Friday, December 7, 2007

Hebron and the Al Ibrahimi Mosque

On Thursday 6 December 2007 we took a bus south from Jerusalem, past Bethlehem to Hebron. One of the many interesting features of life in Israel is that there are different buses for Israelis and Palestinians. Sounds like South Africa under apartheid? Well, no, because there is no law to prevent ethnic mixing on the buses. But I'm told that Israelis simply don't use the (more inferior and smaller) Palestinian buses, and if a Palestinian boarded an Israeli bus the passengers would panic, thinking he or she was a suicide bomber.

A more overt segregation strategy is the colour coding of vehicle number plates, with corresponding licences, and a network of superb "Settler only" roads in the West Bank on which Palestinians are forbidden to venture. Israelis, for their part, are not allowed to drive on designated "Palestinian" roads. Not that they would want to anyway, and if they did it would be in presumed fear of their lives. Israel is a wonderful place.

But back to our visit to Hebron. En route we passed through an Israeli checkpoint, but did not need to stop as we had Israeli plates. On arrival, we passed through a pedestrian checkpoint similar to the metal detectors at airports, under the relaxed eyes of several young border security troops. The World Council of Churches' Ecumenical Accompanier (EA) program accompanied us here, and took us to visit a Palestinian school near an Israeli settlement in downtown Hebron.

Each morning a group of between four and eight EAs escort Palestinian children from home to school so that they are not harrassed and frightened by Israeli settlers. Each morning a settler car is parked against the concrete steps leading to the school (pictured above, with members of the Australian delegation and EA volunteers), and removed by 8.00 am. On the day we were there, there was evidence of large stones having been placed on the path to the school to frustrate pedestrians, and we saw the school garden (in an internal courtyard) planted with new shrubs replacing those torn out at night, allegedly by settlers. The students themselves appeared happy and healthy.

The ultraorthodox settlers' aim is ultimately to encourage all Palestinians to leave the area. Admittedly the history of Hebron is tragic, despite its status as the home of Abraham. For example, in 1929, some 67 Jews were massacred by Muslims (while other Muslims gave refuge to hundreds more Jews - a fact suppressed by official history); and in 1994 Baruch Goldstein, a Jewish man, walked into the Al Ibrahimi Mosque and killed 29 worshippers (we saw the bullet marks in the walls).

Certainly the Israeli occupation of Hebron and the resulting economic decline, as well as earlier history, have greatly shaped today's Hebron, as our images below demonstrate.

Israeli human rights activists

On the evening of 5 December 2007, our delegation from Australia visited the Swedish Christian Studies Center (about 200 metres from our hotel), where we listened to three presentations on human rights in Israel and Palestine. What made these talks compelling was that each speaker was an Israeli citizen who viewed Israeli treatment of Palestinians as unjust. The speakers were:

Hanna began by describing her group of women as "the most hated women in Israel." She claimed that Israel had a weak government and a strong military, and that the army effectively ruled the country. She said there had been a small but noticeable decrease in violence toward Palestinians at West Bank checkpoints since Machsom Watch had begun its activities. She also said that military occupation leads to corruption.

The speaker from Breaking the Silence was a young infantry lieutenant who served from 1998 to 2002 in most of the military hotspots. He told personal stories and explained how he came to embrace non-violence. One thing that impressed me was his comment that "Every Israeli has a political solution to the conflict, but no one wants to talk about morality." This observation has been reinforced many times in what I have seen and heard while in Israel.

The third speaker, Rabbi Ascherman, spoke passionately about the need for Israelis to take human rights seriously. He noted that a concern for the rights of others is foundational to the Torah, and drew attention to the Declaration of the Establishment of the State of Israel, which declares that the State of Israel will:

foster the development of the country for the benefit of all its inhabitants; it will be based on freedom, justice and peace as envisaged by the prophets of Israel; it will ensure complete equality of social and political rights to all its inhabitants irrespective of religion, race or sex; it will guarantee freedom of religion, conscience, language, education and culture; it will safeguard the Holy Places of all religions; and it will be faithful to the principles of the Charter of the United Nations.

He also praised Rabbi David Forman, the founder of Rabbis for Human Rights, as comparable to Dr Martin Luther King, and concluded with a quote from Rabbi Heschel that summed up all that we have been hearing and witnessing these past few days:

In a democracy, a few are guilty but all are responsible. We need an Israel that is not only physically strong but morally strong, and that lives up to our society's highest values.