Today, I would like to share my first foray into the Westbank, Palestine, with you: A tour of Hebron, one of the most important places in Judaism and Islam and subject of intense fighting between the two religions.
I was not sure what to expect from the Westbank. Not necessarily because I was afraid of Palestinians there, but because I wasn’t sure how easy public transport would be and what would happen to me at the checkpoint when I would try to return to Jerusalem. So I looked into doing a tour. I quickly discovered Abraham Tours. I had already booked my bus ticket from Nazareth to Amman from them, and they have a good reputation among hostels. Making it even more attractive, they offer a unique format: a dual-narrative tour, which has the group spend half the day with a Palestinian tour guide and half a day with a Jewish settler or a friend of the Jewish settlers in Hebron. I found this the perfect opportunity to learn more about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict from both sides of it.
We meet at 8:30 am in the Abraham Hostel lobby at Ha-Davitka Square. There are a lot more people here than I had expected, considering that we will be using public transport to move around.
After checking off our names on her list and confirming that everybody has a non-Israeli ID on them, we are reminded never to say we were Jewish. It’s not a security measure. There are just strict rules laid out by the Israel government that forbid Israeli citizens to go into Palestinian territory and by religious authorities that restrict Jews from going into some locations.
Next, we spend five minutes discussing how to buy the tickets for the light rail to take us to the Central Bus Station.
N.B.: If you’re doing this tour I recommend you simply buy your ticket in advance (possible at all light rail stations).
Because most decide to buy their own tickets (rather than one person getting a bunch and being reimbursed), it takes another 15 minutes before we finally are on our way to the CBS.
At the bus station, we head upstairs to platform 6 for bus no. 381, the bullet-proof bus connecting Jerusalem and Hebron.
We pay our NIS8.10 (about €2) fare directly to the driver, and at 9:30 am we’re setting off, sharing the bus mainly with soldiers and a few older Orthodox Jewish men with the distinctive payot side curls.
One of the windows is cracked with uncanny signs that it has been hit by a bullet. But there are no holes in it. When a rock hits the window less than a meter from my head, it merely shaves off a little bit of glass. I am strangely unfazed by this. The German girl next to me is more nervous. It’s her first time outside Europe, and her stay in Israel started with a 6-hour interrogation at Tel-Aviv airport.
The drive to the Jewish Settlers’ Visitor Center in Beit Hadassah takes more than one and a half hours. We’re a fair bit behind in our schedule.
Judy is our guide for the first section of the tour. She immigrated 25 years ago from the US, lives in a settlement between Hebron and Jerusalem, and her goal is to give us some insight into the emotional connection she feels to this city.
After Jerusalem, Hebron is the second-most important city to Jews. Abraham, the Hebrew, considered the father of all Jews, came here 3,800 years ago to bury his wife Sarah and subsequently, he and his son, his son’s son and their wives were buried in the same cave system that was back then just outside one of the world’s oldest cities.
We learn about this and about how the Jewish population here was reduced to zero after a massacre in 1929 that left 64 dead while the British Military stood by watching, and a threat of more violence in 1936 lead to the evacuation of all Jews from the city until the 6-Day War in the 1960s.
We also hear about the ground rules for living in Hebron, which technically is territory under Palestinian control: The small H2 zone is under Israeli military control, while H1, more than 90% of the city, belongs to the Palestineans and Israelis are by law prohibited from entering. A circumstance that leaves the settlers deeply disappointed in their government. They believe that they should be allowed to settle anywhere in the old Holy Land of Israel, an area much bigger than the current state. However, when I ask her Judy also makes it clear that she believes that the land has to be bought and can’t just be taken from their current inhabitant. But solving the question of original ownership is what makes the conflict over Hebron (and other Israeli and Palestinean places) so frustrating. Sometimes, the land was acquired after the Jewish population fled a pogrom…
Our first stop is the Beit Hadassah, a former hospital, and the place from where in 1979 the first of the current settlers forced the Israeli government to let them stay. Back then, they entered illegally. But pressure on the government became so big that they finally agreed to send the army to protect the settlers in their new home.
We meet Zippy, who lives in one of the settlements nearby and now works at the small museum in Beit Hadassah. She tells the emotional story of her family: Her grandmother had witnessed the 1929 massacre, and her father was stabbed to death in his own bedroom only a few years ago, while her mother was making dinner next door.
Both women reiterate several times that they know not all Arabs or Muslims are murderers. They tell the story of how people lived together in the same streets of Hebron for decades, as friends before 1929.
But the reply to every single critical question is — and throughout the morning will be — prefaced by a story about the murder of Jews.
Under the watchful eyes of soldiers on the street and in watchtowers above, we walk along Shuhada Street, which is all but closed for the Muslim population of Hebron, even if they have a house on that street. The once thriving market here was closed after attacks on settlers. The Muslim-owned houses weren’t confiscated. But it is made extremely difficult for the owners to go (and live) there.
Not to worry, we hear from our guide, life in Palestinean Hebron is good: It is the most prosperous of the Palestinean cities with many businesses, factories, hospitals, and even universities. At the same time, Judy tells us that many Arabs (she refuses to call the Palestineans) would prefer to live under Israeli government because of Islamist oppression and rampant corruption in the Palestinean Authority.
While I came to hear the two sides to Hebron, I am slightly unnerved by how the message of law-abiding settlers that just want a peaceful life with everyone is driven home. I can’t decide whether our guide is deliberately constructing a World, in which the settlers are discriminated against by their government while the Palestineans are responsible for any discomfort in their lives or whether this is really how she sees the World. I suppose it is a combination of both.
On Tel Rumeida, we see remains of the origins of Hebron that have only recently been unearthed. We climb to the roof of an ordinary looking highrise where we find the “Hebron Observatory,” and enjoy sweeping views from the highest point of the city.
We walk past ancient olive trees, the girth of their stems suggesting they must have been here hundreds, if not thousands of years ago. And of course these trees, too, are subject to conflict. Both sides are presenting documents that certify ownership of the olive grove.
Also on Tel Rumeida, is the Tomb of Ruth and Jessie, which is our last stop before heading back down across Shuhada Street to the Tomb of the Patriarchs, the second-most holy place for Jews. In the cave underneath a huge building dating back 2,000 years to Herod’s days, is the above-mentioned burial site Abraham bought. Problems arise because as is the case so often people significant in Jewish faith are also important to Muslims. For them, Abraham is Ibrahim. So they built a mosque on Herod’s building.
We pass several security screenings that consist of the soldiers asking — repeatedly — whether any of us carried any weapons on us. One of the soldiers thinks hard about what else he could ask: ‘Weapons?’ No. ‘Tear gas?’ No. ‘Small blades?’ No. ‘Musical instruments?’ What?
Today, after several centuries of not allowing Jews in the Tomb of the Patriarchs, the mosque is split into two areas. 345 days a year, each religion uses their side. For ten days each, Jews and Muslims respectively get access to the whole building. Judy doesn’t mention why this arrangement was created. Our guide for the afternoon opens his tour with it.
After a brief visit inside the Tob of the Patriarchs, Judy hands us over to Mohamed, our Palestinean guide. She hasn’t called him about the fact that she’d drop us off one hour later than agreed.
Mohamed quickly ushers us into his apartment. We sit down in a small room stuffed with sofas and two coffee tables for lunch: chicken and vegetable rice with the typical Arabic cucumber-tomato salad and yogurt. Balancing the plates on our knees, we gulp the food down quickly to make up for the delay.
Back in the Tomb of the Patriarchs, we enter the mosque through a different array of security checks that consist of Israeli soldiers smiling: ‘Hi! Welcome!’
The ladies in the group have to put on cloaks with hoods to cover their hair. I feel like Little Blue Ridinghood.
In the prayer hall, Mohamed sheds light on the reasons for the current separation of the Tomb.
Between 1980 and 1994, Jewish settlers were praying in the same space as Moslems. They’d simply find a corner, Muslims would step aside to give Jews room for their prayer.
In 1994, a Jewish settler entered the mosque during Muslim Friday prayer. He shot and killed more than two dozen people before he ran out of ammunition and was beaten to death.
After this Hebron massacre, the Tomb of the Patriarchs was off limits to all until the current compromise was agreed on.
Mohamed’s style of parlaying this story is markedly different from what we’ve heard in the morning: Only later, when I read up on the events I learn that among those shot were many children. He also doesn’t mention that people who were fleeing the mosque in panic were shot at by Israeli soldiers who themselves were in a panic, not knowing what was happening.
Instead of pulling us by the heartstrings like Judy and Zippie, he wants us to understand the conflict. His tour is all about showing the ridiculousness of the situation.
Outside the Tomb, we pass a one-way security gate into the heart of the old town.
All of a sudden, there are no more soldiers.
Mohamed explains: this is still part of H2. But it’s also no man’s land.
We sit down in the newly opened Al-Sadaqa Café in the heart of the old town for an attempt at an explanation.
The Arab coffee with a hint of cardamom is delicious and perfect on this very cold day. Mohamed calls his hometown “the Alaska of Palestine.”
But after 20 minutes with maps and drawings, I still don’t understand where the old town no man’s land comes from or how it works other than that there is no official, armed police force here.
When we continue our stroll, Mohamed points out idiosyncracies, as he calls them:
Settlers have built their houses on top of existing Muslim houses, and throw rocks and trash onto the Muslim market below. So the market was upgraded with netting to stop the rocks and trash. The settlers then began to pour hot or filthy liquids on passers-by. But the Arabs aren’t allowed to install a protective roof because then the military in the watchtowers wouldn’t be able to see what is happening below. Why are the settlers not punished? I don’t know.
Another example is the infrastructure: Being “the Alaska of Palestine” means that Hebron sees a lot of rain and snow throughout the year. The old town is in the lowest part of the city. Floods are frequent and could easily be avoided by having better piping in Shahada Street. But as explained above Shuhada Street is not easily accessible to Arabs. Why the Israelis don’t manage the installation of pipes themselves? Who knows.
With the old town more and more difficult to be in, the markets have moved to a street just outside H2.
The passage from H2 to H1 through the old town is not noticeable. There is no checkpoint.
We spend a little time getting vegetables for dinner and trying local sweets before Mohamad takes us back to the bus stop into Judy’s hands. We get back on the bullet-proof settler bus and return to Jerusalem without incident, slightly puzzled about some things and desperate about the apparent impossibility of finding a solution doing justice to all sides.