A leisurely stroll through locked-down Hebron
By Daniel Ben Simon
[Ha'aretz; 24 Sept 2002]
The IDF imposed curfew on Hebron's casbah yesterday and opened it to Israeli visitors. The thousands of Israelis strolling Hebron's alleys felt at home. They walked at leisure in the Israeli and Palestinian parts and had their photographs taken near the closed houses of the Palestinians. It was the first time in years that Israelis were permitted to roam around the casbah. With soldiers protecting them from all sides, the visitors felt so safe they allowed themselves to explore the dark alleys. Others marched, heads held high, in the Palestinian quarters, demonstrating their presence.
The mass Jewish gathering was enabled by the complete curfew on Palestinian residents. On Sunday evening the IDF ordered them to stay inside until further notice. Past experience taught the Palestinians that they would be stuck indoors until the Jews finished their celebrations.
"Until when?" one of the soldiers guarding the visitors' guided tours was asked.
"We were told until Simhat Torah," he said, looking disgusted. Later he asked his colleague: "Say, when is Simhat Torah?"
Twice a year, during the Sukkot and Pesach holiday period, the Hebron settlers have made it a custom to host thousands of Israelis, who throng to the town to bask in its sacred air.
In previous years, tens of thousands from all over the country poured into Hebron to celebrate the Jews' return to the town of the patriarchs and to pray in the Machpela Cave. So successful were the celebrations that many visitors would stay the night in the Jewish quarter, feeling solidarity with the residents.
This time the organizers optimistically expected tens of thousands to arrive. In the last few months it was quiet in Hebron and no terrorist attacks or shooting incidents between soldiers and Palestinians occurred. While Israeli tanks rolled through the streets of West Bank Palestinian towns, Hebron was left out of the picture. The calm proved beneficial to both sides. An air of elation prevailed at the opening of the festivities. Armored buses began arriving in the morning hours and unloaded thousands near the Machpela Cave. The main event was reserved for today. At the entrance to the Machpela Cave a huge stage was built, for the performance of Hasidic singer Mordechai Ben David and his band. Moshe Ben Zimra, who organized the festivities, said the show would be the event's climax and would make hearts tremble.
Ben Zimra and Noam Arnon, the secretary of the Jewish settlement, went around the celebrating crowd like the hosts of a party. Baruch Marzel, a central Kach Party activist, also strolled with his children in the alleys. "Where is there another place in the world where Jews can walk so freely?" he asked excitedly. As a gesture to the settlers, the army allowed the visitors' groups to enter the Hebron casbah. To minimize the danger, the visitors were surrounded by dozens of paratroopers who marched with cocked weapons. A young deputy lieutenant warned the visitors of the danger and demanded that they did not deviate from the set course. "If there is any shooting, you must vacate the place and let us act," he explained.
As he handed out directives to the visitors, hostile Palestinian eyes followed the tourist activity near their homes. The casbah residents were under total curfew so that the Israeli visitors could wander around without fear. None of the walkers felt uneasy in this surrealistic situation. "Why can't they be kept under curfew all the time?" one visitor asked the guide. "Ask the government," she replied.
Eliezer Afarsemon, in a seemingly euphoric mood, joined the tour. It is not often that Palestinians are imprisoned in their homes for a lofty cause such as this, and he was determined to examine closely the narrow alleys and crowded houses of Hebron's Arab residents.
"It's all ours," he explained, pointing at the shut houses on both sides. "Would you have believed we'd be here? Walk around like this inside the casbah? We, in Hebron, feel we've won. The battle in the state continues, but we have won. All of Hebron is now in our control."
All this while, looks of hatred followed him from behind the barred windows. The visitors continued their leisurely promenade and only the soldiers marched nervously, as though sensing immediate danger.
When night fell, a volley of gunshots ripped through the dark casbah and hit a group of Israeli visitors. In minutes, everything turned into chaos.