In the Twilight Zone

It ought to be mandatory in the school system: an annual field trip to Tel Rumeida. This is where every student in Israel – every citizen, in fact – should be brought. This is the place to bring all those who felt compassion for the settlers and preached their cause, all the good people who cringed at the “trauma” of the disengagement, all those who were anxious to console the evacuees, all those who voice empty calls for a national reconciliation. They should all be brought here, to the Tel Rumeida quarter of Hebron. This is where civics and social studies lessons should be held.

About 500 Palestinian families once lived here; now barely 50 are left. What is going on here, far from the public eye, isn’t just a cruel ‘transfer,’ but a reign of terror imposed by the settlers on the handful of residents who haven’t left yet. This is where they built a settler stronghold that grew to frightening proportions, a multi-story building constructed with s tate sponsorship, surrounded now by a virtual ghost town, save for the small group of residents still clinging to their homes despite all the horror visited upon them by these violent lords of the land, these unwanted neighbors.

Here is where Israeli schoolchildren should be shown the dark side of their country, their state’s violent and law-flouting backyard. A military barracks under whose cover exists the purest evil that the settlers inflict on their neighbors. There is no other neighborhood like this one. Not a day passes without violence, not an hour passes without the throwing of stones, garbage and feces at the frightened neighbors cowering in their barricaded houses, afraid even to peek out the window. Neighbors whose way home is always a path of torment and anxiety. All this is happening right under the noses of the soldiers and police, representatives of the legal authorities, who merely stand by.

For the average, reasonable Israeli, to visit Tel Ru meida for the first time is be to have your picture of the world turne d upside down. This is the gutter of the settlement enterprise, whose leaders have never disavowed it, and to which many have even paid glowing tribute in recent weeks.

All the grapevines in the garden have been cut. The entrance to Hashem al-Gaza’s house is blocked with piles of garbage and junk tossed by his neighbors from above. For several years now, he hasn’t been able to enter his house from the street. He has to take a rocky path up a hill that is hidden from the neighbors, hurry inside through the back door and hope for the best. Every trip outside to the yard is rushed and anxious.

Talking is done in a whisper, lest the neighbors hear. Al-Gaza is the chairman of the neighborhood committee, or what’s left of it.

He shows his guests a videotape filmed here four months ago. You won’t see it on any of the Israeli television stations: The images are those of a pogrom. Here a row of schoolgirls from the Cordoba elementary school is returning home, you ng girls dressed in the same school uniform, while young settlers – female ones in particular – wait in ambush for them every day to violently attack them. You see the schoolgirls fleeing, and the settler girls kicking them and throwing stones and garbage at them. The soldiers watch the scene with bored expressions, though one can see them smile sometimes.

Now the mini-pogrom arrives at the home of Dr. Taysir Zehadi. Hundreds of settlers in white Shabbat shirts, as befitting the festive occasion, break into his house and wreak havoc and terror. The desperate doctor tries to call for help on the telephone as hundreds of settlers close in on the house. Finally, they break down the gate and burst inside. Soldiers from the Nahal Brigade and a company of Border Police look on without lifting a finger. Now the settlers are inside, wrecking whatever they can get their hands on, as the doctor watches and hoarsely describes the mayhem as he speaks into the telephone receiver. “Everything is destroyed,” he says quietly from inside his home, whic h a gate and iron gratings couldn’t protect.

After the settlers vent their anger in the doctor’s house, they leave, smiling, on the way to the next target. No one stops them. Except for the iron door of neighbor Ayoub Awawi. The door doesn’t give in to them and they remain outside. Meanwhile, the camera shows the destruction in the doctor’s home: From the solar panels on the roof to the potted plants in the living room, everything is smashed and shattered.

The movie ends and we come back to reality. Al-Gaza’s daughter comes running into the living room. A third-grader in pigtails, on her second day of the school year, she looks terrified. She always crosses the road at a run. Yesterday, on Saturday – the day of the Sabbath Queen – the settlers threw stones at them. One student was hurt in the arm. But today she completed the trip in peace. A small group of international volunteers escorts her and her friends to school and back every day. This morning the IDF is sued an order declaring the neighborhood a “closed military zone” in a move aimed at the international volunteers two American women and a British citizen in their 20s, who came to live here as brave human shields. The IDF claims they constitute a “provocation.?

Yesterday the settlers threw stones at the residents until 9 P.M. The summer vacation actually passed quietly: The settlers were busy with the anti-disengagement struggle. But now Al-Gaza is very worried: Maybe they’ve come back frustrated.

We are sitting in the room where Al-Gaza’s father used to stay. The elderly man was moved out of here long ago. The elderly and the sick can’t live here anymore, in a building that can only be reached by ladders and up steep hills, where a sick person could not be evacuated by ambulance or obtain equipment and supplies except by means of an exhausting journey on foot. Most of the houses in the neighborhood are abandoned. Stone houses once surrounded by lovely garden s stand empty, like most of the houses in the parts of Hebron that are under Israeli control. The houses are empty; the occupants took out all their belongings and fled, out of fear. Which was exactly the goal of the settlers, who do everything for the sake of the Land of Israel.

Baruch Marzel is the upstairs neighbor. From the Marzels’ mobile home, right over our heads, we can hear the voice of a woman speaking on the telephone. “I’m Baruch’s neighbor,” Al-Gaza mumbles with a bitter smile. The screensaver on his computer shows a routine photograph: a settler boy of about six or seven attacking an old Palestinian woman carrying baskets in Gross Square, adjacent to the Avraham Avinu neighborhood, as smiling soldiers look on from their post.

When Al-Gaza’s wife was ready to give birth, he had to take her down the steep hill behind the yard to get her to the city by the back way. The garden of his house is strewn with junk like old washing machines that the neighbors have put there. What they won’t do for the Land of Israel.

A family visit: We go to see Hashem al-Gaza’s brother in the house next door. You have to keep your voice down and stick close to the stone wall that offers a bit of protection from the settler’s quarters above, and walk quickly under cover of the grapevines. An IDF position has been placed on the roof of the brother’s house, so the owners of the house are of course forbidden from going up to the roof. The way to the house of the closest neighbors, a short distance away, passes over a ladder. One must climb this rickety ladder in order to pass through, in the shade of the trees and the grapevines, out of the neighbors’ line of vision. We walk hunched over.

The brother isn’t home, so we go to the home of the Sharbati family next door. Wa’al opens the door and greets us warmly. She has six children. Her husband works at a gas station. There’s an IDF position on her roof and mobile homes visible out the window.

She never opens the window in the children’s room. A n iron shutter protects the window. The rest of the windows in the hou se are protected with iron latticework and bars. Wa’al opens the window for just a moment, to show us the garbage that the soldiers in the position on the roof throw into the yard. Sometimes they urinate in there, too.

The yard, which once held a grape arbor, is now strewn with empty bottles and leftover scraps of IDF rations. Wa’al says that this morning, she heard the soldiers trying to pierce a hole in the water tank on the roof. “Most of the soldiers are nice,” she emphasizes, “but there are always bad soldiers, too.?

Every three months the unit is replaced. The previous group was kinder than the present one maybe as a consequence of the lessons of the sensitive evacuation in Gaza.

Yesterday, they urinated into the yard again. Wa’al and the other residents all have more horror stories to tell than could fit into this column. The house’s windows have been shattered by the settlers’ rocks. The household dwells in dimness because the shutters are always kept closed. They hang the laundry on the balcony and sometimes the settlers soil it there, too. Tonight, the soldiers on the roof were making a lot of noise.

When we go out into the yard, a rock lands beside us, thrown from the settlers’ homes above. No one except us gets excited. It’s routine. Only the registered residents can enter this neighborhood, and only on foot. No spontaneous visits from friends or relatives. The road passes by an electronic inspection station. If the washing machine goes on the blink you can’t bring in a technician, nor can you drag a new machine up by the ragged back road. Lately there have also been problems with getting gas canisters past the checkpoint, and cooking gas is running low.

The home of the Sa’ad family, the next house in line, is protected with tin barrels filled with cement the kind of fortifications you see only in war zones. The Sayaj family’s house was expropriated by the IDF to serve as a defense position for protecting the settlers. The settlers’ permanent structure four floors of concrete and green iron shutters, looms like a fortress above the neighborhood homes.

We walk through the ancient vineyard that goes down the slope toward the city’s Muslim cemetery. The vineyard is in ruins, its soil dried up. It’s impossible to work it; the settlers don’t allow it. Al-Gaza is also worried about the planned route of a new road to be built here for the settlers; it will pass through this vineyrd and the old cemetery. These plans have got everyone here upset, but they all know that this battle, like all their battles, was decided long ago.

“From here, it’s dangerous to go any further,” says Al-Gaza. I’m remind ed of the escape paths I trod in besieged Sarajevo in 1993. The noise of the city on the other side of the IDF checkpoints grows louder, as if defying the deathly silence that envelops the area under Israeli control, which has become a ghost town. Volunteer Luna Ruiz from the United States asks softly what could bring the Israeli media to give some coverage to the horrifying reality here.

“If one of us were to be killed, do you think it would shock anyone in Israel?” She asks dryly. She says she is very frightened. It is as though the children on the street that leads to Tel Rumeida are playing Russian roulette. They cross the street barefoot in a mad race. Avihai Sharon of the Shovrim Shtika (Breaking the Silence) organization, which has been working here for a while to protect the residents, says that it has been months since he has seen any Palestinian children dare to cross this deserted street, which is open to Jews only.

A woman peeks out of her yard, an anxious expression on her face.

A few people walk up this deso late street that leads up from the Avraham Avinu neighborhood to Beit Hadassah. This is the Street of the Martyrs, about which long and exhausting negotiations were conducted, with the involvement of the U.S. administration, with the aim of restoring and rehabilitating it. The agreement went the way of all such agreements: All the doors of the renovated shops are now locked and soldered shut, the work of the settlers, and the street is deserted. Every so often, a settler child passes by. Every so often an armored military jeep cruises the street.

The group of three people comes closer. “How do you do? My name is Mario Vargas Llosa, says a tall, elegant man. In fashionable Prada sunglasses, and an equally fashionable photographers’ vest, he looks younger than his age. Accompanied by his photographer daughter and Yehuda Shaul of Shovrim Shtika, the acclaimed Peruvian writer, author of “The City and the Dogs,” has come to see these streets of fury and disgrace.

GIDEON LEVY writes for the Israeli daily Ha’aretz, where this article originally appeared.