Call it a welcoming committee. Around noon here, just as Barack Obama’s plane was slated to touch down in Israel, a group of Palestinians donned masks bearing the American president’s likeness and took to Shuhada Street in Hebron, in the southern West Bank. Joined by international and Israeli activists, all wearing tee-shirts that read “I have a dream,” they caught the army unawares. Within minutes, five Israeli soldiers swarmed the group of just over 20 protesters, detaining seven or eight of them (reports remain unconfirmed), including the two Palestinians leading the protests. Their crime? Walking down the street.
“Obama, come here to Hebron,” shouted Issa Amro, a local protest leader, in English, just as a scrum formed between the demonstrators and a handful of soldiers, who rushed to the scene. “I am Obama,” he added as a young settler, perhaps 12-years-old, snatched the cardboard Obama mask from his face, crumpling it into his back pocket. Within minutes, Amro was shoved to the street. He rose briefly only to be knocked down again, before being dragged off into detention.
Segregation is too light a word to describe what happens in Hebron, a city of less than 200,000 that feels like ground zero of the Israeli occupation. Home to Jewish holy site, the Tomb of the Patriarchs, Israeli settlers began arriving in droves after Israel’s takeover of the West Bank in 1967 (a small, longtime community of Jews coexisted peacefully here for more than a century until 1929, when 67 were killed). The city is now dotted by small settlements, each home no matter how remote guarded by a soldier from the Israeli army. Now, several hundred settlers live directly in the city. Settlers moved into Shuhada Street, a narrow road that used to house a local market. Eventually, in perhaps the starkest act of discrimination here, much of the road was closed to Palestinians altogether in 1994. Palestinian life in the area has suffered dramatically since.
The protesters had marched down from a local house, joining a cadre of others and walking with Palestinian flags and a banner reading, “We have a dream/ Apartheid in Hebron/ Open Shuhada Street.” Other demonstrators held up photos of Martin Luther King, Jr.—some wore masks of his likeness, too—and Frederick Douglas. The protests took on King’s spirit of non-violence: no demonstrator hurled so much as an insult, let alone a rock. Just as they passed into the section where the road becomes “sterile”—meaning Palestinians are not allowed to walk—a group of five soldiers confronted them, attempting to form a barricade. A settler emerged from a nearby building and moved a white Volkswagen panel van across the street, bottlenecking the pedestrian traffic. But a few of the protesters broke through, only to be stopped a few meters down the road.
Four Palestinians and two Israelis, and perhaps an international, were detained on the street, as bearded Israelis, their wives and children poured out from the Beit Hadassah settlement to observe. (The two Israelis and one of the Palestinians, at press time, have been released.) The soldiers, now joined by about 20 others, shoved the protesters back. The soldiers shouted “Go!” at demonstrators and the few members of the press; one lunged at me clutching his M16 rifle like a hockey stick ready for a cross-check, but stopped just short of making contact.
One settler leader, identified by an activist as David Wilder, stormed into the shifting scrum and attempted to rip the “We have a dream” banner from the hands of protesters. When Wilder let go, a soldier grabbed the banner and tried to rip it from the demonstrators’ hands. After pushing the demonstration completely off Shuhada Street, just as protesters caught their breath for 10 minutes, another settler showed up, followed shortly by several soldiers rushing to catch up. “Show me your passport!” the soldiers shouted at a few of the internationals before arresting two of them. I asked some activists why the Israelis were arresting them after the fact. “’Cause they always do,” one answered, adding that they could be deported.
Obama holds great symbolism for the Palestinians here: they know that, as he has often said, the American civil rights movement blazed the trail that would lead the U.S. to elect its first black president. But Hebron isn’t on the itinerary for Obama’s brief trip, and his administration’s record is mixed. Considered illegal by international law—because of a prohibition on moving civilians into militarily occupied territory—the administration considers the settlements “illegitimate.” But Palestinians have been disappointed by Obama’s lack of pressure over the issue. “Unfortunately, he did not follow through on that and has stopped talking about it,” said Mustafa Barghouti, a member of the Palestinian legislative assembly, at a press conference yesterday in the seat of Palestinian self-governance, Ramallah. Barghouti paraphrased the Obama administration, referring to settlements as a “block to peace,” yet he noted that Obama vetoed a U.N. effort to censure Israel for expanding settlements.
Obama appears poised to leave the moribund peace process stalled; he didn’t arrive here with any initiatives in hand to restart talks. But watching Palestinians wearing Obama masks get arrested for doing little more than walking down a street, one can’t help but be reminded of the phrase frequently used by his idol that “justice too long delayed is justice denied.”
CORRECTION This article has been updated to reflect the following change: Hebron's Jewish community didn't live continuously in the city. A massacre of Jews there in 1929 broke the chain, which was picked back up by settlers after 1967's Six Day War.