Sunday, October 23, 2011

The View from the Abu Netanyahu Hills

The View from the Abu Netanyahu Hills

David Wilder
October 23, 2011

Time sure flies. Just yesterday we were preparing for Rosh HaShana, the Jewish New Year. Preparations in Hebron are two-fold: Private and Public. On the private side, each to his own, introspection, an examination of the past year, the good and the not so good, trying to figure out what to do differently next year. Prayer, supplication, mixed with song and dance, in an effort to ensure self-improvement on all different levels.

Thousands at Ma'arat HaMachpela in Hebron - Succot, 2011 (all photographs - David Wilder)
But in Hebron, there's also public preparation. Getting ready for the tens of thousands who flock to Ma'arat HaMachpela, the tomb of the Patriarchs and Matriarchs. For a month prior to Rosh HaShana, through the high holy days, to Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement, following into the joy of Succot, the feast of Tabernacles. The festive worship services, the music festival, children's plays and activities, thousands upon thousands walking the streets of Hebron. During this time alone, over the week-long Succot holiday, well over 50,000 people visited Hebron. Over the month and a half we probably came close to 100,000. That's a lot of people. Very exciting, very invigorating and refreshing, very supporting, very addictive. You want to see it happen again, and again, and again.
In conjunction with our United States partner, the Hebron Fund, this Succot we offered a special VIP tour to select supporters. Two busloads of friends, mostly from the United States, participated in this unique event. They attended an exceptional luncheon at the Yeshivat Shavei Hebron succah, and heard a particularly moving speech from Hebron's police chief, Arnon Friedman. In the past, relationships between police and Hebron citizens were such that the last person expected to speak at a Hebron event would have been a police officer. However, times have changed. You can see and hear Friedman's address here
. Also talking to the visitors were Hebron Mayor Avraham Ben Yosef and Rabbi Simcha Hochbaum.

Police Chief Arnon Friedman with Hebron Fund Director Ari Lieberman
Additionally the group had special access to Ma'arat HaMachpela, and also attended the dedication of 'the Ayal Park,' in memory of our beloved resident, Ayal Noked, who passed away a few months ago, not yet forty years old, leaving a wife and ten children. One of Ayal's dreams was the 'greening of Hebron,' and as such, dedicating a park in his memory, in the hopes of continuing his holy work, was more than fitting.
However, the highlight of the day was an exclusive event, that being a trip up the hill to the south of Hebron's Jewish community, known as Abu Sneneh. In the past, prior to the 1997 Hebron Accords which split the city, this area was readily accessible to Jewish visitors. However when Hebron was divided, this area was transferred to Arab control. On the brink of the hill, overlooking the city, a 'joint' Israeli – Arab patrol, in two jeeps, kept a constant lookout over the city. However, when the second Intifada, or the Oslo War, as we call it, began, the Israeli jeep disappeared and the Arabs stayed. The hill became a source of shooting attacks on the Jewish community for two and a half years. It was from this hill that Shalhevet Pass was shot and killed.

Visitors atop Abu Sneneh Hill during Succot holiday
Since the end of that war the hill has been under Israeli military control, with a small base providing protection, preventing renewal of those shooting attacks at Jewish Hebron below.
Civilians don't have frequent access to this site; once a year, during the eight days of Hanukkah, a large Menorah, built on the edge of the hill, is lit nightly. That's about the only time during the year we make the climb up the hill (in a jeep, not by foot). This year though, we received permission to take our group of VIP visitors on a short tour of Hebron from the top of Abu Sneneh.

The Avraham Avinu neighborhood from Abu Sneneh Hills
Usually I enjoy the trip to Abu Sneneh. It's a great place to get fabulous photos. With my equipment I can get close-ups of the neighborhoods and Ma'arat HaMachpela. Kiryat Arba, kilometers in the distance, turns into a stone's throw away. The pictures are stunning. And the visitors had a great time. None of them had ever before experienced viewing Hebron from above. Together with full explanations by Noam Arnon, the visit was a real success and a great way to reward loyal friends.
But truthfully, this time around, I left with hill with an unsettling, troublesome feeling.
Keep in mind, the talk of the day centered around one subject alone, that being Gilad Shalt. Hundreds of terrorist murderers were about to be released for our Israeli POW, held captive by Hamas for over five years. The deal was extremely controversial. Letting hundreds of murderers out of jail, for one person, could almost be called an act of desperation. Clearly the decision-makers reached a breaking point of 'now or never.' Shalit's life was in their hands. Do or die.

Families of terrorist victims, felt betrayed. Rightly so. They had been promised that the killers of their loved ones would never again see the light of day. And around the country, citizens, understanding the implications of blood-thirsty terrorists again roaming the streets, feared the worst. The question was, where they would hit first. The idea of their return to terror is not, and was not, a question. It is a given.
My queasiness though, didn't so much stem from the terrorists' freedom. Its cause was the source of that liberation: Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu. If Netanyahu had the guts, and also the despair to make such a decision, what might be next?
Back in 1996-1997 Hebron's Jewish community pulled just about every string possible to prevent the accords from being signed and implemented. We made a movie showing the bloody results of shooting from Abu Sneneh. We were labeled as paranoid scaredy cats. After all, peace had arrived. Then Prime Minister Bibi Netanyahu promised his hesitant ministers, 'if one shot is fired at them, I'll send up the tanks. You think I'd endanger the life of one Jew in Hebron?!?'
Endanger he did. Two and half years of gunfire, until the tanks were sent in. And of course he was no longer Prime Minister when the shooting started, or when it ended.
So the big question is, in my mind, what's next? If this Prime Minister was able to send hundreds of killers home-free, for one Israeli soldier, how much guts, or despair, would it take to give Abu Sneneh back to the Arabs? How much American/UN/European/Russian/ pressure would it take to roll back the clock to the days pre-Oslo War, in Hebron and throughout Judea and Samaria?

Kiryat Arba from Abu Sneneh Hills
As I looked down at the Avraham Avinu neighborhood, at people entering Ma'arat HaMachpela, at Kiryat Arba, at Yeshivat Shavei Hebron, that question reverberated through my head, and through my body. 'This is what the terrorists saw, this is where they took aim and shot at us. A terrorist with a good scope can see into people's windows, into cars, kids walking on the street. Will it happen again?'
That's the big question: will history repeat itself, will we be forced to live through it again?
After Shalhevet was killed, we renamed the area the 'Shalhevet Hills.' The name didn't really stick. I sure hope we don't have to change the name again. For the time being, I might call them the Abu Netanyahu hills, just to remind Bibi. He doesn't have to make do with my photos. He should come and see first-hand the view from the Abu Netanyahu Hills before any other kind of 'Gilad Shalit decisions' about Hebron, or Judea and Samaria. Maybe it would shake him up enough to discard the thought of relinquishing Israeli control here again, forever.

Friday, October 14, 2011

What would Rabbi Meir say?

The Succot holiday has arrived. As we say in Hebrew – ‘Chag Sameach’ – Happy Holiday. Succot has a uniquely special characteristic – it is a time of great joy. It is considered to be the ‘happiest’ of the Jewish holidays, coming after the intense holy days of Rosh HaShana, the New Year, Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement, and the entire month preceding these, as a time of concentrated preparation.
Now, with those past, we can sing and dance, celebrating Eretz Yisrael, living in small ‘booths,’ while participating in joyous worship services.

Yet this Succot, our festivity is somewhat dulled. The announcement that Gilad Shalit will soon be released is certainly a cause for overwhelming gratitude and happiness. But the price, release of 1,000 terrorists, of whom, according to past statistics, sixty percent will return to terror activities, is not a reason to celebrate. To the contrary.

The Shalit agreement is a done deal. There isn’t too much we can do to prevent it. Past experience shows that the courts will not stop the exchange. Next week, barring unforeseen circumstances, it will happen.

That being the case, I can only but express, in my opinion, a couple of elements missing from this disgraceful surrender by Israel to terrorists. If it has to be, at least is should include at least two other factors.

The first, I’ve already seen others speaking of. According to published reports, Interior minister Eli Yishai is demanding the release of Jewish ‘terrorists,’ that is, Jews who have been convicted of perpetrating crimes against Arabs. A list of such people has been prepared by my friend and neighbor, ‘Zangi’ Medad, the head of the Honenu organization, which works to defend Jews accused of any and all crimes under the sun.

Medad and Yishai are to be commended. It goes without saying: if hundreds of Arab terrorists, convicted of murdering, maiming and wounding hundreds and thousands of Jews, with the intent to destroy the State of Israel are being released from prison, so why not release a few Jews too?

Are they worse than the Arabs? Of course not. These people are not terrorists, nor are they ‘common criminals.’ These are people who, as a result of continued Jewish bloodshed, reacted. The manner in which they chose to react is not commonly accepted by Jews or Israelis; the fact is, the number of such ‘criminals’ is miniscule. If people really believed that this was the way to solve our dilemmas, ‘taking the law into their own hands,’ the numbers would be much much larger.

People do make mistakes. It certainly would be preferable that the Arab terrorists be left to rot in Israeli jails, or better yet, be executed for their deadly crimes. But being that Israel sees fit to release 1,000 for one, there’s no reason to leave Jewish Israelis in prison.

But this is only one side of the coin. There is another side, which I have yet to see mentioned.

What about Jonathan Pollard?  

Pollard wasn’t convicted of murder. He didn’t harm anyone. He was convicted of ‘spying’ for a friendly ally of the United States. He has expressed regret for his actions. If Israel can release so many evil individuals, with blood on their hands, creatures who have committed the worst of crimes, how can the United States continue to hold Pollard in jail?

There shouldn’t be any mistake made. I’m not, in any way, shape or form, comparing Pollard to Arab terrorists, or to Jewish convicts. He doesn’t fit into these categories . But his release is no less humanitarian than that of Shalit’s.  Were he being held by any other country in the world, the United States would be in the forefront of the attempts to have him released.

In truth, Pollard, similar to Gilad Shalit, is a Prisoner of War. Jonathan Pollard did not spy to get rich. He didn’t have any evil illusions about destroying the United States. He was a Jew, in a position to help Israel against deadly enemies, wishing to annihilate another few million Jews. His only concern was to help Israel survive. For that, he is paying an enormous price. Shalit has been in a Hamas dungeon for five years. And Pollard? In an American dungeon for almost 9,500 hundred days.

Netanyahu has spoken at length over the past few days about leadership. He, today, following agreement to free terrorist murderers, must demand of the United States, to simultaneously release Jonathan Pollard from the pit in which he is being held captive. As Shalit crosses into Israel and terrorists are freed, so too, the United States must do its part, and let Jonathan come home too, to Israel. At least that. Not 1,027 for one, rather 1,027 for two.

Last night, coming home from my daughter’s home in Eshtamoa in the southern Hebron Hills, we were discussing the deal. One of my sons, who has also served in a combat unit, was resolute, exclaiming, ‘you would never do that because of me.’ In other words, he said, should I ever become a captive of the enemy (G-d forbid), I wouldn’t want you to demand the release of hundreds and thousands of murderers and terrorists, whose freedom would cost so many more Jewish lives. 

I certainly hope and pray that I’m never put in a situation where I would have to face such a test. What I do know is that some seven hundred and twenty years ago, Rabbi Meir of Rothenburg, one of the greatest Jewish scholars of his time, died in prison after being held captive for seven years. An enormous ransom was demanded for his release and according to tradition, some 23,000 silver marks were collected for his freedom. Yet he refused to allow this money to be paid, fearing it would result in further imprisonment of others, as a way to extort huge amounts of money from Jews.  And today: what would Rabbi Meir say?

There will be many Israelis crying next week, as Shalit crosses the border. Not tears of joy, rather tears of anguish, seeing their loved-one's murderers go free. At the very least, the very very least, we should have some small sense of something positive, seeing not only Shalit, but also, Jonathan, coming home too.