In Hebron, Tlaib and Omar would have seen Israel’s apartheid city

Had Reps. Rashida Tlaib and Ilhan Omar been allowed to visit Hebron, they would have seen Israel’s official policy of discrimination and segregation for the city’s 215,000 Palestinian residents.

By Avner Gvaryahu

Israeli soldiers arrest a Palestinian man during a raid on the West Bank city of Hebron, September 20, 2017. (Wisam Hashlamoun/Flash90)
Israeli soldiers arrest a Palestinian man during a raid on the West Bank city of Hebron, September 20, 2017. (Wisam Hashlamoun/Flash90)

Outside the Tomb of the Patriarchs in Hebron lies a beautiful leafy garden. In it stands a large stone with the names of the donors – Chicago Friends of Hebron. Even if U.S. Congresswomen Ilhan Omar and Rashida Tlaib had not been barred from visiting the occupied territories earlier this month, Breaking the Silence, an Israeli organization comprised of former IDF soldiers working to expose the realities of military occupation, would not have been able to take them there. Since Omar and Tlaib are both Muslim, they not only would have been unwelcome — Israeli Border Police soldiers stationed around the park would have stopped them from entering.

Discrimination and segregation are unpalatable wherever they exist, but in Hebron’s city center, they have been the official policy for the 215,000 Palestinian residents – especially since the Tomb of the Patriarchs massacre in 1994, in which a Jewish nationalist fanatic shot dead 29 Palestinians while praying at the holy site.

The Likud party and its coalition partners seek to create a permanent reality based on unequal legal systems for Jewish Israelis and Palestinians. This is undeniably what is known historically as apartheid.

In Hebron, the arguments over semantics all fall silent when faced with the deserted Shuhada Street, once the beating heart of one of the largest cities in the West Bank. Palestinian residents are banned from entering the area to make way for a handful of extremist settlers, accompanied by hundreds of soldiers whose sole mission is to protect the settlers and bolster their presence.

When confronted with the desolate streets and empty houses, the truth rings clear: the claims about “security necessities” and a “divinely-promised land” sound especially hollow against the backdrop of Hebron’s stark reality. In the past, this was done underneath the table, shrouded in a cloud of mystery and blurred by denial and excuses. Today, the Israeli government and its authorities take pride in these actions.

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The ever-ending cycle of violence and its heartbreaking results could be the catalyst for change. Sadly, that is not the case.

This is evident in a recent letter penned by 21 right-wing Knesset members to their congressional allies in the U.S., thanking them for their “continued support,” while at the same time warning them against making the mistake of using the term “two-state solution.”

“A Palestinian state in the heart of the tiny Israel,” would from their point of view be “far more dangerous to Israel than BDS [the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement].” The letter reveals the government’s real objective: to perpetuate its control by force over the lives of millions of people, ad infinitum.

No less worrying is the right-wing coalition’s ever-intensifying collaboration with the most racist forces in Israel and the world. Only recently, a senior editor of the Yisrael Hayom daily, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s mouthpiece, published an article recommending Israel normalize relations with the German neo-Nazi affiliated AfD party.

The occupation, the scandalous moral crime taking place in Israel’s backyard, is being carried out by young Jewish Israeli men and women like myself. Hence the struggle to end the occupation is not — and must not — be borne by Palestinians alone. As an Israeli, I fundamentally believe that the struggle for change must be fought by me and my fellow Israelis, as well as countless others around the world who believe in freedom and equality for all.

Israeli forces walk down a street during clashes with Palestinian demonstrators in Hebron in the Israeli-occupied West Bank, December 9, 2017. (Wisam Hashlamoun/Flash90)
Israeli forces walk down a street during clashes with Palestinian demonstrators in Hebron in the Israeli-occupied West Bank, December 9, 2017. (Wisam Hashlamoun/Flash90)

This is why we did not hesitate to accept Reps. Tlaib and Omar’s request to go on a tour of the place where we served as soldiers, which we now return to as activists. Our mission, to win over hearts and minds in our country and globally, requires us to tell it like it is, to expose these hard truths to whomever is willing to listen. People are not only entitled to know the truth – it is their moral duty to inform themselves. The 1,200 IDF veterans who broke their silence did so in order to expose the travesty taking place under our noses, in the name of our security, by our elected officials.

Against the hyper-nationalist camp in Israel, which has lost touch with reality and promotes indefinite occupation, we can and must present an alternative. Those who believe in universal values, who are able to call out racism for what it is and see the injustice in discrimination, are naturally and simultaneously opposed to both anti-Semitism and the occupation. By embracing the values of tikkun olam — repairing the world, a principle that lies at the heart of both Judaism and the progressive worldview — we can stand shoulder to shoulder with our partners around the world to fight individual and collective battles for a better future.

It is our honor and obligation to invite every elected official, whether Democratic or Republican, to come and see the occupied territories for themselves. Those who prevented the two Congresswomen from visiting the occupied territories seek to cover up the truth and blind us all with their lies. They will not succeed — we will continue to expose the truth they are desperately trying to hide.

Avner Gvaryahu is the executive director of Breaking the Silence.