Richard Gere on segregation in Hebron: It’s exactly like the Old South

‘It’s exactly what the Old South was in America. Blacks knew where they could go: they could drink from that fountain, they couldn’t go over there, they couldn’t eat in that place,’ the American actor tells an Israeli TV station during a tour of the segregated West Bank city.

Richard Gere visited the West Bank city of Hebron this week, guided by the Israeli anti-occupation group Breaking the Silence.

Gere was in Israel to promote his new film “Norman,” and was accompanied to Hebron by director Joseph Cedar, an Israeli, along with a crew from Channel 2 News.

In the report, broadcast during the prime time evening news hour Wednesday, Gere responds to what he sees in blunt terms. He compares occupied Hebron to the Jim Crow era in the southern United States.

Looking around, Gere says to his guides, and to the television camera, “It’s exactly what the Old South was in America. Blacks knew where they could go: they could drink from that fountain, they couldn’t go over there, they couldn’t eat in that place. It was well understood — you didn’t cross over if you didn’t want to get your head beat in, or you get lynched.”

Having internalized the understanding that he is standing in the middle of a deserted street in what was once a busy commercial area, Gere sees Jewish settlers moving about freely where Palestinians are forbidden to walk and says: “This is the thing that’s flipping me out right now…This is really bizarre, this is genuinely strange … who owns the city, and their feeling of ‘I’m protected, I can do whatever I want.’”

[Watch the full video here]

This particular part of Hebron is home to about 500 radical Jewish settlers, notorious for their extreme racism. The city is home to over 160,000 Palestinians. Shuhada Street, which used to be the main commercial avenue of the area, bustled with human traffic 20 years ago — as one of the guides for Breaking the Silence describes to Gere. Today it is eerily empty, except for a heavy Israeli military presence.

Palestinians are forbidden to walk on Shuhada Street. Their shop doors have been welded shut. The army has bricked up and sealed the fronts of Palestinian houses that face the streets through which settlers pass on their way to synagogue.

Some of the most notorious amateur video clips about settlers committing egregious acts have come out of this area. They show the settlers throwing rocks at Palestinian residents and cursing them. These types of incidents occur frequently. The soldiers will sometimes make a desultory attempt to stop Jewish settlers from throwing stones, but their orders are to protect the Jews and that is what they do — even when they are harassing Palestinian residents in their own homes.

Hebron is also the place where Elor Azaria shot Abdel Fattah al-Sharif in the head, killing him. Al-Sharif was lying on the pavement at the time, wounded and disarmed after he had attempted to stab a soldier at a checkpoint. Azaria, who shook the hands of a couple of notorious settler leaders after he shot the Palestinian man, was convicted of manslaughter and sentenced to 18 months in prison.

A visit to Hebron is a deeply disturbing experience. It can leave one feeling emotionally hung over for days. Richard Gere, who is active on behalf of human rights, has expressed strong criticism of Israel’s military occupation. He told Haaretz reporter Allison Kaplan Sommer that he had been ambivalent about visiting Israel, fearing he would be lending credibility to the Netanyahu government and its policies.

Clearly, his visit to Hebron was meant to provide balance. On the one hand he attended a gala screening of his new film at Jerusalem’s Cinematheque; on the other hand he visited Hebron and made some blunt, insightful comments about the situation there to the Israeli media.

The situation in Hebron is not a secret. Radical settlers are not popular in mainstream Israeli society and the ugly videos that show those settlers attacking Palestinians without provocation are often broadcast on Israel’s prime time news hours.

Outrage, however, has not translated into change. There is no reason to suppose that a visit from a glamorous American film actor will have any impact on the status quo. But it is sobering to hear his unfiltered expressions of shock in response to the sordid reality of Israel’s 50-year-old occupation of the Palestinian territories.