HEBRON, West Bank — Some 300 left-wing activists were prevented from touring Hebron on Friday after right-wingers met to confront them, leading the military to declare a “closed military zone” in the area where the two groups gathered and keep the two groups apart.
The confrontation came a week after a much-publicized clash between soldiers and several left-wing activists, which saw a soldier beating one activist and a second one gloating to a camera about his belief that the incoming right-wing government would end the group’s activities.
That soldier’s subsequent punishment with several days’ jail time led to an outcry by right-wing politicians and activists and sparked dueling condemnations and commendations in the press and on social media for the troops’ behavior. The other soldier was not immediately punished, aside from being immediately suspended following the assault.
On Friday, the left-wingers came on buses charted by Breaking the Silence, an NGO that organizes tours of the Israeli-controlled section of Hebron. The tours are led by former IDF soldiers who seek to expose what they claim are abuses against local Palestinians by the army and settlers.
Dozens of protesters with the right-wing nationalist group Im Tirzu came to confront them, leading the military to declare the “closed military zone” around the parking lot where the left-wing activists had arrived on buses from various Israeli cities.
Im Tirzu protesters, some with megaphones, shouted “Shame on you,” “Anarchists,” “Marxists” and “Yalla, go home!” at the left-wing activists near the Tomb of the Patriarchs, a flashpoint holy site for Israeli-Palestinian tensions.
The two sides were not able to get close enough to each other for altercations to break out.
“In light of the situation [on Friday], it was decided to declare a closed military zone in several places in the city of Hebron in order to prevent clashes there,” the IDF said in a statement.
The closed zone prevented Breaking the Silence from carrying out its normal activities: bus tours around the 20% of Hebron that is under Israeli control, and the only part of the city where it’s legal for Israeli citizens to be present.
In lieu of the tours, the left-wing activists split off into small groups, with each forming a circle around a guide who showed them images from Hebron. One of the images showed an empty Shuhada Street, a once bustling Palestinian commercial thoroughfare in Hebron that has been largely closed off to Palestinians through a gradual process beginning soon after the Jewish terrorist Baruch Goldstein killed 29 Muslim worshippers at the Tomb of the Patriarchs.
The IDF uses the same explanation for the closure of the Shuhada as it did for prohibiting the left-wing activists from venturing out of the parking lot on Friday — to prevent unrest and violence.
The military makes a common practice of setting a perimeter around areas where tensions are liable to devolve into altercations. While the cordoning ostensibly protects both sides, critics claim that the closed military zones are almost always imposed on Palestinians and their supporters.
Friday’s dueling demonstrations also came two weeks after video-recorded incidents showed Jews accosting Palestinians during a religious festival.
The activists say that their tours and videos reveal the brutality of the Israeli occupation of the West Bank, described by some of them as a system of apartheid. Breaking the Silence has faced criticism from the right in recent years for collecting and publicizing mostly anonymous testimony of alleged IDF mistreatment of Palestinians.
Critics argue that the tours and the filming disturb soldiers as they protect civilians, both Israeli and Palestinian.
Some 1,000 settlers live in H2, the area of Hebron controlled by the Israeli military, in uneasy neighborship with approximately 35,000 Palestinians. Hebron is thus the only city in the West Bank where Jewish settlers and Palestinians live side by side. A large Israeli military presence is deployed there to prevent hostilities — between Jews and Palestinians and, less frequently, between Jews on opposite ends of the political spectrum.
Palestinians in the area are restricted in their movement and claim arbitrary arrests and detentions, but settlers argue that these are necessary for security in a city where the mayor, Tayseer Abu Sneineh, was elected in large part by boasting of his participation in a 1980 terrorist attack that killed six Jews.
Some among the Breaking the Silence group speculated that Im Tirzu showed up on Friday so that the Israeli military would declare the closed military zone and prevent the group’s tours.
Amir Ziv, a coordinator with Breaking the Silence, said he couldn’t guess Im Tirzu’s motives, adding, “They have a right to protest, just as we have a right to do our tours. That’s how democracy works and that’s great.”
He claimed, however, that “the IDF has a close relationship with the settler movement and the Israeli right-wing… The IDF is a tool for the government, that’s what an army is. It needs to get its policy from somewhere and its policy often comes from right-wing, pro-settler parties.”
The IDF has often been in conflict with far-right settlers but has also been seen standing by while settlers attack or harass Palestinians.
The spokesperson for Im Tirzu, Matan Boker, said, “The vast majority of Israelis” see the IDF as an essential part of the Jewish state, one that’s above politics. Boker said members of Im Tirzu came out to Hebron to show support for the soldiers and hand them candy.
“When you’re a soldier you need to be on your feet for hours, rain or shine, and you’re protecting both Jews and Arabs. It’s an almost impossible task,” he said.
Boker expressed his belief that soldiers were being goaded into reactions under these already stressful circumstances by camera-carrying left-wing activists.
Activists from Breaking the Silence recorded the soldier in last Friday’s confrontation as he made threats at them, shouting “Leftists, I will rearrange your faces” and “Ben Gvir is going to put some order into this place.”
MK Itamar Ben Gvir, leader of the far right-wing Otzma Yehudit party, has been promised the newly created national security ministry in coalition negotiations with expected incoming prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu. If appointed, Ben Gvir, himself a settler, would have a major say in shaping security policy in parts of the West Bank under Israeli military rule.
Issa Amro, the Palestinian activist who made the video of last week’s confrontation, has been ordered by a military court to stay away from his home in Tel Rumeida for a period of six days as punishment for “obstructing a police investigation.”
Amro said that when police summoned him to the station to share videos of his interaction with the soldier, he handed them a flash drive instead of his phone, which he’d left at home. Amro said that in his 15 years of sharing videos with the police, they’d never before objected to his sharing them on a flash drive.
Amro addressed the left-wing activists in the parking lot on Friday and drew applause when he delivered “a message” to Israelis that “your silence about the occupation and apartheid created Ben Gvir.” Afterward, Amro was detained for an hour and a half by undercover police, according to Breaking The Silence. The military court order that barred him from his house also stipulated that he was to have no contact for a month with those who aided him in making the videos.
At Friday’s rallies, Im Tirzu protester Eden Sisson, a 24-year-old from Florida who made aliyah to serve in the IDF, said that left-wing organizations pose a threat to Israel’s security by “spreading hate and lies when the IDF has an important job to do.”
She recalled that during her own service, left-wing activists called her a “Nazi” and a “terrorist” and that it was hard to keep her cool in such times.
In the parking lot, Oren, a man in his 20s who preferred to not share his last name, identified himself as a native Israeli who had refused to serve in the IDF and also a “non-Zionist.”
“On the physical level, worse things than Zionism have certainly happened to the Jewish people, but on the conceptual level Zionism is the worst thing to ever happen to Judaism,” he asserted, arguing that Zionism forces Jews to commit against Palestinians the same kind of violence that was historically directed at them.
Two older men — one an American born the year before Israel’s foundation, the other an Israeli the year after — stood on opposite sides of the perimeter and expressed to The Times of Israel opposite views on the situation in the West Bank.
Hanoch Rubel, a Brooklyn native born in 1947, said that anyone who “supports terrorism” or “preaches the destruction of the Jewish state” should be transferred out of the Holy Land, including from Palestinian population centers like Ramallah and Jenin.
Rubel, who voted Likud in the most recent election, said that antagonism toward Israel, not ethnicity, should be the sole criterion for expulsion and that far-left Jewish citizens should not be exempted from the policy. Rubel said that time has taught him that “the world’s greatest injustice is the injustice against the Jew.”
On the other side, Yehoshua Frenkel, a 73-year-old who arrived in the country from Czechoslovakia a year after his birth, has joined Breaking the Silence on several tours. His mother survived Auschwitz and then fled along with her family from Czechoslovakia in 1950 over the persecution of Jews by the country’s ruling Communist party.
Frenkel fought in the Six Day War in 1967, and said that Israel’s victory, after the existential threat it faced from its Arab neighbors, felt like “heroic deliverance.” Still, he hoped for an Israeli withdrawal from the territories conquered in the war, both out of moral conviction and for practical reasons.
“I believed that it was inevitable that Palestinians would resist the Israeli presence,” he said.
Frenkel, who has written about the history of Hebron, said “Jews certainly have an attachment to the story of Hebron, but that doesn’t justify a military presence, with almost one soldier for each settler.”
Despite the rightward shift in Israel’s politics, Amir Ziv said he was “optimistic.”
“If I weren’t, I wouldn’t do what I do. More and more people are coming to see Hebron with their own eyes. We have a fight to engage in and we need to change a lot more minds. That will take time because that’s how democracy works.”
Tensions have been high in the West Bank over the past year, with the IDF launching a major anti-terror offensive mostly focused on the northern West Bank to deal with a series of Palestinian attacks that have left 31 people in Israel and the West Bank dead since the start of the year. Hebron is in the southern part of the territory.
The operation has netted more than 2,500 arrests in near-nightly raids, but has also left more than 150 Palestinians dead, many of them — but not all — while carrying out attacks or during clashes with security forces.
Further stoking tensions, on Friday, a Palestinian man stabbed and wounded a Border Police officer in the northern West Bank town of Hawara, before being shot dead by Israeli forces, police and medics said.
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