The young and the restless

A look behind the youth who struggled for Beit Hashalom.

masked settlers riot hebron 248.88 aj (photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski  [file])
masked settlers riot hebron 248.88 aj
(photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski [file])
An eerie calm hung over Beit Hashalom in Hebron on Thursday, just hours before security forces staged a surprise evacuation of the disputed building and cleared out those who had been dwelling inside. The crowd that had gathered there in recent weeks was full of young men and women, teenagers who said they had come from near and far, to be, they said, a part of the cause, and repeated over and over, that they were doing their part for "the struggle." Many of the young men wore beards, their long hair blending into their sideburns. The girls, with pants under their long, flowing skirts, looked more like attendees at Woodstock than a territorial dispute in the West Bank. "We've come from all over the country," said one young man, as he waited outside an army checkpoint near the house on Thursday. "I'm from Beit Shemesh, he's from Tekoa and he's from Jerusalem," he continued, pointing at his two friends who stood by, gazing out over the valley. Like many of those who were hunkered down inside the house, the boys were young, no more than 16 years-old. Yeshiva students from an array of national-religious institutions, they said that their principals had given them the green light to skip class. "Some things are more important than school," they said, "and the Land of Israel is one of them." So they came to Hebron and, more importantly, to Beit Hashalom. "This is a struggle for the land, for our land," the first young man said. "We understand that, the people inside understand that," he said gesturing in the direction of the house. "We just wish other people would understand that too, but they don't." Within hours, police and army units arrived unannounced, sparking a brief struggle with those barricaded inside, and a spillover of chaos into the surrounding hillsides and houses. Bands of young men from nearby Kiryat Arba, seeing the evacuation unfold from a distance, took matters into their own hands and descended on neighboring Palestinian homes, wreaking havoc. The valley, which sat calm and serene early in the afternoon, was covered in smoke and flames by nightfall. But before the evacuation, before the sea of police and soldiers, and the photographs of young men and women being dragged away by their arms and legs, Beit Hashalom sat silent over the valley, and the same young people sat quietly in and around the house. At one point, a group of boys gathered around a copy of the latest newspaper, looking for pictures of themselves among the media's daily coverage of their incessant wait. "There's Benny!" one of them said, pointing and laughing at the page. "What a dork!" Nearby, two more young men sat in chairs, passing the time with small talk and jokes as a cool breeze blew by. Echoing their peers who stood outside the roadblock, they too said the struggle for Beit Hashalom was more important than school. "We should be here," one of them, Yair, said. But outside of ideology, the two were unlike the majority of those camped out at the house on Thursday. Clean cut and shy, the two, also 16 years old, said they were from the upper middle-class Jerusalem enclave of Katamon, not the West Bank, and that violence, while at that point a very real possibility, was not something they had ever really experienced firsthand. Nonetheless, they said they were ready for it, if it were to come. "We saw Gush Katif," said Akiva, the second of the pair. "And we were too young then to do anything, but now we're not. The way they hugged the soldiers who came to expel them, and cried," he said, squinting. "It was embarrassing. We've learned our lesson, we won't be hugging and crying anymore." Another young man who walked around biding the time, Bentzi, concurred. "Gush Katif was the beginning," he said. "We all saw what happened there, and then Amona. I think these incidents have become part of the ideology, part of this struggle at Beit Hashalom. You know, we aren't looking for trouble, they're bringing it to us." The young men continued to wait, while others had set up a makeshift basketball hoop from two desks and an old black tire. Dribbling a soccer ball, they took pot shots at the hoop as a cold wind blew a cloud of dust through the crowd. Empty bags of chocolate milk and tin foil serving dishes fluttered by, and the boys, oblivious to the dust and trash that littered the ground, continued with their game. "I haven't had a shower in four days," one of them said. "But there are things that are more important than hygiene and good food, you know. That's the point; we're willing to sacrifice those things for this place. This is a greater cause." And as the words left his mouth, two large blue vans pulled up. "Yasam!" someone yelled, and everyone scattered. Soldiers and police moved in in droves, and the quiet, as boring and unshakable as it had seemed only a moment before, was shattered.