Today is Saturday and, there is a “visit” from the “women in green” (WIG) scheduled for today. It doesn’t’ happen every Saturday, but they do come rather regularly, and people who have been in Tel Rumeida for months are familiar with their doings.
K. and D. explain what the WIG usually do and what other human rights observers, people like us, have done in response in the past. The WIG usually go in a procession from Tel Rumedia, the settlement up the hill, to the other settlement below, the one just below the school where we watch that the settler kids don’t throw (too many) stones at the Palestinian children and mothers every day. They try to schedule this “march” so that they arrive at the bottom of the stairs at the same time as the children come out of school, and simply yell abuse at them.
In previous occasions, the internationals have usually tried to accompany them in this march without provoking them, which is quite difficult because our mere presence is a provocation, apparently, and we should expect abuse too.
Once they arrive at the bottom of the stairs facing the coming kids, we need to place our bodies between the Women in Green and the kids. It is important that we do not face the children, but the women. This is to avoid intimidating the children even more. We need to face the women; they are the cause of the violent situation and it is them we should focus on, not on the children – it is not their fault.
With these instructions we go out to the street prepared for the unpleasant, at least.
We meet the WIG next to the checkpoint, where one can go towards the lower settlement (or to my “watch point”, in my case) or up the hill to the other settlement.
There is a boy being retained at the checkpoint and one of the internationals enquiries why. As usual, there is no answer from the soldier. But there is another soldier who looks like he is of some higher rank than the soldier who is retaining the boy and he asks the international, a French woman, what her problem is. She starts, “this soldier is retaining this boy”. At that point one of the women in green bursts out laughing: “She’s telling him the soldier is retaining ‘that’! As if he cared!”
I start walking with the women in green (WIG) up the hill and we’re joined by the first girls coming out from school. All the WIG take pictures of us, some with mobile phones. There are also two men with them; they do not have cameras so they just walk and look at us in disgust. Most of those with cameras have already taken a picture of me by the time we reach half the hill. I take the picture of one of them, and one of the men says to me, “don’t you have anything better to do, you scummy piece of shit?”. I look at him and see a pistol on his belt. I take pictures of his belt with the pistol while we go up, also placing myself between this group and the children going up the hill too, in case they start to scream abuse at them, and trying not to think what they would do if we were not here.
They continue to walk to the settlement up the hill and, as they enter it, we leave them. Not our business any more. Most of the school girls are now “safe” in inhabited Palestinian streets.
But right on my left there is the path through which Palestinian people are not allowed to pass to go to their homes, even though there is a court ruling that says they are. A soldier is standing there refusing to open a bit of the razor wire that blocks the path to go to a few Palestinian homes. Two internationals are trying to reason with the soldier, which is usually useless, but today it seems specially frustrating. The girl gives up and walks down the hill, prepared to go all the way round hills and paths taking a good twenty minutes maybe, to go to a house that I can see from here.
I start taking pictures of the path and the razor wire. I finish and we all walk down the hill but a soldier starts pushing M. down the hill, saying that we have to go. M. falls on me and I am pushed down by the impulse too. I shout out and ask why. The soldier just says, “you have to go”. I repeat, “why”. N. also asks why but we get no answer, we are just pushed violently down the hill.
I then use my mobile to call D. to tell him about the situation. He asks whether the girl is being allowed through the path and I tell him that she gave up, so he tells me that we should walk down. We walk down but the soldiers still push us down violently.
I try to film them as they push us and, in one given moment, a soldier grabs my camera and pulls, to steal it from me. I have the strip of my camera tied to my wrist so my camera doesn’t go. He doesn’t let go, either, and he continues to pull and I scream, and scream, while I bend down to the ground, hoping that this will prevent him from taking my camera and arrest me. We struggle for a few seconds and he bends my glasses with his body, then my glasses fly and I stop seeing them. He lets go of the camera but I and continue screaming, asking for my glasses, panicking that I will not find them. Suddenly I see them under my foot – they are completely unusable now.
One of the women in green comes forward to me and, laughing, she screams, “that was a very nice show, you are good for theatre”, and other “funny” phrases, maybe even abuse, but she is the least thing that worries me right now, and, besides, I can not see her without my glasses, I can only see her shape.
Looking at my glasses, trying to figure out if they are fixable, we walk down the hill, towards our apartment, being pushed again by the soldiers. Far away, N. has filmed the whole scene. As we walk, another soldier quickly takes his hand to my camera but I am faster and he can’t even touch it. I then see N. being pushed around: some soldiers are also trying to get his camera. I start filming again. A soldier gets right in front of me and for a few seconds there is a cat and mouse play between the two of us, me trying to film the soldiers pushing N. around, and this soldier trying to block my vision. Looking at N. and this soldier in turns, I can not even see what I am recording. The soldiers have thrown N. to the ground and there he is, under a swarm of soldiers, lying on the ground, his belly down, his face up trying to look at me. It looks to me like they are arresting him. Between not seeing well without my glasses and the soldier playing games in front of me, I can only catch – badly – the moment when he stands up and is carried away – or so I think.
Usually it is N. or D. who call IDF (Israeli Defence Forces), and the rest of us just let them take care of the situation. But now N. is being arrested and D. is not here (where is he?). I call D. to tell him that N. has been arrested and at that very moment, N. appears round the corner, so I hung up. So, N. has not been arrested, but he does not have his camera with him any more – the soldiers have stolen it. I am still shaking from the confrontation, and still looking at my glasses in despair. Some Palestinians have come out of their houses, probably alerted by my screaming.
We try to regroup but in the meantime the soldiers have come on a formation in front of us and they are already surrounding us. Suddenly eight or nine soldiers approach me and surround me. Suddenly I do not see my friends any more. All I see is green military uniforms worn by big men with unfriendly faces all around me. One says, “give my the camera”, I say, “no”, he says, “you don’t want to give me your camera?” I ask, “why do I have to”. At this point both my hands are grabbed and my arms spread wide by lots of hands. Grabbing my left hand there are two soldiers. I only have my broken glasses in my left hand. The rest of the soldiers concentrate on my right hand, where my camera is.
I start screaming again – and my thoughts go, “this is it, I am getting arrested, then deported, and then never again allowed back in Palestine, I got this far, this is the end”.
I go on screaming and still have my camera wrapped around my wrist so it won’t go. The soldiers just twist my hand and my fingers, as much as they can, and just pull the camera to make the strip break, but the only thing that breaks is my skin. I scream and scream fearing that they will break some part of my body or that they will arrest me, which will mean the end of Palestine for me – for life. As I scream with my mouth open, I notice one of their arms firmly pressed against my mouth – how easy to simply bite this arm. But I understand that this is a provocation, because if I bite a soldier then they would have a reason to arrest me, “assault to a soldier”, and they don’t seem to be arresting me, otherwise they would be dragging me to their vehicle by now, and they are not doing that, they are only struggling to get my camera. So, I just go on screaming, it’s the only thing I can do given the circumstances.
Finally my thoughts go on to realise that I am only one and can’t win against eight or nine soldiers, so I have to let the camera go, and at least stop them tearing all the skin off my hand. What is clear is that I will not prevent the theft of my camera, that’s for sure.
When the soldiers finally get my camera they leave me there, violently shaking. A Palestinian woman then touches my shoulder and shows me a glass of water that she has in her hand. She then literally pours it inside my mouth – so much for lack of communication. I drink a bit and say “shukran” but she insists that I drink more, and I do so. After drinking this water I am still shaking, although not so violently. Then I look around me and see that the street is full of people looking towards the group where I stand, which is pretty big now. Around us, close to us, there are people with badges showing their names, others with EAPPI waistcoats. They are Israelis and internationals from different human rights organisations that have come out alerted by my screams.
I then see D. and it turns out they have stolen his camera too. We go up to the flat and recap. Three cameras stolen. My screams have alerted the whole neighbourhood and every one, including Palestinians, internationals from other groups and Israeli activists have come out to the street. A. and D. think that it was a good thing that I just screamed and screamed. A few Israelis were actually detained by the soldiers and someone called the police. The police is downstairs now and the police officers are very pissed off with the soldiers detaining Israelis. Some of the other activists think that we should report the thefts to the police but N. and D. say that they know, from experience, that if we speak to the police, we will be arrested: “It always happens when they [the Israeli police] intervene in conflicts between the soldiers and us. If we go to the police station to report this or to ask for our cameras back, they will arrest us.” Even then, some consider the possibility of speaking to them and reporting the theft of our cameras, since it is an illegal act – the soldiers can detain us, facilitate our arrest by the police, but never take our property. In theory they should be “done” for this. But people who have been here longer than me know from experience that, once we attempt to talk to the police, we will be arrested and probably deported. And we know that any one who has been arrested or deported will never be allowed entry in Israel again, and by extension (by virtue of their illegal occupation of Palestine), in Palestine.
Those who are planning to stay in Palestine for a few more months think that, if some one of us is to go to the police station, it should be some one who is planning to leave for home in a few days, or weeks, and not them. The logic is that, if they are deported now, they loose the months they had available, to spend them either in jail waiting for the deportation or at home once deported, but if we are planning to go home soon anyway, then we are not losing that much. Then some of the “short-timers” think that it should be some one who has already been arrested who should go, since they are not going to be allowed back in the country anyway, because they have already been arrested once. The criterion for this is not the few more months that some one is planning to stay, but the few more times that some people are planning to come back.
In the end no one goes. We all want to stay here for as long as we can and we all want to come back, or at least if we decide not to come back to Palestine, we want the decision to be ours, and not these soldiers’, or whatever Israeli authorities’.
N. calls IDF various times and finally the woman on the phone says that they will give the cameras back to us in a few minutes. An hour passes and the cameras are still stolen. More calls ensue.
Still trembling and trying to fix my glasses, I ask M. and C. where they were while I was fighting with the soldiers. C. answers: “We were just next to you, but just before the soldiers grabbed you all at once, another one has come, a lot bigger than the rest, and he grabbed us both at once,with our clothes, like this [and he raises both his fists, spreading his arms] one with each of his hands, and rose us from the ground, and he kept us like that until they got your camera”. M. says he also had to fight with a soldier that wanted to steal his camera. However after just the first attempt he realised that he would try again so he changed the tape.
An hour later, I am still trembling. I can’t help but feeling guilty and utter useless and dumb: “how could I be so stupid? Did I not see that they would not stop until they got my camera? Why did it not occur to me to run to the flat as quick as I could and hide the tape, the camera?” [second thoughts: “Well, maybe that would have been worse, maybe then the soldiers would have raided the flat looking for it …”] “No, that is unlikely”. I hide my face in my hands. “Don’t torment yourself. Try to relax”, I’m told.
Two hours after we had one photo camera and two video cameras stolen we receive a call to tell us that they are “available”. If we want them, we have to go to the checkpoint to get them, from the hands of the same soldiers that have stolen them from us. It will be some time before I gather the stomach to approach a soldier, so I ask that some one else goes.
A. offers. From one of our windows we see him go up to the kind of tent the soldiers are in. He stands there for a few seconds, maybe talking to the soldier inside. Then we see a camera coming out from the tent, and the hand holding it. A. grabs it. Then another camera. Then another one. Then he walks back to the flat where we are.
As we had guessed, all tapes have been erased. Instead of a few bad shots, there are wonderful views of green military trousers, black boots and an engine – a green one.
They have also emptied the batteries completely, so our cameras need to stay at home being charged for the rest of the day. In any case I don’t feel like going out and even less with the camera. My legs are still trembling against my will and my whole body is aching. D. for his part entertains himself recording everything he can from the window in his room.
After an hour or so, he tells me: “Could you go downstairs and tell A. to go up to the soldier? A bunch of settler kids are throwing stones at a Palestinian house”.
While he says this I get to his window. Indeed, a bunch of kids from about five to ten years old are grabbing some stones bigger than their heads and throwing them against a Palestinian house right below the garden where they are.
I run down the stairs, arrive where A. and V. are, I show them the kids and we all go to speak to the nearest soldier. By the time we reach them, the kids have stopped their passtime. But as we arrive again next to the path with the razor wire we see two little girls waiting for some one to open a gap so that they can get to their house.
The soldier is right beside the girls, and they look like they do hope to get to their home the short way instead of walking for twenty minutes.
“Why can’t she get through?”
“She has no identification, so I can not check that she lives there.”
“I know her and I know that she lives in that house you can see there.”
“No one can pass.”
“Yes they can, there is a court order (from the authorities of your country, Israeli) that says that this path must be open.
We explain in simple English: “An Israeli judge, from the Hight Court, has ordered: this path must be open.”
“I don’t know anything about that, my orders are ‘no one passes’, I don’t know what you’re saying.”
The soldier’s face looks more and more stupid by the second. A. says to him: “she is not old enough to have ID, and this should not be closed anyway”.
“My orders are not to open, if I can’t check that she lives there.”
“I know her and she lives there.”
“Ok, if you say she is too young to have ID, I believe you, she can go.”
And he goes and opens the razor wire, disobeying the orders he says he has.
At dark, when we have “officially” finished “work”, we start cooking and we realise that we need some more pasta. I go to the only shop in the neighbourhood that remains open. It only has sweets, bread, pasta packets and little more, but at least it is a shop where kids can socialise when, for instance, the soldier of the day feels like stealing their ball.
The shop is full of kids now. As I enter, they all look at me and laugh, some scream with their arms stretched out, imitating my screams and my posture when the soldiers took my camera.
I smile and think: “kids”. After the jokes, some of them shake my hand, others simply lower their heads as if showing some respect. It looks like I am the neighbourhood’s hero now.
I buy the pasta and the bigger boy, the one who didn’t want the others to speak to me the other day, approaches me and says, in English: “I’m sorry”. I say everything is ok and I leave, while the screams and the laughs continue behind me again. My body is not aching any more.
D. is leaving for a few days. He is going to see R., to the jail that Israel has next to the border with Egypt, in the most southern point of the country, on the other side of the dessert. R. is going to be deported for staying in the country while he was waiting for his appointment to renew his visa. While he was waiting for his appointment, he was helping out the girls in this neighbourhood, like we do now, and one day, he was arrested. I will leave before D. returns from visiting R. so we exchange addresses and say our good byes.
I take a few hours off and I dedicate myself to do some tourism, like I did in Jerusalem.
I again get through the same checkpoint I used when I first came here, only in the other direction. The soldier outside, before entering the checkpoint, asks me, “why are you here?” I remain without answering for a few seconds, trying to figure out whether he actually means to ask this question or he’s trying to be funny, and to give myself a bit of time, I answer: “because I want to get to the other side”. He insists, with his quite basic English, “No, why you are here, in Palestine, in Hebron”. Still not knowing what he really is after, I answer: “because I defend life”. “Really”, he asks, sounding completely uninterested. He looks at me and I answer: “Look that way (I indicate to the Israeli settlement), everything is death, silence. Then listen to that other side (where there are no Israeli soldiers or settlers, at least not for now), and you can hear life. You bring death to Palestine, where there are no settlers nor soldiers nor Israelis, there is life and joy, where there are Israelis, there is only silence and death.” “I agree”, he says. So I really do not know what this guy is about. I leave him there with his machine gun, in a neighbourhood full of armed Israeli settlers and unarmed Palestinians, and I go off.
I get through the checkpoint that rather feels like a coffin with mirrors and as soon as I get to the end of the empty street I truly feel like I have just got out of a tomb where I was buried alive, back to the noisy, blinding and colourful world of the living.
It is actually strange to get out to the rest of Hebron and see that there is normal life there, that constant humiliations and hatred do not need to be the normal way of life.
As I get out of the sepulchral street, then, I feel that this could be one more corner of the Old City of Ramallah, say, or even Jerusalem, although, maybe, again because of the contrast, it seems to me that this has a lot more contrasts and colours – and noise. Above all, the noise.
It is as if the city that is still allowed to have some life in it wanted to remind the city that is strangled to death that there is still life on this side, that there is hope, that the dying city is not alone nor forgotten. And the noise is the only means of communication it can use.
I turn right towards the mosque, and again I see, on my right, a high, boring, daunting wall (“the” wall) and a few watch towers with soldiers inside.
I remember that behind this wall and towers is the illegal Israeli settlement whose inhabitants so terrorise our neighbours.
The Palestinians I see on my way seem to ignore this wall It looks like they are used to it, maybe resigned to it. What can not be ignored is that, as one approaches the old city, even on this “side” where the Palestinian authority is supposed to be in charge, the streets become more and more silent and sepulchral, even though there are no checkpoints or soldiers in the streets, until a point when it actually “is” like on the other side of the wall, with all the shops closed, the doors painted in green, and with “David’s stars” painted on them. I am approaching Ibrahim’s mosque and Abraham’s sinagogue.
At the end of the street there is a kind of grille exactly like the one in Qalandia and other checkpoints. There are soldiers guarding it, on this side and the other. Some are inside some cabins from which they activate the revolving gate made of railings. Just looking at it from the outside, one could guess that it must be really claustrophobic when passing that revolving gate.
The gate has three “wings” that leave between them just enough space for one not-too-fat person – not even for one person plus some bulky baggage. Exactly like in Qalandia, only this is in the middle of the city. On each side there are like round walls of iron, so that the “wings” of the gate get between those irons. If the gate gets blocked, there is really no gap through which to get out, because you get trapped in a cubicle without any possibility to get out either through the sides or over the top. Fig 32
I get into the gate and indeed, there is only enough space for my body. I can not stretch my arms, or even put my hands on my hips. My body as I stand, with my arms down and no bags, occupies all the available space. I have railings all around my body except under my feet. There are railings even over my head. During the long seconds that the gate takes to go round and let me free from this cubicle, I get through a tiny space making very short steps, around three inches each, to avoid the iron bars scratching my ankles.
Behind me there are about twenty little girls in school uniforms accompanied by some teachers. Once at the other side, I stay discreetly a few metres away from the gate to see if they will make the little girls go through the same process. They do.
I stay where I am for a few more minutes and I see what I was secretly fearing but wished it weren’t true. After the little girls go, a man comes. When he is in the claustrophobic cubicle, suddenly the gate gets blocked and the man stays trapped there for a few seconds. The man looks stunned. He stares at the iron bars around him, so close to his body, and tries to make the gate revolve again. In the end the gate gives in and the man can get out. I stay a bit more until various men get in and I observe that the same thing is done to various other men, at random.
No one says a thing, all this happens in silence, but it is obvious that the blocking of the gate is not coincidence and that it is controlled by some soldier in some sentry box. Thinking of the whole exercise, it seems to be useless if it is “used” to spot potential terrorists, but very effective if the objective is one more humiliation.
I take some pictures and go on walking towards the temple of various faiths. I find a queue where Palestinian people are waiting to enter the mosque. I join the queue but the soldiers “in charge” tell me with signs that I can jump the queue. I guess they have spotted that I am a tourist and do not want me to take a bad image of them back to my country.
I enter a small room where there are again various soldiers with their huge machine guns on their chests and they ask me whether I am a Jew, a Christian or a Muslim. They also ask lots of other questions and I ask, “why are you asking me so many questions?” because this is the first time I am asked so many questions at once. The second the soldier hears my question, he gets cocky and snaps: “Right. Passport.” with a commanding gesture of his hand.
I try to disengage myself from a confrontation that would be all too familiar and remind myself that I am a foreign tourist visiting the fourth most important holy site for the Islamic religion and the second one for the Jewish. So although I am naturally surprised at the intense questioning, I am also naturally used to being asked for my passport. I hand it to the soldier, he looks at it, he hands it back without a word and I mumble “What now?”, expecting an answer like “You are detained”, or “arrested”, or something of the like. Instead, he says: “You have to wait”. He looks at another soldier in a small office separated from us by some glass doors. That soldier is on the phone. I look away, at the different walls, as if already enjoying the building I came here to visit, and at some point the first soldiers says: “you can pass”.
He points to a door and I go through it. I am then in a narrow and claustrophobic corridor. At the beginning of this corridor there is a door on one side, with Hebrew characters painted on it, and a small window that lets you see a bit of what’s at the other side of it. I see a man in a black hat, glasses and ringlets on both sides of his face. He looks at me in a not-too-friendly way. I continue walking down the corridor and I realise that I am not going to be allowed to visit the Jewish part of the building.
The corridor ends at an enormous room where there are two Palestinians looking and smiling at me. A third one, also smiling, approaches me, telling me with gestures to come in. However he is not pointing at the next door as I would have expected, but at a closet next to that door. He opens the door of the closet and I see a lot of capes hung from hooks, all with a hood, of very similar sizes, and all are of the very same very dark brown colour.
He grabs one of the capes and helps me to put it on. It feels as if I were suddenly in a cave, only really small, with the walls of the cave made of smooth material and sticking to my body, but a cave in the end. Also, the novelty of it makes me aware of the fact that this is not an ordinary place. Then the hood itself makes me feel, if not isolated from the world outside me, certainly more aware of my inner self.
I am also invited to leave my shoes in a corner set for it. Barefoot, I enter through the door that the seated men indicate to me.
The room in which I enter is a room dedicated to prayers. It is divided into two kinds of “sections”. One looks like a wide corridor that goes from the door I’ve used to get in here right to another door at the other side of the room, in front of me. This section is like a corridor of about five meters wide. To the right of the corridor is the wall, and on the left there is a much wider section and is covered with what looks like a thick carpet, or maybe various layers of carpets. The carpeted floor is about five centimetres higher than the floor of the corridor, which has no carpet. The carpeted part is the main part of the room and has many columns; the not carpeted part is rather just a corridor between both doors, and it doesn’t have a single column. There is no furniture, neither benches nor chairs to seat on.
I can only see men in attitude of meditation, knelt or seated on the floor, although they are all wearing street clothes. There is an acute atmosphere of meditation, and having my head covered with this brown hood, seeing everything through the opening that the hood allows, therefore having a quite more closed rank of vision than with my head uncovered, contributes to this feeling of meditation and smallness.
A question crosses my mind: why would it be unsuitable to help the men have this feeling too, with a cape and a hood?
The truth is I do not feel uncomfortable with it. In fact it makes me wonder why we don’t have this custom in other religions too, to put something special on at the door to become fully conscious of just how special the site you are going to enter is.
I feel privileged being able to visit a temple dedicated to a faith I do not belong to, in principle.
Next to the door at the end of the room there is another man who looks at me and smiles. I show him my camera while I raise my eyebrows, and he nods. In the western body language I have asked him for permission to take pictures and he has given it, and I hope this is what he understands too.
I kneel on the stair that is formed by the height difference between the two sections and all that has happened in the past weeks, mainly the last one, comes right to my head at once. I end up recalling that throughout History, how many of the greatest crimes of Humanity, continue to be committed “in the Name of God”.
My hood insists on falling off my head and I end up not caring. It falls on my back again but this time I don’t put it back on. No one seems to notice; nobody says anything.
Finally I leave the carpeted zone, I give back the cape, I put my shoes back on and go out back to the street.
Once outside, the waiting queue that I have seen before is now shorter, but a few boys are still here, waiting, since I jumped the queue. I ask them if they are detained and one says no, but adds that they have been trying to enter the mosque for two hours now and they are not allowed in. I ask the Israeli soldier and he answers without wanting to answer that he is waiting for some type of confirmation from somewhere. I wish them luck and I continue towards the street, but it seems that they have given up and they come with me. I realise they communicate by signs. The one that speaks to me say they are deaf-mute and he is the activities supervisor. Today they had wanted to go to the mosque together but they have not been allowed in. Another humiliation.
K. phones me to ask me to come home as soon as I can because a “mini kristaal natch” has happened. When I arrive home I find that we have to go to the house of a neighbour to take pictures of the damages some settlers have done to it during my absence. Basically after hearing some noise of broken glasses, they just found all the glasses of the living room window broken and glass pieces all over the floor. The vandals left the iron bar they have broken all the house windows with. Fig 33