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Middle East Diaries Part 3: Hebron
From the bus to Hebron we could see Jerusalem sprawling across the nearby hillsides
From the bus to Hebron we could see Jerusalem sprawling across the nearby hillsides. Despite the close proximity of all places in this land, it still takes us a long time to reach our destination, constantly zigzagging around roadblocks and forbidden areas. Whatever strangeness encountered on the journey is put to shame by the surreal experience you dive straight into upon leaving the bus in Hebron.
Our first stop was a house in front of which stood barbed wire fencing and a great barricade of garbage. Beyond this we saw our first settler house. On a netting-enclosed front porch two children played on a trampoline, oblivious to the messed-up world so close to them: to them, this was normality. It would become a recurring theme throughout the day. Leaving this view we began down the empty market street. It is easy to tell when a place has been unnaturally deprived of life, as opposed to simply falling into disuse. Garbage in the street, shops shut and locked up, some of them marked with big red dots like plague warnings, to show they have been taken over.
We walked along, under a wire fence constructed to protect Palestinians from the missiles thrown from the settler houses above. These are visible by the blue and white flags fluttering from their windows. Some such missiles hung like swords of Damocles over our heads, rocks, bricks, shoes and knives hanging over an eerie, dead street. Presumably now that nobody returns here, they have done their job.
Leaving this place we arrived at a rooftop, overlooked by a suspicious Israeli soldier, one of the 2,000 stationed here to protect the 500 settlers. Some of these walked beneath us right now, one in uniform, generally ignoring us, except for one who shouted up ‘Welcome to the Holy Land!’ From this viewpoint we could see most of the lower city, including the city graveyard and giant water tanks for the settlers, marked with the Israeli flag, which make one pause for thought regarding the government’s complicity and the intended permanence of this situation.
Further down the market regained some life; again one is surrounded by distractions, sights, smells, running children, worn-eyed old men. After negotiating this maze we passed through a series of turnstiles only to find it was in fact a checkpoint and a bored Israeli soldier stared us through to where the Ibrahim Mosque stood. The old stone building looked suitably worn and weary to fit its troubled history. Supposedly the tomb of Abraham, and thus holy to both Jews and celebrated Purim by entering the mosque with his army issued rifle and gunning down 29 worshippers and injuring 125 more before being beaten to death. Although largely condemned in Israel, the attack’s resulted in a riot that caused a curfew on the Palestinians and the mosque is now halved between the two groups. Upon entering, a Muslim member of our group was pulled over for questioning, but managed to convince the throng of Israeli soldiers that he was a born-again Christian, perhaps aided by the fact that we were all taking photos of them. Inside the tense atmosphere is just as strong, as is the feeling of slow replacement. Rooms still tiled with Arabic art are filled with Jewish decorations; a lone settler prayed in a chair, ignoring us all.
Outside stood a gift shop full of Jewish religious icons and memorabilia, casually passed by a bearded settler with an M16 rifle slung over his shoulder. To stand on the same street with him our Palestinian guides had to claim to be Christians, rather than stick to the small area at the side of the street, separated by a stone wall with ‘Free Israel’ graffiti on it. Here we had coffee outside the last Palestinian shop still open on the road.
Walking down this road we were soon on our own as our guides again had to stay back, and we were alone in the settlement. We walked along timidly in the empty streets, not knowing what to expect. Reaching the other end we saw a house annexed only the night before, with a Palestinian family still living on the bottom floor. Soldiers in riot gear were everywhere, while those who had taken the house milled around the door. Some of the settler children passed by us, members of the ten families that now occupied the top floors. They did not even glance up at any of us. The general rule being that once a settler moves into a house, the street becomes off-limits to Palestinians.
To get near the occupied main street we had to pass through a graveyard that gave us a good view of the area. The walls were pock-marked with graffiti, a common motif being the Golden temple of Jerusalem, something many of them wish to see rebuilt. Along the way we passed the last Palestinian-owned homes on the street, its windows covered in metal wire. The owners had to leave via the rooftops as they could not enter the street, which was only for settlers, internationals and the steady stream of soldiers. In one only an old man remained, surrounded by settler houses, meaning he cannot leave, for fear of losing his home. Further on was the army base where soldiers and settlers lived. Nearby an old settler played guitar at us while others waved up, obviously used by now to people staring at them from the barriers.
Reflecting later on, at one of the only bars in West Bank, all I could think of as an impression of the city was, firstly, tension. That perpetual feeling of hostile and mostly armed shoulders that rub in this land. Secondly, it was sad inevitability, as the people Hebron are slowly but surely steadily squeezed out of their determination and resolve, I can see why it is called the epitome of the conflict.
Written by Giles Longley-Cook