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 to never say we are Jewish. It’s not a security measure. There are just strict rules laid out by the Israel government and religious authorities as to where Jews are allowed and where not.
Next, we spend five minutes discussing how to buy the tickets for the lightrail to take us to the central bus station. If you’re doing this tour I recommend you simply buy your ticket in advance (possible at all lightrail stations). Because most decide to buy their own tickets (rather than one person getting a bunch and being reimbursed), it takes 15 minutes before we finally are on our way to the bus station.
At the CBS, we head upstairs to platform 6 for bus no. 381, the bullet-proof bus connecting Jerusalem and Hebron.
We pay our NIS8.10 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 part 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 for this city.
After Jerusalem, Hebron is the second-most important city to Jews. Abraham, the Hebrew and 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 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 violence in 1936 that lead to the evacuation of all Jews from the city until the 6-Day War.
We also hear about the basic rules for living in Hebron, which technically is on 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 to enter. A circumstance that leaves the settlers deeply disappointed in their own 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. But solving the question of original ownership is what makes the conflict over Hebron (and other Israeli and Palestinean places) so frustrating.
Our first stop is the Beit Hadassah, a former hospital, and the place from where the first of the current settlers forced the Israeli government to let them stay in 1979.
We meet Zippie, 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 home only a few years ago.
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 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. But the Muslim-owned houses weren’t confiscated. It is just made extremely difficult for them to go (and live) there.
Not to worry, we hear from our guide that life in Palestinean Hebron is good, that it is the most prosperous of the Palestinean cities 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 own government while the Palestineans are responsible for any discomfort in their lives or whether this is really how she sees the World.
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 to 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 burial site Abraham bought. Problems arise, because as so often, people important 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 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, 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 full of sofas and have 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 in soldiers smiling Hi! Welcome!
The ladies in the group have to put on cloaks with hoods to cover their hair.
In the prayer hall, Mohamed sheds light on 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.
In 1994, a settler entered the mosque during Friday prayer. He shot and killed more than two dozen people before he ran out of ammunition and was beaten to death.
After the second 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 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 noman’s land.
We sit down in the newly opened Al-Sadaqa Café for an attempt at an explanation.
The Arab coffee is delicious and perfect on this very cold day. Mohamed calls his hometown “the Alaska of Palestine.”
But after 20 minutes I still don’t understand where the old town noman’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.
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 be avoided by better piping in Shahada Street. But Shahada Street is not easily accessible to Arabs. Why the Israelis don’t manage the installation of pipes? I don’t know.
The passage from H2 to H1 through the old town is not noticeable. There is no checkpoint. With the old town more and more difficult to be in, the markets have moved to a street just outside H2.
After the tour, I read more into the events surrounding Hebron. There, some stories are told differently. For example, was the extent to which their Arab neighbors protected the Jews much higher than Judy’s and Zippy’s stories (or the Beit Hadassah museum) would have us believe: Like the inactivity of the British.
Links & Info
- The Hebron Dual Narrative Tour is a unique offer by Abraham Tours (https://abrahamtours.com/). Tours run twice a week from Jerusalem. I paid NIS290 (US-$75) and booked the day before. Guests of the Abraham Hostel receive a 10% discount.
- If you would like to explore Hebron on your own, you can catch the armored Egged bus 381 from Jerusalem Central Bus Station or catch a bus from Damascus Gate. There are hostels in both the Jewish and the Arab parts of town. The Arab part also has regular hotels you can book via Booking.com: http://www.booking.com/searchresults.html?city=900051779&aid=914246&no_rooms=1&group_adults=1. As a non-Jew/non-Israeli you should have few difficulties moving within both parts of town, be prepared for security checks, though.