Tuesday, January 29, 2008

A Building Freeze or a Freezing Building

It’s out of the theatre of the absurd. Yesterday a colleague of mine received a phone call from an officer in an IDF unit stationed in Hebron. He had a request/demand. Two soldiers are stationed outside Beit HaShalom for security purposes. The officer told my friend that the soldiers are ‘cold’ and requested/demanded that people in the building supply them with an electric line for a heater to keep them warm.

My friend could not believe his ears. Only days before, Defense Minister Ehud Barak refused Hebron’s request to allow humanitarian renovations in the building, including instillation of simple windows, electric current, and sealing of the building’s roof to prevent water leakage. The letter received from the Defense ministry stated clearly: If you’re cold, go live somewhere else.

The same defense ministry, who refused us electricity, was now demanding that we supply electricity to IDF soldiers. My friend’s answer was short and sweet – Go talk to the Defense Minister. If he gives us electricity, we’ll be happy to share it with you.

A little while later this information was passed on to an Israeli journalist, who requested a response from the IDF. ‘How can you ask for electricity from Jews in Hebron when you yourselves refuse to allow them electric lines?’

A little while later he received his response: ‘The entire episode was a mistake. The IDF unit requesting electricity was not supposed to call the Jewish Hebron municipality. Rather, they should have made contact with the Arab Hebron municipality and asked to receive electricity from them.’

In other words, the army can take electricity from the Arabs to keep their soldiers warm, but Hebron’s Jews cannot receive any more electric lines to keep their children warm.

This afternoon I spoke to one of the building’s residents who told me as follows: We don’t have enough electricity for ourselves, but we’ve tried to help the soldiers guarding at the entrance because it’s freezing there. We’ve given them two of our own electric heaters, but due to the lack of electric current, both of them have burned out.

Early this afternoon I visited Beit HaShalom with my cameras. My daughter, son-in-law and their three children, aged three to three months, have lived there for the past ten months. They live in a one room apartment, divided into parent’s space, children’s space, kitchenette and living room. Their windows are filled withsome kind of corrugated plastic sheets, somehow sealed onto the walls. Two small heaters keep the room from freezing.

Another family in Beit HaShalom just welcomed their seventh child a few days ago. They live in similar conditions to my daughter.

Last night winter finally arrived in Israel. Extremely strong winds pounded the Hebron area, and Beit HaShalom was quite adversely affected. Many of the residents had closed their windows with large sheets of plastic, which up until yesterday were sufficient. That changed in the middle of the night, when the strong winds literally blew the plastic window-coverings away. Families found themselves as if they were camping outdoors in the middle of the winter. Rain started leaking into people’s rooms from the walls and roof, and puddles formed in their apartments. For a good part of today many Beit HaShalom residents attempted to fix their windows, again hanging huge plastic sheets against the window frames, attaching them with screws and glue, hoping that tonight won’t be a repeat of last night. However, many of them expect it to be worse. Snow is expected in Hebron, starting tonight and ending sometime on Thursday.

One of the families has three heaters in their room, but can only use two of them, the two smaller ones. The larger radiator remains cold; it uses too much electricity. Each family has an ‘electric budget’ which they cannot go over, or else the generator which provides the building’s current will break down.

The Hebron Jewish Community is spending some $20,000 a month to keep the building warm. The generator works 24 hours a day, at full power, to heat up the family’s apartments. (You can help if you’d like, and your assistance would be much appreciated: [www.hebrontruma.com]) No one I’ve spoken to have any plans to leave. I interviewed Shlomo Levinger, who lives there with his wife and five children and asked him why he doesn’t find somewhere else to live, as Ehud Barak suggested. His answer: “This is my home, I live here. Just like anyone else in their home can install windows, so too I should be able to. We haven’t asked for very much, just to replace these plastic sheets with something a little more solid to offer us protection, on humanitarian grounds. Last night the wind blew so hard that it knocked the screws holding on the plastic sheets out of the wall. Each child needed at least three blankets; it was very cold.”

While I was there, Shlomo was attempting to repair the window space, hoping that tonight would be a little warmer in his children’s room.

(Short videos of Beit HaShalom, filmed today, can be seen on the Hebron home pages – http://www.hebron.org.il/ in Hebrew and http://www.hebron.com/ in English).

The Israeli government is doing its utmost to force Beit HaShalom’s residents to leave; Ehud Barak, the current Defense Minister, is acting like a Russian Cossack. As another friend exclaimed today: ‘This is acting like a Jew? This is the way one Jew acts towards another Jew?’

The other Ehud has the authority to overrule his defense minister. But at the moment he’s more concerned with surviving in the Prime Minister’s office follow tomorrows’ release of the Winograd Commission Report, dealing with his failures during the Second Lebanon War. That certainly takes precedence over a few dozen men, women and children in subhuman conditions in Hebron. Besides which, Olmert already declared a full building freeze in all of Judea and Samaria. So the situation in Hebron falls directly within that category: Windowless, electric-less Beit HaShalom, if not part of Olmert’s building freeze, is quite literally a freezing building.

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