Life in Hebron through the lens of an IDF combat soldier - opinion

I can only hope that one day, both Jews and Palestinians will start walking the long and winding road that will eventually reach the peace, respect and freedom we all deserve in Hebron.

 SOLDIERS ON patrol in Harat a-Sheikh neighborhood watch as a herd passes by on the street.  (photo credit: Amitan Leitner)
SOLDIERS ON patrol in Harat a-Sheikh neighborhood watch as a herd passes by on the street.
(photo credit: Amitan Leitner)

Hebron is perhaps the most complicated city in the most complicated country in the world. This knottiness comes from the everyday spoken and unspoken laws dominating its mixed neighborhoods, the actions taken to enforce these laws, and the mix of Israeli soldiers, Israeli police officers, Shin Bet agents and Palestinian police officers trying to keep order. In Hebron, even the garbage men are armed.

Hebron is religiously and historically essential to both Jews and Muslims. There has always been a Jewish community in Hebron. Today nearly 1,000 Jews and over 215,000 Palestinians live there.

Recognizing Hebron’s special status, the Oslo Accords divided Hebron into H1 under Palestinian control and H2 under Israeli control. H2 contains some Palestinian neighborhoods because it includes every area with a Jewish residence.

When Palestinian terrorism peaked in 2002, the IDF launched Operation Defensive Shield. As a result, Israel physically separated H1 from H2 by putting up many fences, gates and walls, while closing businesses in sensitive locations.

Jews may not enter H1 but Palestinian pedestrians may cross between H1 and H2 via military checkpoints. Some streets in H2 are mostly limited to Jews and others to Palestinians, although there are no physical barriers or other indications. On some streets, everyone is allowed up to a certain point and from there only Jews or only Palestinians may proceed.

 An Israeli soldier gestures during a scuffle between Palestinians and Israeli settlers in Hebron in the West Bank November 19, 2022. (credit: MUSSA QAWASMA/REUTERS) An Israeli soldier gestures during a scuffle between Palestinians and Israeli settlers in Hebron in the West Bank November 19, 2022. (credit: MUSSA QAWASMA/REUTERS)

Many of the Jewish homes were bought from Arabs, resulting in the Jewish community being scattered unevenly throughout the city. Some Jews have Palestinian neighbors on both sides. One apartment building houses Jewish and Palestinian families. There are many military guard posts scattered about, with some posts literally in settlers’ backyards.

Where is there some quiet?

PERHAPS MOST surprising is one dead-end street at the edge of the Palestinian Harat a-Sheikh neighborhood. There, everyone seems to get along. A military checkpoint stands at the entry point. Amid its cheap stores and car repair garages, Jews from Hebron and Kiryat Arba, as well as local Palestinians can enjoy the occasional shopping spree.

In short, Hebron is a confusing patchwork quilt of laws, both formal and unspoken, that can only truly be learned and understood through experience, not theoretically.

During the four months I spent with my battalion protecting Hebron and Kiryat Arba, I first encountered a fascinating, often unmentioned sociological phenomenon. Kids in Hebron grow up with armed soldiers and armored military vehicles patrolling their neighborhoods day and night; checking people and vehicles, searching homes and occasionally arresting people. With a surprising range of political opinions, each parent in Hebron explains the situation to their children differently. Every child experiences the IDF’s presence differently.

Some are accepting, while others throw rocks at military vehicles regularly with their friends. Some have witnessed their fathers being taken away as their homes were turned upside down.

On patrol, we never quite knew what to expect. Some children would walk up to us and try speaking to us in Hebrew. Others would wave and yell “Shalom” from a distance or from inside their home.4 Some would shyly wave hello and immediately run away. Some children made eye contact but stayed silent, others diverted their glance as we walked past them and some children cursed at us in Hebrew and Arabic.

Once, we started kicking a soccer ball around with the kids. The game ended with other teenagers throwing rocks at us.

On one of the roads leading to our manned fortification, a sharp turn forces military vans to stop and reverse. Some teenagers, returning from school, regularly waited there for a military vehicle to pass so they could pelt it with rocks. Once we passed a toddler, barely three years old and she instinctively started yelling and crying, while making hand movements as if throwing something at us. Eventually, her father picked her up and calmed her down.

Etched in one's mind

MY MOST memorable encounters were in kids homes when we were sent to arrest some target who threatened Israel by selling arms illegally, manufacturing weapons or being involved in terrorism. We would storm in, wake everybody up and gather them into one room. Once we ascertained there were no threats, the remaining soldiers entered to search for weapons or illicit funds, while questioning the target and his relatives.

One or two soldiers would guard the room filled with the occupants. As we stood there, wearing face masks and helmets, showing only our eyes and making eye contact with the children in the room, it was overwhelming. I was upset that we were causing children to feel distraught and vulnerable, but also proud to be an active part of the security of my country. I could feel the chaos going on in the children’s minds: the questions, the accusations, the confusion, the concern and the anger.

It made me think about how fate caused us to meet in such strained circumstances. I wondered what brought us to this point and what it would be like if fate made us meet again in the future in a more pleasant situation. Of course, all these words I would not say as a soldier and the child wouldn’t say while feeling threatened remained unspoken, never to be heard.

These encounters ultimately left me with more questions than answers. Sometimes, I felt the army went out of its way to act humanely and other times, I felt ruthless just for having military capabilities. Despite my discomfort, I don’t see an obvious out.

There is no black and white in this gridlock we are stuck in. The Jewish presence in Hebron has great repercussions and is a liability for the IDF. Yet, we cannot tolerate any Jewish home being threatened in Israel.

I have sympathy for the difficulties facing both the Jews and Palestinians in Hebron and the sacrifices both sides have made. The city of Hebron exists in a surreal reality, and the IDF’s role of maintaining security and order is extremely sensitive. Perhaps if we spoke more publicly about common goals we could all work towards, our language would start shaping our reality.

I can only hope that one day, both Jews and Palestinians will start walking the long and winding road that will eventually reach the peace, respect and freedom we all deserve in Hebron. And if we can make peace there, we can make it anywhere.

The writer was a combat medic in the 101st battalion of the Paratroopers Brigade and served in Hebron from November 2020 to February 2021.