Yesterday I visited Hebron, one of the most controversial cities in the West Bank. Part of the city is occupied by the Israeli Defense Forces. Over 1,000 of them, and 126 security cameras, protect around 400 Israeli settlers, who are armed themselves. I got there alone, leaving from Jerusalem, and in Hebron I was to meet a Palestinian man who works with a committee working to revitalize part of the Old City that lies in the shadow of Israeli settlements. He also gives tours once in a while, free of charge. He does it because he wants to show people the impact the settlers are having on the city.
Getting there was a bit scary since I was, well, an American going to the West Bank, and I was alone. First I had to get to Bethlehem, where I’d catch a taxi to Hebron. A small bus stopped just before a huge wall where the road ended. I had no sense of where I was but it turned out to be the Bethlehem checkpoint. Then there was this massive gated structure that a smiling Palestinian woman directed me towards. It looked like I was entering some prison in the middle of nowhere. Inside, it was more like a big, nearly empty customs station; I zigzagged through a wired-in pen that had been divided into long lanes where people would normally cue up. After some long passageways, with a few turnstiles en route, I was on the other side. Nobody stopped me and I don’t think the Palestinians that got off the bus were bothered either (maybe they would be upon returning to Israel, like I was).
Now I was in the West Bank, although a ‘Welcome to Bethlehem’ sign would have helped me be sure of that. All I saw was the taxi mafia and some kids running around. After fussing with the cabbies, who wanted to take me directly to Hebron for about 150 shekels, or around $40, they finally agreed to show me where the shared taxi to Hebron was parked. That cost 15 shekels.
It took about 45 minutes to drive to Hebron. We picked up smiling passengers along the way as we passed through towns with chain chicken restaurants, a Huggies billboard, and a few men riding donkeys or horses. The buildings were generally in pretty bad condition and the streets were far from clean. Khalit, our very nice driver, had been to the United States before so I jokingly told him one of towns looked like New Jersey. If Route 1 in Fort Lee was less-taken care of.
To my surprise, most of the journey was countryside — empty, green Judaean Hills covered with terraced stones or what I think were olive groves that could use some love.
Downtown Hebron, which I knew very little about before I arrived, is a bustling city. There was a lot of traffic. Half of the cars were taxis. Men carried trays of tea through the streets.
My tour with Walid was really interesting. He took me to the Old City, where buildings range from 400 to 1,000 years old, and artisans traditionally sell their crafts. Some artisans are still there but the city stops bustling as soon as you cross into the Old City, which is controlled by the Israeli Defense Forces. Above one side of the market, Israeli settlers have moved into homes, displacing Palestinean families, according to Walid. The IDF has welded shut many of the shops on one side of the market. The homes on the other side, where Palestinians could presumably still live, are now abandoned too. The edges of the market are now sometimes covered in barbed wire, which one vendor used to display his clothing. The narrow opening above the market was also covered in barbed wire, with debris resting on it.
Walid, my tour guide, is working to revitalize commerce in the area. His group, the Hebron Rehabilitation Committee, gets foreign funding for this. We saw a couple of small shops in the cavernous Old City being reconstructed.
As we progressed through the market, and it began to look more like a ghost town, we got closer to one of the holiest sites for both Muslims and Jews, a place made even more controversial because they have to share it. For Muslims, it’s known as the Ibrahimi Mosque, and for Jews the Cave of the Patriarchs, where Abraham, Sarah, Isaac, Jacob, Rebecca and Leah are buried.* Along the walk, I’d sometimes look up and see a member of the IDF in a tower. One of them greeted Walid and asked me where I was from. Others stared down at us while we chatted with a group of international observers, who have had a mission in Hebron since 1997. Walid had other cordial discussions with the soldiers. He said he does not feel hostility towards them; he wants peaceful coexistence. They seem to have an awful job.
The holy site is the only divided mosque in the world, according to Walid. Jews and Muslims worshipped alongside each other until 1994, when right-wing Israeli settler named Baruch Goldstein massacred 29 Muslims praying there. The authorities then divided the mosque into Jewish and Muslims sections.
But the starkest example of division came outside the mosque’s walls. When we exited down the steps, we were confronted by a IDF-run checkpoint at the boundary of a Jewish settlement zone. The road behind the checkpoint was fairly clear. A group of Israelis going for what appeared to be a leisurely run, with semi-automatic guns around strapped around necks, jogged by. Meanwhile, Palestinians who were commuting through the area stood in line waiting for an IDF soldier to allow them to pass. Walid said the route the IDF was making Palestinians take had just changed slightly, restricting access to a portion of the street that they could previously use.
Of course the soldier asked me for my passport, and because I was American, I could move fairly freely. So crossed the nearly empty street to the only shop on the street across from the mosque, run by an Arab. He said he has only a fraction of the business he used to. I bought a small ceramic bowl. If I were Israeli, a stop at this checkpoint would no doubt arouse suspicion. If I were a settler thinking of moving here, the IDF would welcome me. If not, they might question my motives. They may wonder if I am against Israel’s activities there. My friend’s aunt, an American who has lived in Tel Aviv for decade and used to attend protests against Israel’s West Bank policies, said that is why she and most Israelis no longer go to the West Bank–the authorities are too suspicious.
Walid wants tourists to return. Unfortunately, the only people I saw who were not Palestinians or IDF forces were international observers. Yes, it was the low season for tourists. And organized tours for settlers also go to Hebron. But Hebron used to be a place where Israelis like my friend’s aunt could visit leisurely, and I’d guess that this demographic would have accounted for a main slice of the city’s tourism. It seems unlikely that they’ll return anytime soon.
*Correction, Feb. 7: When I first wrote this, I neglected to give the Jewish name for the holy site.