A week in the Middle East: Day 7

02-04-03
A trip to Hebron

Under the glowering chill of a Jerusalem winter, I hit the road with the Monitor's Mideast correspondent Nicole Gaouette, assistant Samir Zedan, and a remarkably affable Dutch reporter named Ferry Biedermann.

We're heading down to the Palestinian governate of Hebron today to look at the 22 houses and other structures demolished this week by Israel.

Though officially under curfew, Hebron teems with traffic and commerce. Someone comments that there seems to be an awful lot of people on the street, and Samir chuckles. "They're all out seeing what the curfew looks like," he says.

We make our way first to the offices of Areef Al-Jabari, the Palestinian Authority governor of Hebron.

While more comfortably accommodated than his colleague in Qalqilya, the governor shares a laundry list of problems that sounds very familiar. Israeli curfews are strangling the town. The poverty level has hit 65 percent, up from a pre-intifada high of 20. Unemployment is at 70 percent, with 40,000 workers with Israeli work permits barred from their jobs, he says.

It all goes back to the Al Aqsa Mosque in Jerusalem, explains the governor, and I notice Ferry twitching in his seat. "I don't think we need to get into all this history..." he says, but the quiet remark is unable to dam the coming waterfall.

As the interview plunges more deeply into the shadowy labyrinth of bygone eras, I flip through a colorful pamphlet called "Hebron Daily Suffering in Pictures." In it, house demolitions and the Israeli military presence are conveniently catalogued, photographed and vividly described for the benefit of the international press.

Suddenly, everyone's attention jumps from the conference room to the street below. We run to the windows. Israeli armored cars are cruising the streets, loudspeakers barking out orders in Hebrew.

People must get off the streets, say the soldiers.

As our interview breaks up, Nicole, Samir and Ferry split their time between figuring out how to get out to some of the demolished houses, and bemoaning our lack of flak jackets.

"You're not wearing one?" Ferry asks the robust Samir.

"No, no, that's just an undershirt," he says.

"So that's all just you under there?" asks an incredulous Ferry. Samir laughs, but I just glance out at the quiet streets.

After a short chat, we decide to take our "TV"-marked pressmobile out on the road to find some of the ruined houses and talk to some of the 200 Palestinians the governor tells us are now left homeless.

Hebron is a maze. We find ourselves parked near a garbage-strewn field while Samir chats up a car full of German journalists in an effort to get a sense of where we should go next.

As we sit, quietly contemplating the hardscrabble interior of Hebron, the car's cellphone leaps to life. It's the Monitor's Mideast correspondent Cameron Barr, calling from the airport in Dubai, United Arab Emirates. After chatting with Nicole for a while, he breaks off to have an impassioned exchange with an invisible and inaudible waiter. "Pad Thai," we hear Cameron say. "And Beef Carpaccio."

Groans spread throughout the car - it's past noon, and all we've had since 9 a.m. is tea...and coffee. For the next 45 minutes, I can taste imaginary Pad Thai. It's really delicious.

Ten minutes later, following a series of directions from a Palestinian who has lost his house, the four of us are ducking under grape arbors and scaling rocky bluffs. I'm beginning to feel the freezing conditions, and it threatens to snow.

"Nothing like a nice pre-lunch stroll to get the appetite going," I suggest.

"Pre-lunch? More like pre-dinner!" hoots Ferry. Sadly, he's right.

Nicole photographs the three of us trudging along, instructing us to "work it" as we grin and make our way toward what we hope will be a story.

We eventually arrive at the home of a Palestinian environmental official who greets us, and brings up onto his property. His English is good; he taught at the University of California, Davis for two years as a guest professor. But international connections have done nothing to protect his property from Israeli bulldozers. His concrete chicken coop is leveled. He brings us back to a house that he had been building for his nephew - it's now a pile of shattered stone and twisted metal. The windows on his elegant main house are broken, the shattered glass and hurled rocks dotting the tile of his patio. A settler attack did this, he tells us. He later shows the ruins of the house to a group of International Red Cross officials who have come to assess and certify his property's destruction. A reservoir - already mostly full of water, and big as a swimming pool - is next, he says.

Up on the hill, no more than a half-mile away, an Israeli settler leaves his house and hops onto his tractor. He rides under the watchful eye of a nearby Arab house that has been seized by Israeli troops and turned into a guardpost.

The Star of David flaps from the roof of the house.

Arab and Jew, cheek to jowl: This is how it is across the West Bank. Any potential political situation will somehow need to put the glass back in the windows, and keep the tractor's rider safe - or move him back within Israel's pre-1967 borders.

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