“Take a deep breath, and don’t touch the American Jews.”

Photo by A. Daniel Roth

A Friday of Protest and Privilege in occupied Hebron.

I returned from my interrogation in high spirits. The interrogator was a smooth-armed Druze officer with hazel eyes, a slight double chin and very well-shaved cheeks. I wondered if he was self-conscious about his double chin. I wondered how long he took to shave each morning. I had a long time to wonder about such things: the interrogator couldn’t find a working battery for his tape recorder. He walked in and out of the room, sighing and mumbling to himself in slightly Arabic-accented Hebrew about having too much work, asking the other police officers if they knew where he could find a working battery. They didn’t. He eventually took one out of the air conditioner’s remote control. The room was set at a comfortable 22 degrees Celsius. Outside of the police station, most of the others were still standing in the sweltering midday Hebron sun. I could hear them singing, through the thin caravan walls, in English about waking up this morning with their minds on justice, and in Hebrew about how nation should stop lifting up sword against nation. The interrogator finally murmured my name, the date, and a few other details into the recorder. He asked me on tape if I acknowledged that I had been given the right to speak with a lawyer, and I said yes.

Then he took a deep breath, looked at me and bellowed: “Do you understand that you broke the law!?!”

I nearly laughed as I responded, in Hebrew, that I reserved the right to remain silent. His eyes didn’t match his voice. He wasn’t actually angry: He wasn’t even putting all that much effort into acting the part of the Angry Interrogator. He was just another actor — a heavy-lidded, overworked one — in this strange weekend of theatrics in downtown Hebron. This was Act Two.

Act One had begun, for some of us, the night before. Its main prop was a bag of Doritos. Seven of us, mostly Israeli and diaspora Jews, had traveled from Jerusalem and Tel Aviv to the middle of Hebron, passing through the entrance gate at the settlement of Kiryat Arba,  trekking through backyards and brambles in the semi-darkness, and finally arriving at the Youth Against Settlements center. We were greeted by a group of about 30 people, most young men and teenage boys, with a few young women and one very curious toddler seated around the outside of the circle of plastic chairs in which the men were discussing the plans for the following day.

Shu ismak?” The toddler asked each of us.

“Mori,” I said, when she arrived to me.

“Nuri?” She said.

“Mori.”

“Nuri?”

“Nuri.”

Soon enough, we were joined by some of the young men. We chatted about Arabic and Hebrew and how beautiful a night it was, and one of the boys, Nur, grabbed a British member of our group, Rob, to accompany him on a shopping trip. When Rob and Nur returned, they were holding a can of Cola and a bag of Doritos.

“Those are Israeli,” Another one of the young men, Mohanad, said to Nur, grinning and gesturing to the Doritos. 

“No, they’re not,” the younger boy said.

“They are.”

“I didn’t know!” Nur protested.

Ahmed, the oldest member present at the center at the time, overheard the conversation from where he was smoking and playing cards with some of the others.

“Nur, get rid of them.”

“But I didn’t know…” Nur said.

“You know we don’t allow Israeli products in the Center,” Ahmed said, his voice at once chiding, fond, fatherly.

Nur sighed dramatically and placed the bag of Doritos on the cement ledge next to us. Later, I saw Mohanad eating a handful of what looked a lot like Doritos. He smiled at me and shrugged.

That night, the seven of us, Israelis and diaspora Jews, were given mattresses and pillows, and asked multiple times if we needed anything else. We didn’t.

We woke early the next morning. I could feel my pulse surging through my finger tips, nervousness dancing around the edges of my tongue.

For other members of our group, Act One began early that morning, with sixty Jews trudging through an open air Friday morning market in the center of Hebron. I had gone with Muatasim, one of the Youth Against Settlements activists to meet the members of the Center for Jewish Nonviolence whose buses had arrived to central Hebron from a back route. By its appearance, we could easily have been a Birthright trip, trudging up the side of Masada: baseball caps, sunglasses, backpacks, the scent of sunscreen and sweat blending with North American and a few European accents. Many of us even had on matching T-Shirts, but those were still strategically obscured by button up shirts and scarves. In the market, a man in a red-checkered keffiyeh auctioned off live pigeons. Another man walked by holding two live rabbits, by their ears. Everyone stared at us.

“Mustawtineen, hathool?” I heard someone say, “Are these settlers?”

“No, man,” Muatasim interjected, in Arabic, “I’m from here, and these are foreign activists.”

“Chicago?” A young man with spiky hair said, in English.

“Some of us, actually, yeah,” said a member of the group, who was from Chicago.

“Chicago!” He grinned, and gave a thumbs up.

“Salam aleikum,” I murmured periodically, self-conscious and breathless and distracted by the thought that we might not even be allowed to access our destination, in the middle of the H2 section of Hebron. H2 is home to around 800 Israeli settlers, who are permanently guarded by about as many Israeli security forces. It includes the Tomb of the Patriarchs, where another American-Israeli Jew, Baruch Goldstein, massacred 29 Palestinian worshipers on another Friday morning, in 1994. Generally, both Israeli and Diaspora Jews are welcomed into all parts of H2 by the Israeli authorities, and it is Palestinians who are barred from entering various sections of their own city, including “sterile” roads on which Palestinians are forbidden from driving, and the infamous Shuhada street, on which Palestinians cannot walk. But my fear that our group of Jews might be barred — by members of the IDF— from getting to where it was we wanted to go this morning was not unfounded: A few minutes before, I’d gotten a phone call saying that another one of the buses had been stopped by IDF soldiers at the Gush Etzion junction, some 20 kilometers North of Hebron. The activists in that bus, mostly Israeli and diaspora Jews from Jerusalem, had been told that there was information that “they were on their way to cause a provocation” in the West Bank, and that they must turn around and return to Jerusalem immediately. The military detective had taken the activists’ IDs and then followed their bus back to Jerusalem to make sure that they complied. Another bus, from Tel Aviv, had managed to pass unmolested through the Kiryat Arba entrance by pretending to be a group of tourists, just here to “see the famous Abrahamic sites, sir.”

Two more local Palestinian activists met us at the top of the hill, and beseeched us to hurry: “We don’t think there’s anyone at the back entrance, but we will have to run.”

“To run?” a member of the group asked.

“To walk fast, at least.”

We walked fast, and then turned a corner into an abandoned lot, filled with scraps of metal and debris and underbrush and — we’d later discover, irony of delicious ironies — at least ten boxes worth of stale, powdery Matzah: the bread of affliction and/or liberation.

“Here we are,” said one of our guides, out of breath and grinning, “The future site of Cinema Hebron. Let’s get to work. We may not have a lot of time.”

And so we started working, with shovels and rakes and gloved hands, to help found Cinema Hebron, the first Palestinian cinema in Hebron on privately-owned Palestinian land, and at the invitation of its owners; directly across the street from the Israeli settlement on Tel Rumeida, and in plain view of the Israeli authorities, and plenty of media cameras to boot. The project had been planned for months by members of the Palestinian activist group, Youth Against Settlements, whose nonviolent methods of resisting the occupation have ranged from creative direct actions — such as the march onto Shuhada street in which its members wore Martin Luther King Jr. and Barack Obama masks, held signs that said “We have a dream, too,” and were arrested just as President Obama landed in Israel for the first time as President — to “sumud,” or “steadfastness” campaigns designed to make Palestinian life more bearable in virtually unbearable situations, such as the foundation of a kindergarten and a community center in H2.

The Cinema action was something of a hybrid: The idea of creating a movie theatre, a place for Palestinians in Hebron to enjoy themselves, eat popcorn, watch films, maybe even host a film festival, stems from the activists’ belief that Palestinians deserve a normal life, and that every attempt at creating normalcy is a profound form of resistance, especially in the face of a system that wants them gone. When one of the settlers who came to observe the work efforts later on in the morning, from the other side of a locked gate, was asked by my friend, author Madeleine Thien, what they thought about all this, the settler responded: “The Arabs should all leave. This is Jewish land.”

“Where should they go?” Madeleine asked, through a translator.

“Anywhere. They have 22 other countries.”

Still, while the idea of creating a movie theatre could be filed under the category of “steadfastness” actions, I don’t think anyone was under the illusion that the seventy diaspora and local Jewish activists were invited to help with the project because of our expertise in building movie theatres (although one member of the group did happen to be a construction worker). We were there because of our privilege, derived from our identities. The Jews there included local activists from the diasporic anti-occupation collective All That’s Left, which had staged a similar, smaller scale theatrical anti-occupation action in Hebron in 2013, in which seven members of the collective (including me) had been arrested for putting up a tent on Shuhada street with a banner that read, “Segregation is not our Judaism.” The majority of the Jewish activists there on Friday, though, had flown in from abroad, from the US, the UK, Canada, Italy, Australia and Belgium, through another diasporic anti-occupation group, the Center for Jewish Nonviolence, in order to spend 10 days working and creatively protesting in the West Bank and East Jerusalem, all under the banner: “Occupation is Not Our Judaism.” Among the participants were journalist Peter Beinart, Rabbi Brant Rosen, activists from the left-wing Jewish movements If Not Now and Jewish Voice for Peace, and the student president of J Street U, Amna Farooqi. Many of them were wearing sky blue T-shirts which had the trip’s slogan printed on them, and which were quickly covered in dust as the group began hauling metal scraps and debris piles out of the center of the future movie theatre. Meanwhile, two of the young Palestinian boys climbed up on the roof and hung a handmade marquee sign that read “Cinema Hebron: Coming Soon.”

As they worked, the Jewish activists sang American songs from the Civil Rights era, and Jewish songs familiar from shul or summer camp, and the Palestinian activists clapped along and smiled, sweat dripping from all of our brows as the mid-July sun peeked into our workspace. Also peeking into our workspace were dozens of soldiers, police officers and settlers, including Baruch Marzel, a Boston-born disciple of the late Brooklyn-born extremist rabbi, Meir Kahane, and Ofer Ohana, who was seen shaking hands with Elor Azaria, the soldier who, in March of this year, was caught on camera shooting a bullet into the head of a wounded, subdued Palestinian assailant, in the middle of H2. In addition to well-known Hebron settler figures like Marzel, Ohana, and Tzipi Schlissel —who told the Forward’s Naomi Zeveloff that she was upset to see Jews helping Palestinians, but that “Jews during the Holocaust helped Hitler too” — there were also a group of youths, threaded throughout the soldiers, police officers.

“You’re Jews?” One girl asked, in Hebrew, “Why are you helping these donkeys?”

Within a matter of minutes, Israeli police officers had entered the premises and informed us that we were trespassing on private property.

“How dare you,” said Issa Amro, the coordinator of Youth Against Settlements, and gestured to Jawad Abu Aisha, “He is the owner of this property and you know it.”

A lengthy argument ensued between Issa, Jawad and the police officers on the grassy patch above the worksite. The officers attempted to detain Issa, dragging him on the ground. Within moments, Issa was surrounded by 30 of the Jewish activists, who clarified to the officers: If you want to take him, you’ll have to take all of us, too. After half an hour or so, the officers seemed to give up on the absurd “trespassing” claim, and the police and soldiers took a heavy step back, their weapons clacking against their sides. They returned Issa’s ID card, and informed the group that we were not allowed to be on the grassy patch any longer.

“Great,” Issa said, “So let’s get back to work.”

One by one, we all descended back down to the worksite, where the rest of the group had continued working, and for the next hour, we hauled metal scraps and raked brush virtually undisturbed, not counting the heckles from the settlers on the other side of the fence, and a rock and a few tomatoes that were lobbed by settlers toward one end of the worksite. We sang and worked, opened bags of popcorn and passed around bananas, and began to talk excitedly about getting a projector, and discussing what movie should be screened first.

Then the police and army returned to the site, this time armed with one of the tools favored by the Israeli forces for dispersing nonviolent gatherings throughout the West Bank: A declaration of a “closed military zone.”

“You have five minutes to exit the premises,” a short, stout officer with a friendly face and a big belly declared.

At that point, some members of the group exited the premises, including the Palestinian activists, for whom detention at the hands of Israeli forces is an entirely different beast; unlike Israelis or internationals, Palestinians arrested or detained in the West Bank can be held for days on end without charges, and without being allowed to speak with an attorney.

Some 30 others remained.

“Did you not hear me?” the officer said, his voice rising, “I said you have five minutes. Your time is up. This is a closed military zone.”

We sat down and locked arms. From the middle of the group, someone began singing, and everyone else joined in. It was a song we all knew.

Lo yisa goy el goy herev. Lo yilmadu od milhamu.

Let nation not lift up sword against nation, let them learn war no more.

This was the song on all of our lips as the police gave us one last chance to disperse, and warned that they would use force if necessary, and it was the song on our lips as we were pulled apart from one another and herded out of the future site of Cinema Hebron, and up toward the grassy patch. I was taken along with another activist, and put in the back of an armored police car. We were joined by four others, each of whom had Israeli citizenship. We realized that the police had been given orders only to detain the Israelis among us.

Another activist later told me that she heard one of the commanders say, in Hebrew, to his soldiers: “Take a deep breath, and don’t touch the American Jews.”

By the time I was released from my interrogation, the rest of the group had marched through Shuhada street, singing songs and chanting chants against the occupation: they were prepared to be arrested at any juncture, but the soldiers only threatened and herded, threatened and herded. The group eventually made their way to the police station where we were being held, in the nearby settlement of Kiryat Arba, and we could hear them singing and calling our names. I greeted the other five detainees with a grin, and we made jokes under our breath. The next activist, Karen Isaacs, who’d been arrested with me last time, in 2013, was called in for interrogation, and we smiled at each other and noted that this felt familiar. One of the Israeli police officers, an Arab from Haifa, had even been our guard last time. The room was air-conditioned, and the officers — all Druze and Arab at that point, although they were joined later by a Russian-Jewish and an Ethiopian-Jewish officer — seemed bored and tired, and brought us a lunch of rice and mushy kibbeh, which most of us (vegetarians), picked around. We were just about to start eating, laughing quietly with each other about the color of the food, when the door opened.

My laughter, then, died in my throat like something rotten, and I swallowed hard and stared. All of us did. Three soldiers entered the room, their guns swinging heavy around their olive-green waists. With them was a man whose hands were bound with a single zip-tie. A blindfold was wrapped so tightly around his head that I could see the bulge of his eyeballs through the cloth. We put down our plastic forks and watched as the soldiers sat their prisoner in a corner, facing the wall. After a minute or so, one of them removed his blindfold, and I saw him blink wildly, and it looked like tears were balanced on the red rims of his handsome eyes, but I couldn’t be sure, because I looked away quickly. After a moment, I gathered courage, and cleared my throat.

“May God bless you,” I said, in Arabic.

“And you,” he returned the greeting.

“Do you want some food?” I asked, feeling the shameful echoes of our laughter still hovering in the room now blanketed in silence. We weren’t the ones who had arrested him, of course, and we ourselves had been detained in solidarity, broadly speaking, with his people, but we were still nauseatingly privileged, and we’d allowed ourselves to forget — or I had, at least — the gravity of the situation, for a moment: Leaving the interrogation room, I’d felt a little swell of giddiness in my chest, excited about the adventure, about the apparent success of our protest, about the story I’d later write.

He shook his head, and said, in Arabic, “Just water.”

The Druze police officer, for whom Arabic was his native language, brought the Palestinian detainee a glass of water.

“Are you from Hebron?” I asked him, in Arabic.

“No,” he said, downing his cup in a single gulp, “Bethlehem,” and I thought I heard a note of wariness creep into his voice, and I remembered hearing from a friend about the ‘asafeer, which is literally Arabic for “birds,” but in the context of the Israeli prison system is used as the nickname for Palestinian collaborators who are planted in Israeli jails and instructed to act either friendlily or threateningly toward new Palestinian detainees, in both cases with the objective of extracting information from them. I don’t look very Palestinian: pale skin, blue eyes, floppy clothes, earrings in both earlobes, long curly hair pulled back into a loose pony-tail. But I speak Arabic well, and with a strangely good accent, and I didn’t want him to suspect me, to be more afraid than he already perhaps was, so I fell quiet.

Our lawyer, another activist from All That’s Left, Emily Schaeffer Omer-Man, went to see if she could convince the police officers to take the zip-tie off of him. Technically, detainees have the right to be restrained with three zip-ties, one around each wrist and a third connecting between them, although that rarely happens. It’s usually just one. A police officer followed Emily back in the room, and approached the detainee.

“Does it hurt?” he said, in Arabic.

The detainee shrugged, “A little.”

The police officer put his finger into the tie and wiggled it around, as if to demonstrate that it wasn’t too tight, that his circulation wasn’t being cut off. The police officer sat back down. A few moments later, though, he stood up again, cut the tie with a pocket knife, and brought the prisoner a plate of food. The man stretched his hands, rolled his wrists, and picked up his plastic fork slowly.

“Maybe he should go get interrogated before the rest of these guys?” The Druze police officer suggested to the Druze interrogator, in Arabic, when the latter came in to summon the next member of our group.

We all nodded, over-enthusiastic, desperate to be a little bit helpful, to distribute our unearned privileges, which were so palpable, even inside the police station.

The interrogator said no, that he’d rather finish with all of us first.

Meanwhile, the three soldiers had opened a bag of peanut butter snacks, called Bamba, a bag of chocolates, and a bottle of Cola. Two of them were playing with a Rubik’s cube. One was staring at the ground.

“What time did you get him today?” The Druze officer asked the soldiers. They all looked to be around 18 or 19. The officer was looked to be in his 40s. He also had a faint Arabic accent to his Hebrew. The soldiers looked up and blinked, surprised at being addressed directly. They shrugged.

“What time they take you today?” The police officer asked the Palestinian detainee, in Arabic.

“They took me yesterday afternoon,” he responded, quietly.

“What?” The police officer swiveled around to look at the soldiers, speaking Hebrew again, “You took him yesterday?”

The soldiers mumbled something about orders, doing what they were told to do. Their eyes looked so strange, almost like they were in a trance. Two of them stared at the Rubik’s cube. The other stared at the ground.

The two police officers in the room shook their heads. One of them then moved toward the soldier and grabbed the bottle of Coca Cola from his feet.

“I’m inviting you all to some Cola,” he said, “The soldier is paying.”

He poured a cup of Cola for the Palestinian prisoner, and offered us, but we all refused. I stared and stared.

“Who knows what the law is these days,” the other policemen sighed.

“How long does it take you?” The first officer addressed one of the soldiers, pointing to the Rubik’s cube, as if to soften the blow of his silent, carbonated rebuke.

“I can do it in a minute,” the soldier said, “Which isn’t so fast though. There are people who can do it much faster. I’ve seen, on YouTube, someone who did in blindfolded. And another guy who did it with his feet. People are crazy.”

The room went silent.

After a while, we offered the Palestinian detainee a granola bar, which he accepted, and then started talking to each other again, and laughing, even, because it’s hard to feel guilty about privilege for longer than a few minutes in a row. After a bit, another Palestinian entered, not tied or blindfolded, and he was sat down next to the first man. We offered him a granola bar, too. He refused. Everyone settled back into their clusters. The police typed away on a what looked like an armored iPad, and then showed each other YouTube videos. The soldiers munched Bambas and chocolates and swiveled the colorful cube. Our group went back to talking about sprouting lentils and middle school detentions and Barbara Kingsolver novels. The two Palestinian men spoke to each other in hushed Arabic.

A little while later, I over heard the second Palestinian guy say to the first, in Arabic, that he wanted to pray, and wondering if the first guy if he thought they’d have a prayer rug here. The first guy said, “No way.”

I asked Karen if she had a scarf. She did. She handed it to the guy. He looked surprised, and said thank you, and then asked the Druze police officer to move from where he was sitting, so he could pray facing Mecca, unobstructed. The police officer sighed and complied. The soldiers looked up, astonished, as the man kneeled down in prayer. I wondered what they thought about the detainee who they’d brought in, if they thought about him at all.

A few minutes later, a young settler kid, maybe 14 or so, with twitchy body movements and thick payot, was brought in by a Russian-accented officer who said he’d detained him for “disturbing a police officer” at the Tomb of the Patriarchs. The kid squirmed in his chair, his fingers fidgeting wildly, and then Karen nudged me, telling me to look: The kid had picked up the blindfold that had been around the Palestinian detainees eyes and had begun playing with it, rubbing it over his head, stretching it between his hands. The two Palestinians noticed what he was doing also, and stared, their jaws slightly open.

“We’re going to release you without interrogation, OK? This is a warning, OK?” One of the Druze officers said to the kid. The kid blinked.

“You don’t want to be interrogated, right?” The officer said, as if talking to a toddler.

The kid shrugged, “How long would that take?”

Ten minutes later, he was taken from the station by a man who must have been his father, and who stood well-over six feet tall with broad shoulders and a huge, untrimmed beard that reminded me of some of the settlers who had stared at us as we worked on the Cinema. The tall man slapped the boy on the back of the head, kissed him on the forehead, and then put his arm around the boy, and the two left the police station.

By 6:30PM, the last member of our group had been interrogated, and we were informed that we were banned from returning to Hebron for 15 days. We’d been acting in solidarity with the Palestinians, but our status was still nearly as cushy and privileged as that of the fidgety settler youth. For a moment, all of the police officers left the room, and it was just us, the two Palestinians, and the three soldiers, who still seemed to be off in another world.

“Come over here?” the Palestinian detainee who had prayed using Karen’s scarf said to me, gesturing with a slender hand.

I went over to them.

“You all are going to be released?” He said.

“Yeah,” I said, “And you too, soon, God willing…”
“Inshallah,” said the first detainee, the one who had come in blindfolded.

“What are you?” said the second detainee.

“Jews,” I said, understanding his question immediately.

“What!?” He looked at me, “Are you serious? I was sure you were ajanib, foreigners.”

“Well, some of us are, also,” I said, “Ajanib Jews.”

“No,” he said, “I meant ajanib ajanib.”

“Yeah,” I said, “Well, we’re Jews who are against the occupation…”

“That’s what I thought,” said the first detainee, rubbing his eyes, “Um, I have a question.”

“Yeah?” I said.

“Can I use your, uh, cellphone? My family…”
“Oh, yeah, yeah, of course,” I said, scrambling to hand him my iPhone.

“They picked me up after a wedding,” he said, holding the phone between two fingers, “Some kids had been shooting fireworks, and I took them from them, and put them in my trunk, and then I got pulled over by these guys,” he gestured to the soldiers, “And they arrested me for having fireworks in my trunk.”

I tried to make myself look at his eyes, but I couldn’t.

“They made me sleep on the floor,” he said, “Handcuffed and blindfolded.”

“You were handcuffed and blindfolded from yesterday until you got here?”
“Until the moment I got here,” he said, and then I finally looked at his eyes, and they were dry, and mine were not.

“I’m sorry,” I said.

“That’s how it is,” he shrugged, as he dialed his mother’s number on the touch screen of my phone, “That’s just how it is.”

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