Another Night in Hebron (from David)
I got the call at 9:00 o’clock in the evening, maybe 9:30. I could barely make out the words; the burner phone pushed up against my ear did nothing to help decipher the accented voice coming over the line. “There is an incident in Tel Rumeida,” the voice said a second time, referring to the Hebron settlement where Arabs and Jews lived side by side in an uneasy truce. “Can you come now?” As it happened, John, Laurie and I were already in Tel Rumeida. We showed up in a matter of minutes.
We knew we were in the right place when we saw the Israeli soldiers. At least two dozen were standing in an intersection on a steep hill. They would have created a traffic jam, but there weren’t enough cars on the road to cause one -- there never are, because Palestinians aren’t allowed to drive on it. In the middle of the soldiers, alone, stood an elderly Palestinian man looking dignified but somewhat vulnerable. “Are you alright?” Laurie asked the man. He nodded his head, then told us what had happened. From what we could gather, a woman settler alleged that someone – no one knew who – had thrown rocks at her. In response, the settler’s family came to the eminently reasonable conclusion that the best thing to do was to sit out in front of the house where the rocks had been thrown. This brave act of defiance against unarmed civilians was tainted only slightly by the presence of the heavily-armed soldiers, including two that could be seen on the roof. Their presence essentially barred anyone from entering or leaving the house, which was home to five families.
I started talking to one of the soldiers. “Does any of this seem right to you?” I finally asked him, waving my arm in the direction of the settlers. “I don’t deal in right or wrong,” he retorted. Another soldier, another conversation. “If you want to talk with someone, talk with him,” he said, nodding in the direction of the only two police officers at the scene. The three of us walked over to where they stood and promptly began peppering them with questions. “Look, this is Hebron,” the smaller of the two officers said. “Twelve soldiers have died at this intersection. Don’t be naïve.” Laurie asked about the timeframe in which the soldiers had been killed. “Since the beginning,” he replied.
The police asked to see our passports. We all obediently handed ours over to them, which we had explicitly been told not to do during our training. The officer handed mine back to me without looking at it. We were then told to stand away from the soldiers, where a group of young Palestinian boys sat on flattened cardboard boxes smoking hookah. They appeared only mildly interested in the night’s entertainment. I fixed my gaze on the settlers. The men wore kippahs, the women long skirts. One of the men held a baby in his arms; another was absorbed in his smart phone. A few Jewish children were working on setting up a tent. It didn’t look like they would be going home any time soon.
Eventually, some of the Palestinian boys approached one of the soldiers. We watched in quiet surprise as they began to chat in a relaxed manner, laughing easily at each other’s jokes. Nearby, some of the soldiers relieved themselves of their boredom with light horseplay. One of the Palestinians who had been talking with the soldier came up to us and introduced himself as Ahmed (not his real name). “Ahmed?” I interjected. “So it was you who called us.” He smiled and told us that he has been involved in grassroots resistance for several years, a statement incongruous with his youthful appearance. John asked him what he had been talking about with the soldier. “He told me that I am too young to be married and have a child,” Ahmed said. “I told him that things were different for me; he lost his virginity at 16 or 17, while I lost mine at 22.”
Ahmed seemed the ideal activist. He was charming, seamlessly transitioning across language and cultural barriers to engage with friend and foe alike. He also had a rebellious streak. He told us that he had recently met with a senior member of the Israeli security forces, who had threatened to arrest any protesters in Tel Rumeida. “I told him that we are already in prison. My friends and family who live outside the settlement can’t come to visit me here to have a cup of tea. People have died waiting for an ambulance to get the clearance to pass through checkpoints. But we still have to pay for our food, our phone, our house. At least in jail we don’t have to pay for those things.”
By now more than two hours had passed since we first arrived, but there was no sign of the settlers packing up and leaving. A new batch of soldiers had replaced the talkative ones, and most of the Palestinians were now kicking around a soccer ball. Ahmed suggested that we go home, telling us that he would call us again if we were needed. That didn’t seem likely given how calm everyone was acting. I wasn’t surprised when I woke up the next morning to no missed calls.
We bid farewell, and slowly began to walk down the hill past the soldiers. Down past the settlers, who still had their young children out with them at this late hour. I could only wonder about those children. Children who would grow up thinking they had a God-given right to this land. Who would grow up fearing and thinking they hate Arabs. Who would grow up thinking the most natural place to pitch a tent is on the cement floor outside their neighbors' house.