The ancient city of Hebron, said to be the burial site of the prophet Abraham, is the second holiest site in the Jewish world, the fourth holiest site in the Muslim world, and currently the largest Palestinian city in the occupied West Bank. Besieged by the violence of Israeli occupation and economic turmoil, Hebron has become a pressure cooker of settler aggression and Palestinian resistance—and the human toll has been immense. In this important segment of The Marc Steiner Show, we get an on-the-ground view of the daily reality of Israeli occupation and apartheid from Basil al-Adraa and Oriel Eisner, who say that the violence in Hebron has gotten demonstrably worse over the course of the COVID-19 pandemic. Basil al-Adraa is an activist, journalist, and photographer from the village of a-Tuwani in the South Hebron Hills; Oriel Eisner, who currently lives in Jerusalem, is an American-Israeli activist and organizer with the Center for Jewish Nonviolence.
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Marc Steiner: Welcome to the Marc Steiner Show here on The Real News. I’m Marc Steiner, and it’s great to have you all with us. Today, we’re going to explore what’s happening in one of the most ancient cities on the planet, Hebron. It’s the home of the Cave of the Patriarchs and the Matriarchs, said to be the burial ground of the prophet Abraham and his wife, Sarah, and their sons and wives. It’s considered the second holiest city in the Jewish world, and the fourth in the Muslim world. And, Hebron is the largest Palestinian city in the occupied West Bank. A gritty working class city of 215,000 Palestinians. And now, about 1000 right-wing religious Israeli settlers were moved in, and have taken over the center of the city and the surrounding hills. It’s a town where the Palestinians have lost control and gangs are prevalent, in large part because of the chaos of the occupation that allows Palestinians to only control 20% of their city.
It’s become the scene of massive settler violence, who are seizing land, homes, destroying olive groves, injuring children, arresting children. Palestinians in Hebron and Israelis who stand with them have been resisting these attacks, and themselves been attacked, injured, and arrested. Two of the men who are at the center of all of this join us today for a conversation. Basil al-Adraa is a Palestinian activist, journalist, and photographer from the village of At Tuwani, which is in Hebron. And Oriel Eisner is an American Israeli activist, and organizer with the Center for Jewish Nonviolence. He’s based in Jerusalem. And this is our conversation.
Let’s get some history here, and maybe get a sense of where Hebron is, why it’s so important, what it’s meant to this struggle, and what’s been happening. So who should begin that? Oriel, why don’t you start? And then Basil, you jump in? Can we start it that way? Let’s do that.
Oriel Eisner: Sure. So yeah, to give a quick overview, the area where a lot of my activism takes place, where Basil lives, is the South Hebron Hills, just outside of Hebron. It’s the Southern edge of the West Bank, mostly Area C, which means under full Israeli civil and security control. And Palestinian communities are located in Area C in the South Hebron Hills. And there are also a lot of Israeli settlements, and it’s an area that is one of the sites of creeping annexation. Israel is putting in a lot of effort to try and clear out Palestinians from the area in order to bring it into 48, because it’s an edge of the West Bank. So, Israel is trying to, sort of, take it in. That’s a very brief overview. Basil, if you want to maybe say a bit more about where you live? The community is the more lived experience.
Basil al-Adraa: Okay, for me as a Palestinian, I grow up in the area, Area C. It’s all under the Israeli military and army control. All our life here is controlled by the Israeli army. They are violating our rights all the time, 24 hours a day, since they control this place, they keep pressuring and making our life, and putting pressure on our life. It’s all leading to take us out of this land. I think today, Israeli government is focusing on Area C and as much as they can take, and annex more land with less people like Palestinians living in it. That’s their goal in general.
So they’re using everything they can, like all the pressure, cutting the water, cutting and bulldozering roads, and not giving us access to electricity, demolitioning our homes all the time. On the other side, you see them building settlements, leading the settlers to create agricultural projects, farms, outposts, [avoiding] them, water, electricity, roads, giving them more land, more expansion onto our land. Which is meant to let them stay in this land and pressuring us, as I mentioned, to take us to move from this land. It’s not just Hebron, for me, I see it all over the West Bank, almost the same policy, which is to annex more land.
Marc Steiner: And Oriel, I think I want to pick up on a bit what Basil said, in terms of what has happened in the last four or five months that’s made Hebron explode. And what do you think is really going on here between the Israeli government, the army, and the settlers?
Oriel Eisner: Yes. I think that in the last really… And Basil can speak to this more. Since the pandemic started, the settler violence, particularly in this region, in the South Hebron Hills, has really increased, and there have been really regular attacks. And then this year, since April, May, the attacks have become really regularized. So, there was a period where every weekend there would be a settler attack toward Basil’s village of Tuwani, or toward nearby villages. And it’s a situation that’s been escalating in the South Hebron Hills. And like Basil said, escalating across the West Bank. I don’t know exactly the numbers, but Israeli human rights organizations that track these sorts of incidents have seen that already in the first half of this year, there have been more attacks than all of last year, which was more than the previous year.
The settler violence has really been out of control. And the Israeli army and the occupation system that monitors and administers the West Bank has allowed it to run pretty free, at best, and at worst, aided the settler attacks and the settler harassment. So in my experience with Basil, we’ve been in incidents where settlers are attacking, and the army is, at best, standing at the side and not doing anything, at worst standing with the settlers, shooting tear gas, shooting stun grenades at the Palestinians, who are trying to defend their homes, trying to defend their land. So, it’s a system that’s very well oiled and works actively in sync to create, as Basil’s saying, more and more pressure on the Palestinians living in this area.
Marc Steiner: I want both of you for a moment… I want people listening to us to get a sense of what is happening on the ground, to feel it from your words, from your descriptions. With any luck, we’ll have some sound, people can hear it as well. Basil, just talk about what exactly is happening. What are the settlers doing? What has taken place? What is the violence that has been put on the Palestinian people? Just describe it for us.
Basil al-Adraa: So in the beginning of the ’80s, Israel declared about one million dunam of Palestinian land in the West Bank as state land. So, what they did, they took it from the Palestinian farmers. This land used to be the grazing area for the Palestinian farmers, where they grazed their animals. The State of Israel decided that this land is not used by the Palestinians, even though was used for the grazing, and they declare it as state land. So even when we have evidence for this land, that we own it, this evidence means nothing in front of their declaration, so that they declare this as state land. They start to create settlements and outposts all over this land since the ’80s, until now, until these days. Some of this land is kept and used by the Palestinians for grazing.
So these settlers and settlers organizations are always putting pressure to control all this land. This year specifically, they started with a new policy, and they started through the Israeli right-wing organizations who work for settlers. They started a new policy, which is [inaudible] farms. So they rent the land from this organization, this organization takes this land from the army, who controls the land, and then gives it to the settlers to create farm land. So, each group of settlers creates a farm, brings flocks of sheep, racist settlers, violent settlers, who train very well how to use slingshots and guns, hammers, drones, motorcycles. From there, they start to control the land. Any Palestinian shepherd they see around, they go attack him. They chase him far away. They go inside our olive trees and graze their animals there.
There they go to control water cistern wells to swim inside this, or to steal the water for their animals, burn our grass, and bring their flocks of sheep to eat our fields. And from there, there have been so many organized attacks during the weekends, especially on Saturdays, on the holy day and the holiday for the Jewish, and in the holidays in general for the Jewish. So what’s been happening. They’ve been just bringing, collecting, settlers from these farms. They built this year around 30 farms, all around the West Bank. Seven of them took a place here, in [inaudible] where I live. And on Saturday, on the Jewish holidays, they use to collect a group of settlers, sometimes 50, sometimes 60, sometimes 30, and they mask, they bring hammers, slingshots and go attack our communities. In my village more than seven of these attacks have been happening here.
Basil al-Adraa: First one of them, seven vehicles were destroyed. One of them is for volunteers, like for Oriel and the other Israeli and international activists who were here. Two of this group, two of these activists, Americans, were also beaten while they were escorting Palestinian shepherds. A group of settlers go down and beat them with hammers, and destroy their car again. And it kept going on like this, until the pogrom that happened in Mufagara. Around 80 settlers come from two different outposts to this community in Mufagara – That’s nearby my community – They go from house to another destroying the windows. They kill the goats of the Palestinians. They destroy water tanks, cut the water pipes, solar panels, about 10 people got injured, including a three year old child. He was injured in his head, and was taken to the hospital in Beersheba.
So that brought media attention to the settlers’ violence. But, people look at it as an incident that happened once, people don’t look at it as it is. It is a policy that’s going on, that the army and the state benefits [from and is] behind these such attacks, which is making us as Palestinians in this community live in fear, unsecure, and all the time afraid from settlers’ attacks. So we don’t live with security. So always we are afraid. They benefit, as I told you, as the army comes to demolish our homes, the settlers come during the Jewish holidays to attack us. So always, they want to let us be scared living in this area.
Marc Steiner: So Oriel, I’ll bring you back in. I don’t want to digress into why they would do this on a Shabbat, on a Jewish holiday, which I think we should talk about a minute, because it contradicts… These are religious settlers, and this contradicts everything that they are supposed to believe about what the Sabbath is supposed to be about. Shabbat, Shabbos is supposed to be about. Just spin on that for just a second. Then I’m going to come to something broader, because I think that’s an important small piece here.
Oriel Eisner: Yeah. I think it’s a piece for me, as a Jewish person, a Jewish activist, a piece that’s really shocking, is coming on a Saturday, seeing these types of attacks happening, seeing fields being burned, homes being burned, attacks being carried out in general, on what’s meant to be the day of rest. But what happens is that these outposts, it’s a pretty remote part of the West Bank. But for Shabbat, for Simchat Torah which is when the pogrom was, for other holidays, they can invite in other settlers from other places and have a sort of retreat over the weekend, and then go out and commit this attack. I think it’s, sort of, just logistically it makes sense. There’s people around, people aren’t working, friends come in from other places, and then they go out together.
Marc Steiner: And before we go back to Basil, because I’m going to talk about where the struggle goes from here. It seems to me, Oriel, that what we’re witnessing here… Maybe you can describe this in your own way. This is more than just settler violence. It seems to me there’s a huge strategic component when it comes to the Israeli government, the army, and what really is happening here. There’s an end game here, and it seems to me to be in some ways provoking, trying to look as if Palestinians are violent. But it also has to do with things people don’t hear, like denying water, denying electricity, denying access to the land, and actually taking the land. And what do you think is the end game here? What do you think is going on?
Oriel Eisner: Yeah, I think it’s pretty straightforward. And I think it’s something Basil said before. They’re trying to, particularly in Area C of the West Bank, make life so unlivable for Palestinians that the land becomes open, and Israel can take it. So, take as much land with as few Palestinians as possible. And the settler violence, the settler harassment, is just one prong of that system. It’s the one that’s most visible, the one that’s most dramatic. So the one that maybe gets the most attention. But the home demolitions, the lack of access to resources, the cutting of water pipes, or destruction of solar panels, those are also parts of the system to try forcing Palestinians off the land so that it can be taken over by settlements, and in the South Hebron Hills in particular, eventually annexed.
Marc Steiner: One of the things that really bothered me about this… And this was for the listeners to contemplate, and for I think, Jews, our people, Oriel, to contemplate and think about, is that these attacks on the Sabbath, these attacks that have taken place on Shabbat… There was a thing in American history, and it gave me a chill down my back when I thought about this, because of another piece I’m working on that connected them. That there’s a thing in the United States, from the ’30s and the 19th century as well, where white Christians would use Sundays as a day to lynch Black people and push them out of their homes.
And when I thought about that, and I thought about what’s taking place on Shabbat… And if you believe in Shabbos, if you believe that day is a holy day, if you’re Jewish and you believe it’s a holy day, where you’re supposed to rest and contemplate and not do any work, let alone fight… It was just chilling to me to think of that connection. And what it means that the Palestinians are up against, and what it means for Israelis and Jews like you, that you’re up against.
Oriel Eisner: Yeah. And I think that for me, particularly the attack in Mufagara a couple of weeks ago, when Basil and I arrived on the scene and started filming, the sound of shattering glass, the scene in front of me, of upwards of 50, 60 settlers all in masks, smashing cars, smashing homes, flipping solar panels, cutting water tanks, I couldn’t not think about those incidents that you referred to, the racist mob violence in the US. And also, things I know from Jewish history, like the pogroms in Eastern Europe, like Kristallnacht. It was really, really chilling and horrifying.
Marc Steiner: Basil, let me ask you what do you think happens next, and where do you see the struggle going after these incidents of the last several months, that will probably escalate over the next few months? Where do you see it going next, and what do you see the options of the Palestinian resistance to be?
Basil al-Adraa: For us in this area, we’ve been always using nonviolent resistance. As an occupied people, we really don’t feel having enough power even to resist the occupation or to have a real change that makes our life better, or at least stops settlers coming and destroying our homes here, or to stop the army bulldozers coming and destroying our homes. We have our voices. We have our social media accounts, our cameras, as Oriel was saying, that we go and film and try to show to the world to bring pressure, to impact people about what’s going on here, to bring more influencers with us, and to stand with us as Palestinians. We also brought sometimes diplomats on tours to explain to them the situation here in general, to make them make pressure on Israeli government to stop what they’re doing against us.
We’re also having these nice, nice and amazing activists that come from Israel, and America, and other places in the world, that come stay, sometimes spend some time here with us in the field. They’ve been, as I mentioned, attacked with us. They’ve been living sometimes here in the area, and spent all the moments with us, the hard, the nice moments. So, as I mentioned, we don’t have much, but always we’re trying to make our voice, more people hear it. And the photos that we are taking, the videos, more people watch it and share our stories. We’re always calling the media to come and write, and to talk about what’s going on here. This has always been our struggle. We always try to create new ideas. We always try to stand next to those families who are facing the attacks, the demolitions, the violence of the occupation in general.
So we really don’t have much on our hands, but also, we don’t have other place to go live in. We will continue living in our places, because this is where we’re born. This is our land. This is where we must be allowed to have a right to live as normal human beings. To build our homes on our lands, our schools, without being demolished, without other violent people just put the mask on their faces, and just come and attack us. When we call the police, they come, they don’t detain any of these settlers, or ask their IDs. They just let them walk back to the outpost and ask us to go file a complaint at the Israeli police station, which is also based in an Israeli settlement in Hebron. All the occupation systems are completed by each other. The police, how they take our complaints on settlers’ violence. The army, how they deal, that they can’t stop the settlers, because settlers are under the Israeli civilian law, but the army can stop and beat and arrest us in a very violent way, because we are under the Israeli military control.
Marc Steiner: So I wonder, where you both… And we will conclude with this, Oriel, where you think this goes next. What happens with this struggle?
Oriel Eisner: I think one thing that I have felt over the last years of my involvement in the South Hebron Hills, in joining the activism there, is that as Basil was saying, that the system that we’re up against is so massive and so well supported both here and abroad. But what feels like is changing and has brought about some change, is the strengthening of networks, both in terms of the infrastructures of resistance on the ground, and also in terms of the networks of attention of media, of storytelling, and sharing elsewhere.
So I think that as the violence has increased and become really terrible in the South Hebron Hills this year, we’ve also seen people know about it, people see about it, there’s stories, the media covers it, there’s attention to it. In one instance, our documentation and media work as Palestinian Israeli international activists has led to an Israeli soldier being reprimanded for his violent behavior. So it’s feeling like there are opportunities growing as the infrastructure and networks of resistance are growing, but it is relatively small scale at this point. And what change looks like, what the struggle looks like on a bigger scale, I don’t quite know, to be honest. It feels like it’s a small scale rippling effect.
Marc Steiner: This final question is for both of you, again, this is a very personal question. Given the intensity of the violence from the settlers in Hebron, given that the army supports them basically, even if they don’t act all the time, and the police do nothing. What about your own safety and the people around you? How do you feel about that? I mean, Basil, let me start with you and we’ll finish with Oriel. I mean, Basil, I read the story that you did, where they tried to accuse you of actually starting the fires. And on Israeli TV, that’s where they left it. Talk about you and your family and friends,and just your own feelings about your own safety and the danger you feel.
Basil al-Adraa: Yeah, to be honest, we’re feeling real fear, and scared from what’s going on. To be honest, this is like… I was mentioning how it’s improving, like from the settlements outpost today there’s a farm, and the attacks have been like this. There have been attacks against shepherds in the fields, cutting olive trees, burning grass, bringing their sheep and their animals to destroy our fields. And the last pogrom happened inside the village, inside the houses. So this is improving their attacks, and how it’s getting dangerous more and more. This is so scary for us. I also write an article in +972 Magazine about a Palestinian in the city that I belong to, Yatta, that was attacked, that he was killed by the settlers guns while they were burning his family olive trees. So I’m really scared that the next attack, settlers will really use [live fire].
And they already used it here in the area, but until now, thank God, no one’s injured, no one died. This is really a scary moment, that if it would have been here in the area. For me personally, I was attacked also by settlers in 2019. They were complaining against me in [inaudible] station. I was ordered to be interrogated and pay a fine there for their fake claims. They just like attacking, and chasing, and targeting us as activists for filming and writing the stories that are happening here in South Hebron Hills.
So for that degree, this story that I burned a fire in the house, where there was not any house burned, the settlers just shoot tear gas into the wood of the family, and the fires started there. I called the family to come and turn it off. Then the soldiers saw the family running, like two guys from the family, come with a water bucket to turn off the water. The soldiers come and take this, like film me in 12 seconds clip, telling me that I did it. I was telling him, no, you did it. And the TV took this as evidence from the soldiers claiming that I started the fire in the house. But there was not any houses burning, it’s just a story they created, the channel, and reporter, and the soldier to… After all the media campaign was against the settler violence and the pogrom that they did in Mufagara.
Marc Steiner: Oriel, from your side as an Israeli, as a Jewish man supporting Palestinians, how about you? And the potential that you face?
Oriel Eisner: Yeah, I think it’s incredibly scary, the risk of physical violence, the risk of repression from the state, and all that I face. And the fear that I feel is all the more intense for the Palestinians living in these areas. For the folks like Basil who are there every single day, who don’t have the state at their backs, even though the state doesn’t always support what I’m doing or what other Israeli activists are doing, we at least have some rights under the law. And we’re not under military law. But for myself in the last year, yeah, I’ve now been in attacks from settlers where stones have been thrown or slung at me, and tear gas has been shot toward me, and I’ve been targeted in arrests. I drove some activists who were attacked to the police station to file a complaint and found myself arrested, even though I wasn’t even present at the incident involved.
So the situation is getting worse, as Basil said, the system of attacks and the system of outpost development is improving in its advancing and its violence, and Israeli activists, Jewish activists, international activists are also being swept up in that. But for me, I always think the privilege that I hold is always in my mind. That I still have rights as a citizen of the State of Israel, rights and privileges as a Jewish person. And with those privileges, what I can be doing is my all to support and stand with the folks who are experiencing this violence daily, regularly. And also to try documenting and spreading the word about what’s happening. Because these attacks are happening all of the time. And most of them, no one ever hears about, no one ever writes about, there aren’t videos or photos that go out. So if I can play some part in helping, then it feels like something I have to be trying to do.
Marc Steiner: Well, this is just the beginning. And I want to thank you both, Oriel Eisner and Basil al-Adraa for taking the time today, and also for the work you do and what you stand up for. And, know that we’ll be covering this and staying in touch, and this door is always open for your stories and your voices to be heard. And I want to thank you both for joining us today.
Oriel Eisner: Thanks so much for having us.
Basil al-Adraa: Thank you. Thank you.
Marc Steiner: Thank you all for joining us today. Please let me know what you think about what you’ve heard today. What you’d like us to cover. Just write to me at email@example.com and I promise I’ll get right back to you. And if you’ve not joined us yet, please go to www.therealnews.com/support. Become a monthly donor and become part of the future with us. So for Stephen Frank and the crew here at The Real News, I’m Marc Steiner. Stay involved, keep listening and take care.