JERUSALEM: Breaking the Silence, an organization of Israeli Defense Force (IDF) veterans, conducts tours in the West Bank city of Hebron, the only Palestinian city with a settlement in its midst. In this second largest Palestinian city of 165,000 Palestinians live some 800 Jewish settlers – heavily guarded by Israeli military, and bent on out-populating the Palestinians. As a result of the settlement, which is located in the heart of Hebron’s commercial district and old city, the fundamental human rights of the Palestinians, especially those living in its immediate vicinity, are continually violated.
I served in Hebron as a soldier in the IDF before Breaking the Silence was founded. Today, I walk through the streets of Hebron unarmed, drawing on my memories as a soldier and knowledge as an activist to explain to fellow Israelis the moral consequences of a prolonged occupation, the price paid not only by Palestinians, who suffer the most, but also by us Israelis.
We are compromising our moral ground and fundamental Jewish ethics in order to uphold an unsustainable political structure.
The purpose of these tours is clear to me, but it also raises questions about the use of tourism to advance what appears to be a political cause, or, in our eyes, a moral one as well.
Critics on the Right claim that our presence disturbs the delicate balance in the city, plays into the hands of terrorists, and creates a political provocation. Critics on the Left claim that we are misguided colonialists taking advantage of our occupation-granted privileges to travel freely on the same streets which the Palestinian residents cannot access, that we view Hebron as if it were some sort of a zoo or an anthropological amusement. Both groups of critics maintain that we have not been invited to Hebron by any local group.
It is true that Breaking the Silence was not invited to Hebron, either by the Palestinians or by the Israeli settlers living there. But it is also true that the Palestinians in the area of Hebron around the Jewish settlements have welcomed us with open arms, although we would continue to conduct the tours even if they did not.
What, then, is the point of these controversial tours?
The answer for us is quite simple: we tour Hebron because Hebron “belongs to us as humans who care about the rights of other humans, be they Palestinian, Israeli or anybody else. In this sense, Hebron belongs to all of us, just like every other place in the world where there is injustice. Decent human beings must take responsibility for the suffering of the Palestinians in Hebron, just as they should take responsibility for genocide in Darfur, xenophobic violence in South Africa, political repression in China, and any other infringement of rights of humans taking place around the world.
As Israelis who are in control of this part of Hebron through our police, our military, our taxes, and our settlers, Hebron belongs to us more than to others. It is therefore our responsibility, as Israelis, to see firsthand the consequences of the Occupation, just as a homeowner must know that the pipes in his home are leaking in order to fix them.
And as Israeli soldiers who served in Hebron, who controlled, and still control the daily life of the Palestinian population, the city also belongs to us. We soldiers are very much a part of the landscape as long as the Occupation continues.
And that is the problem with the word tourism. It implies that we are seeing something which is foreign to us, that only the rightful owners of the site being toured can show us around. Some would say it is the Palestinians; and others would say it is the settlers. The political question of to whom the city belongs is important, but it cannot dictate to us the question of our responsibility. That question can only be framed in terms of the universal values of liberty and equality, where there is freedom of movement and security for all.
Mikhael Manekin is the director of Breaking the Silence. He lives in Jerusalem with his wife and baby daughter. This article is part of a special series on conflict tourism written for the Common Ground News Service (CGNews).