Sunday, July 5, 2009

What's in a Name?: Hebron/Khalil

“I went to Hebron yesterday.”


“Hebron. You know, West Bank village, full of violent settlers.”



“The town is called Khalil. It is not Hebron.”

This brief conversation occurred on Friday with a colleague of mine. While superficially, the conversation was short and without much substance, it is important to try and connect with the motives behind the words.

As I have mentioned in a previous post, a major front in this conflict between Palestinian and Israeli is the war of names. To Arabs, Jerusalem is Al-Quds. To Jews, Jerusalem is Yerushalayim. To Palestinians, the town I visited is called Khalil. Jews call the town by its biblical name, Hebron.

Hebron/Khalil is significant in the narratives of all three major monotheistic religions. It houses the Tomb of the Patriarchs, where many believe the bones of Abraham reside. At one point in history, King David ruled the city before he came to Jerusalem.

Jews specifically have a complex history with the town. The original community was driven out during the Diaspora, although a group of Spanish Jews resettled in the 16th century. A tragic event in the early 20th century, namely the massacre of Jews at the hands of Arab aggressors, left the city empty of a Jewish presence.

In modern Hebron, 4 major settlements comprise the Jewish population, the largest being Qiryat Arba with a population of about 7,000. I use the term “settlement” to refer to a group of Jews living within the West Bank in insular communities protected by the Israeli Defense Force. Settlers are often given tax-breaks by the government, provided with better mortgages and pay the “senior” rates on public transportation. Hebronite settlers of a certain age are also eligible to apply for free weapons (semi-automatic) provided by the Israeli government, incumbent on their passing of a gun certification course. Today, several settler families live in an IDF barracks in Hebron which is a flagrant violation of Israeli law.

My experience in Hebron was entirely depressing. The SCB Fellows (minus Liza who has done this tour already) went with the “Breaking the Silence Tour,” a tour company of former IDF soldiers serving in Hebron who felt compelled to share their stories with anyone who will listen.

The tour started with an introduction by a Palestinian man living in Hebron/Khalil who has seen the effects of violent settlers in the area. Hebron settlers are notoriously violent, and have even attacked tour groups in the past. Due to the potential threat, our group was accompanied by several Israeli police officers throughout the entirety of the trip. This man (as he describes in the video) has had his fields burned by settlers, has seen his car burned by settlers, and has even witnessed an ambulance attacked by settlers as it was carrying an elderly woman from his home.


The Breaking the Silence literature describes Hebron as a “ghost town,” and the term is certainly applicable. Internal fighting in Hebron between IDF soldiers and guerilla Palestinians has prompted harsh security measures by the IDF on the Palestinian community. The city is split into two parts; H1 for the Palestinians, and H2 for Jews and the IDF. What was once the main road in Hebron is now entirely empty but for sporadic car traffic and the occasional pedestrian. This road is called a “sterile road,” meaning Palestinians are disallowed from walking on it. The front doors of the Palestinian homes that line the road are welded shut, forcing the residents to use the roof in order to exit.

What was once a bustling Hebron street is now "sterile."

Palestinian home welded shut.

On one occasion, as we stopped to speak about the old market of the city (which was raided by settlers on several occasions until it was closed entirely) a group of settler girls who could have been no older than 10 stopped and listened. Although they likely did not understand much of what was said, they all began to chant in Hebrew “Yehuda, you’re a traitor.” Yehuda was the orthodox Jew who served as our tour guide.

Hebron/Khalil is a physical manifestation of a major reason for the perpetuation of conflict between Israeli Jews and Palestinians. Many religious Jews feel entitled to possess the town of Hebron, and I cannot discredit that sentiment under any circumstances. It is not within my powers as a fellow human to disregard the opinions of another.

I must say, however, that the means by which the Hebronite settlers go about their business is horrendous. These people attempt to attain their goals by infusing violence into the scenario, and prove themselves to be no better than the “terrorists” that we crit

icize so often in our western media. A religious individual, as our Palestinian host noted, is not one who should resort to violent extremism. Religion should bring inner-peace and sanctity. It should not prompt one to spray-paint “Death to the Arabs” on the walls of Hebron.

"Death to the Arabs" written in Hebrew.

The Israeli government also must play a role in restricting the Hebronite settlers. By providing settlers with financial incentives to live in Qiryat Arba rather than in Jerusalem, the government is perpetuating the problem that resides in the further encroachment of settlements on West Bank Palestinian towns. Settlers are rarely prosecuted for their violent actions against the Palestinian communities, and even when they are, the settlers are acquitted or given a slap on the wrist. By creating a strict set of rules to which the settlers must adhere, I believe that some of the tension can be relieved in these areas.

It is impossible to have anything but a vile reaction to seeing this desolate West Bank town. The scars of the conflict rise high above the skin of its streets, and are extremely apparent to all who see its streets and buildings. Please do not mistake my criticism of the settlers as an indication of bias. There is no excuse for the ongoing attacks against IDF soldiers by Palestinian guerillas in Hebron/Khalil. If you take anything from this blog entry, just know that I am simply stating that violence in any form is despicable, and cannot be tolerated.

p.s. Beards of Jerusalem. You know who you are.

1 comment:

  1. i have read the first part and i got the idea from our last meeting about the "ghost town"
    i would love to read more about your experience my frined in the Jew point of view.

    keep going and it would be great if we can meet again.

    take care
    Hasan Odeh - Palestine