Israel’s insider critics

Avner Gvaryahu is a former Israeli soldier who has become a campaigner against his country’s policies. In the city of Hebron he demonstrates what he regards as the folly of Israel’s military occupation of the West Bank

Sat, Jul 26, 2014, 01:00

Standing in the middle of Shuhada Street, a thoroughfare that runs through Hebron’s old city, Avner Gvaryahu produces a photograph of the area, taken in 1999, and holds it aloft to drive home his point. The scene in the picture is a bustling market, with large crowds moving among fruit and vegetable stalls and cars inching their way through the gaps.

Today the same street is deserted and tense. The shops are all closed, hardly anyone is out and a fortified military watchtower overlooks us. “That used to be the meat market,” he says, pointing to a shuttered building. “And this street used to be full of stalls.”

Hebron is the only Palestinian city in the West Bank with a Jewish settlement at its centre. Shuhada Street is the flashpoint, one of the most bitterly contested pieces of urban space in a part of the world where land disputes are invested with existential significance.

Since 2000, Shuhada Street – the epicentre of a community of Israelis that has grown steadily since the first settlers squatted in a house here in 1979 – has been entirely closed to Palestinians.

The map of the city has three types of colour-coded roads where the army restricts access in order, it says, to protect a few hundred settlers. Purple means no Palestinian vehicles allowed, yellow means Palestinians cannot drive or open shops, and red marks what the Israeli military calls “a sterilised road”, meaning no Palestinians are allowed at all.

Shuhada is red. Yet several Palestinians live on the street; one elderly woman, Malkha Kapisha, must climb on to her roof when she wants to leave her home. Graffiti on the street declares: “There is no Palestine. There never will be.”

Gvaryahu has brought me here to demonstrate what he regards as the folly of Israel’s military occupation of the West Bank. The 29-year-old knows the area well. As a paratrooper in the Israeli army he walked these streets in uniform, helping to enforce the occupation. In recent years he has returned as a critic and campaigner.

“I think what really changed my perspective was just meeting this reality,” he says. The first time he was ever in a Palestinian house, Gvaryahu recalls, was when he did his first “straw widow” – army jargon for entering a home to commandeer it as a lookout post for an operation.

“You go into the house in the middle of the night,” he explains. “Whether you break down the door or knock on the door depends on the officer. You get into the house, get an entire family and lock them in a room. If they want to use the bathroom, they need permission from us. If they want to use the kitchen, they need permission from us. It’s all under our control.

“This was my first interaction with Palestinians. This is the balance of power.”

Destined for the military

Born into a religious-nationalist community in the town of Rehovot, near Tel Aviv, Gvaryahu was always destined for the army. His parents were relatively liberal, politically left of centre, but his father had been a paratrooper, his grandmother had fought in the 1948 Arab-Israeli war, and when he joined, in 2004, he went straight into a special-operations unit. “I was very enthusiastic,” he says. “I felt it was my time, my time to give back, do the right thing. I felt I was going in with my eyes open.”

He struggles to identify a turning point, but slowly his questioning became more insistent. He saw Palestinians suffer thefts and humiliation (and, on one occasion, when a woman with a broom was mistaken for a man with a gun, a gunshot wound) at the hands of his fellow soldiers. “All those incidents happened around me, but I managed to rationalise them.”

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