Two Palestinian boys spot us, size up the danger, and decide to take the risk. They jump over the small barricade that separates the Palestinian zone from the Israeli area in Hebron city and race towards us. They are selling beaded Palestinian bracelets and key rings. They are no more than nine years old.
The boys have broken Israeli military law by leaving the H1 area of Hebron city and entering the H2 zone, where Jewish settlers have total freedom of movement, but most Palestinians are not allowed in. After selling us their wares as we walk up Shuhada Street, which is the main thoroughfare of Hebron, they spot the soldiers at a checkpoint at the end of the street and quickly turn on their heels and run back. The children face arrest for daring to enter an area of the Palestinian city where it has been decided they are not allowed. But it was worth putting themselves in danger to try and earn a few shekels.
Hebron is the only Palestinian city in the West Bank under Israeli military occupation. To all intents and purposes, a form of apartheid is in operation here. Some 170,000 Palestinian Arabs live here while just 1,000 Jewish Israeli settlers call this divided city home. The once bustling city has turned into a ghost town. Under military instruction, 1,800 shops have been closed down. The population has dwindled from 400,000 as Palestinians, and some Jewish Israelis, have left this occupied territory. Many Palestinians left for obvious reasons. They refuse to accept being treated as second-class citizens in their own homes. In many ways, the ordinary Palestinian people here feel they endure harder lives than those living in Gaza, which the Sunday Tribune was refused entry to. In Gaza, locals tell us, the Israelis might control the border but at least the area is no longer occupied and controlled by the Israeli military.
Palestinians are not allowed into the H2 area of Hebron unless they have a residency permit. Most of them do not. H2 is commonly known as the sterile zone, because it houses Israeli Jewish settlers. No Palestinians are allowed drive cars in H2. Some of the Palestinians whose homes are located in this part of the city do not have residency permits and are therefore not allowed out onto the street. They have to leave their home through their rooftops and make their way into the non-sterile zone, H1, where the majority of Palestinians live.
Our guide through the city is Mikhael Manekin, a former lieutenant in the Israeli Defence Forces. He once served in Hebron for one week, training young soldiers how to operate within the occupied territories. He is now a member of Breaking the Silence, an organisation of veteran Israeli soldiers that collects testimonies of soldiers who served in the occupied territories during the Second Intifada. There is a three-year mandatory conscription in the army for Israeli men and two years for women. But many, like Mikhael, have begun to question the military operations they participated in during their service. Breaking the Silence has collected over 700 testimonies from ex-soldiers. "The living situation for Palestinians is unbearable here, largely because of the people like myself who served here," he tells the Sunday Tribune.
"I had a genuine fear of every Palestinian I saw. That's what I was taught to feel. I served nearly five years until 2002. I didn't leave because I had some kind of epiphany. I just felt we were doing bad things. We were not behaving as we should."
Mikhael now lives in Jerusalem and is married with two children. He has many regrets over his actions in the army. "When I served here in Hebron city for a week, I brought my cadets for some live training. We arrested two Palestinians for being members of an illegal organisation. We commandeered a Palestinian house. I walked in and said, 'we're the military, we're taking your house'. Then we took control. We put the whole family in one room. They were our human shield for the week – we knew the Palestinians would not attack us with them inside."
Other memories for Mikhael are more difficult to come to terms with. "I would not say I was sadistic, but I was violent towards Palestinians. When they wouldn't stand in line at checkpoints, I'd throw shock grenades at them. It's a way of telling them we mean business. When I was serving in another area of the occupied territories, there was an order that no Palestinians were allowed on the hilltop where I was stationed. One Saturday, a family of Palestinians came and began to have a picnic. My job was to fire a mid-level machine gun at their feet, which I did. There was a very old woman with the family. I remember her trying to get away, she had to lift up her skirt to try and run. Yes, I have regrets. But it's not about my trauma, it's about theirs. The trauma of shooting is far less than the trauma of being shot at."
Mikhael did injure some Palestinians when he returned fire at Askar refugee camp, on the outskirts of the West Bank city of Nablus, in 2001. "I don't think I have ever killed anyone, thankfully. At the refugee camp, some Palestinians fired at us and we picked a house to fire back on. Some people were injured. The idea is that the Palestinians have to feel you and fear you. By virtue of my being a 19-year-old Israeli Jew, I was able to become involved in this. That's frightening. We talk a lot about the conflict but not how it is happening."
It has not been difficult for Breaking the Silence to find soldiers to speak about their experiences serving in the Israeli army.
"People want to talk. Soldiers, like everyone else, are decent people. We can't switch off the training we've had," he continues. "Even as I walk through here, I find myself scanning the rooftops looking for a good lookout point."
For the Palestinians who live in the Jewish sterile zone, life is far from easy. There is deep hatred and frequent violence between the Palestinians and Jews in Hebron. Along one street in the sterile zone, several Palestinian families have been forced to construct large cages around the outside of the upstairs part of their homes and balconies. This is to protect them from the constant stone-throwing from the Jewish settlers.
There have been murders carried out by both sides in Hebron. The hatred is palpable. "The status quo here is great for the Jewish settlers and terrible for the Palestinians," adds Mikhael. "It is a city of extremes and children grow up in this."
The Jewish settlers solidified a presence here in the late '60s, driving many of the Palestinians out. But it also cannot be disputed that Jews historically inhabited a proportion of this city. The Jewish-built Tomb of the Patriarchs on the outskirts of the city, now shared as a mosque, is testament to this. There are two separate entrances to the place of worship, one for Jews, the other for Arabs.
It's difficult to understand why anyone would chose to live in such a volatile city. Another troubling thought is harder still to shake. Considering what was inflicted upon the Jewish people by the Nazis, how can a similar regime of segregation be in operation here in the name of Judaism?
Jewish 'Star of David' graffiti is daubed all over the walls throughout the city. In 2005, a Palestinian school in the city was forced to change its timetable to stem violent clashes between the youngsters. The mixed school is located beside a Jewish compound and the children there used to wait outside on Saturdays when the Palestinian children were coming home from school. The Jewish children began to target the schoolchildren by throwing rocks at them, causing some serious injuries. Equally, Palestinian children have been guilty of violence towards their Jewish counterparts. It's understandable, predictable even, that the children living here would harbour such deep resentment towards each other.
In the heart of the Palestinian non-sterile zone, Palestinian community activist Issa Ismail works alongside a young Israeli Jewish man, Michael Zupraner, in video documenting the lives of normal Palestinians. The group hands out video cameras to locals who record their sometimes violent interactions with the soldiers and Jewish settlers. Michael Zupraner has moved into the area to carry out work on the Heb 2 project. Like many Israelis, he is opposed to the occupation of the city by his fellow countrymen. "We are entirely non-violent. I have been arrested several times," says Ismail. "What is happening here is worse than the situation in Gaza. Yes, there are food shortages there. But people here would prefer to be hungry than under constant threats of beatings and violence. We are occupied, Gaza is not."
The Sunday Tribune planned to enter Gaza with the charity Trocaire during its visit to the Middle East last week. Despite having all the correct press accreditation, we were refused access to Gaza by the Israeli authorities. As a result, this newspaper's trip was cut short. But getting out of Tel Aviv airport proved almost as difficult as our attempt to gain access to the Gaza strip. We were detained for 90 minutes at the airport by security on Wednesday morning. After being questioned separately about who we were, who we met during our stay, and what we intended to publish upon our return, the Sunday Tribune refused to answer many of the questions.
The Israeli security attempted to take the photo memory cards from our photographer and also briefly took possession of our journalist's notebook. Both of these items were returned. Despite the fact that we produced a letter of support from the Israeli embassy of Ireland as soon as the questioning began, the Israeli security personnel chose to detain us.
"Why didn't you get into Gaza?" we were repeatedly asked.
"That's a question for your own government authority, not us."
"Can we have a list of the people you interviewed in the West Bank and Jerusalem?"
"No, I don't remember all the names of the people I met."
"How do you intend to write a story then?"
"I don't know."
"What does this say about Hebron in your notebook? I can't read it."
"I don't know, I can't read it either."
"You can't read your own notes?"
"It's none of your business what it says in my notes, I want that back."
"Did you meet any suicide bombers during your trip?"
"No. But it would have been a great story if we did. If you don't let us go soon we will miss our flight home."
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