Holy city of sterile streets

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An Israeli soldier on a street that separates an Israeli settlement and a Palestinian neighborhood in the West Bank city of Hebron. (photo: Chris McGrath / Getty Images)

To settlers, this is the first Jewish city in the biblical hills of Judea; to the Palestinian majority, this is their centuries-old home under relentless military occupation.

By Roger Cohen | The New York Times | Jan 20, 2018


“You are treating families in a way you would not want your own family to be treated. It’s as simple as that.”
— Anonymous IDF soldier


The Israeli soldier stands at the entrance to Shuhada Street. The street is deserted, its stores shuttered, doors welded shut. The old center of Hebron has been a ghost town for many years. The Israel Defense Forces refer to “tzir sterili,” or sterile roads, because no Palestinian is allowed on them, whether in a car or on foot.

The occupation of the West Bank is a half-century old. That’s a long time. Jews did not go to the Holy Land to deploy for another people the biological metaphors of classic racism that accompanied their persecution over centuries. But the exercise of overwhelming power is corrupting, to the point that “sterile” streets, presumably freed of disease-ridden natives, enter the lexicon.

The soldier at the checkpoint is a young man with a ready smile. He tells me he’s visited New York. He asks where I bought my watch. I ask him what he’s done to merit the punishment of Hebron. He laughs, a little uneasily. He’s clearly uncomfortable with his mission, enforcing segregation, and wants to connect. No doubt he’d rather be on the beach in Tel Aviv enjoying a beer.

If there’s an endpoint to the terrible logic of an occupation driven in part by a fanatical settler movement abetted by the state of Israel, that place is the historic center of Hebron. Once home to the souk and jewelry market, a bustling maze of commerce, it is now a stretch of apocalyptic real estate. Wires trail down crumbling walls. Garbage accumulates. Mingling is obliterated. Security demands separation.

The soldier, armed with an M-16 rifle, talks to a Hebrew-speaking friend of mine. He says it’s good that we are seeing soldiers for who they really are. Who they really are, often, translates as young Israelis in impossible situations doing their patriotic duty but troubled by what they see.

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