The Israeli soldier stands at the entrance to Shuhada Street. The street is deserted, its stores shuttered, doors welded shut. The old center of Hebron has been a ghost town for many years. The Israel Defense Forces refer to “tzir sterili,” or sterile roads, because no Palestinian is allowed on them, whether in a car or on foot.
The occupation of the West Bank is a half-century old. That’s a long time. Jews did not go to the Holy Land to deploy for another people the biological metaphors of classic racism that accompanied their persecution over centuries. But the exercise of overwhelming power is corrupting, to the point that “sterile” streets, presumably freed of disease-ridden natives, enter the lexicon.
The soldier at the checkpoint is a young man with a ready smile. He tells me he’s visited New York. He asks where I bought my watch. I ask him what he’s done to merit the punishment of Hebron. He laughs, a little uneasily. He’s clearly uncomfortable with his mission, enforcing segregation, and wants to connect. No doubt he’d rather be on the beach in Tel Aviv enjoying a beer.
If there’s an endpoint to the terrible logic of an occupation driven in part by a fanatical settler movement abetted by the state of Israel, that place is the historic center of Hebron. Once home to the souk and jewelry market, a bustling maze of commerce, it is now a stretch of apocalyptic real estate. Wires trail down crumbling walls. Garbage accumulates. Mingling is obliterated. Security demands separation.
The soldier, armed with an M-16 rifle, talks to a Hebrew-speaking friend of mine. He says it’s good that we are seeing soldiers for who they really are. Who they really are, often, translates as young Israelis in impossible situations doing their patriotic duty but troubled by what they see. I recall my cousin, who served in Hebron in the early 1990s, telling me: “You are treating families in a way you would not want your own family to be treated. It’s as simple as that.”
I was last here in 2004. It’s gotten worse. I wrote then: “Every loss is nursed, proof of the irremediable barbarism of the enemy. The past is pored over, an immense repository of spilt blood that justifies more bloodshed.” Hebron, home to about 215,000 Palestinians, and about 8,000 settlers between adjacent Kiryat Arba and the city itself, festers. The status quo is not static. Everybody knows there will another explosion. Nobody knows when.
There’s the boom of stun grenades in the distance. Palestinian kids have been throwing stones; the Israel Defense Forces respond. The soldier is waiting for a call from his commander. Until he gets it, we cannot pass.
I stand at the checkpoint with Yehuda Shaul, who served in the infantry in Hebron and later became a founder of Breaking the Silence, an advocacy group that collects testimonies from former Israeli soldiers troubled by their service. Shaul’s a well-known figure in Hebron. He calls a lawyer for his organization. A half-hour later, we are allowed to proceed.
Abraham is buried in Hebron. He is the first patriarch to the Jews. For Muslims, he’s a prophet called Ibrahim and a model for humankind. To settlers, this is the first Jewish city in the biblical hills of Judea. To the Palestinian majority, this is their centuries-old home under relentless Israeli military occupation.
Like every Israeli-Palestinian argument, this one has no resolution. Other than to say the past is gone and what matters is the future.
Ever backward the violence spirals: the execution-style killing of an incapacitated Palestinian attacker by an I.D.F. soldier in 2016; the stabbing to death that year of a 13-year-old Jewish girl in Kiryat Arba by a Palestinian attacker; the killing of 12 Israelis by Palestinian snipers in 2002; the 1994 murder of 29 Muslims at prayer by Baruch Goldstein. A sign on Shuhada Street says: “This land was stolen by Arabs following the murder of 67 Hebron Jews in 1929.”
There is no end to this without leadership.
Shaul came to Hebron as an I.D.F. soldier during the second intifada. He remembers a mission statement on a wall: “To protect and defend the inhabitants of the Jewish community of Hebron.” He was ordered to fire a grenade machine gun into a heavily populated Palestinian residential area. He saw a Palestinian medical clinic destroyed. Doubts grew.
“It’s not defense, or prevention. It’s offense against Palestinian independence. That is the mission,” Shaul says. “The view is that between the river and the sea there is room for one state only, so it better be us.” Inevitably, the settlers, however extreme, become a vehicle of this strategic aim.
“People have no clue,” Shaul continues. “We are sent to do the job. But nobody knows what the job is. The job stays here.”
Tel Aviv is a 90-minute drive away. Soon enough I am back on the beach, wondering if I imagined all this.