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New York: The Hebron Dilemma at the Human Rights Watch Film Festival

THIS IS MY LAND…HEBRON is among the most important films featured at the June 2011 New York Human Rights Watch Film Festival.
It is an outstanding Italian-Israeli documentary coproduced by Giulia Amati and Stephen Natanson which has received many rewards since its release in 2010. The film presents interviews with Israeli journalists and politicians as well as statements by spokes persons for the settlers and Palestinians. It provides an extraordinary insight into the mindsets of the warring parties and the contradictions of Israeli fundamentalist religious perspectives and the secular human rights positions. An estimated one third of the Israelis living in the occupied West Bank are fundamentalists as distinct from the Israelis commuting from their place of work in Israel to affordable housing in the occupied areas. The settlers, including a significant number of US origins, are driven by what they perceive as a messianic command, to claim and settle the areas captured by Israel in 1967. The Israeli Government acted when isolated settlements became a security risk or the land could be traded for the promised of stability. When the Gaza evacuated under Sharon and the Sinai was returned to Egypt under Begin thousands of settlers were frequently forcefully evicted. In a comprehensive peace settlement most small West Bank settlements may be given up by Israel except for areas with a major Jewish concentration. Yet given the historical and religious importance of Hebron the situation in that city is different. In 1929 an Arab mob killed 67 Jews though several hundred Jews survived the riots since they were protected by their Arab neighbors. When the partition of the West Bank was discussed with Jordan in 1968 Ben Gurion firmly opposed abandoning Jewish control of Hebron. In the outskirts of Hebron the first Jewish West Bank settlement was set up in 1968, followed in 1979 by Jewish fundamentalist families taking up residence in the Center of Hebron.

On February 25, 1994, an American born physician Baruch Goldstein wearing his uniform as a reserve officer of the Israeli Defense forces entered a mosque in Hebron’s Cave of the Patriarchs and opened fire on the crowd of Muslims who had assembled for prayers killing 25 and wounding more than 100. He was beaten to death by survivors and in the riots after the massacres 25 Palestinians and 5 Israelis were killed. As distinct from Goldstein’s followers from the Jewish Defense League and radical settler groups like Gush Emunim his act of loathsome murder was condemned by the Israeli government.

As the documentary suggests, the massacre set the stage for subsequent suicide bombings which had not been used before in the conflict between Israel and the Palestinians. A significant number of suicide bombers were recruited from the Hebron area. A combination of factors apparently motivates these bombers who tend to be well educated. They include the humiliating experiences with the Israeli armed forces, religious zeal, and a supportive environment. Research among Palestinians from Gaza, the West Bank and East Jerusalem shows that 76% of the population supports suicide bombings. Thus the cycle of violence continues, now giving to settlers claim to fight against terrorism an additional legitimation. After references to religion, the settlers in THIS IS MY LAND...HEBRON invoke the struggle against Muslim terrorism most frequently as a justification for their actions.

For religious Jews Hebron has a central significance. It is considered to be the burial grounds for Abraham, Isaac and Jacob and the matriarchs. Thus fundamentalist settlers were drawn to it from the very beginning. Now close to 600 radical religious settlers occupy four small areas in the Center of Hebron under the protection of 2000 soldiers from the Israeli defense forces. What makes this settlements unusual is that the Hebron Jews live in the center of a large Palestinian city, surrounded by more than 160 000 Palestinians.

The Israeli army employs the strategy of separation setting up an official Jewish section in Hebron under Israeli army rule and a section under Palestinian administration but declaring areas around the settlers' homes off limits to all Palestinians. This policy has included long periods of curfews, a large number if army checkpoints, closure of entire streets and the constant harassment of Palestinians by settlers abetted by the IDF. The settlers’ goal of ethnic cleansing pure and simple as suggested by Uri Avner, a former member of Knesset, is gradually achieved. Thus in the center of Hebron 42 percent of the Palestinian homes have been vacated by their residents and 70% of all commercial establishments were closed down. The official spokesperson for the settlers, David Wilder states the same ...If today another 200,000 Jews moved into Judea and Samaria [the West Bank] a lot of the Arabs who are here would pick up and leave. We do not have to throw them out Wilder also declares that a former Israeli soldier now working as a guide in Hebron should be hang for treason.

The documentary closeup of the Hebron settlers and Palestinian residents contains footage shot by Palestinians who recorded on small cameras the daily abuse they experience. The violence and hate these direct images contain, the spitting, stoning and physical harassment of Palestinian residents and their children by the settlers are rarely seen in other films about the West Bank. As a Palestinian mother put it the settlers teach their kids to hate us before they teach them how to even walk. The gulf between the Hebron settlers and the Palestinians living there can hardly be bridged. There are graffiti Gas the Arabs or Arabs to the gas chambers or Kill the Arabs on walls and Palestinian doorways and the language used by the settler's children and their mothers is full of contempt and violence.

How this chasm can be resolved is a mystery. Some Israeli soldiers serving in the occupied areas are demoralized. The state agencies support the Hebron settlements by providing a military security cover and fostering through the separation policy the exodus of Palestinians from the center of Hebron. And the fundamentalist settlers truly believe that God is their real estate agent. No month passes without new incidents of violence aimed at the Palestinians and at the settlers. Yet as the documentary shows, most Israelis are oblivious to the conflict.

Claus Mueller, New York Correspondent


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