03/20/2014 12:11 pm ET Updated May 20, 2014

The Strange Currency of the Israeli Occupation

Last Saturday, Israeli soldiers came to the home of Shadi Sidr and demanded he remove the Palestinian flag from his roof. Shadi is a Palestinian who lives in the H2 area of Hebron and the flag offended his neighbors, the Israeli settlers in the Beit Hadassah settlement.

Shadi stood his ground, refusing to remove the flag without a court order, even when the soldiers threatened him with arrest. Luckily, the encounter is captured on video. Shadi is a volunteer in B'Tselem's camera project. One of the project's Hebron coordinators and another volunteer arrived and filmed. The cameras not only documented the interaction that followed; they were active participants in it.

The soldier calls his commander and informs him of the presence of the cameras with him on the rooftop and asks "should I take the flag down by force?" Apparently the answer is negative, as the soldiers leave and Shadi and his flag remain. In this case the cameras clearly prevented violence -- and a wrongful arrest.

It is surrealistic footage. Israeli and Palestinian flags are visible everywhere as the soldiers and the Palestinian argue about this one particular flag. In fact, at one point one soldier leans against a wall painted with a big Palestinian flag. From several surrounding rooftops we see Israeli flags flying.

In media reports of the incident, the IDF spokesperson responded that there was no official policy against Palestinians displaying flags and promised that "the matter will be looked into."

Yet the absurdity continues. A few days later, soldiers returned with photographs of a neighbor's boy throwing stones. "They said they would release the boy if we took down the flag," Shadi relates. A flag for a boy's freedom. Shadi agreed. Such is the strange currency of the Israeli occupation.

It's the sort of story that could probably only happen in the Kafkaesque reality of Hebron. Here a few hundred Israeli settlers live in the heart of a major Palestinian city. In order to create an Israeli bubble even though they are living in the middle of a Palestinian city which is unarguably hostile to them, the Israeli military has imposed harsh restrictions on the surrounding Palestinians. Entire streets are closed off to Palestinian traffic, and even Palestinian pedestrians are prohibited on the streets immediately adjacent to the settlement buildings.

Some families are not even allowed to walk out of their front door, as the road is for Israelis only. The former bustling commercial center of Hebron is now virtually a ghost town. The gas station has closed down, of course. So have hundreds of shops and businesses, mostly by military decree. Thousands of Palestinians have been forced to abandon the city center, leaving mostly those too poor to move elsewhere.

When Secretary Kerry negotiates with Israelis and Palestinians about the issue of settlements in the West Bank, this is a crucial part of the picture. Hebron is an extreme version, but the contours of what we see in Hebron are visible throughout the West Bank. Restrictions on Palestinian movement to enable free movement of settlers. Exploitation of natural resources solely for the benefit of Israelis. Two separate and discriminatory legal systems in force, with settlers enjoying all the rights of the Israeli democracy and even added perks and benefits, while Palestinians are subject to military law.

It is a rotten system, one that inherently violates Palestinian rights and, I would argue, also has a corrosive effect on the Israeli democracy.

Shadi's video also illustrates the unequal treatment by Israeli soldiers who are legally obligated to protect Palestinians as well as Israelis. In fact the incident begins an hour earlier with an Israeli climbing up to Shadi's roof to remove the offending flag. He gets stuck in barbed wire. When the Israeli soldier arrives, rather than protecting the Palestinian from the trespasser, he comes to the rescue of the Israeli. Then he comes back to do the bidding of the settlers, whom Israeli journalist Akiva Eldar has called, the Lords of the Land.

Perhaps this video serves as an apt metaphor for our broader situation. For 47 years, the settlement enterprise has entangled all of us in the barbed wire of occupation. Let's hope we can all be extricated from this entanglement.