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Settlers in Hebron Celebrate 'Freedom' While Palestinians Suffer

As the Jewish people of the world celebrate Passover and their freedom, repression still stings in the streets of Hebron, where the conflict and discrimination epitomize the story of all Israeli settlement activity, writes Akiva Eldar.
An Israeli settler (front) and Palestinians demonstrators, one wearing a mask depicting U.S. President Barack Obama, scuffle during a protest against the continued closure by the Israeli army of Shuhada street to Palestinians in the West Bank city of Hebron March 20, 2013. Obama arrived in Israel on Wednesday without any new peace initiative to offer disillusioned Palestinians and facing deep Israeli doubts over his pledge to prevent a nuclear-armed Iran. REUTERS/ Mussa Qawasma (WEST BANK - Tags: POLITICS C

The Obama family sat around a White House table this week for the fifth year to hold a ceremonial Passover Seder meal, with matzo bread [an unleavened cracker], bitter herbs and other symbolic fare.

“Passover is a celebration of the freedom our ancestors dreamed of, fought for and ultimately won,” the president said in a greeting he issued to the people in Zion. “I saw once again how the dream of true freedom found its full expression in those words of hope from [the national Israeli anthem] Hatikvah, 'lihyot ‘am chofshi be’artzeinu,' 'To be a free people in our land,'" Obama waxed poetic, having just completed a successful visit to the Holy Land.

His call to view life through the eyes of Palestinians resonated among the young Israelis who convened last week [March 21] at the Jerusalem conference center to hear him speak. This exercise, simple and obvious as it may sound, is not easy. It runs counter to our indoctrination, which included years of education and the continuous dehumanization of the Palestinians. It’s hard to find a young Israeli who does not repeat the mantra, “There’s no one to talk to on the other side,” and few are bothered by the reality of the Israeli occupation in the West Bank.

Speaking to the students, Obama described the special bond he feels with the Passover holiday and the message it conveys.

“It is a story of centuries of slavery and years of wandering in the desert,” he told his young listeners. “To African-Americans, the story of the Exodus told a powerful tale about emerging from the grip of bondage to reach for liberty and human dignity — a tale that was carried from slavery through the civil-rights movement.”

The president may have meant to compare the struggle of blacks in the United States for freedom from the chains of slavery to the struggle of the Palestinians for freedom from the shackles of occupation. Perhaps. If this is the case, the president could have found a clear illustration of his words in the small parade that made its way through the ancient Palestinian city of Hebron shortly after Air Force One landed at Ben-Gurion airport. A small group of Palestinian, Israeli and foreign peace activists, wearing masks depicting the faces of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and of President Obama, marched together through Shuhada Street, for years the heart of the Arab city from which Palestinians have been banned for the past two decades.

The marchers’ black T-shirts bore the words “I have a dream,” a portrait of Rosa Parks and other symbols of the American civil-rights movement. A small megaphone played, “Woke up this morning with my mind set on freedom,” one of the songs which symbolized the struggle of blacks in America. One the demonstrators said that he and his friends wished to remind Obama that had it not been for the struggle for equality, today the United States would not have had a black president.

“Martin Luther King fought against the segregation in buses and cafes,” said another. “We are fighting for our ability to survive in the houses and on the streets of Hebron.”

Several minutes later, local Jewish settlers attacked the peace activists, lashing out at them and trying to tear the signs they held. In the manner befitting the “lords of the land” in the occupied territories, the settlers gave orders to the soldiers who arrived on their heels. Nine protesters were detained. Once again, the violence of the Hebron settlers remained unanswered.

There is no place in the West Bank where the discrimination is more blatant than the on streets of Hebron, where the city’s 800 Jewish residents celebrated Seder evening this week for the 45th time. While they did so, the city’s 160,000 Palestinian residents were under curfew. That’s the way it is every Jewish holiday.

In fact, the story of the Jewish settlement in Hebron is the story of all Israeli settlement activity — and it is connected to the Passover holiday. The "freedom holiday” celebrated this week in Israel and around the world is also the birthday of the first and only settlement to have been established within the heart of a Palestinian city.

It happened in 1968. Several days before Seder, the Palestinian owner of the Park Hotel in old Hebron acceded to the request by a group of Jews headed by Rabbi Moshe Levinger, one of the founders of Gush Emunim (the main settlement movement), to rent the hotel’s 14 rooms for the holiday. When the holiday was over, the residents of the “temporary” settlement sent a cable to then-defense minister Moshe Dayan, saying “Happy holidays from the settlers of Hebron.” The minister’s response — “I thank you for your wishes and have a happy holiday” — was interpreted as official recognition of their action. And the rest is history. 

Twenty-six years later, in 1994, this time on the holiday of Purim, Baruch Goldstein, a settler from Kiryat Arba (adjacent to Hebron), entered the Cave of Patriarchs in Hebron and massacred 29 Muslims in cold blood. In order to prevent acts of vengeance, Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin ordered severe restrictions on the movement of Palestinians in the city center, especially Shuhada Street. As a result, more than 1,000 Palestinian families left their homes and the vast majority of Palestinian businesses in the neighborhood closed down. The restrictions are still in force to this day.

The carnage in the Cave of Patriarchs set off the spree of suicide-bombing attacks by Hamas. They peaked in March 2002 with the murder of 30 Seder participants in the heart of Netanya, at a hotel with the chilling name of “Park,” just like the Hebron hotel where the Jewish settlement began in the city. The massacre took place in the midst of the Seder meal, several hours after the Arab League announced its historic peace initiative. The following day, then-prime minister Ariel Sharon ordered the IDF to capture the towns of the West Bank in what became known as "Operation Defensive Shield” and to damage the infrastructure of the Palestinian Authority. The reports of the dead and the destruction in the territories pushed reports of the Arab peace initiative to the back pages. 

Another seed of violence was planted at Goldstein’s funeral, held in Kiryat Arba, which was to change the course of history. Yigal Amir, who was among the crowd of mourners, swore on that occasion to follow in the footsteps of his dead hero and to murder then-prime minister Yitzak Rabin, thereby destroying the Oslo process.

Back to our times. While Obama was giving his “Jerusalem speech” to an enthusiastic young audience, Israeli security forces in Hebron were arresting 27 Palestinian minors, among them 14 children under the age of 12, members of the “Youth Against Settlements” Palestinian movement (YES). On the eve of Obama’s visit, they had watched a tape of the famous Million Men March on Washington. Amro, their counselor, told the boys: “Look how hundreds of thousands of people are marching and not a single stone is being thrown. That’s how one wins.” He promised them that if they follow in the footsteps of Martin Luther King, Jr., Rosa Parks and others like them in the United States, “we will eventually reach the Promised Land.” But as Obama said in his Passover greeting to the people of Israel, “responsibility does not end when we reach the promised land, it only begins.” These words sound good in English and in Hebrew — and in Arabic, too. 

Akiva Eldar is a contributing writer for Al-Monitor’s Israel Pulse. He was formerly a senior columnist and editorial writer for Haaretz and also served as the Hebrew daily’s US bureau chief and diplomatic correspondent. His most recent book (with Idith Zertal), Lords of the Land, on the Jewish settlements, was on the best-seller list in Israel and has been translated into English, German and Arabic.

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