(Day Five of this Trip Report appears on the Israel Forum)
With Day Six came the promise of another beautiful day in the Holy Land. While eating breakfast I reflected on how at home I felt — surely I had been here more than a mere six days? I set out for the Notre Dame Hotel, the meeting place for the Green Olive (GO) tour to Hebron, and as I walked past the elegant King David Hotel and through the deserted Mamilla Mall, I reviewed in my mind what the GO website promised me on this tour, one of the most favourably reviewed on Tripadvisor. A full day in Hebron, seeing the sites (which included the Tomb of the Patriarchs), having lunch with a Palestinian family, and “gaining an understanding of Palestinian culture and conditions under the ongoing Israeli occupation.” This included “encountering checkpoints and Israeli soldiers and seeing settlers and Palestinian residents, all mingling in an uneasy mosaic.” As an added bonus, we would visit a kafiya factory and a glassblowing / ceramics workshop. All in all a full day.
The minibus arrived on time and the tour participants — we were about twelve — boarded and off we went to Bethlehem. After passing through the Separation Wall checkpoint uneventfully, we met M., our Palestinian guide (his name escapes me), and set out for Hebron, about 24 kilometers south. (The tour was actually run by Alternative Tourism Group of Beit Sahour, which GO often partners with.)
What I particularly enjoy about this kind of tour is meeting the participants, usually an eclectic crowd united for a day by a common desire to learn more. Today was no exception and soon we are all chatting. Our number included a Catholic priest from Spain, an elementary school teacher from Canada, a German student, an Italian, and an American.
As we drove, M. gave us a briefing, information that was to help us greatly as the tour unfolded. The largest Palestinian city on the West Bank, Hebron has been continuously inhabited for over 3,000 years. In the heart of the city lies the Tomb of the Patriarchs — the collective burial place of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, and their wives — making the city the second most holy place for Jews after Jerusalem, and one of the four holy cities of Islam. A community of Jews lived there for several centuries.
(M. didn’t mention it, but I knew from my reading that in 1929 trouble erupted in Hebron when a group of Arabs massacred almost 70 Jews — men, women, and children. Other Arabs protected the remaining Jews, but from then until 1967, only a few Jews lived in Hebron.)
After the 1967 war, a small group of ultra-orthodox extremist Jews took up residence in the centre of Hebron. Although this was illegal under Israeli law, the settlers stood firm and the community grew to the present-day size of 400. Currently anywhere from 2,000 to 4,000 soldiers of the Israeli Defence Forces (IDF) protect the settlers.
In February 1994 another mass murder rocked Hebron. Dr. Baruch Goldstein, an extremist originally from Brooklyn but now a resident of the nearby Kiryat Arba settlement, donned his IDF uniform (he was an officer in the reserves) and entered the Ibrahimi Mosque. He then opened fire on the Palestinians praying there, killing 29 and wounding close to 100 before he himself was killed. Goldstein’s actions were universally denounced by almost all sectors of Israeli society, although some religious extremists still venerate him as a martyr.
Following the attack the IDF denied Palestinians access to Shuhada Street, a major shopping thoroughfare in the Old City. In early 1997 Hebron was divided into two sections, H1 and H2. H1, where most of the Palestinians live, is controlled by the Palestinian Authority. H2 includes much of the Old City and is home to about 500 Jewish settlers — many from the United States — and 30,000 Palestinians. Since then the IDF has closed off much of the Old City — home to four settlements — to Palestinians, and shut down nearly 2,000 Palestinian businesses. They also employed harsh measures to drive most of the Palestinians in the closed-off neighbourhoods out — extended curfews, numerous IDF checkpoints that curtail movement, the banning of all Palestinian cars, the permanent closing of Shuhada Street, and turning a blind eye to the settlers’ harassment of Palestinians.
Welcome to Hebron.
Our bus dropped us off in town at the blockaded entry to Shuhada Street in H2, and one by one we entered the ramshackle structure that closes off the street and serves as an IDF checkpoint. The only people allowed in and out are internationals, settlers, and the few Palestinians who still live in the district.
After a search of our backpacks, we emerged into Shuhada Street, which can only be described as ghostly. As I looked down the street, I could see dozens of green, rusted, metal storefront shutters and awnings, each one representing a Palestinian business that the IDF had closed. This street had once been vibrant, the main market street of Hebron, M. said. Now it was a ghost town, almost completely deserted.
At the entry to Shuhada Street we had been joined by Hashem, a local leader of the nonviolent resistance to the settler presence. As we talked I looked at this middle-aged, graying man, expecting to see evidence of defeat and resignation. Not at all. Defiance flashed in his eyes as he talked about the persecution he and other Palestinians who refused to leave had endured.
About 300 metres along Shuhada Street we reached another IDF checkpoint where a smiling, lollipop-sucking IDF soldier politely asked to see each of our passports. That taken care of, our guides informed us that as Palestinians, they could not go any further. We could, and so most of us continued down the street, past the Beit Hadassah settlement until we came upon a busload of soldiers and a small army base. After taking photos we returned to the guides, passing a small group of soldiers running purposefully in the opposite direction. The tension was almost palpable.
M. informed us that as soon as we were out of sight, the soldier had ordered him and Nashem up against the wall, where he physically searched them.
Our next stop was just 100 metres away, the small Palestinian Qurtuba elementary school. Here we met the principal, a beleaguered woman who told us of the many obstacles she faces in ensuring that the children get an adequate education. Due to their proximity to the Beit Hadassah settlement, just across Shuhada Street, just getting to school was at times a dangerous ordeal. Settlers and their children would harass the students as they walked, throwing stones at them and verbally abusing them. At times, international volunteers were called in to escort the children. The ground floor windows of the classrooms had to be kept permanently shuttered to prevent them from being shattered by rocks, and the high walls of the small playground had been extended and wire mesh fencing added to keep out projectiles. IDF soldiers also searched the children extensively at checkpoints while armed settlers passed freely.
After visiting a classroom we were on our way again, further sobered. Passing highly inflammatory racist graffiti in English signed by the Jewish Defense League (JDL), we returned to the checkpoint, which now had a second soldier manning it. He, it turned out, was from New York, and so, seeking to ease the overall tension, I engaged him in some lighthearted banter about how the New York Rangers hockey team sucked, and that Vancouver would triumph in the coming playoffs. (Sadly time has proved me wrong. Vancouver went down to ignominious defeat in the first round.) While effective, it was certainly an absurd moment.
At this point two young Palestinian men appeared, and the soldiers ordered them to get up against the wall for a body search. Clearly agitated that we were going to witness this, the soldiers motioned us away, but some of us stood our ground and took some photos.
We then proceeded back down Shuhada Street and on to Nashem’s home, where we were going to have lunch. Again another checkpoint and then we were scrambling through a break in the wall of Nashem’s tiny garden — the IDF had closed the main street to him and so this is the only way he can enter or leave his home. The cottage is set on a steep hillside, and directly above it loomed several trailer-like housing modules — part of the Tel Rumeida settlement, which is home to extremist sympathizers of the outlawed JDF and Kach movement. Nashem explained that these settlers continually harass his family. On one occasion they came down— accompanied by a few soldiers whose job it was to “protect” them — and cut down his olive trees and grape vines.
Over a lunch of delicious falafels, Nashem answered our questions and recounted more of what day-to-day life was like under direct Israeli occupation. At one point the conversation turned to peace negotiations and he exclaimed, “Give me my basic human rights and then I will negotiate!” For me, the sharing of this meal in their humble living room was the defining moment of the day.
Soon lunch was over and after saying goodbye to Nashem and his family, we walked back to Shuhada Street, heading for the Tomb of the Patriarchs. More eerily deserted streets with the occasional IDF guard tower. At one point a jogger ran by. And then we were on a street, divided in half by a metre-high concrete barrier, leading up to the Tomb — a huge ancient stone edifice that houses both the Ibrahimi Mosque and the Cave of Machpelah (synagogue). At the head of the road stood an IDF checkpoint and as we approached, the soldier motioned to our guide to come for inspection. It turned out he was upset with M. for not walking on the correct side of the divided road — one side for Palestinians, the other for internationals and settlers.
We then left M. and went up to the synagogue and, after another search, were allowed inside for a visit. I was a little surprised that they let non-worshippers in at all, and felt slightly awkward being inside such an obviously holy place. Our visit finished, we rejoined M. and went over to the mosque where, again after two or three searches, we entered for a short visit. It was fascinating to see these two holy places side-by-side, so different and yet so important to adherents of the two faiths. (Apparently the actual tomb is several metres below ground.)
M. then took us into the souq for a little sightseeing. Here, just as I had read, wire mesh netting stretched over the lanes, placed there by the merchants to protect themselves from the refuse that Israeli settlers, who live in some of the apartments above the souq, regularly throw onto those below.
After a short walk and stopping for a coffee with a friendly store owner, we came upon a squad of IDF soldiers who seemed to be in a state of heightened alert — some crouching and glancing around, with weapons at the ready. Something must be going on, I thought. But then, seeing that shoppers were casually walking around, almost ignoring them, I grasped that this was just a scare tactic. Quite bizarre.
On we went, stopping to chat with some Temporary International Presence in Hebron (TIPH) observers in their blue jackets and then we were on a side street, waiting for our bus. The guide pointed out a nearby home with a ladder leading into a window. The front of the house, he explained, was blocked by an IDF checkpoint, so the residents could only come and go freely through a back window.
Leaving H2, we stopped at a kafiya factory, the last in the West Bank I was told. After a quick tour we were on our way again to a glass and ceramics workshop, one of several that Hebron is known for. Here my inner tourist appeared and I was soon paying for a variety of inexpensive but attractive ornamental plates, tiles, and cups — all perfect gifts for my friends and family back home. It was only when I picked up the bags that I realized what a pain it was going to be lugging these around for the remainder of my trip!
The bus ride back to Jerusalem found most of us quietly decompressing, somewhat overwhelmed by the day’s events. In contrast to yesterday’s almost constant talking by Yahav, this had been a day of experiencing events firsthand — of seeing for ourselves — and I for one was emotionally spent. At one point I fell into a conversation with M. and, somewhat insensitively, remarked, “It must be quite humiliating for you to be physically searched by the IDF soldiers, especially as they know you’re a licensed guide.” Gazing at me he simply said, “We are humiliated every day.”
In Jerusalem I looked for a place to relax. After a light dinner I settled into a chair in the garden of the Austrian Hospice and dictated some thoughts into my iphone. Visiting a city under direct military occupation was a first for me, and I wanted to gather my thoughts before they were pushed aside by whatever happened next. That done, I started thinking about tomorrow. Prudently, I had planned for an “off” day — a chance to see a little more of Israel on a day trip to Akko and Haifa.
(Day Seven of this Trip Report will appear on the Israel forum)Edited: 29 April 2012, 14:34