Settlement tours: a new frontline in Israel's ideological conflict


* NGOs offer rival tours of Hebron and its settlements
    * Friction high in Hebron, a city of 200,000 Palestinians
    * Right-wing NGO says involved in "war of narratives"

    By Yuval Ben-DavidHEBRON, West Bank, June 19 (Reuters) - The heart of the old
city of Hebron is divided, with Israeli military checkpoints,
mechanical turnstiles and closed-circuit cameras controlling the
movement of Palestinians in and out of an area inhabited by some
800 Jewish settlers.
    Inside the secured zone stand two ancient shrines,
side-by-side - the Tomb of the Patriarchs revered by Jews, and
the Ibrahimi Mosque revered by Muslims, ensuring Hebron's
position as a source of religious friction for centuries.
    But as well as the conflict over land, settlements and
religion, there is another battle in the largest city in the
Israeli-occupied West Bank: an ideological conflict between
left- and right-wing Israeli NGOs over how to explain Hebron to
    On one side stands Breaking the Silence, a leftist group of
former Israeli soldiers opposed to the occupation, which for
years has led tours of Hebron for foreign visitors, highlighting
the restrictions routinely faced by its 200,000 Palestinians.
    On the other stands Im Tirtzu, a right-wing NGO that over
the last year has run a handful of tours denouncing Breaking the
Silence, accusing it of deepening ethnic faultlines and fuelling
anti-Semitism with its criticism of Israel's actions.
    "You have to understand, there's a war of narratives here,"
said Yishai Fleisher, a spokesman for the Jewish community of
Hebron, as he led a recent Im Tirtzu tour down Shuhada Street,
once a busy market road but now mostly closed off to
Palestinians and renamed "King David Street" by the city's Jews.
    "There are two wars we're fighting. The narrative war
justifies the other war -- the war on terror," he said. "We're
good at fighting the physical war, but at the narrative war,
sadly, we're behind."
    That is not how Breaking the Silence sees it. Since it was
set up in 2004, the organisation has shared testimony from
former soldiers opposed to the Israeli military's activities.
    Nadav Weiman, the group's education director, said the aim
of the Hebron tours, which happen monthly, was not to level
criticism at the army but to open visitors' eyes to the
realities of the occupation, now in its 50th year.
    "We want people to come here and understand what the
occupation is," he told Reuters. "We think the problem is the
policy that sends the soldiers over here. The soldiers and the
settlers are a symptom but not the problem."

    As Breaking the Silence led a group of around 20 visitors on
one recent tour, two settlers allied to Im Tirtzu began
screaming abuse at the guide, a former soldier.
    "You're lying to them!" one of them shouted, filming the
scene on his phone. "You're trash, you're a stinking traitor."
    Those taking part in the tour filmed the exchange
themselves, each collecting a digital record of the battle.
    Weiman brushed off Im Tirtzu's disruptions, saying his
organisation was focused on shedding light on wrongdoing.
    "Violations of human rights are not a domestic issue,
they're an international issue," he said. "It's not my secret or
the Palestinians' secret, it's the truth."
    The growing criticism of Breaking the Silence has been
fuelled by right-wing Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, whose
supporters in parliament are backing legislation that would
prevent the organisation from giving talks in Israeli schools.
    Matan Peleg, the head of Im Tirtzu, says he wants to expose
"propaganda groups", some of which receive funding from European
countries, and are painting Israel in a bad light.
    "Breaking the Silence is anti-Zionist," he said, adding that
Jews have lived in Hebron for thousands of years and have the
right to live in the heart of the city.
    Weiman sees it very differently.
    "The problem is the occupation," he says calmly. "The
command given by our government."
    As the shouting and denunciations continued during the tour,
local Palestinians could only look on, nonplussed.

 (Editing by Luke Baker/Mark Heinrich)
 ((; +972-2-632-2200; Reuters


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