HEBRON, West Bank — It didn’t take long for the hundreds of left-leaning Israelis who arrived in Hebron Friday to have their worst suspicions about the situation in the flashpoint West Bank city confirmed.
“You’re too late!” cried out a teenage Israeli settler as he biked by, laughing at a portion of the 300 or so Israeli visitors, who were being guided by staffers of the left-wing Breaking the Silence NGO.
He didn’t need to explain himself further to the guests, who had come to witness the extent of the Israeli presence in a small section of the city known as H2.
Roughly 850 settlers live in heavily guarded compounds in Hebron, surrounded by tens of thousands of Palestinians whose movements are heavily restricted.
The Breaking the Silence guides used the tour — said to have been its largest-ever in the divided city — to demonstrate what they argued has become a reality that has coalesced in Hebron, in which the Jewish residents set government policy for the city and their IDF protectors are expected to fall in line.
“In the end I think they’ve won, unfortunately,” said tour participant Ronni Lavi.
While Breaking the Silence’s near-weekly tours are open to the public, one particular group of 60 participants from Tel Aviv represented a rather small minority, similar to the perceived makeup of the broader Israeli left: aging and Ashkenazi.
The other five groups on this day appeared slightly more diverse, but this one was overwhelmingly made up of the post-retirement demographic. A number of them used walking sticks to trek through the town. A few others sported baseball caps with retro logos of progressive groups such as the New Israel Fund and Machsom (Checkpoint) Watch.
The hats were testament to the fact that many in the group had supported a two-state solution when the idea was still taboo in many parts of Israeli society. While the notion of Palestinian statehood has moved deeper into the mainstream — Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu even briefly publicly supported it in 2009 — the group visiting Hebron seemed resigned to the reality of Israel’s presence in the West Bank being as entrenched as ever, and peace as far away as it could be.
“The country I left is not the same one I returned to,” said 59-year-old Hilla Israeli, who spent the last two decades living just outside Washington, DC. “It’s a right-wing place now.”
A short while earlier, stopping at the grave of Jewish terrorist Baruch Goldstein in the neighboring settlement of Kiryat Arba, the group had been shocked to find dozens of stones respectfully placed on top of the tomb, which is inscribed with a religious Hebrew phrase stating that Goldstein had been “murdered while sanctifying God.”
In February 1994, Goldstein opened fire at Muslim worshipers in Hebron’s Tomb of the Patriarchs, killing 29 Palestinians and injuring 125 until his gun jammed and he was overpowered and killed.
Friday’s tour was organized to coincide with Breaking the Silence’s release of a new book of anonymous testimonies from IDF soldiers who served in Hebron from 2011 to 2017. The guides read various passages from the book at corresponding locations during the tour.
While the former soldiers’ confessions of routine mistreatment of the city’s majority population brought the Palestinians into the equation, Friday’s tours highlighted the role of the Jewish locals more than anything else.
Breaking the Silence, which collects and publishes testimonies of former soldiers, has organized regular tours of Hebron for years, drawing attention to alleged misconduct and more serious crimes and discrimination by soldiers and the small groups of settlers living among Hebron’s approximately 200,000 Palestinians.
The NGO has riled many Israelis, and drawn ire from officials, who have challenged the authenticity of its mostly anonymous claims and lamented its advocacy work in the international community.
“It has become a dirty name here,” said 27-year-old Dar Shor, one of the few younger participants on the trip, admitting that she had not revealed the identity of the tour’s organizer when telling her friends about her plans for the day.
Many of the other young people were on the two buses of English-speakers, mostly tourists, which to some was a symbol of a stark divide between Israel and the Diaspora.
“The youth in Israel are either right-wing or not interested,” Lavi charged. Recent polls have shown slightly declining rates in support for a two-state solution. In addition, a survey in 2016 found that younger Israelis were almost twice as likely as older Israelis to see the large West Bank settlement of Ariel as part of Israel.
While the demographics of the visitors skewed somewhat older, on the political spectrum, there was a definite leftward slant.
“Unfortunately, these tours have become about convincing the convinced,” Lavi added.
“The one thing our members have in common is our opposition to the occupation,” said guide Nadav Weiman as he explained his organization to the participants. Weiman, the NGO’s advocacy director, said his bone to pick was not with the IDF, but rather the Israeli government, which has been sending its soldiers to serve in the Palestinian territories for over half a century. The organization has led hundreds of tours to Hebron since its founding in 2004 in an effort to warn Israelis of the moral costs of such policies.
Weiman led his group to the Tomb of the Patriarchs, a site holy to Jews and Muslims, before continuing down Shuhada Street, the former main thoroughfare and commercial hub of Hebron.
He held up a picture of what the once-bustling boulevard looked like before its shops were shuttered following Palestinian riots in the wake of the 1994 Goldstein massacre.
At stop after stop, he asserted that settlers were exerting influence over Defense Ministry decisions regarding the city and expanding their presence, including a recent move by former defense minister Avigdor Liberman to advance a project for the construction of an apartment building for Hebron settlers above a former Palestinian wholesale market that settlers had squatted in for several years.
While many of Breaking the Silence’s tours are marked by local settlers and others trying to interfere or goad guides into fighting on camera, Friday’s visits initially passed relatively peacefully, with most Jewish residents walking by, expressing bemusement and little more.
However, in one incident, Breaking the Silence spokesman Dean Issacharoff faced heckling while detailing his experiences serving as an IDF officer in Hebron, with an Israeli local calling him a “liar” over and over again. (In an ongoing controversy, Issacharoff has alleged that he himself assaulted a Palestinian in the city during his military service.)
The heckler filmed the altercation on his phone using Facebook Live, apparently hoping to provoke a reaction from the left-wing activist.
But Issacharoff continued to share his story with the visitors, who had gathered closely so they could hear him over the shouting. After a few minutes, a plain-clothes police detective arrived, placed his arm around the heckler’s shoulder, and calmly walked him away from the group.
The atmosphere intensified as the tours reached their final stop in the Tel Rumeida neighborhood. A young Jewish resident was waiting there with a hose in hand. Shouting “you sons of bitches,” he sprayed one of the groups with water.
The boy was quickly mobbed and dragged away by security forces, who had been shielding the tours with dozens of soldiers.
Subsequently, over a hundred yeshiva students began singing and dancing up the street toward the left-wing visitors in an effort to drown out the Breaking the Silence staffer, who continued trying to guide amid the chaos.
The students were joined by a number of boys who blew whistles and vuvuzelas.
One Jewish local walked by with arm wrapped around the shoulder of a friend and began shouting at the visitors. “This woman’s husband was murdered by the Arabs here, and you’ve come to listen to their side. You should be embarrassed,” she said between honks of the vuvuzela.
Several minutes later, a senior IDF brigade commander arrived at the scene and alerted the tour organizers that he had decided to declare the area a closed military zone in order to maintain public order.
When one of the NGO staffers objected, saying it was rewarding the settlers’ misbehavior, the officer responded that his hands were tied.
The tours were unable to reach their final stop at the home of a Palestinian activist, but the guides appeared to take solace in the fact that the mob scene and subsequent IDF order had reinforced their perception of the skewed dynamic in the city between settlers and the army.
For his part, Noam Arnon, who serves as a spokesman for the Jewish community in Hebron, said that the Breaking the Silence tours are a “blatant provocation” against Jewish residents who are fulfilling their historic right to return to the ancient holy city.
Arnon claimed that the residents had shown “maximum tolerance.” He also accused Breaking the Silence of “inciting against the IDF” by publishing soldiers’ testimonies rather than seeking to have them investigated internally.
“It is one of the main organizations causing anti-Semitism and terrorism,” he charged.
Unable to reach the final stop of the tour, the groups of left-wingers began filing back toward the buses to head home.
“Well, at least we learned who’s in charge here,” said 80-year-old Miriam Gur as she boarded her bus.
“The settlers, not the soldiers,” added her husband, Noam, who said it had been his first time back in Hebron since he fought in the area during the Six Day War in 1967.