You’d think walking around refugee camps would my most emotionally difficult experience whilst visiting Palestine, but it was Hebron that really broke my heart. Walking through a cobbled marketplace that should have been bright and bustling with laughter, gossip and bargaining attempts was cold, dark, almost empty, with many derelict looking shut shops, overshadowed, literally, by netting placed above to catch shit (not just using that term figuratively) thrown from the Israeli settlers living above. This was what got me the most.
We wandered around the dark stoney streets, passing a few people. The open, functioning shops were few and far between. We met a market seller in his 50s. ( I actually welled up remembering this) He was so smiley, and so friendly. Happy to see us, and share his experiences of how it was, and how it is now, sounding upbeat despite how tragic his words were. His shop was surrounded by closed one, many never having re-opened from forced military closure. Some shops, those facing Israeli settlements, had been welded shut. Above us, the chicken wire held rubbish, stones, shoes and bottles, but we were told piss and alcohol of course got through the mesh.
There is a depiction similar to how I saw it, in the film, World War Z, though in that it the scene is set in Jerusalem and filmed in Malta. Showing the wire mesh separations between the peoples it horrified me how many watched this film, yet there was no realisation of the authenticity of these circumstances, and almost no backlash; normalisation? Okay for them? (Yet of course not for us.) Perhaps many didn’t realise the truth of the representation. You can watch the clip here The part I am specifically referring to is just after 4 minutes.
In 1997 Hebron was divided into two areas, H1 & H2. H1 is supposedly controlled by Palestine and the PNA, but like everything in Palestine it is ultimately controlled by Israel. H1 which covers 80% of Hebron, is home to approximately 170,000 Palestinians, whilst another 30,000 live in H2 (in the Old Quarter), along with, but not alongside, around 800 Israeli settlers. These settlers live in higher ground and have an IDF security force of over 1000 to ‘protect’ them.
I found this article incredibly interesting to read, though I initially laughed in disbelief at the idea that I had been walking around a ‘revived’ Hebron. Sadly it must mean that it was a even more of a Wild West ghost town previously. Guardian Article: A ghost city revived (June 2015)
After walking through the Old City Market we headed over to the ancient building that holds Abraham’s Tomb (Me’arat Hamachpela / Al-haram Al-Ibrahimi.) Abraham, if you are fairly ignorant of religious narratives like myself, is an incredibly important figure in Islam, Judaism and Christianity. And apparently the building also houses the bodies of two other significant biblical figures, Jacob and Isaac as well as their three wives.
Dependent on your faith and/or identity documents you visit the tomb from one of two entrances, and can see into the other space through bullet proof glass. Initially only Muslims could enter here, but after the 6 Day War (June 1967) the site was opened to Jews as well. This was a shared space until it’s division in 1994 after a massacre in which Goldstein, an Israeli-American settler killed 29 Palestinians, with subsequent riots killing a further 35.
We first entered the Mosque on the Palestinian/Islamic side, handing over identity documents to very cold, young IDF soldiers (they weren’t always!) As women we had to cover up, and were given the rather fun to wear ponchos below. The atmosphere inside surprised me. It was very calming, and for the first time that day I just felt at peace and wished we had more time there. Perhaps it was as simple as being shut away from the otherwise inescapable highly charged and tense atmosphere when outside. The decor was simple, but beautiful. Standing near the tomb I knew I was by something incredibly important to many, but honestly didn’t know the significance of the people who lay inside. (Not that much more knowledgable now…)
We then headed back out, through security, and over to the Synagogue, Israeli/Jewish side, again through security, minus of guide, who could of course not join us.
I have another picture, almost identical to this one above, but with a group of about 40 Israeli teenagers sat on the steps. I decided against posting it, because I felt it might seem I was posting it for a reason, as if they shouldn’t be there, but they aren’t doing anything wrong. I don’t think they shouldn’t be there, shouldn’t be allowed to visit one of their holy sites, however their presence, their freedom of movement was in uncomfortable, stark contrast to that of our Palestinian tour guide, who now had stay put whilst we walked down Shuhada Street, despite it being in Palestine. Noteworthy is also the Israeli flags across the top of the building, the shared building, in Palestine.
We left our guide Muhannad for ten minutes to walk down deserted Shuhada Street. There were IDF soldiers watching us from either side. Once the main thoroughfare its buildings were forcibly abandoned in the 1990s, the empty street intended to act as a buffer zone between the Palestinians and Israelis.
After re-uniting with Muhannad we returned to our car and I was mentally, and physically, (on 2 hours sleep) drained. What I’ve written here is mainly just what I saw and was told at the time. On-line research and residents accounts detail an even sadder, more divided & violent narrative, both sides feeling they are the victims. The next stop was Bethlehem, to sleep in the Banksy Walled Off Hotel, and I was equally excited and nervous with no idea what to expect from a city I used to think was purely mythical.
Yassar Arafat’s Tomb & Ramallah
My visit to Hebron was part of a day trip with Green Olive Tours. En route from our Jerusalem pick up (I flew in that morning) we visited Yassar Arafat’s tomb, who died in 2004. Arafat was Chairman of the PLO (Palestinian Liberation Army) from 1969 and also President of the Palestinian National Authority (PNA) from it’s inception in 1994. The PNA was formed as the interim self-government body established after the Oslo Accords. Assumed by most of the world to be loved by Palestinians, Arafat’s signing of the Oslo accords (alongside Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin) actually divided opinions greatly, with some feeling that recognising Israel as a state was a necessary move towards peace in the region, and perhaps the start of implementing a two state solution, whilst many others felt completely betrayed by this. Whichever stance you take, it is clear 24 years on, that the Oslo Accords failed. Overall I have the impression that, at least for his early actions Arafat is generally viewed as a hero and a Palestinian freedom fighter, even though his later track record is more divisive. But of course, I may be wrong.
We then headed on to Ramallah, the de facto administrative capital of the Palestinian National Authority. A bustling city, I was shocked at how ‘normal’ it felt walking around. Check out Palestine (pt1), The Occupied Territories of for pictures and a little more about the place. Our last stop before Hebron was a glass blowing and ceramic workshop. Their skills were mesmerising, their handiwork producing beautiful ceramics and bottles with intricate designs. Mine, as you can see from the pictures below, were just smile & laughter inducing. I bought a few things for my family, but would have loved to have bought half the shop ❤