The(com)Promised Land Dispatch 4: Wall-Eyed

by Jeff Greenwald, Mar 11, 2004 | Destinations: Israel / Jerusalem

Star of David spray painted on an Arab shop, next to a mosque in Hebron, Israel.
Palestianian schoolchildren pass a checkpoint on their way to school in Hebron.
Ghazi Brigieth and his family, Beit Ommar.

Damascus Gate was nearly empty at 9 a.m., the sun leaning lightly on the flagstones of East Jerusalem. I bought the Herald Tribune and read about Mars, waiting for the woman who would be my liaison in the West Bank. Germana Nijin arrived on the dot of nine: a tall and highly animated Italian woman who works for a California-based non-profit called Rebuilding Homes.

We were joined by two of her friends from the Christian Peacemakers Team -- Diane Roe and Maia Williams -- and drank hot, thick Arabic coffee from thin plastic cups. I've never been to East Jerusalem, and I was taken aback by how different it felt from the western, Jewish areas I'd been staying in. The bread was hot and fresh, and the streets seemed more relaxed; it felt funkier, and more livable; and judging from the price of our coffees, it was orders of magnitude less expensive.

We took a shared minivan into Hebron, the driver a cool dude with faded jeans and cat-eye sunglasses who drove the Ford like a Ferrari. The check posts were not a huge problem; the Israeli soldiers simply waved us through. It makes sense: getting into Hebron is the easy part.

When the van let us out we piled into a beat-up yellow taxi, and drove into Hebron proper. Skinned camels hung from hooks outside butcher shops; a billboard showing a dove carrying a length of barbed wire proclaimed the words No Wall in three languages. We passed a line of Palestinian fire trucks, and a neon-lit lunch spot offering "Kentacky" Fried Chicken. A few more blocks brought us to the bazaar area, and from there we walked, entering the canyon-like streets of the Old City.

* * *

For many years before the Zionist immigrations of the 1800s, Hebron was primarily an Arab enclave. But the city is the site of a revered mosque where the Old Testament prophets Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob - as well as their wives, Sarah, Rebecca, and Leah - are buried. These "Tombs of the Patriarchs" are sacred to Jews as well as to Muslims. By and large, Jews and Arabs lived together here peacefully -- until a violent wave of anti-Semitism, instigated by an Arab Mufti based in Jerusalem, swept through the land in August of 1929. Within a week's time, 67 Jews were slaughtered in Hebron alone, with many more wounded.

But political winds can change quickly in the Middle East, and yesterday's victim often becomes tomorrow's victor. When this happens, old feuds are seldom laid to rest.

About 20 years ago, groups of ultra-orthodox Jewish settlers began moving back into Hebron, building tall apartment complexes close to the mosque. Licking old wounds, and driven by a sense of Biblical ownership, many began harassing and tormenting their Arab neighbors in an effort to drive them out of this now Israeli town.

As time has progressed, and the status of the West Bank continues to be the center of passionate debate, the settlers' situation has become precarious. Less than 450 settlers now live here, surrounded by tens of thousands of Arabs -- but their belligerence has defined the tragedy that makes Hebron what it is today.

Normally I'd turn a jaded and cynical eye to such claims. But for all the travel I've done, I was unprepared for the post-apocalyptic air of this tortured city. Stars of David have been spray-painted on the doors of shuttered Arab businesses; Hebrew profanities mark the old stone walls; steel netting hangs suspended above the once-thriving market lane, to keep bricks and garbage from raining down onto Arab shoppers from the settlement complexes looming above. Over the past few years the Israeli Army has continually shifted their roadblocks and curfew zones, making it foolish to set up business anywhere near the danger zone. Because of this, nearly all the Palestinian merchants have relocated as close to the center of new Hebron as possible, while the once vibrant and beautiful lovely Old City lies forlorn and virtually uninhabited.

Much of Arab Hebron is virtually a ghost town. The broad, sloping avenues are lined with crumbling buildings and padlocked shops; guard posts of fortified steel and bulletproof glass share corners with empty playgrounds. I saw all of this is in the area known as "H2," ostensibly the Jewish section of town -- though most of it is simply a no-man's-land, a maze of wrecked streets and crippled neighborhoods forming a moat around the tiny Jewish settlements.

When I expressed my shock and astonishment to Germana, she shared a sentiment that one of her Jewish friends once expressed: "We don't have an insane asylum in Israel. We have Hebron."

The four Jewish settlements are located on Shuhada Street, protected by barbed-wire barricades and army posts. The public school is there as well. I stood near the entrance of Shuhada, and watched as Palestinian children going to school in the Jewish neighborhoods passed in single file through a heavily fortified check post, opening their schoolbags and showing their books and papers to the soldiers. They laughed and joked with each other, treated it like a game. I was reminded of a recent film, Life is Beautiful, which shows a similar tactic at work in a Nazi concentration camp.

For about ten years, even after the settlers built their apartments in Hebron, Jews and Arabs worshipped at the Tomb of the Patriarchs together. All that changed on February 25th, 1994, when a fanatical ultra-orthodox settler named Baruch Goldstein walked into the mosque section of the tombs and opened fire with a machine gun. Twenty-five Moslems were killed, and scores wounded. The Israelis closed the site for nine months -- and when they opened it again the holy site had been divided in two. Today, steel walls with tempered glass windows separate Jew from Moslem.

I entered the mosque with a local guide named Abjami, a short, white-haired, man who had somehow survived the massacre. We passed through the metal detector and checkpoint, and ascended a short flight of stone steps.

This was the first mosque I'd been in for years, and I relished the aura of sanctity and prayer. Islamic calligraphy, one of the loveliest expressions of human devotion ever devised, hung around the domed ceiling, and floor was covered with soft red carpets. After a short visit to the tomb of Abraham (which did not seem to emanate any spiritual power, at least not to me), I sat down and spent a few minutes in meditation. I don't know how often Jews are permitted into the Hebron mosque, but I used the opportunity to petition for an end to this ancient and tiresome conflict, which seems more a force of habit than any rational motive.

As we were making our way back to the Christian Peacemaker Team house through the desolate streets, we neared a checkpoint. One of the observers in our small group was asked, by an Israeli soldier, for his passport. When the soldier returned it to him, I voluntarily held out mine. He shook his head, and waved us by. Germana gripped me shoulder.

"Never, ever show your passport unless you are asked for it," she said.

Her comment puzzled me. What harm could it do?

"It gives them more power than they have," she said. "More than they deserve. And it reinforces the idea that they are in control here."

"But they are in control here."

"Yes. And that's exactly why we must hang on to every shred of independence that we have."

* * *

The Municipality of Beit Ommar sprawls over the grapevine and almond tree-covered hills just a few kilometers north of Hebron, a hive of sandstone cubes scattered across the undulations like weathered salt crystals. This was where I met my hosts for the night, the family of a well-respected Palestinian peacemaker named Ghazi Brigieth.

Ghazi is 42, and his home is on the border between Beit Ommar (for which he worked as an electrician before badly injuring his left arm in a fall from a truck last September) and Area C, which is under the control of the Israeli military. Ghazi is a paunchy, soulful man, immediately likeable, with an excellent command of English. He has lost two brothers to Israeli bullets since 2000 - the period known as the Second Intifada (uprising). His response has not been madness or bloodlust; instead, he formed a nationwide organization called Bereaved Families. The activist network, made up of both Israelis and Palestinian, is more than 400 families strong; Ghazi travels the world, lecturing on peace and reconciliation all over Asia, Europe and the United States. It was a privilege - and an overwhelming education - to have his wisdom and eloquence all to myself, if only for a night and a morning.

When I first arrived, the four members of our initial group - Germana, Diane, Maia and myself - sat outside Ghazi's modest cement home while a close friend of Ghazi's, Nabil, described how his home had been demolished by Israeli bulldozers. A tall man with a long face, graying beard, and pearl-buttoned denim shirt, he told us how, and when, but he couldn't really tell us why; because though it happened about seven years ago nobody really knows why.

As Nabil told his story for what must have been the hundredth time, and Germana took notes for her home office, Ghazi's three young children played around us and in the dirt road. I was drawn in by the dark, haunted eyes of his three-year-old son, Yusef. Earlier in the day, Ghazi told us, Yusef had said a bad word. Afraid that he'd offended his parents, he pretended to pull a gun out from under his shirt - and put the barrel in his mouth. I was appalled, of course, and wondered what other behavioral quirks might be present in a child born into such a Kafkaesque situation. I had my answer very soon. As the afternoon faded and the slow roll to dusk began, little Yusef picked up a black water bottle and put it to his mouth like a megaphone. "Mamnua a?tizjawol!" he cried out in Arabic. "Mumnua a?tizjawol!" Curfew! Curfew! It is forbidden to walk outside!

The rest of the delegation left around six. Ghazi, his family, and I were on our own. We spoke for a long time about his travels, and peacemaking efforts, and although he is a deeply committed man who believes with his heart and soul in reconciliation, he cannot describe how such a reconciliation might come about - except through an Israeli withdrawal back to the 1967 borders.

We drove together into the center of Beit Ommar, where I accompanied him into an Internet café to check his email - the universal plague. Afterward we walked together down a side street, where five young Palestinians sat on a cement verandah outside small shop, smoking hookahs and drinking black tea. We were invited to join them - everyone loves Ghazi - and entered into a lively discussion about the prospects for Israeli/Palestinian peace.

Like Ghazi, nobody could offer a solution to the nightmare haunting this land. But the fact that emerged - and it felt both true and dramatic, coming so directly from the source - was that, without Arafat, there will be no peace settlement. Because, despite the cries from Bush and Sharon that Arafat cannot be a negotiating partner, there is a deep conviction that no one else can speak for the Palestinians. No other leader has emerged, there is no one in the wings, and anyone who takes that mantle simply must answer to Arafat.

The great fear shared by Ghazi and his friends is not that Arafat will make concessions to the Israelis. It is that, if a peace deal is not made before Arafat's death, the Palestinian territories will descend into civil war as Hamas, Islamic Jihad, and various other factions battle for dominance. Yassar Arafat, though not popular, has been, and remains, the only leader who has attained enough power and credibility to make his decision stick.

This is a terrifying reality to the Palestinians, though it's not well appreciated by most Americans. Arafat is an old man, who has already had at least one stroke. If he dies before an agreement is reached, there will almost certainly be chaos. With chaos will come more devastating Israeli clampdowns - and the loss of any hope for a Palestinian homeland.

This was the best argument I heard supporting the notion that the rational, increasingly desperate Palestinian (i.e., the vast majority of them) desires a settlement as much as the average, terror-weary Israeli does. In many ways, it's now or never. Arafat may not have the power to stop suicide bombings, but without his stewardship the whole region will explode. The last, best hope for Israel is to work with the enemy they know. The alternative may be a nightmare akin to the one brewing in Iraq.

* * *

The following morning, Ghazi walked me down the dirt road that runs past his house, and toward a field of peach and almond trees to the north. The West Bank is a lovely place; it was far warmer than usual for this time of year, and all the trees were in lavish bloom. Under the twisted boughs of a pine lay the ruins of a friend's house, demolished by the Israeli Army. Huge slabs of cement lay collapsed atop each other, surrounded by scattered household flotsam. The house, when it stood, had commanded a lovely view, across the lush valley and its neatly planted fruit and nut trees.

I rejoined Ghazi on the road. He pointed toward a distant hilltop, where a Jewish settlement had been erected, and to another hill just east of there, crowned by another settlement. Both towns, unlike Beit Ommar to the south, were marked by tall microwave antennae.

"I brought you here," he said, to show you where they Israeli government says they will put the barrier wall."

"Hmmm - So the wall will come down that little valley between, and fence off the two settlements?"

"No," he said with tight amusement. "The wall will come where we stand. Right here. They will give the settlers all of our fields, and keep us in this area here, around the town of Beit Ommar itself."

"How will you get to your trees?"

Ghazi was silent. A tractor, then another, then another, chugged down the road on the far side of the valley; Palestinian farmers heading out to their orchards.

"There are more than 1,200 tractors in Beit Ommar," said Ghazi. "Seventy percent of the people here rely on agriculture to survive. Where will they go when we are cut off from our land? Never in 40 years, has a single bullet been fired from this municipality. Never have we produced a suicide bomber. But what will people do when the barrier wall is built, cutting them off from their trees and their land and their families? By making the wall, they will make the young people here into suicide bombers."

Little Yusef, as if on cue, picked up a long twig and began aiming down its barrel. "I'm the Israeli Army," he pronounced. I'm going to shoot you."

His father scolded him, embraced him, and kissed him with a look of inexpressible concern.

"We have much trouble with this one," he said. "He is always scared, can never decide where he wants to be. He feels unsafe. When we are here, he wants to be home. When we are home, he wants to be in the town. When we are in town, he wants to be with his mother."

I asked Ghazi if he had seen a map showing exactly where the wall is to be built.

"You can never count on the maps," he shrugged. "The only way we will know, is to see the bulldozer. To see where the wall will be, we must look between the wheels of the bulldozer."

* * * * *