After monitoring the Settlers’ Tour of the Souk, the traditional marketplace in Hebron, we doubled back to meet one of the shopkeepers who had been identified as an ally of ISM (International Solidarity Movement) who have been our hosts in this divided city. Maria and Jules, the current staffers of the ISM House, had prepared us for our visit with Laila Hasan by identifying her as the head of the “Women of Hebron,” an organization of Palestinian women who make jewelry, handbags, tablecloths and other craft items to sell at the market. We weren’t prepared, however, for the expansiveness of this middle-aged woman whose traditional garb (only her face was uncovered) belied her firm grasp of the current realities of her people. It was Saturday morning, prime time for doing business with tourists in the Souk, but Laila set out five chairs for us, poured tea, and began sharing her opinions on a variety of topics.
“Since the Second Intifada” (the violent uprising of 2000), she began, “Palestinians have been divided. During the First Intifada” (which started in 1987 and was nonviolent), we worked together.” I was startled to see how exactly her simple analysis matched that of the Islamic scholar Mohammed Abu-Nimmer, who claims that the Muslim concept of the Umma or community was one of the pillars of the First Intifada and greatly contributed to its success in creating parallel institutions to those of the administrative authority. Right now, Laila told us, someone is circulating videos of young Palestinian men and women having sex. To Muslims, this is outrageous and brings shame on all of them. “What I keep asking myself,” she said, “ is why? Who is behind it?” She herself is an advocate for the community; on trips to the U.S. she has developed a network of friends of “Women of Hebron,” who order its hand-crafted goods from abroad. Mainly, however, she uses these trips as opportunities to “speak the truth” about the Palestinian situation. “That is what you must do,” she said.
Our tea finished, Laila brought us something to eat—pieces of soft, warm cheese with a sweet coating. John asked what one thing she would recommend to improve the lives of Palestinians. “End the Occupation. There is no hope for two states; if the Israelis just leave us alone, that would be good.” She went on to say that she doesn’t hate the Israelis; when young Jews joined the Palestinians in protesting Operation Cast Lead (the bombardment of Gaza in 2009) she realized that not all Israelis are Zionists. “That freed my heart.” As for the future, she said, “it is up to Allah.” In the meantime, “we are not doing as poorly as the Syrians.” Mother of six, Laila also seems to be the mother figure of her end of the Souk. During our conversation, many people passing by called to her; a group of off-duty Palestinian policemen gave her a cheer. When it was time to go, she said that we were welcome to stay at her house that night—a friend from Norway and her boyfriend had just left.
What would it mean to end the occupation, I asked myself, as we headed back to the ISM House. Withdrawing the soldiers, at the very least. The clash we had witnessed the day before, between al shebab (the Palestinian youth) and 12 members of the Israeli army had accomplished nothing except to trash one of the main intersections in Hebron. Are the soldiers really necessary? Israeli hardliners defend their presence by invoking the settlers’ need for security, but would the Palestinians—who are in the majority—attack the settlers if the soldiers were gone? I don’t think so. Not all the Palestinians are like Laila, of course—so open and generous—but all of them, it seems, want to live freely—without checkpoints, without harassment, without their children going to jail for throwing stones. Isn’t it possible that if the soldiers left Jews and Arabs might once again co-exist peacefully? They did it for many years before 1948, before politics intervened. Politics has a way of creating artificial boundaries and turning erstwhile friends into sworn enemies. I think of Gandhi, lamenting the partition of India and the bloodbath between Hindus and Muslims which followed. Here in the West Bank, I know how Gandhi felt.