As promised, a post about our tiyyul to South Mount Hebron with שוברים שתיקה/Shovrim Shtika/Breaking the Silence plus a little addendum based on my visit up north this shabbat.
One of the first things that tipped me off to how much I would appreciate our tour guides from Breaking the Silence was Micha'el's explanation of the road that we took from Jerusalem to the hills south of Hebron. He told us that in order to understand this landscape, we needed to think about the map as three dimensional rather than two dimensional. He was referring to the series of bridges and tunnels built in the wake of the Second Intifada that basically create an overlapping infrastructure by which Israelis and Palestinians trying to traverse the same terrain travel on completely different road systems. He also began talking to us about how Palestinians have rights to access their agricultural lands but that this access is interrupted in ways that he described as "Kafkaesque." One example: there are gates in the separation barrier surrounding Palestinian cities that are open at specific hours to allow access to vineyards, orchards, and pasture. However, everyone and every vehicle requires a permit and attaining such permits can verge on the impossible. He said that even donkeys need permits.
Our tour basically consisted of viewing various places in South Mount Hebron where Israeli settlements and Palestinian villages and/or agricultural lands butt up against each other. Israeli settlements (plus roads to these settlements, as well as agricultural operations like dairies, archeological areas, and even JNF forests) have security buffers around them which are off-limits to Palestinians. There are also some zones which may be closed to various parts of various populations at one time or another. For example, Breaking the Silence usually brings groups on tours of Hebron but, because of the recent unrest, primarily between settlers and the army, our tour guides were forbidden from entering the city. So, instead we drove around the South Mount Hebron area stopping to get out and look at various sights.
What I liked best about our tour guides was that they were able to very intelligently tell us what we were looking at and its context vis a vis Israeli history and policy in the West Bank AND juxtapose this bigger picture with straightforward personal accounts of their own experiences as soldiers. This combination of smart, complex explanations combined with heart-felt stories was very moving to me. One thing that was important to Micha'el was to make it clear that he was not in any way "anti-Israel." He explained that he had, in fact, volunteered to serve a fourth year in the army after his mandatory service was up. They painted a picture of the organization aims to be at least somewhat pluralistic in terms of espousing a particular political viewpoint or advocating a particular solution to a given issue. A bit of evidence of how this plays out in action: Jewish Israeli men are obligated to serving in the reserves, some people affiliated with Breathing the Silence fulfill their reserve duties and others refuse to do so for reasons of conscience.
The most important aspect of our tour, from my perspective, was our tour guides refusal to offer us advice or solutions. I felt a deep desire to shift away from the scenes right before our eyes and join in the conversations that kept starting up about political solutions. And I deeply admired our guides' abilities to acknowledge that desire AND to bring us back to taking in what we were here to witness. I came away with a deeper understanding of the group's declared two-fold mission:
1. To collect testimonies from soldiers who had served in the territories.
2. To bring people to see first-hand what was happening in the West Bank, with an emphasis on bringing Israelis to see what was being done in their name and on their behalf.
This emphasis on simply witnessing and listening to soldiers' stories felt very right to me. One particularly moving moment was our visit to the village of Susya (not to be confused with the nearby Israeli settlement of the same name). The village had been forcefully relocated several times and the villagers had since decided to live as individual families on their respective agricultural lands rather than to reconstitute the original village of several families. While they are allowed to work their land, they are not technically allowed to build on it or live there. We came to a man who was using a tractor to prepare the land to be sown (we think the seed would grow into feed for the animals). Our tour guides hoped he would tell us his story of mutiple relocations. However, his land abutts a buffer zone and its boundaries are not entirely clear. Some of his land goes up the hill toward where Israeli soldiers stand guard and he is afraid to work there. Our presence (including a couple of us who were wearing kippot) made him feel safer and he quickly decided to use his time more wisely and take the opportunity to stop talking to us and head up the hill a little ways to plow and plant. He is pictured above in his tractor before he cut short the conversation and got to work. In the foreground on the left is Micha'el smiling and explaning what is going on.
I got yet another perspective on all of this
Shabbat when I went to visit the Arzis, my adopted family from my year on kibbutz. Omri, the younger son, who was pre-verbal when last we met, was home for the weekend from his army duty. He serves in the Nahal brigade. I didn't get to talk to him directly, but when I told Amira about our trip to the West Bank, she said that Omri had served in Hebron and had some pretty horrible stories to tell himself. Like our tour guides, she emphasized the fact that by and large the treatment Palestinians receive (at checkpoints for example) is completely systemic and is not a measure of the sweetness or meanness of any individual soldier. She framed it in terms of Omri, a truly menschlich kid as far as everyone is concerned, just trying to retain his own humanity in a truly messy and inhuman situation. Or, as our tour guide had put it: If you're going to maintain an occupation, this is as pretty as it's going to get. You can't do occupation any prettier than this.
The Nahal brigade is known dividing soldiers' time between regular army service and more community-service oriented work. Omri is currently in a period of his service in which he does work which he finds much more meaningful than manning checkpoints: he teaches and facilitates after school groups for youth in one of the most poverty-stricken neighborhoods in Tel Aviv. The language the family uses is that he is "our soldier" (as in "Our soldier is home for the weekend"). I hope to have the opportunity to learn more about his work; even though last time we met he was barely learning to walk, I feel a little bit like he is my soldier too.