Gill Swain photograph

A Story of Friendship

October 2007

There are many Israeli peace activists lobbying to end their government's occupation of the Palestinian Territories – a growing number, we are told. Hundreds are in the West Bank now helping with the olive harvest, picking alongside Palestinians and protecting them from attack by settlers.

The group most closely associated with Hebron is "Breaking the Silence," made up of former Israeli soldiers who are so disturbed by what they had to do to Palestinians during their two years of national service they have decided to speak out. It was founded by men who served in this city during the second intifada.

A couple of times a month they take groups on tours of the Israeli-controlled H2 area of the city and we joined one of them, led by Mikhael and Yehuda.

Click to enlarge all photographs

Mikhael Manekin of Breaking the Silence
conducting a tour of Hebron, pointing at the sign telling Palestinians they are forbidden to walk or drive along Shuhada Street.

Mikhael served for four years, mostly guarding checkpoints in the north. "I thought my unit was unique in the things we did, that we were rotten apples. But I have found out that most soldiers behaved the same way," he told us.

Yehuda was a company deputy sergeant major In Hebron and it was the blatant illegality of what he had to do that he really could not bear. We walked alongside him down the empty Shuhada Street as he angrily brandished a copy of a letter from the Israeli military authorities written in December, 2006, admitting that the closure of the street to Palestinians and the welding shut of the residents' front doors in 2003 had all been a "mistake." He said one of the things that disturbed him most was that almost all the orders he had to carry out were issued orally, almost nothing was written down. So it was impossible for opponents to challenge them, or even for anybody to keep track of what they were or who issued them.

Yehuda Shaul of Breaking the Silence,
greeting a Palestinian shopkeeper.

Yehuda was in Hebron during the time of the curfews. And curfew, more than settler violence, more than closures and barricades and military harassment, is what really killed the spirit of the Old City of Hebron. During the 2nd intifada there were outbreaks of Palestinian violence here but in reacting by imposing blanket curfews, the authorities were guilty under international law of applying collective punishment. Through most of 2002 and 2003, all Palestinians in H2, men, women and children, were completely confined to their houses day and night except for two hours once every two weeks.

When people talk about that time they always look haunted. You can almost see the horror of the interminable days and the unbearable tension come back into their minds. They get a stricken, faraway look in their eyes and have to give a little shudder to bring themselves back to the present.
The city is still dealing with the legacy of that period in terms of multiple mental health and social problems. Unable to go to school or play out, children grew aggressive and hyper-active. Unable to go to work or socialise, men grew frustrated and often violent towards their wives and children. Many men and women still suffer from anxiety, stress and depression.

We were having a cup of tea at Hashem Al-Azzaz's house (see 'A Walk Through Old Hebron') the other day when he started talking about the curfews and about how so many people used their two hours of liberty once a fortnight to pack up and leave for good.

He told us that his wife was pregnant with their last child at that time and when her due date came and she started having labour pains, he carried her down the road to the border with the Palestinian-controlled H1 area of the city.

There he was stopped by soldiers who would not allow him to pass. "I showed them the document from the hospital with her delivery date and told them her pains had started. 'I don't care,' the soldier said. 'It's curfew, you have to be in your home.'
"I said: 'She is about to give birth. She could die.' He said:'I don't care. Go home.'"

Hashem and his wife retreated a little way and waited. After a while those soldiers left but as they started down the road again, they were confronted by another group.
"I explained the situation again and one of them looked at the paper and at my wife, whose pains were more frequent now, and told me to wait until he had dispersed the others. He sent them off to carry out various tasks, then he came and helped me carry my wife into H1 and we got to the hospital just in time for her to give birth to our son. That man was Yehuda."

In 2005 Hashem, knowing that the settlers who harass his family from their homes on the slope above his house were extremists, decided he wanted to make contact with mainstream Israelis. At the same time Breaking the Silence wanted to take groups to meet a Palestinian family.

So now Yehuda calls at Hashem's house as a valued friend, plays with his son, and tells the groups he brings with him about the realities of life for Palestinians and for Israeli soldiers in Hebron. It's a little bit of shared humanity in a grim picture. It's not much. But it is hope.

Breaking the Silence,
Interview with Yehuda Shaul,