Saturday, October 31, 2020

Ex soldiers are Breaking the Silence with guided tours in Hebron

By Ana Thorne - November 07, 2012
Section: [Main News] [Opinion] [Culture] [Features]
Tags: [Breaking the Silence]

On October 25th the Breaking the Silence gave a tour to a mixed group (contenting of tourists and international students) in Hebron. Nadav Bigelman, who is born in Jerusalem and now lives in Haifa, was the guide for the day. As a 19 year old in 2008, he served as an Israeli combatant for one year and eight months in Hebron.

Breaking the Silence started in the year of 2004 as an exhibition in Tel Aviv in order to change the discourse and give an insight on how occupation looks like to unaware Israelis. The first exhibition was made up of photos of the day-to-day reality of the military service in Hebron captured by the soldiers. A member of Breaking the Silence must be a veteran combatant that has served the Israeli military from the start of the second Intifada in 2000 or after.

The members of the organization have taken the decision to expose to the Israeli public and the rest of the world the reality of everyday life in the Palestinian Occupied Territories. Every former soldier withing the group must give an anonymous testimony to a fellow combatant about his or her time in the Israeli army serving in the Occupied Territories.

Bigelman informs those on the tour that the many young Israelis who want to serve their government and state are often not aware of the situation. Before he entered the army he had never been to the West Bank. Only 10 % of the Israeli occupation soldiers serve in the West Bank.

“People listen to you because you used to be a soldier. Breaking the Silence is bringing Hebron to Tel Aviv into the living rooms of the Jewish civilians in Israel,” he explains.

The interest for Breaking the Silence was huge and not long after the organization was established they started giving guided tours in Hebron and in the South Hebron Hills. “Once you [those on the tour] see with your own eyes you understand how occupation works,” Bigelman says.

The tour in Hebron began with a stop at the extremist settler Baruch Goldstein’s grave just outside Hebron. In 1994 during the holy month of Ramadan, Baruch Goldstein, a Jewish born man from Brooklyn New York, murdered 29 Palestinian men and boys while they were praying in the Ibrahimi Mosque and injured 200 people. Nadav Bigelman tells that most settlers distance themselves from the action but extremist settlers consider him as a hero and his gravesite remains a popular place of pilgrimage for them.

Close to where Goldstein’s grave lies is an illegal outpost situated near the settlement of Qiryat Arba. Bigelman explains that the outpost has been demolished at least 30 times. According to the international law both outposts and settlements are illegal on any occupied territory of Palestine.

“The only difference is that the settlements have permission from the Israeli military to be on the land and the outposts do not,” Bigelman says.

Heavy restrictions on Palestinian Movement

Hebron, home to more than 250,000 Palestinians with approximately 800 Jewish settlers, is the only Palestinian city where Israeli settlements are situated inside the city center.

The city center used to serve as the commercial center of the whole southern West Bank but after the establishment of the settlements, the economy suffered great losses and it has not been possible for the Palestinians living in the city center to maintain a normal standard of living. As a result, many left their houses and the Old City is today nicknamed as “Ghost Town”.

Israeli soldiers patrol the streets at all times. Bigelman describes that due to fact that most of the roads around the city center are forbidden for the Palestinians to drive on, the Israeli side of the roads are therefore wider because they are allowed to drive there and the Palestinian side is narrower because they are only allowed to walk there.

Nadav Bigelman tells a typical story from his daily shifts in Hebron. A boy in the 'completely closed’ area of Hebron wanted to leave his house, but he was not allowed and Bigelman had to push him back inside his house.

In contrast, Bigleman continues, there are regular guided tours for settlers that want to see Hebron, protected by two groups of soldiers.  The tours cross through the Casbah (the Palestinian area of the old city, where it is slightly livelier than the rest.)

One group of soldiers surrounds the settlers on the ground while the other group is located on the rooftops of the Palestinian houses. In order to come up there the soldiers barge through the private Palestinian houses, past living rooms and kitchens.

Bigelman talks about a game called “The Earth is Toxic”, which he used to play with his colleagues. The game was about not touching the ground during a whole 8 hour shift, which therefore only gave them the choice to go from one Palestinian rooftop to another.

“The Palestinian boy was not allowed to go out of his own house,” Bigelman says ironically, “but guided tours around in the city are okay and it is okay for the soldiers to enter private homes?”

Constant surveillance

One thing that is palpably noticeable is the fact that a strategy lies behind the different surveillance acts in Hebron, and for that matter in the rest of the West Bank as well. Bigelman talks about how they used to throw glow sticks inside Palestinian houses during the night, so that when the Palestinians woke up the next morning they would know that their houses had been monitored.

“It is all about making the presence of the occupation visible,” Bigelman underlines.

Mapping Palestinians houses is another way to let the Palestinians know that Israeli soldiers operate and undertake observation in the area. Bigelman explains that this is always done during the night, with the argument that during nighttime is the biggest chance for every family member to be home, but it also has to do with the fact that it is most unpleasant to be awakened in the middle of the night.

“We were 5-6 soldiers in a group and two things were done at the same time,” Bigelman clarifies. “The first thing you do is to search – you don’t know what you are searching for – you just search – for flags, documents, weapons etc. The other thing – you write the ID-numbers and the names of the Palestinians in the house down. A sketch of the house is drawn, where you map all the rooms and in the end you take pictures of the family members and match pictures with IDs.”

Normally four to five houses are mapped during one night with around 20 pictures snapped.

“Nobody ever asked for the information, the pictures or wanted the proof of the mapping,” Bigelman says reproachfully. “The houses could be mapped twice a year – every time a new unit of soldiers came to Hebron. This is a strategy, the same happens in Jenin – in order to make people aware of our presence.”

When the protected are the problem

Internal disagreements between the Israeli soldiers and the settlers have become a problem, Bigelman acknowledges.  A testimony from a settler during a Shabbat a day in 2010 tells about an episode where the electricity was cut off (electricity is not allowed during Shabbat). The settler asked if the gate to the area where he lived could be left open, but it was not allowed. He broke into the system and destroyed the electricity to the automatic doors.

“No one was arrested whereas if this had been a Palestinian it would have been a whole other story,” Bigelman emphasizes.

Two different laws are in play depending on the suspect. The military law applies to the inhabitants of the occupied territory – the Palestinians— and the Israeli civilian law applies to the settlers, even though they are in the occupied territories.

During a military court there are no external judges and the Palestinian is therefore judged by internal military persons. The relationship between the settlers and the soldiers is often close and therefore it is hard for the soldiers to act as the executive power.

“It is the same settlers that you drink coffee with in the morning that in the afternoon might harass the Palestinians.” Bigelman expresses his frustration and continues to say, “I was trained to fight armies – but how to fight in an open place, in a town with civilians? I was never trained for police work (to arrest people). Our first priority is to protect the settlers.”

According to Bigelman there were never clear rules about whether the soldiers were allowed to arrest the settlers or not. To open fire towards the settlers was not allowed.

In 2008 Bigelman’s unit was told to evacuate a Palestinian house because the Palestinians did not have the required permission from the Israeli military to renovate it and the residents of the house therefore had to be removed.

The order was “Do it, as nicely as you can,” Bigelman recounted, “but how can you do that? There is no nice way!”

The settler-Palestinian-military triangle in Hebron is a recipe for explosive tension. There is simply no 'nice way’ to do occupation. Breaking the Silence is doing a very good job in informing people about what really happens when being part of the fourth strongest military that is heavily maintaining the occupation. But unfortunately as long as the Israeli society continues to turn the blind eye and deny what is happening, especially in Hebron, it is hard to see a way out of the unfortunate situation for the Palestinians.

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