Open Zion

08.30.13

Israeli Soldiers Dancing at Hebron Wedding Were Probably Not Welcome Guests

A story about Hebron made it to international news outlets again this week: a group of Israeli soldiers from the Givati Infrantry Brigade were filmed dancing at a Palestinian wedding. One soldier was carried around on the shoulders of various wedding attendees. Why were they there? Most likely, they were simply on patrol, heard familiar music, and "asked" to come in and dance. Because no Palestinian says "no" to a soldier in Hebron. It's pretty much impossible.

Video screenshot

The Arab residents of Hebron call their city al-Khalil. Khalil in Arabic means friend, and Khalil al-Allah is the friend of God. In the case of Hebron, they mean a particular friend: Abraham, known in the Bible as "Abraham my friend." The Hebrew name Hebron, also used in English, comes from the root HBR, which also means friend. I have been walking the streets of this city for three and a half years, since I was discharged from the IDF, guiding tours for Breaking the Silence. It is a fascinating city, beautiful and filthy, which manages to epitomize all of the complexities of the occupation in one place.

Since the signing of the Hebron Accord in 1997, the city has been divided into two zones. Eight hundred settlers live in the "Israeli" zone, H2, in the heart of a large Palestinian city. The lives of Palestinians in this zone, controlled fully by the Israeli military, are disrupted constantly by new regulations and old occupation. Whoever could leave, did. The area is now home to 42 percent fewer people than it was in 1997. Palestinian unemployment in H2 is 72 percent. It is one of the most impoverished areas of the West Bank. The area that used to be the commercial center of Hebron is now a ghost town.

For those who don't know the dynamics of Hebron, it might seem from this video that the city finally managed to make the Israeli soldiers and Palestinians friends, like its name and its namesake. But this is a mistake: soldiers in Hebron are, in their own words, the "sheriffs" in town. They can get "invited" to weddings, break up funerals, and stop ambulances. They do whatever they want.

Since 2000, the IDF has been deploying two permanent foot patrols in the city, charged with "demonstrating a presence." To quote the mission statement, the objective of the patrols is to "disrupt the routine of the Palestinian residents." In practice this means that soldiers enter houses every night, with no probable cause or warrant, to make arrests and carry out searches.

Testimonies collected by Breaking the Silence show that these patrols are intended to make the population "understand that we are everywhere." And they are, in fact, everywhere. Every four years, when the FIFA World Soccer Cup rolls around, soldiers on patrol find a house with a satellite dish to sit in and watch that night's match. Entering someone's house at gunpoint and taking over their living room for 90 minutes (plus halftime) is not all that friendly. I don't think that the residents of the houses I entered will ever see me as a friend, even though they let me in whenever I knocked on their door.

Because of the settlers' presence, Hebron holds a special place in the consciousness of Israel's Jewish majority. Things that happen in Hebron make their way into the newspapers more often than things that happen in other cities. Sometimes they are almost amusing, like when a group of infantry soldiers filmed themselves dancing to Ke$ha's Tick Tock. Most other times the headlines simply document the harsh daily routine of the occupation: a soldier butts the head of a young Palestinian, a group of settlers attack children on their way out of school, a group of armed soldiers detain a 5-year-old on suspicion of throwing stones.

When Hebron makes it to the media the yawning gap between Hebron and Tel Aviv is bridged for a minute or two. For people like me, who live on that border, those are the moments when we think that everyone will finally understand things as they are. When the minute is over, and nobody understands, we go back to our frustrating reality.

The dancing soldiers were disciplined for dancing at that wedding—not because they abused their power or violated the privacy of the Hebronites, but because they put themselves in danger and might have set off some kind of crisis by being killed or injured. When soldiers from the same brigade detained a five-year-old, they were not disciplined. Apparently children are slightly less dangerous.

But the power dynamic is no different: fear permeates the lives of Palestinians in Hebron, and this fear is used to control them. When you rule at gunpoint, your subjects will always do what you say. It doesn't mean they like you. It doesn't mean they consent.