Cage Life

In the closed military zone of Hebron H2, no one’s life is normal.

“You like football?” asks Hami Abu Haikal.


“You know, Real Madrid, Barcelona?”

We’re sat on the porch of the B’Tselem education center, a house in Hebron. Well I say porch, but it’s a cage really. You see this house is in Hebron H2, a closed Israeli military zone in the middle of a sprawling West Bank city. And why the cage? Well the reason the army has a closed zone in the middle of a town of 150,000 Palestinians is because 500 fundamentalist Jewish settlers have chosen to live there. Hami’s house, and the centre, happen to be inside the Settlers’ enclave. The cage is to protect the Palestinian kids using the centre from the rocks, bottles, vegetables, eggs and molotovs that the settlers like to throw at them.

“I hate football. I have had all the satellite channels from my home disconnected,” continues Hami.

“Look Hami I know Drogba’s diving and the fat pay checks are a pisser, but…”

“Every time there is a game the soldiers come to my house order my family ‘outside’ and they go in my house and watch the game. They drink my coffee, sit on my chairs while my children and the old people sit outside. Day, night, summer, winter, snow, rain. You know what they call us?”

“The soldiers?”

“They say, ‘You are the niggers.’ That’s what they call us. Take me back to Pretoria, the Mississippi Delta.”

Hami has to pass through four checkpoints to get to Hebron’s market out in the H1 zone. His kids’ school is fifteen minutes walk away. It takes them an hour and a half.

“They stop us, ID, search under our clothes, turn out our bags.”

Hami brought each child a second school uniform, so they can change when they get to school if the settlers’ children have attacked them on the way.

Settlements are a major part of the Zionist long game (doing away with Palestine altogether to create one Israeli state ‘from the Jordan’ as they like to say ‘to the sea’). There are around half a million Jewish settlers living in around two hundred settlements in the West Bank. Some are full on towns, some are just hilltop nests of caravans and a gang of gun toting fanatics. Tel Rumeida, in the heart of Hebron is just a single house. A single house under military guard flying a blue and white star of David flag, who’s Arab neighbours have all been evicted.

It’s old school colonisation – in breach of international law and the Geneva Convention. Israel has spent 40 years pouring it’s citizens into an occupied territory. If they’re lucky, in 100 years, we’ll discuss the Palestinians in the same foot shuffling caucasian-guilt-ridden way we discuss Native Americans and the Aborigines. In Botany Bay the British put up stockades, in Palestine Israeli settlers feather their enclaves with razor wire, armed private guards and an army that’s always on hand. Despite the protection given them, it is accepted by all parties that the settlers are a greater threat to Palestinians than the other way round. The settlements are connected by a network of shiny blacktop highways that Palestinians can’t use, though they have recently been given permission to drive on the Hebron road. The reality however, is most Palestinians cannot get on the main roads, as the access routes from their villages have been blocked with huge mounds of bulldozed rubble.

Driving to Hebron we pass the village of El Aruk, a jumble of half built reinforced concrete squares cowering, behind a twenty meter high chain link fence. The gates to the village, manned by the IDF, are opened at dawn and locked at dusk.

“Run and grab every hilltop,” said former PM Ariel Sharon in a moment of panic during the Oslo peace accords. Sharon feared the international community might finally bring a halt to the relentless expansion of Israel into the West Bank and Gaza strip. He need not have worried.

You can live in one of the huge walled settlement towns of East Jerusalem and not even know you are in occupied Palestine. Bathe in your pool, flash on your TV. It’s easy to forget from your red roofed, new build, hilltop fort that you are in an occupied land where the locals have neither electricity or, often, running water. Flush your toilet, no need to consider the untreated sewage pouring into the water system of the crumbling Palestinian village below. Settlers use five times as much water as Palestinians, but only pay a quarter of the price. It’s a golden existence.

But Hebron is something else. The settlers here relish their pariah-hood. They are drawn to the city by the Cave of the Patriarchs – a site sacred to both Muslims and Jews, and in 1994 an American born Israeli physician called Baruch Goldstein walked into the mosque at the Cave with a machine gun. He killed 29 Muslims at prayer and injured another 150 before they disarmed him and beat him to death. Israel’s response to this attack was to put Hebron’s 150,000 Palestinians under curfew and close the city down. The 500 settlers living there in a handful of houses were afforded an army battalion that spent the next eight years driving 13,000 Palestinians from their homes, closing schools, markets and roads in order to create a sterile ring around the settlers, namely the freakish ghost town Hebron H2.

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.

Long division: Hebron Kasbah made safe

“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.

So, Essa has taken it on himself to provide his own Video surveillance and he is now Hebron’s video camera distributor for the human rights organisation B’Tselem. For his troubles he’s been blacklisted and cannot travel freely in, let alone out of, the West Bank. And though the army try hard to disregard his regular evidence of settler and military violence he believes it is making some difference.

“Once I filmed settlers attacking a policemen. But when I gave them the footage they said there had been no complaint, so they were not interested.”

Hebron’s sealed H2 zone is the creepiest of creepy ghost towns. The streets are deserted and all that remains of this once bustling Kasbah are locked shutters daubed with the settler’s hateful graffiti (‘Arabs to the gas chambers’). Beyond the trashed buildings, concrete blockades and razor wire you can make out people moving and hear the Muezzin calling the people of Hebron H1 to prayer.

The only people in the streets of H2 seem to be cops and soldiers, though the settlers feel no compulsion to obey any legislative or moral law. Their racism and violence is backed by a higher authority. In Testimonies From Hebron, one soldier describes how five year old settler children ran through their ranks screaming, ‘Palestinian car!’ to smash the windscreen of a Palestinian electricity engineer (Palestinian workers are still expected to service the H2 settlers.) When the children were told to stop by a soldier, angry mothers came out “disgusted” that their offspring were not being allowed to attack this man at work. Another tells of an incident when soldiers tried to stop settlers smashing up a Palestinian shop and a settler mother put her baby in the road to stop their jeep from moving.

It’s seems a hateful environment. But, as Essa points out: “The settlers’ children are just as much victims as ours”. The soldiers, for their part, look like they’d rather be somewhere else.

“Soldiers have two choices,” says Essa. “Be pro settler or stay silent.” Though now they have the third option of talking to Breaking The Silence (check their testimonies online from Operation Cast Lead in Gaza). Later, supping Yemeni Gat juice in a Jerusalem market Mouse will tell me the army is run by settlers. “Most of the officers are settlers. The police too.”

As we take pictures of Hebron H2’s deserted streets, a settler woman pulls up in her car. “Stop with your lies,” she spits, the hate in her head spilling out all over her face. “Go get married,” she screeches (she thinks we are Israelis). “Go have some babies. Do something useful for Israel. Stop coming here!” She drives off, but wheels the car round to come back to curse us one last time. “Your end is near!” She calls out. I don’t take it personally, I get the impression she means all mankind anyway.

Curious to get the settlers’ take on the H2 experience I sign up to a tour to the Cave of the Patriarchs run by the Hebron settlers. I meet Rabbi Simcha Hochbaum who calls himself the director of tourism for the Jewish community of Hebron – along with a large group of unusually overweight American Jews – at a plush Jerusalem hotel and, together, we board an armour plated, bulletproof bus.

“There’s the Old City,” points out Rabbi Simcha as we pass. “That’s where the Arabs have been acting up. There’s a lot of work to do down there.” We breeze through the border checkpoint. “There’s Bethlehem,” he says over the loudspeaker. “They gave it away.”

Rabbi Hochbaum has been running the tour for years. The gags are well rehearsed, “take my wife, the right wing zealot” and he has a tendency to slip in his most loaded comments among the laughter. “This land was barren,” he says, “before the Jews returned to Eretz Israel.”

Somehow he manages to paint the Jews as perennial victims while justifying some of the more outrageous behaviour and he peppers his diatribe with biblical quotes justifying the theft of land and homes. “‘And I have given you a land for which ye did not labour, and cities which ye built not, and ye dwell in them; of the vineyards and oliveyards which ye planted not do ye eat,” he intones. “That’s from Joshua 24:13.” It seems extreme even for such a retributive God so I check it later to see that the quote is correct. It is. Though in the process I stumble across other verses that the Rabbi didn’t repeat, like Nehemiah 5:11: ‘Restore, I pray you, to them, even this day, their lands, their vineyards, their oliveyards, and their houses, also the hundredth part of the money, and of the corn, the wine, and the oil, that ye exact of them.’

Most on the bus – mainly moneyed Americans some dressed as orthodox Jews whose zealousness seems pale compared to the Israeli variety – have never been in the West Bank before and many appear agitated. “Man, no one told me there’d be green plates,” says Eric from California as he suspiciously eyes passing Palestinian cars he can see out his window.

I am surprised how candid the settlers are about their agenda. “They’re not all terrorists but you can’t tell them apart,” says the Rabbi. ‘They’ are the ‘Arabs’ – he never uses the term Palestinian. “But the ones that aren’t bombing us are watching our schoolchildren.” We pass through the settler enclave of Qiriat Arba. “Just up there,” says Rabbi Simcha “is the shrine” to “the hero Baruch Goldstein”, the mass murderer who gunned down 29 Palestinians at prayer. He points out the homes of some Bedouins. “They won’t move out,” he says. “But for some reason its considered racist to throw them out.” This gets a big laugh on the bus.

Maybe I haven’t been laughing hard enough at Rabbi Hochbaum’s jokes, because he dispatches Heskie, an orthodox Israeli Jewish lad in his twenties, to the back of the bus to sound me out. Heskie’s a likeable enough chap, though he talks to me like a customs agent trying to get me to get me to expose myself as a Palestinian spy, or at least a reporter.

We visit the Cave and drive around the deserted H2 kasbah. It seems as hateful and lonely as it did a few days ago. I ask Simcha about the empty shops. “The Arabs ran away,” he says. “But we can’t take over the shops because the Arabs own them.”

Orthodox tourists visit the Hebron shrines.

We weave through the slouching soldiers and the Rabbi takes us into the heavily fortified building that houses several settler families and the H2 community’s synagogue. Up in his apartment he tells us all how in the 1970s, on an early visit to Hebron, he had photographed his wife on top of “the ruin of this very building”. I ask if I can see the photo. He says, “It’s in a museum.” Surely you have a copy? “I can’t find the album.” He waves my request aside with a final speech of how the Jews of Hebron cannot live on goodwill alone and hands out pens. The assembled Brooklynites and Californians dutifully write cheques and hand over rolls of dollar bills. At lunchtime, as I talk to Rabbi Hochbaum, he make a point of asking me to hold out my hand so he can count the money and cheques into it. He wants me to see that the dozen or so Americans on the bus have just handed over more than $2000 for his cause.

I leave the Rabbi’s group, to the utter dismay of Eric (“You’re going in there?!”) and pass through the steel gates into Hebron H1, the Palestinian city. The Kasbah here is covered in chicken wire to prevent missiles, I am told, thrown by the settlers from hitting shoppers. True enough the wire is covered with stones and bottles and nappies and other detritus. A shopkeeper, who’s shop lies beneath a settler’s building clambers through his flood destroyed stock and the shell of his premises and points out the holes in the ceiling the settlers drilled before shoving a running hosepipe through.

I chat with another stall holder and ask him about the ‘ruined’ building in which Simcha and the others made their home. “Ruined?” he gives a dry laugh. “When they took that building, it was a school.”

He tells me to come and meet his friend Mohammed who’s house backs onto the H2 wall. Mohammed, a respectable Palestinian man in his late forties, takes us onto his flat roof – the garden space of a Palestinian home -which is overlooked by another three stories of a settler building. The roof is covered in the same detritus I saw over the Kasbah: nappies, stones, broken glass. “Sometimes they throw piss and shit,” says Mohammed, “even bottles of acid.”

Every year in Brooklyn, New York, a ‘charity’ calling itself the Hebron Fund holds a $300 a ticket fundraising

Nets protect the functioning part of the H2 kasbah from missiles thrown from the settler house above.

dinner in support of the settlers of Hebron. Last Year they called it the Hebron Aid Flotilla – a gybe at the Israeli military attack on the Gaza Aid Flotilla that left nine people dead – and expected to raise a six figure sum all “IRS exempt”.

We leave the roof and go back inside Mohammed’s house where his wife makes us strong coffee and the kids

draw pictures for us. When we leave, Mohammed walks us to the steps that descend from his front door. Above us, peering through the chicken wire from the yard of the settlers’ compound above stare three of the settlers’ children. The younger two are three or four years old, the eldest one, a boy with a long cold stare, is perhaps six, seven at the most. As we walk down the steps this child hawks up a gob and spits it at Mohammed. It lands on the steps between us. I feel my eyes widen and I open my mouth to speak. “Leave it,” says Mohammed not even looking to meet the child’s gaze. Welcome to Hebron.