This Is My Land ... Hebron

By Andrea Dessi

Described by many as the “dark heart” of the Israeli occupation, the city of Hebron represents one of the most tragic realities of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Once a bustling trade hub on the road from Cairo to Damascus, Hebron - the largest Palestinian city in the southern West Bank and a major pilgrimage site for all of the monotheistic faiths - encapsulates the worst traits associated with military occupation.

Hebron’s 160,000 Palestinian inhabitants are today virtually held hostage by a community of 600 hard-line Jewish settlers and a contingent of 2,000 Israeli soldiers who have gradually taken over most of the city centre. This composition, a deadly cocktail of religious antagonism, territorial conflict and military occupation, has transformed Hebron into a city of hate, fear and pure insanity. The city is perhaps the most fitting example for what journalist and author, Jonathan Cook, describes as “Israel’s experiments in human despair” and, given the fact that Hebron is the only locality in the Occupied Palestinian Territories (OPT) where Jewish settlers are living within a major Palestinian city, Hebron is without doubt one of the most volatile flashpoints of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. 

While hard to conceptualize from afar, a new feature-length documentary film by Giulia Amati and Stephen Natanson goes a long way toward shedding light on the dark realities of everyday life in Hebron. The film sidesteps the technicalities of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and brings viewers into the heart of a city where segregation is institutionalized and lawlessness is the norm.

“When I first arrived in Hebron I was confronted with a reality that transcended my wildest expectations”, explains Amati, who was originally invited to the city to teach a three month film course at the EU-funded Hebron Media Centre.

“It is a situation which is hard to imagine. There is nothing natural in Hebron, it is a kind of experiment in human patience, almost as if a crazy scientist decided to push people to the limits in order to study their reactions”.

Faced with the dramatic reality of blanket military curfews and daily encounters with aggressive stone-throwing youths, Amati was amazed by the lack of international awareness of events occurring in the city and felt compelled to “tell Hebron’s story” through the personal experiences of people directly affected by its folly.

Featuring eye-opening interviews with prominent Israelis and Palestinians, settler spokesmen and Arab inhabitants, This Is My Land ... Hebron provides shocking insight into what Israeli journalist Gideon Levy describes as the occupation’s “laboratory of evil”.

In Hebron, more than anywhere in the OPT, the silent expulsion of the Palestinian population is visible in its most anguishing forms. According to a 2006 report commissioned by Israel’s leading human rights organization B’tselem, 42 per cent of homes in Hebron’s city centre have been vacated by their Palestinian inhabitants. Seventy per cent of Palestinian commercial establishments (1,829 shops) have also been shut, making Hebron’s city centre resemble an eerie ghost town.

The city is today divided into two sections, with the first, known as H1, controlled by the Palestinian Authority and the second, H2, subject to Israeli military rule (Jewish settlers however answer to Israeli civilian law). Within H1, where about 130,000 Palestinians reside, Palestinians enjoy a semblance of normality. Within H2 however, which is Hebron’s historic city centre, a community of 600 extremist Jewish settlers now occupy a series of four strategically located complexes in the vicinity of Hebron’s Tomb of the Patriarchs.

The Israeli government has dispatched 2,000 soldiers to protect the activities of the settler community, whose stated goal is freeing the city of its Arab population. Eighteen military checkpoints dissect the city centre making it close to impossible for Palestinians residing in the H1 area to even visit the old city where entire streets have been “sterilized” by the army, making it illegal for Arabs to even walk on them.

In the documentary, Uri Avneri, ex-member of the Israeli parliament, describes the settlers’ goal as “ethnic cleansing pure and simple”.

David Wilder, official spokesman for the Hebron settlers, frames the settlers’ objective with a similar albeit more guarded statement: “I have no doubt that if today another 200,000 Jews moved into Judea and Samaria [i.e. West Bank] a lot of the Arabs who are here would pick up and leave. We do not have to throw them out ... a lot of them will just leave”.

This is My Land … Hebron incorporates footage shot by Palestinian inhabitants who record settler abuses with small camera recorders supplied to them under B’tselem’s “Shooting Back” project. Launched in 2007, the project aims to raise awareness of settler abuses in the OPT. The images of young Jewish settlers stoning and abusing Palestinian children as they make their way home after school have indeed caused a storm of indignation among Israel’s more secular communities.

This, however, has not contributed to any change on the ground in Hebron, and Palestinian residents have been forced to seek refuge behind metal cages erected to protect their homes, markets and schools from the rain of stones, bottles and excrement.

The film won the prize for best Italian documentary at the Festival Dei Popoli. It has also been selected for review by two of Italy’s most prestigious film festivals, the Nastri D’argento and the Davide di Donatello. Yet there are still no plans for a screening in Israel, though both directors would welcome the opportunity.

“We have had a lot of support from segments of the Jewish community, both in Rome and in London”, noted Natanson, underlining his and Amati’s view that if only more Israelis would be aware of what the settlers are doing, they surely would not sit idly by and ignore the Jewish state’s support for these extremist groups.


13 June 2011


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