Monday, December 28, 2015

Epilog: Hebron, a tale of two (or more) cities

Hebron -- it is hard to do the city justice with a camera.
It's been eight years since I last posted in this blog. Our son was 10 then. Four days ago Eric (now 18) and I returned for a brief visit. We're in Jerusalem now and in a few minutes will attend a Bar Mitzvah which some of Eric's friends are also attending. It is a short visit -- Just a week in the country -- with a brief visit to Eilat in the south and some time here.

I've reported on my visit to the Timna Valley in the Construction Marketing Ideas blog. Then I remembered this "old" blog and realized it is more appropriate to report on other Israeli travel notes here.

Yesterday, we visited Hebron on the Dual Narrative Tour -- a rare example of co-ordination to provide both the Israeli and Palestinian perspectives on the complex issues affecting this region.

If there is any story that explains the complexity of the issues here it will be that of Hebron, an unmistakably Palestinian community with (to the Palestinians) an unreasonable, unjust and military-occupied "settler" colony in its midst.

From the Israeli perspective, there is a narrative that explains the historical relationship of the ancient Jewish community through the Cave (Tomb) of the Patriarchs, where Abraham, Sarah, Isaac and Joseph are biblically (and perhaps actually) buried. Of course the site also happens to be a holy shrine for Muslims, who recognize Abraham as well.

We can mix some ancient history with two massacres, one in 1929 and the second in 1994. The 1929 massacre occurred when rioting Arabs attacked and killed either 67 or 69 Jews, and the ancient Jewish population was essentially evicted from the community. In 1994, a radical Jew killed 29 Muslims attending prayers at the Cave of the Patriarchs Mosque. This set off riots and more killings in the area.

More recently, the story has been of random stabbings. Palestinians (it seems of all ages and genders) have been showing up at Israeli military checkpoints brandishing knives, or otherwise appearing out the blue with the sharp objects, with the intent to stab and kill soldiers and settlers. Generally, the Israelis have responded to the threatened knife attacks with their automatic weapons, resulting in a one sided death toll.

This development has made an already tense security situation even more complex and tense, as Israelis impose new metal detectors, checkpoints and restricted travel areas for Palestinians in the H2 areas.

H2? Well, you can mix in H1 and the Temporary International Presence In Hebron (TIPH), along with the Palestinian accords, and you have one of the strangest geopolitical environment in the world.

H1, the bulk of the overall Hebron community, operates under the auspices of the Palestinian Authority. PA runs the civil administration, local police, and Israeli citizens are generally barred from the area. Israeli soldiers visit in night-time raids to nab suspected Palestinian militants (Israeli officials would use the word "terrorists".)

H2, about 20 per cent of the community, includes the old city, the Cave of the Patriarchs area, and a combination of four small settler communities (total population about 600) near the Old City and a larger settlement built on Hebron's outskirts.

With assorted murders, terrorist attacks (and I would use the world terrorist here because the attacks by armed Palestinians often targeted unarmed civilians) and plenty of distrust, the Israelis have walled off and secured "their" areas within Hebron, creating a dual city within the city. The regular bus service from downtown Jerusalem has been modified somewhat -- the buses have bulletproof windows -- and there are special roads for which only Israeli, rather than Palestinian, licenced cars can be used. There is something of a bunker mentality in the Jewish areas, though I wouldn't say people live their lives cowering in fear, and (as the Palestinians have noted) there are plenty of ways Palestinians can skirt the checkpoints and security barriers.

A Palestinian trader in the H2 (Israeli controlled) market area.
As well, there are some ironic juxtapositions. Consider for example the location of the Christian Peacemaker Teams in Hebron. CPT is undeniably pro-Palestinian and anti-settler, and it has located its offices in the old city overlooking the edge/wall that separates the closed settler road.

I asked the anti-Israeli US citizen providing an explanation of the CPT's work how she could freely have this conversation with me in Hebron, if Israel was such an oppressive state. She said she didn't tell her mission when she arrived, saying she was a tourist (not technically a lie, since she isn't paid for her time here).

Outside, later in the day, I looked up at the CPT offices/house from the restricted access street -- and saw a sign proclaiming "Israel Apartheid" -- and I suppose you could see some similarities with the South African environment, with the closed off Israeli/Jewish area segregated from the Palestinian neighbourhoods. But nothing is ever as simple as that stereotype, as if apartheid is defined by racial grounds, there were certainly plenty of Israeli soldiers who were anything but white and we could argue that if there was racism historically it would have been against the Jews who were denied access to the community.(The Palestinian narrative is that this exclusion occurred during the British mandate, and therefore it is the British, not the Palestinians, who should be held responsible.)

The visit to the Cave of The Patriarchs plays out these issues with appropriate complexity. The complex is divided into two sections, one Jewish and the other Muslim. Each religion gains access to the entire complex (meaning the other side is banished) for 10 of its holiest days. There are security checkpoints at both entrances. In this tour, we were able to visit both sides -- a treat not available to local people.

The Jewish narrative is that the Jews were denied access to the holy site (considered the second most holy in the Jewish religion) for eons, certainly during the Ottoman empire and even in the British mandate. Jews and Christians could ascend some stairs outside the building, but were not to go above the seventh step. Then, after 1929 and certainly after Jordanians took sovereignity of the site at Israel's independence in 1948, Jews couldn't go near the building.

This changed in 1967 after Israel won the Six Day War, and in the process occupied the entire West Bank of the Jordan River, including Hebron.

The archeological history of the site remains in some mystery. There was one sneak visit to the underground caves some years ago, but the area hasn't been properly explored or researched and presumably won't be for the foreseeable future, out of respect for Muslim faith values. But as a microcosm of the current Mideast conflict story, it stands as an ancient symbol reflecting modern tensions and co-operation. (The 10 day equal closed access solution to give both religious groups their own time within the site certainly is a creative if somewhat restrictive compromise.)

My Hebron visit leaves many more questions than answers. Peering down from the observatory on the Jewish H2 area, I could see the edge of H1 -- and what seemed to be a vibrant, bustling, and very modern Palestinian city, with gleaming skyscrapers, traffic jams, and lots of what seemed to be unimpeded life. I can see why the Israeli settlers are digging in here -- and also why the Palestinians would very much like them gone. Politically I think a special status international administration may be the solution here, and also in Jerusalem, a structure that could allow both nations to maintain the city as their capital, in a free trade/co-ordinated area. Of course, to establish this sort of structure, there needs to be trust and mutual respect, and that I fear is still in short supply in these parts.

Sunday, July 22, 2007


Vivian and Eric at the Mitzpe Ramon crater in the Negev Desert
We're home!

In memory, I will express the four week vacation with one word: "Family".
Eric, Vivian and myself spent hours together in close and often intense experiences and related at levels that can only occur when you live together, closely, in hotel rooms, taxis, airplanes and buses for a month.

We didn't starve. Israel's free hotel breakfasts are truly incredible -- enough often to satisfy hunger until dinner time (we often packaged a lunch sandwich from the breakfast buffet). The airlines got us where we wanted to go, mostly on schedule, at off-season fares (I used Air Canada points to get us to Boston, and Alitalia -- which got us where we needed to go properly despite all its labour and business problems -- to get us to and from Israel).
We learned. Guide Moshe Ben Baruch proved to be worth every cent of his daily fee. He provided us an in-depth perspective of the country.

We communicated. Verbally, yes, but also on much more non-verbal levels. As a family we played with our humour, or distinctiveness, and our shared values. I ruined a pair of shoes rafting with Eric through "rapids" on the Jordan River. Vivian and Eric spent hours in swimming pools together. And I and Vivian shared our thoughts on Israel's politics, history and economy.
I think our views and perspectives about Israel's place in the world are similar to the great majority of, for want of a better word, secular but observant Jews in North America and Israel.
We love the country, are proud of its accomplishments, and impressed by its progress. But we are troubled by some very difficult questions because the story here is not defined by our Western values, but by the extremists on both sides of the equation.
On the Palestinian side, we find Hamas, bent on Israel's destruction, and determined to impose Islamic religious values and rules on the population. Some Hamas spokespeople are careful in glossing over their anti-Semitism, but it isn't far beneath the surface. Hamas won a democratically fair election in Gaza and the West Bank, so, whether we like it or not, this organization represented the Palestinian majority opinions. (I'm sure some of its election supporters would change their mind knowing the cost of this hateful organization to the Palestinian economy, but on the other hand, we must not forget those images of Palestinians cheering the Al Qaeda attacks on Sept. 11, 2001.

But the Israelis have their own challenges, including the "One Israel" settler movement which avoids the biggest problem in their vision that Israel should not give up an inch of the Palestinian lands in the West Bank and Gaza -- that Israel cannot occupy this territory without either giving up its democratic values, or its Jewish identity.
Throw in corruption, cynicism, and greed on both sides of the fence, plus international meddling (especially by Iran and the U.S.) and you have a story that might seem hopeless.
But there is hope. Israel's new president Shimon Peres said that Israel knows it cannot occupy the West Bank without compromising its values and identity. See this Jerusalem Post editorial -- and read the comments for another perspective). Meanwhile, his counterpart in the West Bank, Palestinian National Authority president Mahmoud Abbas has renounced terrorism and supporters within the Fatah movement are (at least temporarily) giving up their arms and coming out of hiding. Israel is not starving Gaza -- allowing humanitarian aid to cross the border -- but rightfully is insisting that Hamas must give up its hateful attitudes (or be deposed) before things can return to 'normal' there, and so far the International community accepts this reasonable position.
And the Israeli economy is booming, with the creative, innovative, and talented individuals making their way and creating business, opportunity, and growth.
So I'm cautiously optimistic. Maybe most importantly because of Eric and Vivian. We laughed. We gained some weight. We learned a little about the world and a lot about ourselves. We grew. I think Israel is capable of growth and maturity, too, and that reasonable Israelis and Palestinians -- while respecting their own identities and values and not being afraid to fight for what they perceive as being right -- will reach an understanding with each other and ultimately find peace.

Thursday, July 19, 2007

Heading home

We're at Milan's Malpensa Airport, preparing for our fight to New York and then onto Boston for a final night before returning home.
Milan has reminded me of the depth of culture and achievement in Italy. We visited Italy's national Science and Technology museum where you can see working models of Leonardo Da Vinci's drawings, and saw Castsello Sforzesco, an amazing palace and the residence of the Sforza court in the 15th century. While there, a local opera company was rehearsing for an open-air performance; we could sense the quality and artistic talent in this rehearsal far surpasses much of what we see professionally in Canada.
Alitalia has also proven itself surprisingly reliable and convenient -- though we have a long flight to New York with a connection to Boston tonight.
I am still absorbing the Israeli experience and will file a final report when we return home.

Wednesday, July 18, 2007

In Milan

We arrived safely in this northern Italian city -- despite strike threats, our plane left just a little late, the airline remembered our special food orders, and our luggage arrived first off the carousel.

This is my first time in Italy. We have just a day here tomorrow -- the ticket allowed the free stopover, and while I really am looking forward to returning home, it is a good opportunity to add to perceptions and understanding.

I'll write some detailed post-travel observations about Israel, probably a day or two after we return home.

Tuesday, July 17, 2007

The "Etzel" -- Ze'ev Jabotinsky

On our last planned full day in Israel, Vivian took Eric for the day (I went with him to the Tel Aviv "Safari Zoo" yesterday) and I took some time on my own to explore Israel's political history, especially the Revisionist Zionist movement led by Ze'ev Jabotinsky.

This stuff will definitely be arcane to someone unfamiliar with Israel's political history, but Jabotinsky's legacy is important today in connecting the dots for the peace process and potential future conflicts.

I went to the main Jabotinsky museum to be entertained with four video presentations; then headed to a second museum near the entrance to Jaffa, the formerly Arab port town now part of Tel Aviv, depopulated by a mass departure just before Israel obtained independence in 1948. Jabotinsky's followers take the credit for this depopulation, though the explanations of how it happened differ. Interestingly, the Jaffa-area museum in a modern building is operated by the Israeli Ministry of Defence.

Jatbotinsky could be considered the founder of the 'right wing' of Zionism. Born in Odessa (Ukraine), he started out as a journalist/writer, but evolved to a more activist approach to Zionism. His "Betar" youth group has disturbing similarities to the similar style uniformed youth oriented groups on the right -- specifically, the Nazis and Fascists (notably he formed many of his ideas in pre-Mussolini Rome). Jabotinsky saw Hitler's European threat before most believed the Holocaust possible -- and travelled the continent in the 1930s pleading with Jews to get out while they could and head to Palestine. Most didn't follow his advice; but his disciples managed to load several ships over a number of years and brought about 20,000 illegal immigrants to Palestine under the British Mandate.

Jabotinsky's organization in Palestine evolved to become the Zionist Underground -- the Irgun, which engaged in a variety of audacious guerrilla-war activities, including the King David Hotel bombing and attacks on British institutions and prisons. They also engaged in daring prison escape projects -- including one where Jabotinsky disciples managed to arrange a break-out of a prison in Kenya in East Africa, and bring everyone back home to Palestine.

The Irgun's radical activities disturbed the Jewish mainstream. Some suggest the Irgun and its spin-offs, especially the Stern Gang, engaged in terroristic behaviour -- our tour guide a few days ago said they used terror techniques to drive the Arabs out of Jaffa. This image is (not surprisingly) not portrayed in the official museums -- the suggestion there is that the Arabs were plotting dangerous things and Jabotinsky's soldiers defended and protected Tel Aviv from the Arab danger. Regardless, you wouldn't want to be at the wrong end of the gun barrel if you met an Irgun, Lehi, or Stern Gang member. The Stern Gang carried on its terror against the British authorities even during the height of the Second World War, when the overall Jewish 'resistance' including the Irgun agreed to work with the British to defeat the Nazis.

When Israel achieved its independence in 1948, Jabotinsky's organization represented a perceived threat to the unity and security of the new Israeli state, resulting in the Altalena Affair , in which an Irgun's ship carrying arms and supporters was bombed by the new Israeli army.

My reporting here is a very simplified version of a very complex story and I'm sure I have some facts garbled and distorted. But the stuff is important, because if you look at modern-day Israel, you can see Jabotinsky's legacy everywhere and surprising echos in the Palestinian terror groups.

First, we see determined, forceful, fighting elements I believe continue to have significant support within Israel's military establishment and the right-wing settler movement. Second, Jabotinsky's movement reflects and represents standard practice for right wing organizations throughout the world.

Finally, this story shows that leadership does not necessarily need to be 'there' to be effective -- Jabotinsky never actually settled in Israel -- he died in the U.S. of a heart attack in 1940. But his legacy remains today.

Were Jabotinsky's disciples terrorist thugs that set examples for modern-day Palestinian and Al Qaeda practices? I'm not sure I would go so far, because if you look a little beneath the surface, you find strong values respecting human life, avoiding civilian casualties and the like. Nevertheless, I'm sure that if the Arab former residents of Jaffa operated the museum in the same building here, they would tell a very different story.

P.S. Alitalia has announced its flight attendants and ground workers are planning a one-day strike today (Wednesday, July 18). We may be in Israel longer than we had originally planned.

Sunday, July 15, 2007

Jaffa and the diaspora

Over the last two days, we've toured two sites that add insights and meaning to our Israeli visit.

On Saturday, we walked through Jaffa, the original Arab port city now embedded with Tel Aviv. Jaffa had a thriving Arab population until just before Israel obtained its independence in 1948 -- in fact, the original U.N. partition resolution which established the State of Israel included Jaffa as an enclave surrounded on all sides by Jewish territory, but to be incorporated with the Arab Palestinian state.

What happened? Our guide (saying he was not being politically correct) and other historical references suggest Jaffa is not the highest example of Jewish morality -- it appears that Irgun terrorists made it clear to the Arab residents that, with Israeli independence, they would be wise to flee for their lives. (This stuff of course is not the sanitized Zionist perspective about Israeli independence -- but in fairness, you should realize that the Palestinian side did not behave with honour in an incredible variety of circumstances, as well.)

We saw the more officially correct version of Israeli (and Jewish) heritage at the Diaspora Museum at Tel Aviv University yesterday. This is a fascinating, rewarding experience -- we see the cultural history and framework of the Jewish identity, framed within the mixture of persecution, the religion's Holy Land roots, and the variations in life experience for Jewish people around the world, both in history and geography.

We rode city buses across Tel Aviv to get to the museum. This is a bustling, thriving community -- and if you landed here with no knowledge of the politics, history, and political tension, you'd say all is fine and well. Maybe this impression is the right one.

Today's focus is truly not intellectual. I'm going to another Zoo with Eric, giving Vivian a day off to explore the city's culture and ideas. Eric has just shown up -- he is ready for breakfast!

Friday, July 13, 2007

Tel Aviv

We arrived in Tel Aviv yesterday morning on a flight on what is probably Israel's only domestic air route -- the four hour drive to Eilat is long enough to justify a flight -- especially to Tel Aviv's secondary Sde Dov Airport, closer to town than the international Ben Gurion airport.

Yesterday evening, we went out for dinner with the family of a relative of one of Vivian's friends. With three generations at the dinner table, and a route to the restaurant through one of the seedier parts of Tel Aviv, I gained additional insights.

Our friends reflect the "secular mainstream" of Israel -- bright, creative, not ideological fanatics, and totally frustrated with this nation's political reality. Our hostess is a pharmaceutical researcher -- she is working on genetic vaccines for Alzheimer's. Her lab came up with a vaccine that worked on rats, but in the first human tests with 500 volunteers, about 15 per cent had brain tissue swelling problems. So, back to the drawing board -- but this is research that could, if successful, save the quality of life for millions of people.

She made these remarks as her quiet husband drove the car through winding streets near the Tel Aviv bus station. At one traffic light, we saw a semi-nude, grossly overweight man, sitting on a bus bench, slumped, in a daze. "Probably on drugs, or drunk," she said. The reality is this neighbourhood has the characteristics of a Canadian or U.S. Skid Row -- and is populated with recent immigrants, mainly from Eastern Europe, on temporary work permits, or of course, people with serious problems.

At dinner, our host's son (who works at a business making aluminum door and entrance way products) says things are going well -- lots of construction under-way; and you can see that in the cranes dotting the Tel Aviv skyline. But the politics are another thing. It seems that Israeli domestic politics is now largely controlled by extremely religious parties and Russian tycoons who may have a less than honorable background. One tycoon is busy "buying" votes to be Jerusalem's mayor. No problem that he cannot speak Hebrew -- he sets up parties, events, giveaways to the poor, anything that he can do to obtain some positive publicity. The religious parties, meanwhile do what "the Rabbi says" -- the Knesset members don't have minds of their own. This is the stuff of political deadlock and corruption. "There's no one we can look up to, no Rabin," the son said. Yitzak Rabin helped put together the peace process that led to the Palestinian Authority before his assassination by a Jewish religious zealot.)

But despite these gloomy indicators, you can't be too sad for Israel. He and his wife have two vibrant toddlers, and there is enough freedom in Tel Aviv that those who don't wish to observe Sabbath restrictions can find a good local restaurant (and those who wish to be observant can avoid the place entirely). This is not a starving, suffering country. Perhaps because things are 'comfortable' the middle ground politically is not doing well; people have other things to do than fight political values. The problem, of course, is this leaves the nation weak in leadership when the next crisis arises (and it will -- the enemies are mobilizing and are determined to achieve their objective; this nation's destruction).