I stood in the Abraham Hostel lobby in Jerusalem, 15 min to 9 am, looking around the group. People sipped their coffees and the room was full with the casual air of small talk. This could have been any day and any tour, except that it wasn’t. In a few minutes, we would be on our way to Hebron – the most conflicted and troubled city in the Middle East.
Shortly, a young chirpy girl marched in with Eliyahu McLean, our guide for the day. She called out our names, checking them off her list rapidly. Eliyahu was an orthodox Jew – as I could see from the Kippah (cloth skullcap) and Payot (long curly side locks) he adorned. He told us that we would walk to the Central Bus Station and then ride out to Hebron, 30km north of Jerusalem.
As we left the city and the bus picked up speed, Eliyahu told us that he ran Jerusalem Peacemakers, an interfaith organization that promoted peaceful dialogue and reconciliation between Israel and Palestine. As part of his work, he organized the Dual Narrative Tour of Hebron, to give foreigners a perspective of the situation on ground in the conflicted city. We would hear both sides of the narrative – the first half of the day would be spent with an Arab guide Mohammed and the latter half with him. We should be safe, announced Elihayu, foreigners were seldom the target of any attack. We all knew that we were headed into a complex, volatile and unpredictable space, but I could see the lines of worry cross many eyes.
The history of the Israel Palestine conflict can be traced back to World War II and the holocaust in which millions of Jews were killed, and the remaining wanted to establish their own homeland, into what was an then an Arab-Muslim major territory. The Arabs resisted and two wars(1948 and 1967) later, the border lines that we today see of Israel and the surrounding Arab countries came into existence. The 1967 war left Israel in control of the West Bank and Gaza Strip, home to over a million Arabs.
Hebron sits in the West Bank and is the second holiest city for Judaism after Jerusalem, and one of the four holy cities in Islam. Jews and Arabs both feel that the land is rightfully theirs. After the 1967 war, Israeli settlers began moving into Hebron, leading to constant conflict between both sides. After a massive terror attack in 1997, Hebron was divided into 2 parts, with 80% under Palestinian control, called H1, and 20% under Jewish control called H2. Most of the Palestinian population, about 200,000 people live in H1. The Israeli “settlers” in H2 are approximated to be less than a thousand people, matched in number by the soldiers put there to protect them from the Palestinians. About 20,000 Palestinians also live in H2, under Israeli control. This proximity is a constant source of conflict even today.
(In case you are interested to get into greater detail about the conflict, this article by VOX is a fantastic read on the history of the Israel Palestine conflict.
We reached Hebron, and the bus stopped right outside the Tomb of Patriarchs, as I would learn later, a building of deep religious significance to both Arabs and Jews. Abraham is considered the founder of the three monotheistic religions and patriarch of the Jews through his son Isaac. From his other son, Ismael, descend the Arabs and therefore the Islamic religion, making this shrine a holy place for both Jews and Arabs. The Tomb of Patriarchs today is divided into 2 parts, a mosque on one side and a synagogue on the other.
Eliyahu told us that he would meet us after lunch and take us around H2. He dropped us off at a point where we met Mohammed, dressed in jeans and a khaki t-shirt, a cap on his head and sports shoes, he smiled openly as we approached him.
The Palestinian Narrative
Mohammed grew up in Hebron, and didn’t remember a time when the city was devoid of politics and violence. Life as a Palestinian was hard, and he shared his anger that they were made to feel like outsiders in their own city. We followed him to the Tomb of Patriarchs, to the mosque side, divided by metal doors from the Jewish part. We removed our shoes and the women were handed a cloak to cover our heads. We entered the main praying area quietly, the carving, the intricate chandeliers, the dim lights and the men and women sitting on the floor and praying peacefully was surreal.
Mohammed took us aside so as to not disturb anyone and continued to tell us about the difficulty of life as a Palestinian, the ever expanding restrictions and checks by Israeli Defence Force, constant curfews and violence. ID cards were to be carried at all the times, there were enough cases of beatings or being sent to jail if found without it. These rules did not apply to Jews. Curfews were rampant and came without warning. Sometimes they stretched for days, sometimes weeks. There were cases of Palestinians being shot at, if found outside during curfew hours, even on their own terrace. A pregnant Arab lady was refused check point clearance to go to the hospital, and ended up delivering her baby at the checkpoint.
What made Mohammed and others like him go through this every single day, when an option to move to another part of town existed? How did kids study, businesses be run, money be made? How did anyone know that their family is safe and will return home at night? It was beyond my comprehension and I couldn’t help but ask Mohammed why he went through this every single day. That’s exactly what Israel wants, to drive us out and take full control of H2, he said, visibly agitated. This is just the beginning and they won’t stop. If we don’t resist, they will drive us out of H1 eventually.
We left the mosque and proceeded to go to the H1 side. To do so, we had to cross a shopping street but only a few shops were open, selling utilities, clothes, carpets, souvenirs, but barely any customers. I looked up to see that a mesh sheet covered the entire street and it was full of stones, bottles and trash. Mohammed told us that as the Israeli’s started taking control of Hebron, Israeli “settlers” moved into town and made illegal constructions on top of the Palestinian shops. The shop owners couldn’t do much as the military supported and protected these families. These families threw trash, glass bottles, water, bleach and even urine on the shops below. Many shopkeepers got fed up and left, and their shops remain permanently closed. There are others who are still resisting – since these shops and businesses have been handed down generations and they are determined not to leave them.
We walked till H1 and while there was no physical barrier separating the two sides, the contrast was stark. H1 was bustling with people, traffic, noise, shops, café’s, street urchins and chaos. Everywhere we looked, people smiled and waved hellos. It could have been any city, vibrant, normal.
We crossed paths with two volunteers from an international relief and peace agency, who stayed in Hebron and reported the on ground situation to their country. They waved to Mohammed and he asked them to share their views, both iterated the daily injustice and suffering of the people of Palestine. There is enough international attention on Hebron, and we met more agencies and volunteers on both sides of the fence.
Our next stop was a local family’s house for lunch. Through a small gate, we were led into the living room by a group of ladies and young girls, their heads covered in a hijab, and large brown eyes that smiled shyly. Tables with big bottles of cola and plastic cups were already set up. The ladies went to the kitchen working on the meal and two young girls were assigned the jobs of serving – pita and hummus, along with rice, chicken and vegetables. As one of them laid down my plate, I admired her large brown eyes, and I smiled at her. She must have been 10 or 12. I wanted to ask her name and if she went to school. What did she like to study? Did she have friends she played with on the street? Did she want to stay here? What were her dreams of a future life? All I could manage was a mumbled thank you as she laid down my food and she nodded and moved on. I ate my food quietly, tired and hungry.
The Israeli Narrative
After lunch, we said our goodbyes to Mohammed and thanked him and walked back to the Tomb of Patriarchs where Eliyahu was waiting for us. He introduced us to a Jewish settler who had been living in Hebron for decades. A gun hung at his waist and when someone asking him why he carried it, he gave a knowing laugh like he knew this was coming. His laughter made me uncomfortable, but I knew that this wasn’t just about him. There would be many others who mirrored his sentiment on ownership over Hebron and were willing to fight for it. And then he said something that stays with me even today – that there were no easy answers and as foreigners, we should experience both sides of the story and not rush to judge. What was I there for, if not to hear both sides with an open mind.
We followed Eliyahu into the heart of H2. Unlike H1, this side of Hebron looks like a ghost town, the streets empty and the shops closed, their shutters covered with graffiti and propaganda, and only a few buildings housing families. As we walked these streets, Eliyahu stopped and narrated horrific incidents about Jews that had died because of Palestinian bombers and shooters. One that I specifically recall was in 2011, a baby girl’s parents were walking with her from a parking lot to their family house. A Palestinian sniper fired to the baby’s head, killing her instantly. A mural was made to remember her tragic death.
He then took us to the Avraham Avinu Synagogue, the spiritual and religious centre of the Hebron community. He spoke about its history and revealed ancient and rare Torah scrolls which had been kept there since time immemorial, proof that Jews had always lived in this land. After that, we went to Beit Hadassah, a building constructed in 1893 by the Jewish community as a centre of benevolent activities. The building houses an exhibition showcasing graphic images from the 1929 Hebron massacre, post which no Jews remained in Hebron. The exhibition was dark and disturbing, and Elihayu went into a lot of detail about the massacre, it was all just too much to process.
We then approached the Al-Shuhada Street, which used to be the busiest shopping street in Hebron and is now permanently closed. As we crossed a checkpoint, an IDF guard waved out to us. He asked us where we are from and when we asked him the same, he told us that he was born and brought up in the US, lived in upstate New York till he was 19 and then moved back to serve his country. For someone who had never lived in Israel to come back and serve, that too in Hebron was unbelievable, and it spoke to me of a deep nationalist fervour amongst Jews, no matter where they are in the world. Apparently, about 3% of the IDF comprises of Jewish soldiers that are also nationals of other countries.
Eliyahu told us that he would take us to see the best view of Hebron and we gladly welcomed the relief. We reached one of the main buildings in H2 where Jewish families live. We climbed the stairs to the terrace and it was hot and windy, but he was right. the views were spectacular. From here, Hebron looked pristine and pretty, peaceful even, ironically.
We walked back to the Tomb of Patriarchs, and entered from the Jewish side this time. Eliyahu took us to where the patriarchs and matriarchs were buried and he delved into more history. He was interrupted by music and chatter from a wedding party in one corner of the room. A bride, in a beautiful white fish tail dress, her hair done up in flowers and a thin veil covering her face, was surrounded by her bridesmaids talking and blushing. Then the groom joined her, both of them glowing with the excitement of new beginnings, passing shy smiles and looking so much in love. They held my attention, it was the most happy I had seen that day.
I was so engrossed in the wedding proceedings that I missed the last part of what Eliyahu was saying, and when I turned, he was wrapping up his story and telling us that it was time to head back to the bus.
I looked out the window as the bus left Hebron, tired and sad.
I thought of the smiling faces of the women who fed us lunch, the frustrated shopkeeper, the Jewish settler with the gun, the soldier, the horrific stories, the empty streets, the security, the pain and suffering of it all. I thought of Mohammed and Eliyahu, both with compelling perspectives, both trying to convince they were in the right. Who is the sufferer? Who is the perpetrator? What is right and what is wrong? Or the truth is nothing but versions of each side.
It’s not an easy tour to take, and it created more questions and answers, but sometimes, when you travel, you face tough things, unpleasant things, sad things, things that don’t affect your everyday life. And you have the chance to look away, to focus on the pretty stuff, the happy stuff. I found it hard to look away this time. And I am glad I didn’t, for my own perspective about the world and an attempt to face things that are far beyond my realm of consideration.
This tour was taken with Abraham Tours and I would highly recommend the experience to anyone who visits Israel and wants to develop a deeper understanding of the Israel Palestine conflict and see the situation in the city of Hebron first-hand.