October 9, 2022: Eye of the Storm
After waking up in Dheisha Refugee Camp near Bethlehem, Rory, Pablo, our guide Ibrahim, and I headed out to the city of Hebron, the most controversial city in the West Bank and the epicenter of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
The night before, we heard gunfire in the streets. What we thought had been an Israeli raid turned out to be a blood feud between two Palestinian families. The son of one family was dating a daughter from another family in secret…so the families decided to attack each other in the middle of the streets. A modern-day Romeo and Juliet!
As we left town, we saw the remnants of the fight which included gunfire, bombs, and lots of rocks. Ibrahim noted that this was definitely a blood feud because Palestinian police, not the Israeli army, were clearing the road in Area B.
We then drove south along Route 60, the main north-south road in the West Bank that connects nearly all the cities, as well as numerous Israeli settlements in the area built on what used to be agricultural land used by Palestinians.
On the topic of the settlements, we passed quite a few and they looked like suburban North County San Diego, which is to say beautiful and gated. I don´t understand why any Jew would want to live here surrounded by people that really really really do not like them. Ibrahim mentioned that Palestinians are often the ones building the settlements because their job prospects are so lousy.
Israeli-only buses connect the settlements to Israel proper. These buses are not open to Palestinians, who have separate bus lines that connect their own villages, just like the one I took yesterday from Jerusalem.
Along the road, we passed numerous Israeli guard towers with armed soldier. Ibrahim said that if he were to stop and get out of the car for any reason near one of these towers, he would be shot on the spot.
Interestingly, a few days after this trip, I met an Israeli soldier who used to work in one of these towers. She refuted Ibrahim´s comment and said her main tasks were clearing rocks thrown by Palestinians on the road and performing first aid on motorists due to the many accidents along the road. While her purpose there was clearly to protect the settlers, services were provided equally to all.
After 45 minutes, we reached Hebron (officially Al-Khalil).
Hebron was founded more than 5,500 years ago. The town is important because Abraham, the founder of Judaism, purchased his family burial plot here. Along with himself, Sarah, Isaac, Rebecca, Jacob, and Leah are buried here (Rachel is near Bethlehem). This purchase represents the first piece of Jewish land ownership in the Promised Land. Jewish mysticism traditions state that the cave is a secret entrance to the Garden of Eden. It was also in Hebron where David is crowned King of Israel. For these reasons, Hebron is considered the second-holiest city in Judaism.
Abraham is also a key figure in Islam. His attempted sacrifice of his son Ishmael (not Isaac), which turned into a sacrifice of a ram is recreated every year by millions of families around the world during the Eid al-Adha holiday, one of the two most important Muslim holidays. For this reason, Hebron is considered the fourth holiest city in Islam.
Due to these competing religious interests, the city has been a religious hotspot just like Jerusalem. The epicenter of this conflict is the Cave of the Patriarchs (Jewish name)/Al-Ibrahimi Mosque (Muslim name), the 2,000-year-old Herodian structure (most recently renovated by Saladin) that covers the tombs.
While Jews have always had a limited presence in Hebron, the town is and has been predominately Muslim for 1400 years. Despite the coexistence, relations have not been great. In 1929 the Muslims massacred a large percentage of the Jewish population and in 1936, the British government forced all the Jews to leave Hebron to prevent a similar event from occurring. Nevertheless, Jews continued to return to the city in small numbers.
Israel gained control over the West Bank including Hebron during the 1967 Six Day War and split the Cave of the Patriarchs/Al-Ibrahimi Mosque into Jewish and Muslim halves. Jews gained the right to pray at the site for the first time in 700 years. Again, coexistence did not lead to peace. In 1968, a Palestinian threw a hand grenade at Israelis praying of Yom Kippur, injuring 47. The most recent and most deadly attack occurred in 1994 when an armed Israeli settler entered the Muslim side of the compound, killing 29 and wounding 125 worshippers during Ramadan.
The Jewish presence ramped up in Hebron after the 1995 Oslo Accords and the 1997 Hebron Agreement. These agreements officially split the city in half, which half remaining a Muslim city and the other half being a Jewish city. The line of control is right in the middle of the Old City. This is the only case in the West Bank where a Jewish settlement lies in the middle of a Palestinian city. The Jewish settlements in Hebron continue to expand today. Just in April of 2022, the Israeli Supreme Court approved the construction of a new 6-story apartment building in Hebron´s Old City. There are currently 500 Jewish settlers and they are protected by 2,000 Israeli soldiers.
As a result, of the division of the city, most of the Muslim population from the Old City moved to “New Hebron”, just to the west. New Hebron remains the main commercial and population center.
Today, Hebron is the largest city in the West Bank, and it felt like it when driving in. The 4-lane road was surrounded by medium-rise buildings, busy shops, and lots of cars.
We parked next to a large mosque and got some hummus and falafel for breakfast. The total cost of breakfast was 48 Israeli shekels or $13 for the 4 of us. Not bad!
Then we drove down steep narrow roads into the old city, which is in a small valley. Suddenly, we saw a bunch of Israeli flag and a very low guard tower most likely full of soldiers. Holy smokes this is the border!
The Old City looks just like any other old city in the region: Bethlehem, Jerusalem, except for one thing: no people. Since Israel divided the old city, most everybody left. It is a shell of what it once was.
Our first stop was the Hebron Museum. The museum did a good job at explaining the long history of the town from antiquity to today. However, it skipped out on one big part: the Jewish history. This was done intentionally, as one panel mentioned that the museum’s goal is to de-Judaize Hebron. In 2017, the Palestinian government got Hebron recognized as a UNESCO World Heritage Site. The description lacked any indication of Jewish history or presence which riled Israel.
We then walked through the maze-like covered casbah marketplace. 80% of the shops were closed, which is such a shame because pictures in the museum showed a lively place in the 1980´s. Numerous passageways were blocked off because they led to the now-Israeli side.
85% of the houses were abandoned too. The Israeli government placed restrictions on the remaining 15% of Palestinians living near the line of control. Most lost access to their windows or roofs because of the potential security risk to Israeli settlers.
In one part of the casbah, the Israeli settlers live directly above the shops. The settlers throw trash onto the Palestinians below. Now that section is covered by a net, so the trash just sits there, as it is impossible to clean.
At the end of the casbah, we reached a menacing security checkpoint with a metal revolving door. This marked the entrance to the Al-Ibrahimi Mosque/Cave of the Patriarchs complex. Before continuing onwards, Ibrahim said that if anybody asks you your religion, make sure to say Christian because they are the neutral Abrahamic religion. Saying Jewish, Muslim or even Atheist will not allow you to go into both sides of the complex.
We went through the door and were greeted by four heavily armed Israeli soldiers sitting behind a bulletproof glass wall. They were in their mandatory service (aged 18-21). Sure enough, the soldiers asked us our religion. After saying Christian, they said, “Welcome to Israel” with huge smiles. Ibrahim thanked them with his own ironic smile and we continued.
We first went into the Muslim part of the complex, which is a functioning mosque. That meant covering up and taking off shoes. There are two prayer halls, but the main one contains the Islamic-style tomb markers of Isaac and Rebecca. These are not the actual tombs, as all the bodies are theoretically below in the cave. The entrance to the cave looks like a well and is in the back of the prayer hall. The entrance is covered and very well-sealed.
In the back of the mosque is a window into the room containing the tomb marker of Abraham. This room is also viewable from the Jewish side. After the 1994 massacre, a sheet of bulletproof glass was erected in the middle of the room between the two sides.
With that, we exited the mosque and headed to the no-man´s land. It was here that Ibrahim told us that we (but not he) could go into the Jewish side of the complex. We walked past two Israeli checkpoints where we were again asked our religion. After saying Christian, we were let through.
Suddenly, we were surrounded by Hasidic Jews, both families and groups of young people. What a shift!
The Jewish side of the complex is covered in bookshelves and numerous small synagogues which included arks of Torah scrolls. The Jewish side also contained the tomb markers of Jacob and Leah. Despite being on the Jewish side, the tombs were still dressed in the green Islamic cloth.
Again, I peered into the room containing the tomb marker of Abraham, this time on the other side of the bulletproof glass.
While both sides feel heartburn over not being able to visit two of the tombs, each religion does get 10 days a year when the entire complex is open exclusively for them. Seems like a fair compromise.
Back in the no-man´s land, we met up again with Ibrahim who took us to meet a Palestinian shopkeeper who explained the logistics of the no-man´s land. Because the Jewish settlements are not quite contiguous (yet), there are places where Palestinians and Israelis could theoretically interact. To minimize the risk of violence against the settlers, Israel allows settlers to drive. Palestinians can only walk on foot. In these areas, Israel has set up checkpoints at nearly every other block. Palestinians are subject to searches at each of these multiple checkpoints, turning what should be a 100-meter walk to visit a friend into a 45-minute ordeal.
Despite the hardships and the lack of tourists, the shopkeeper persists. Before leaving, I bought a porcelain cup.
The No Man´s Land is a dystopian ghost town. All the shops are shuttered. The homes are all barricaded. Israeli flags flutter on streetlamps. I picked up a used bullet casing. The settlers speed in their cars to avoid getting attacked. The addition of the Muslim call to prayer made the stroll downright apocalyptic.
Further along our walk, we were stopped by an Israeli soldier posted in a guard tower. After saying we were tourists and that we were Christian, he called his supervisor to check. 5 minutes later, we were allowed to continue.
A few minutes later, we passed by a group of Palestinian kids around age 12. One of them walked up to us, said “Jews” and pretended to shoot us with his “air” machine gun while his friends laughed.
We took a final stroll in the still-functioning market before heading back to Bethlehem. Somehow Ibrahim managed to chase down the bus to get us back to Jerusalem.
After an ID check, we were officially back in Israel. We then headed to Jerusalem to continue our trip.
Hebron represents the worst of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
The Israelis here are insane. To live in a land surrounded by people who want to kill you is crazy. But in Hebron, the settlers live smack dab in the middle of the largest city in this land. The Israeli settlers have ripped land from the rightful owners through every dubious legal method possible to create more territory. Their bravado is obnoxious and inciteful
Israel has also created an untenable situation for the Palestinians living in the Old City by moving them out of homes, destroying the commercial center and creating impossible inconvenience with the checkpoints.
At the same time, the Palestinians spew noxious hatred of their own through their denial of the Jewish connection to the town and their commitment to violence against Jews. Should they control the entire city, Palestinians would most certainly deny Jews the ability to enter/pray at the Tomb of the Patriarchs like they did for the last 700 years. As crazy as they are, I understand why the Jewish settlers are here, as this is literally the front line of a religious war.
To me, there seems to be a simple solution: the Palestinians guarantee and protect Jewish access to the site in a similar division to what exists now and in exchange the Jews leave the city save for a few religious organizations. The old city is reunited and becomes a symbol of interfaith cooperation like Bethlehem. Kumbaya. But peace is a two-way street and, at this moment in time, neither side wants it.
I think about Abraham and the wall of bulletproof glass separating the descendants of Isaac and Ismael. What agony he would feel knowing the sad fate of his children in 2022!