Friday, 4 May 2007

Tea at the Resistance Cafe

By Khaled Diab

Hebron, or el-Khalil in Arabic, is one of the most beautiful towns in Palestine and its old city, with its lively kasbah, is first rate… until you get to its latter reaches! Hebron, which began life as a Canaanite royal city, is one of the oldest cities in the world.

Rabie and I hooked up with Al Haq’s man in el-Khalil, Zahi, and a group of NGO workers from the UK for the human rights equivalent of a guided tour of the old town.

After a delicious lunch of falafel, the famous local hummus, baba ghanoug, fuul (fava beans) and other assorted salads, Zahi led us through the teeming throngs in the historic heart of the city – towards the thorn in the side of the locals.

“Normally, settlers occupy the hilltops and, although they may be taking Palestinian land, they and the locals do not usually come into direct contact,” Zahi explained to me. “Here, in Hebron, it’s very different: the settlers live in the town centre, causing massive commercial and social disruption. They also go around provoking the locals.”

And it is all because of a cave where Abraham – who is believed to be the common patriarch of Jews, Christians and Muslims – and his family are supposedly buried. The hardcore, ideological, intolerant settlers who live in the old town are there to be close to the Cave of Patriarchs.

Also known as the Ibrahimi Sanctuary by Muslims, this is a crazed settler from the nearby Kiryat Araba settlement outside Hebron killed 29 Palestinians and wounded 150 who were praying in the Ibrahimi Mosque in 1994. Almost seven decades earlier, rioting Palestinians killed 67 Jews and wounded 60 in the 1929 Hebron massacre during the British mandate, as part of a general level of unrest across the country at the increasing Zionist presence and a dispute over access to the Western Wall in Jerusalem.

The first half or so of the souq was teeming, a hive of hustle and bustle similar to any old-fashioned Middle Eastern market. Gradually, the number of shoppers dwindles, the nearer you get to the settlements. The latter reaches of the kasbah are almost completely deserted and most of the shops have been shut. The ones with red paint on their shutters were locked by orders of the army because they are just under the settlements, which loom intimidatingly overhead.

Above our heads, is a metal grid to protect pedestrians against the projectiles sometimes dropped by the settlers. I saw bricks and rocks of various shapes and sizes, as well as water bottles and other debris lying up there. Zahi told me of one incident in which a settler had removed the insulating handle of a screwdriver so that it would fit through the grooves, and dropped it. It hit its target and instantly killed a passer-by, he said.

A handful of shops have remained defiantly open, expressing sumoud (‘fortitude’) against the settlers, even though the have little or no business. Some of these shop owners spoke to me. One said that, a few years ago, any of the leases on the shuttered shops was worth at least 200,000 dinars. Today, they would be like to fetch 1,500 dinars.

Another told us that the door to his upstairs storeroom had been welded shut five years ago by the IDF who have been occupying his rooftop as a watch post ever since. His father complained that just before we arrived a large rock landed just to the side of where they were sitting. When they looked up to complain to the soldier overhead, the soldiers had said it was the wind that blew it over the side. “Where’s the wind?” asked the old man in exacerbation. Indeed, it was a still day.

On a roll, he confided that the grossest thing was how some soldiers would urinate into bottles and pour it over the side or defecate into fast food boxes and chuck it on to the street. “It’s disgusting, but I have to clean it up – what else can I do?”

“No one cares about us here. The Israelis don’t care; the Arabs don’t care; the world doesn’t care,” his son chimed in. “You’re the first Egyptian journalist that has come down this way – and I’m here everyday. Where’s the Arab media; where are the journalists documenting our oppression?”

Stake out and refreshments
Just around the corner from these shops is the gate to the Bet Romano settlement. One lone shop facing the gateway was open for business. Its proprietor waved us over. “Come, come,” he called. “Come and have a drink at the Resistance Café.”

Hisham once worked as a TV news cameraman until he was shot in the leg, but he has not allowed this to get him down – and his big smile and positive attitude were infectious.

“I used to work for the media until a crazy Israeli shot me in my left leg,” he said with a big smile on his face, as if he were retelling a humorous incident involving a vicar and an actress. “We decided to reopen this family café seven months ago as a form of peaceful resistance against the settlers.”

“Others thought we were crazy,” he laughed. “But if all the shops reopen, we will defy the occupation. I don’t sell much, but that doesn’t matter.”

He recalled an incident in which an Israeli soldier, upon being informed about the purpose of the establishment, asked: “What kind of resistance is it opening a café?”

“Would you rather we shot at you guys?” was Hisham’s response to him.

The café’s impressive vantage point means that we spent a ‘lazy’ Saturday afternoon waiting for the camera-shy settlers to come out on their weekly Sabbath ‘tour’ of the old town accompanied by dozens of soldiers.

First came an armoured vehicle, then a small group of nervous-looking soldiers, then more soldiers, who kept going backwards and forwards – but still no settlers. “They don’t usually take this long,” Hisham informed us. “Perhaps all my guests are making them shy.”

Just before the settlers emerged, a nervous and shy young soldier who was probably 18 but looked about 14 came up to us. His baggy uniform and hairless face screamed ‘child soldier’ to me. “Would you mind not taking photos?” he asked apologetically, his voice quivering slightly, his green eyes unable to make eye contact with us.

“Why?” I asked. “And is that an order?”

“It’s just because the settlers don’t like to be photographed on Shabbat; it’s against their beliefs. And we don’t want trouble,” he said. “But it’s only a request.”

We all left our cameras rolling and pretended to be doing other things to show respect to the disrespectful.

If you’re ever down Hebron way, do drop by for a drink at the Resistance Café and show some solidarity with the locals.

©Khaled Diab. Text and photos.

1 comment:

Andy said...

You should know that the Hebron settlers are very controversial figures in Israel. On the one hand they claim to have legally purchased the properties, so have every right to live there. They have been frequently shot at by their Palestinian neigbours, so their security concerns are genuine.

However their aggressive antics towards their Palestinian neigbours, and deliberate acts of provocation and abuse are condemned across the board by most other Israelis, including even other Israeli settlers who have little time for them.