Yesterday, I came to Hebron for a “placement visit,” an opportunity that we EAs receive twice during our stay here to visit one of the six other placements and work alongside the EAs there as way of seeing what is happening in other areas of the West Bank. With a population of nearly 200,000 people, and a reputation for being the “flashpoint” for much that is wrong in Palestine, a lot can be said about Hebron - far too much for just one blog post.
|The "settlers Tour" of Hebron's Old City is well-guarded by Israeli soldiers.|
For today, I’d like to concentrate on the “Settler Tour,” a peculiar institution by which the 800 settler residents of Hebron (protected by 2,000 soldiers) intrude into space that has been designated (by international accord) as being under Palestinian authority and control. Normally, the Old City is considered “off limits” to settlers, but on Saturday afternoon, they arrive for what many of the Palestinian residents of the city consider “a show of power.”
|Israel "tour guide" in a normally Palestinian area|
The Hebron EAs tell me that this event occurs weekly, with settlers from their enclave above the Old City as well as Israeli tourists from other parts of Israel coming to learn the “Jewish History” of Hebron. The day of my visit, about 100 settlers, accompanied by about 30 soldiers, entered the Old City, led by an older man wearing a baseball cap over his kippah who acted as a “tour guide.” Few in the predominately male group appeared to pay any attention to the narrative; most just loitered and talked among themselves.
I am told that, often, these tours attract more than 1,000 people, and that with increased attendance comes a proportional increase of military “assistance.” I am also told that often demonstrations and riots erupt between the settlers and the Palestinian residents and shopkeepers in the area, and that the Israeli soldiers do not hesitate to use the full arsenal of “crowd control” weapons, including tear gas and “rubber” bullets.
|The weekly "Settlers' Tour" has a negative impact on merchants in the Old City.|
On this day, with about 20 “internationals” from several different organizations that all maintain a presence in Hebron observing, the settlers were quiet, and the soldiers appeared to be doing a good job of crowd control, at times asking settlers to step back so Palestinian shoppers could get through the market area.
Still, the presence of the crowd was unsettling to the merchants; many closed their shops to avoid difficulties such as vandalism and theft that sometimes accompanies such “tours.” And only a few shoppers dared to venture into a market area thronged with settlers and soldiers, thus creating less-than-ideal conditions for commerce.
So who are these settlers, and why are they there? Let’s save the answer to that for another day!