way back towards where we’d come from.
The idea of Breaking the Silence is to help Israelis and tourists understand what is going on in Israel’s territories. To put a face to the people living under the occupation. To understand why the market area is deserted and silenced. And to understand who has the power to shout. And whose shouts are heard.
Avner could have handled the confrontation with the widowed settler differently. We could have moved away from her window, where we could have heard what Avner was saying. Her grief is a valid emotion, and is not unique to her alone. Even though we should have been allowed to stand where we want, the statement he was making by not moving did not prove anything to anybody. It proved the weight of hurt and loss on both sides and his power to provoke violence.
The Israeli army is there to protect the settlers. That is their purpose. After pressure from Jewish leaders in Hebron, these soldiers are now preventing Breaking the Silence from conducting tours in Hebron. This is apparently a temporary ban, but according to Haaretz, there is no timeline as to when they will continue.
This news was released today, and the article directly references the situation that occurred during my tour (https://www.haaretz.com/israel-news/.premium-after-settlers-pressure-idf-bans-anti-occupation-group-from-hebron-1.5848477). There is also a subtitled video of the widow yelling:
(I filmed a nearly identical video, but can’t supply the translation myself).
I have no doubt as to whose shouts are being heard. I witnessed a peaceful protest dispersed and silenced with no acknowledgement or further thought. And I’m watching as Israel listens to an angry woman’s screams, preventing others from visiting and trying to understand what’s going on in Hebron.