Haunted by Israel’s Deadly 1996 AIrstrikes on Palestinians in Hebron

May 19th, 2021 - by Mort Rosenblum / Reader Supported News

A baby pulled from the rubble after seven family members perished in Israeli air strike

Eyeless in Gaza

Mort Rosenblum / Reader Supported News

TUCSON (May 18, 2021) — Some scenes you never forget. My memory just replayed one morning in Hebron, yet again, and I dug out a dispatch that the Associated Press had sent to newspapers and broadcasters around the world. It began:

“At 9 a.m. sharp, the first sounds were young men hauling junk-metal barricades into place. Next came a fury of flying stones and insults. Then it was the Israelis’ turn. Troops burst from alleys, bellowing karate yells and brandishing M-16s. Mesh-plated jeeps screamed around corners. Some youths were pushed around and arrested. Most fled. Ten minutes later, dead calm.

“It was curfew time in Hebron, the ancient city of the patriarchs, which is the crux of Tuesday’s urgent White House summit aimed at heading off yet more Arab-Israeli war.”

That was in October 1996. Bill Clinton now watches offstage. Yasser Arafat is long gone. But Benjamin Netanyahu and Hamas are still at it. And Palestine today is pocked with thriving Jewish suburbs, “settlements” in an apartheid homeland.

Reality bit hard that morning in Hebron. After a three-hour daily reprieve to buy food, 94,000 Palestinians stayed inside by their radios as leaders at opposite extremes argued over their fate. 

Behind iron grillwork, they watched young settlers saunter through town as if they owned it, eating cotton candy on their way to the tombs of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. Or for Muslims who also revere them, Ibrahim, Ishak and Yaakub. 

“They look at us behind our bars like we are lions or monkeys in a zoo,” vegetable vendor Samir Saleb told me. He was less angry than sad. “The Jews walk by and laugh at us. And not only the Jews. The whole world is laughing at us.” 

Yet again, all hell has broken loose in the Holy Land. Beyond headlines, the devil is in the details. Decades of broken promises, terrorist provocations, retaliation and colonization are leading toward an inevitable reckoning.

I call these reports “non-prophet” because journalists should avoid guessing about the future. But the message here is plain as writing on the wall. Unless Palestinians figure into the equation, Israel faces grave existential peril.

Growing virulent anti-Semitism, more political than religious, already extends far beyond the Middle East. In an America at war with itself, violence triggered by new hatreds seems bound to increase.

Right and wrong depend on one’s view of the last 5,000 years, particularly since 1947 when the outside world carved out boundaries for a Jewish state in what was British Palestine. 

The Nakba: Palestinians forced from their homes in 1947

Invading Arab armies, vowing to drive Jews into the sea, retreated in humiliating routs. But over time the old clear-cut David and Goliath parallel got complicated. Today’s reality is what it is, despite anyone’s personal version of it.

“America is responsible,” an old man in a skullcap told me 25 years ago, expressing a thought I now hear with increasing frequency. “They are friends only to the Jews. If I kill you with a knife, who is at fault? You or the one who gave you the knife?” 

Rashid Khalidi echoed the essence of that on NBC’s Meet the Press. Now director of the Middle East Institute at Columbia University, he has been a respected authority on Palestine since the 1970s. He blamed “malign neglect of core issues” by U.S. administrations over the 50 years. Barack Obama pressed Netanyahu to stop occupying the West Bank and to protect Palestinian rights within internationally recognized borders. But before leaving office, he signed off on a 10-year $38 billion military aid package to Israel.

Donald Trump abandoned all pretenses, pushed by his conservative Jewish donors, his feckless son-in-law and Republican evangelicals with a one-sided view of conflict in the unholy land. His hostility toward Iran fed a militia buildup on Israel’s borders.

Trump slashed the U.N. budget for schools, health facilities and infrastructure in Palestinian territory. His State Department took revenge on developing countries that refused to support U.S. policy toward Israel. 

After a rapid influx during the Trump years, Jewish settlers in the West Bank approach half a million. Netanyahu is now moving in on the Muslim-dominated sector of Jerusalem. 

In April, peace still had a slim chance. Elections were set to replace Mahmoud Abbas, the ineffectual Palestinian Authority president. Netanyahu was struggling to retain power after four rounds of voting, facing potential defeat and a corruption trial.

But Abbas postponed the election, and Gaza-based Hamas took de facto control. As embers smoldered, ultra-Zionists took pre-1947 deeds to the Supreme Court to evict Arabs from East Jerusalem homes. Judges waffled. A precedent could flood Jaffa, near Tel Aviv, with Palestinians holding title to oft-lamented orange groves.

The spark, Rashid Khalidi said, was when police fired stun grenades and rubber-tipped bullets at worshippers in El Aqsa Mosque, Islam’s third most important, during high holy prayers at the start of Ramadan. Their aim was to silence loudspeakers that might compete with Israel National Day ceremonies nearby. 

Hamas weighed in with a hail of rockets. Israel’s “iron dome” deflected most, but some found victims. Israelis fled from packed beaches. Young toughs attacked Arabs, who fought back. Cars were set alight. And Netanyahu was back in control.

Air raids hammered Gaza. By late Sunday, close to 200 Palestinians were dead, including 50 children and 10 members of one family. Hamas rockets killed 10 Israelis. After only an hour’s warning, missiles leveled a 12-story building from where AP and Al Jazeera, among others, have covered the enclave for 15 years.

Spokesmen said the building housed a Hamas operations center. If so, AP’s reporters would have known. In any case, missiles could have hit specific offices and spared the rest. Some accuse Netanyahu of purposely flipping a finger at news media. My guess is that he wanted a dramatic act, confident he could weather the reaction.

So much was lost: notes for stories in the works, archives and contacts in computer banks, tools of an essential trade Netanyahu wants to suppress. It suits his followers if the outside world, like Samson in John Milton’s 1671 poem, are eyeless in Gaza.

In earlier days, Israel masked inconvenient truth but also protected its image abroad. Foreign and Israeli journalists had free rein to cover news firsthand, digging deep on their own. Before the internet, partisan propagandists had little reach.

When troops stormed southern Lebanon in 1982, Israel closed the border to all reporters. But when the Red Crescent released exaggerated casualty counts, I was able to persuade the army to let me across so AP could provide objective coverage. 

For most Americans, it all comes down to a basic principle: Israel must defend itself. Which, of course, it must. The question is how – and to what degree. Heinous as the comparison is, collective punishment of innocents was what the Nazis did.

Hamas’ military wing no more represents Palestine than zealots who stormed the Capitol reflect America. Terrorists often shelter among hapless civilians. They’re terrorists. Retaliatory attacks that kill non-combatants swell their ranks.

Apartheid is no facile figure of speech. For instance, Israel’s response to Covid-19 was among the world’s best. But not in the West Bank or Gaza. Matthias Kennes, a Doctors Without Borders adviser, made the point in February: “In Israel, you’re 60 times more likely to have a Covid vaccine than in Palestine.”

Much of Israel’s media demonizes Palestinians with blatant lies. On Sunday, a deluge of reports said police suspected the men who firebombed a Jaffa home were actually Arabs who mistook it for a Jewish house. A little boy was horribly burned. 

As it happens, Sylvana Foa lives nearby. She was a rock-solid UPI reporter since the Vietnam War and later chief spokesman at the United Nations. She messaged me what she found:

“What was left of the house was covered with Ramadan decorations – no way anyone could think it was Jewish. It was a very poor house, obvious even before the fire, one of the poorest in my part of Jaffa. The police were just trying to protect the Yudonazis (young toughs) by spreading the rumor.”

Many Americans praised the Abraham Accords, for which Trump demands a Nobel Prize. They opened Gulf states to Israeli tourists and entrepreneurs. They also condemned Palestinians to inferior status in a single state, provoking global outrage and sympathy.

Israel’s democracy, like America’s, is in turmoil, yet both still work. Joe Biden’s seasoned diplomats work to repair Trump’s damage, but shortsighted ideologues in Washington and Jerusalem hold firm. 

Time is fast running out for Biden to get tough by imposing conditions on American aid and ending Washington’s unconditional U.N. support for Israel’s hard line. So far, his response has been so tepid that Netanyahu thanked him for his support.

After covering the region off and on since the 1967 war, I remember Fayaz Nasser, a sportswriter in Hebron who got to the heart of it 25 years ago. He had watched MPs haul away a young Israeli soldier who refused to enforce an unjust curfew.

“We must find a way to live together, side by side,” he said. “If we answer blood with more blood, where will we go? Why can’t we have Abraham for all?”

Mort Rosenblum has reported from seven continents as Associated Press special correspondent, edited the International Herald Tribune in Paris, and written 14 books on subjects ranging from global geopolitics to chocolate. He now runs MortReport.org.

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