Friday, July 4, 2008

Welcome to Hebron

Today was my first full day with CPT in Hebron. Already I feel like I could go on for pages about the situation here, describing the geography, the history, the complex relationships between different groups of people. It all seems important and relevant. But for now I am just going to write about Omar.*

I met Omar while walking around Tal Rumeida (the hill where Hebron was located in biblical times) with another CPTer and a friend of his who is visiting from Canada. Omar has been working with CPT for years, and when he saw us in the street he invited us to his home. We had to take a rocky, makeshift path to get there, climbing through a break between two garden walls. The street that goes to Omar's house is closed to Palestinians, because of a settlement that stands just above his backyard. We entered through the back, but not before Omar stopped to show us his olive trees, which for a time were cut off from him with barbed wire. The barbed wire, thanks to a court order, now sits to the side of the little grove, but there is still trash thrown down from the settlement's balcony, just above the trees.

Living so close to the settlement has meant hell for Omar and his family. On the way to the back door, we passed a row of grape vines. Settlers had severed them all so that the intertwined tops hung eerily above their trunks. Omar's young daughters played in a tree nearby the decapitated vines, and I couldn't help but worry about them there, easily visible from the settlement balcony. I didn't feel any better when Omar showed us the bullet hole above his door from a settler attack in 2003.

We sat in Omar's living room and sipped grape juice while he chain smoked and told stories. He told us about one settler, Rebekah*, who is notorious for her cruelty to Palestinians and their advocates. I had already heard about her from CPTers who have been the target of her verbal and physical abuse. They told me she encourages settler kindergartners to throw rocks at Palestinians. Omar showed us a video of her which had been put together with help from B'Tselem, an Israeli human rights organization. In it she taunts his niece, who is standing behind a fence. "Sharmoota," she says, which is an Arabic curse word meaning whore. She says it over and over, slowly and not too loudly, looking into the niece's face.

Omar also showed us a video of the settler attack in 2003 - the one that left the bullet hole above his door. Tal Rumeida was under curfew at the time (there was a full-time curfew there from 2000-2003), and so all the Palestinians were trapped in their homes when the attack took place. On the video, a mob of hundreds of settlers gather in the street and begin breaking into houses. They break windows and force open gates while soldiers, who so readily use tear gas and rubber bullets against nonviolent Palestinian demonstrations in Bil'in, make no apparent effort to break up the crowd. The video then cuts to the aftermath, showing broken windows and doors and belongings scattered on the floor.

Omar is a father of three, including a baby boy just over a month old. It's his children, of course, that he worries about the most. They are scared of the settlers, he said, and it's important for their fear to be addressed. Mental health workers from Doctors Without Borders come sometimes to meet with children in Hebron, but Omar also talks to his kids about the violence around them. There are two sides to every society, he tells them. The settlers are one side of Israeli society, but his kids also interact with the Israeli peace activists who sometimes visit. One of Omar's Israeli friends is a former soldier who served in Hebron and is now part of Breaking the Silence. In 2003, while Tal Rumeida was under full curfew, this soldier distracted his comrades so that Omar could carry his pregnant wife out of the curfew zone and to a hospital to give birth. Now he and other internationals in Hebron suggest to his kids a friendlier world. In the context of ongoing harassment, it's maybe an insufficient antidote, but Omar hopes these interactions are a chance for his kids to ultimately transcend the violence into which they were born.

*Names have been changed.

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