Group Offers Locals Tours of West Bank

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A group of Israeli peace activists, including former army officers, is trying to educate the public about life in the occupied West Bank. The group, known as Breaking the Silence, has taken more than 2,000 Israeli citizens on tours of the divided city of Hebron to show them how Palestinians live there.

MADELEINE BRAND, host:

This is DAY TO DAY from NPR News. I'm Madeleine Brand.

In Israel, a group of peace activists is leading tours of the occupied West Bank. The group is called Breaking the Silence. And it includes former army officers. So far, they've taken more than 2,000 Israelis on tours of the divided city of Hebron.

NPR's Linda Grandstein joined the recent tour and found this report.

LINDA GRANDSTEIN: On a cold and rainy morning, the streets of the Israeli-controlled part of Hebron are almost deserted. Faces peek out from windows behind wire mesh grills as a group of Israeli visitors walks down Shuhada(ph) street which used to be the main market area in Hebron.

Michael Manikin(ph) of Breaking the Silence stops in front of one of the four Jewish enclaves in Hebron.

Mr. MICHAEL MANIKIN (Tourist): (unintelligible) Palestinians cannot walk from where we're walking. Do you see they have this small corridor, which is where the only place they can walk? If they go out to the street here, that 50-meter strip where they can walk and you'll see they all have to turn left because from that point on, it's for Jews only.

GRANDSTEIN: More than three-quarters of Hebron is under Palestinian control. And life there is relatively normal. But in the Israeli-controlled sector known as H2, where 600 Jewish settlers live among 30,000 Palestinians, life is far from normal.

Some streets here are completely closed to Palestinians and the Israeli Army imposes frequent curfews. Palestinians say the settlers curse, spit, and throw rocks at them. Children going to and from one Palestinian school across the street from a Jewish enclave need an Israeli Army escort to protect them from the settlers.

Last month, Israel television screened a Palestinian-made video showing a female settler repeatedly taunting and cursing at a Palestinian woman. The video provoked outrage across the Israeli political spectrum.

Palestinians say there are many similar incidents but most go unreported.

After more than an hour of walking, the Israeli visitors crowd into Hashim Azza's(ph) sparsely furnished living room. His house is in the shadow of one of the Jewish enclaves. He says settlers have cut down all the fruit trees in his garden and thrown rocks and metal rods at the walls and windows of his home.

Just last month, Hashim says, his 3-year-old son was hit in the head by a rock thrown by a settler. He shows the group of videotape made by a Palestinian neighbor who filmed settlers ransacking his house.

Hashim says, he's repeatedly tried to talk to his Jewish neighbors to reach some accommodations. But he says, they're no interested in dialogue.

Mr. HASHIM AZZA (Resident, Hebron): Listen to us, if you like the peace, please drive from here to Egypt to show them otherwise you can't go to God. And they said to me, your house and your land is a promise from God to me and this is what written in the Bible.

GRANDSTEIN: Michael Manikin of Breaking the Silence, says the tours of Hebron offer ordinary Israelis a chance to see what's happening on the ground.

Mr. MANIKIN: We had a lot of faith in the Israeli public that they can make good decisions but that's only if they have the right information. And that's what we do. We tell our side of the story.

GRANDSTEIN: Their side of the story is how the Israeli occupation is affecting Palestinians. They are also collecting testimony from the thousands of soldiers to document how the occupation is affecting the Israeli Army.

The tourists of Hebron do not usually include any meetings with the Jewish settlers here. Critics say that makes for a one-sided picture of a complex situation. But the tour organizers say it's easy for Israelis to hear the settlers' viewpoint through their media.

Karen Goldman, a Jerusalem teacher says, she was shocked by what she saw.

Ms. KAREN GOLDMAN (Jerusalem Teacher): I knew it was bad but I didn't think of quite as horrific as this in terms of complete inabilities of Palestinians of their daily life.

GRANDSTEIN: Linda Grandstein, NPR News, Hebron.

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