Dancing Idiots, Candy Floss, and Rubber Bullets: Passover in Hebron, Palestine
The city of Hebron in the occupied West Bank is a pretty bizarre place at the best of times. But the recent Passover festival held by Jewish settlers living on the Palestinian land was easily among the most surreal things I’ve seen in a region that seems to thrive on weird shit.
The collective psychosis in Hebron stems from a centuries-old ownership dispute over the Tomb of the Patriarchs, known as the Ibrahimi Mosque to Muslims and the Cave of Machpela to Jews. The tomb is the supposed burial place of Abraham/Avraham/Ibrahim, the founding father of Islam, Judaism, and, therefore, Christianity. I don’t subscribe to any of those, but—despite the fact that the founder of three of the world’s largest religions surely has enough love to go around—I guess it’s understandable to fight over access to your spiritual father’s grave.
Hebron’s current state of madness, however, has less to do with religious craziness and more to do with ethnic segregation. Hebron is the only place in the West Bank where Israeli settlers live directly inside a Palestinian city. To deal with the minor awkwardness that presents, it’s been divided into two sectors—one controlled by the Israeli military, the other by the Palestinian Authority (PA).
The proportions of settlers, Palestinians and Israeli soldiers in the Israeli-controlled old city are totally unbelievable, in the sense that I probably wouldn’t believe it if I hadn’t seen it for myself. There are around 500 Israeli settlers and 30,000 Palestinians, with 2,000 Israeli soldiers milling about to keep them in line.
The Tomb of the Patriarchs itself is also divided into a Muslim half and a Jewish half, because, as you might expect, there are those who refuse to play nice. In 1994, an American settler named Baruch Goldstein decided to play spectacularly un-nice and is now immortalized on Murderpedia for his massacre of 29 Palestinians in the Muslim side of the tomb. That, plus the Second Intifada, set the stage for the head-spinning clusterfuck that is today’s Hebron.
I Couchsurfed with Settlers in the Holy Land
A couple of months ago, my friend was on a rant (albeit, a very coherent one) about how CouchSurfing's website supports Zionism by allowing settlers in the West Bank to list their location as “Judea and Samaria”—the Israeli name for most of the disputed West Bank. She was trying to make a point about how CouchSurfing is supporting Israel's colonialist project of erasing Palestinian identity. But what I took away from it was: 'Wait, you can CouchSurf in the settlements?'
And yes, as it turns out, you can CouchSurf in the settlements. I sent out requests to everyone I could find under “Judea and Samaria,” omitting the fact that I’m currently living in Palestine. I quickly received several replies and set about making preparations. With my first CouchSurfing trip approaching, I experienced a steep uptick in my anxiety level. After all, these are the people who descend on Palestinian villages firing assault rifles wildly at anything that moves.
Almost every story I’ve ever heard about settlers sounds like someone describing a nightmarish mescaline trip coordinated by the lovechild of Charlie Manson and Timothy Leary. Like, for example, the time a band of settlers rode into town on horseback and set fire to 1,500 olive trees in a single attack. Or the time a settler woman grabbed a ten-year-old Palestinian kid, stuffed rocks in his mouth and then forced his mouth closed, breaking his teeth, all while fighting off an Israeli soldier who was trying to intervene.
Just a little glimpse of some land in Gush Etzion.
Picture a heavily-armed, modern-day KKK that doesn’t even bother to conceal their identities with stupid costumes and that’s pretty much my impression of what settlers are. Of course, not all settlers are blood-thirsty racist thugs. Those are just the ones that get the most media attention, for obvious reasons. Most people living in settlements move there because they’re heavily subsidised by the Israeli government. It’s a pretty sweet deal if you’re an upper-middle-class Israeli: you get super-cheap housing in a newly-constructed, upscale neighborhood, and since regional councils usually have approval over who can move into the settlement, you won’t have to worry about any Arabs setting up shop next door.
When I met Shaul, from the settlement of Gvaot, my nervousness about this whole plan swiftly decreased. From the moment he came to pick me up in Jerusalem, it was apparent that he was a really nice guy. And I don’t mean he was a really nice guy compared to what I expected from a settler—I mean he was a really nice guy by any conceivable standard of such things. Shaul and his wife, Lea, were incredibly gracious and hospitable the entire time I was in Gvaot. Besides opening their home to a complete stranger from an alien culture with no experience of their way of life, they cooked for me, fed me chocolate and coffee, introduced me to their family, and were incredibly pleasant people for the duration of my stay.
They doted on their one-month-old daughter and their African gray parrot, clearly proud of both. And they may have been living on stolen land, but their reasons for doing so seriously complicated my feelings about the entire situation. Gvaot, you see, is a small community of 17 families inside the large Gush Etzion settlement cluster. (The Israeli Defence Ministry apparently just authorized the construction of 523 new housing units in Gvaot, which I can’t imagine anyone in Gvaot thinking is a good thing.)
A garden in Gvaot.
The people of Gvaot live in mobile homes in similar conditions to those you find in any trailer park—that is to say, they weren’t exactly living the high life. Shaul commutes every day to Jerusalem, where he studies documentary filmmaking at the university there. They moved to Gvaot to be close to Lea’s workplace: a school for children with Down’s Syndrome. Now, in my book, teaching children with Down’s Syndrome is an incredibly noble way to spend your life. I saw Shaul and Lea interact with some of the children from the school, many of whom also live in Gvaot, and I could tell the kids were genuinely happy to see them.
More impressive still were the wedding photos. When Shaul and Lea were married, they threw a big wedding ceremony somewhere in northern Israel. They brought all their friends and family, of course, but they also brought the kids from the school, and in the photos it was obvious the kids were having the time of their lives. The problem is, they’re still on stolen land. According to the UN’s Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs, 33 acres of land were seized from the Palestinian village of Nahhalin in order to make room for the settlers of Gvaot.
Shaul pointed out Nahhalin to me on the car ride in to Gvaot, telling me “We get along with them. They are good people.” I realized what he meant by this the next day, when I saw some Palestinian guys doing landscaping outside one of the trailers. The more I talked to Shaul and Lea, the more odd details of their worldview popped into focus. For example, during dinner on my first night in Gvaot, Shaul started talking aboutMonty Python and the Holy Grail, pontificating on the historical accuracy of the film.
A lone oak in Gush Etzion.
"They burned a lot of women as witches in the medieval times, but most of the time it wasn’t true, just like in the movie," he tells me, and I had to almost literally bite my tongue to avoid yelling out "Most of the time?" After dinner, we sat on the couch of Shaul’s living room and he started asking me about the US elections, still upcoming at the time I visited. He wanted to know if I liked Obama or Romney. I refuse to vote for anyone who supports a policy of literally endless war, which made the Obama/Romney choice rather irrelevant to me.
My guy was Vermin Supreme, but I wasn’t about to tell Shaul and Lea that, so I gave a noncommittal, “I’m not sure yet.” Shaul said he wasn’t sure either, since he thought Obama was better for America, but Romney was better for Israel. Under Obama, US financial aid to Israel has reached its highest levels ever, but since I was acting ignorant about Israel in order to not arouse suspicion, I didn’t mention that to Shaul. The election discussion led us into talking about the political situation in Israel and opposition to settlements, which seemed to deeply confuse Shaul, who couldn’t understand why anyone would be against Israeli Jews living on the land.
A natural pool in Gush Etzion.
As he was describing a recent settler attack on a Palestinian vehicle, Lea broke in to ask him to change the subject. “We almost never talk about politics here,” Shaul confided. Personally, I would call throwing a Molotov cocktail at a civilian vehicle “terrorism” and not “politics,” but it’s a case of tuh-may-ta, tow-mah-toh, I guess. The next day we ate shakshouka for breakfast and talked about the City of David. The City of David is ahorrible, horrible colonialist project with the twin goals of promoting an exclusively Zionist version of history and wiping out the Palestinian East Jerusalem community of Silwan.
It seemed like everyone in Gvaot had some connection to the City of David. A woman we ate breakfast with was the daughter of the City of David’s director, and Shaul’s dad did some archaeological digging there, supposedly proving that some ruins (presumably under someone’s home in Silwan that had to be demolished to get at this compelling archaeological evidence) came from the exact date of the Biblical reign of King David. Everyone who talked about it made vague references of opposition to the project, but seemed completely baffled as to how anyone could possibly be against forcing people from their homes at gun point and then bulldozing the houses in order to find some rocks from several millennia ago.
Clothes and guns belonging to frolicking Israeli soldiers.
I got a final striking example of the settler capacity for ignoring cognitive dissonance during a mountain bike ride with Shaul down the beautiful rolling hills of Gush Etzion. It was easy to understand why the Israelis want this land—it’s gorgeous, filled with trees and clear, sparkling pools. We stopped at one of these pools and Shaul stripped down to his underwear for an afternoon dip. A couple of guys were playing backgammon and had left their clothes piled up about 40 feet away, along with their automatic weapons. I was pretty shocked to see a few M4s carelessly piled up with the shirts and towels, but Shaul explained the guys were soldiers and therefore required to take their guns with them everywhere.
Then came the cognitive dissonance section of our ride. Shaul was telling me a story about how men sometimes swim naked in the pool: “They ask the women to leave, but sometimes the women say, ‘You do what you want, but I stay here because this place is for everyone.’” Everyone? Really? Well, I asked, what about the Palestinians? Do they ever come here to swim? “No, not very many,” Shaul said. “There is no Arab village close to here.” So that’s how you’re able to steal land from a disenfranchised people under military occupation in order to teach kids with Down’s Syndrome at a special-needs school: because it’s the simplest thing in the world for you to hold two incompatible ideas in your head at the same time.
Everything about your way of life explicitly supports an apartheid regime inching its way toward a genocidal final solution to “the Palestinian question,” but you never talk about politics. You pass Nahhalin every day on your way to the university and claim to “get along with them,” but you also believe that “there is no Arab village close to here.” It’s simple, I guess, once you decide to stop thinking about it and just do it.
LIVING THE AMERICAN DREAM IN THE WEST BANK:
HANGING OUT WITH ISRAEL’S ILLEGAL HOMESTEADERS
In many people’s imaginations, Jewish settlers in the West Bank are bearded, M16-toting fundamentalists living in hilltop trailers overrun with barefoot women and children. And sometimes that’s the reality—but not always.
In 2010, 269 Jews moved from America to West Bank settlements, many of which are marketed as “bedroom communities” to families and white-collar professionals in the US. The migration is called “making aliyah,” which translates roughly from the Hebrew as “movin’ on up.” Never mind that it’s a violation of the Geneva Conventions for Israel, as an occupying power, to install civilians in the West Bank, one-fifth of which, according to the Oslo Accords, falls under the jurisdiction of the Palestinian Authority.
To encourage Jews to illegally settle there, the Israeli government subsidizes home purchases and offers reduced rates for leasing land, in addition to the perks all new Israeli citizens get such as free health care, upward of a 90 percent reduction in property taxes, tuition waivers for earning advanced degrees, and a payment of about $14,000 spending money for a family of five. The first installment is paid on arrival at Tel Aviv’s Ben Gurion airport—in cash.
Prospective immigrants shop for homes at frequent government-sponsored events, like the Israeli real estate exhibition that recently took place in New York or the “aliyah expo” I attended a few years ago in the Times Square Marriott. Neatly bearded and wearing a knitted yarmulke, Shmuel Aron of Brooklyn Realty sat in front of a particleboard wall affixed with photos of sleek high-rises in Har Homa, which was billed as an Israeli town but is in fact a settlement located squarely within Palestine, near Bethlehem. Simply put, the Israeli government carves up the West Bank, builds illegal homes in Palestinian territory, calls it Israeli territory, and then invites Jews to move in. Booths draped in fabric offered information packets on floor plans, as well as the many government subsidies that accompany aliyah. After browsing the offerings, I spotted a bowlful of fortune cookies. “Israel is for tough cookies,” my fortune read.
While Israel encourages Jews from around the world to move anywhere in the Holy Land, Palestinians aren’t so lucky. During the 1948 war, when Israel declared statehood, Zionist forces expelled 700,000 Palestinians from what is now Israel. To Israelis, this was the War of Independence, and to Palestinians, it was the Nakba—the catastrophe. To this day, the Israeli government prevents these exiled Palestinian refugees and their descendants from returning to their homes.
The armistice lines drawn in 1949 after the war form Israel’s internationally recognized boundary, the infamous Green Line, which demarcates the West Bank from Israel. The building of Israeli settlements in Palestine began in 1967, when Israel occupied the West Bank in the Six-Day War. From the start, the goal of the settlement project was to establish “facts on the ground”—to erase the Green Line. There are now more than 500,000 Jewish settlers in the West Bank who live there in violation of international law. And sometimes there are rare Israeli casualties like in May of 2011 when a man sneaked into the Israeli settlement Itamar and knifed a whole family, killing three kids.