Taking a Hebron tour is a great way of learning more about the Israeli – Palestinian conflict.
If you ever visit Israel, and especially if you go to Jerusalem, you should make it a point to pay a visit to Hebron, West Bank. Though most people go to places like Bethlehem, Ramallah, Jericho and the Jordan River, I actually recommend visiting this city, one of the most contested in the conflict.
It is not a merry place to visit – after all, it’s been at the center of disputes for decades. But it’s very interesting, and during your visit you will learn a lot about the Israeli – Palestinian conflict.
If you plan to visit Hebron, you are better off joining a guided tour. You may be able to wander around the streets of the city by yourself, but honestly this should be a learning experience more than anything else – and you can’t have that unless you have a guide. That’s why I recommend a Dual Narrative tour of Hebron – the best is run Abraham Tours, one of the top group tour companies in this part of the world. You can book it here.
In this post, I explain what you should know about visiting Hebron, West Bank, and doing a Hebron tour, with lots of background information about the city. I will also provide some useful tips that should help you make the most of your time there.
Some Background Information About Hebron, West Bank
Please keep in mind that this is a mere summary of my understanding of the history and political situation of Hebron. I am by no means trying to give a full recollection of historical facts – it would be impossible to do so. Nor do I claim to fully grasp what went on there, and what goes on nowadays.
Hebron is located at around 30 km from Jerusalem, at about 900 meters above sea level. It is the largest city in the West Bank, with around 215000 people living there, of which no more than 800 are Jewish settlers.
According to the Old Testament, the city was founded in 1730 BC. Its biblical name is Kiryat Arba (literally “the Village of Four”) and it refers to its position on four hills. Hebron is the burial ground of the patriarchs – Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, and their respective wives. This makes it one of the most sacred cities to Jews, Christians and Muslims alike. Sadly, instead of promoting a connection between the main monotheistic religions, this has made Hebron the most fought-over city in the West Bank.
Hebron fell under Islamic rule during the 7th century. It then subsequently fell in the hands of the Crusaders, only to be reconquered by Saladin and fall once again under Islamic rule (and later on Ottoman rule) in the late 12th century. In 1917 the British occupied Hebron, which then fell under Egyptian rule in 1948 and then under the rule of Jordan.
Problems in Hebron started in 1929, when Arab nationalists rebelled against the Jewish community after their leader spread the false rumor that Muslims were being killed in Jerusalem. Dozens of Jews living in the city were attacked, 67 were killed, and the rest were evacuated. This sad episode became known as the Hebron Massacre.
In 1967, after the Six Day War, Jewish settlers started moving to the center of Hebron, and the village of Kiryat Arba was established nearby to attract more settlers. After that, Jews finally gained access to the Cave of the Patriarchs after 700 years of being unable to do so.
After the Oslo Agreements of 1993 which saw the withdrawal of Israeli armed forces from parts of the West Bank, Hebron was given special status and was divided in two areas: H1 makes up 80% of the municipality and is under Palestinian control; H2 makes up 20% of the municipality and is under Israeli military control. H2 also includes the important Tomb of the Patriarchs and parts of the beautiful Old City. Around 40000 Palestinians live in H2, against no more than 800 Jewish settlers. Roughly 4000 Israeli soldiers are spread around the Old City to protect the settlers.
In 1994 a Jewish settler shot and killed 29 Palestinian Muslims at the Cave of the Patriarchs mosque. Riots followed, causing more deaths and eventually leading to the creation of a buffer zone between H1 and H2. Palestinians who lived and worked on Al Shuhada Street (now called King David) were forced to relocate. The shops were shut, and have remained so since.
In more recent years, Hebron became famous for the story of Elor Azaria, an Israeli soldier accused and eventually convicted for having killed a wounded Palestinian assailant in Hebron.
The Dual Narrative Hebron Tour: One Story, Two Interpretations
The Dual Narrative tour of Hebron run by Abraham Tours is a very interesting project; a joint effort by the Israeli company Abraham Tours and the Palestinian one Visit Hebron – Palestine. It is structured to have two guides. A Jewish guide takes visitors around the bits of the city inhabited by the Jews; and a Palestinian guide walks them around the Palestinian areas.
The reason for having two guides is that literally Jews can’t go to the Palestinian parts of the city; and Palestinians can’t go to the Jewish areas. Meeting members of the two communities is an integral part of the tour. They sit with the tourists, talk about the city, and their daily life.
This means that you hear two versions of the same story. And as it is obvious, each guide and each local more or less overtly hints that theirs is the real story.
You may go to Hebron full of certainties, with your own views of the conflict. But those certainties crumble in front of the convincing stories of the two guides: it is hard to keep a neutral side to each story, because both guides (and both people) have very strong arguments.
By the end of the day, you will have troubles making sense of the experience.
Doing A Hebron Tour
Taking a tour of Hebron is easy enough for foreigners, especially if they are chaperoned by a guide. You should never feel concerned about your safety while there – whether in the Palestinian side of the city, or in the Jewish one.
Durning your visit, you will notice the sorrow feeling going through the empty streets of the Old City, as you listen to the stories of two people who once lived in peace, who are so similar in culture and values, and who have both suffered, and yet can’t seem to find a way of living peacefully together again.
Exploring the Jewish side of Hebron
The first stop of the Dual Narrative tour is the Abraham Avinu Synagogue. This was built in 1540 and destroyed in 1929, during the Hebron Massacre – and eventually rebuilt after the settlers started moving back after 1967. Your guide will open a display case containing a 500 years old Torah scroll that managed to survive the destruction of the synagogue.
The most sacred site in Hebron, to both Jews and Muslims, is the Cave of the Patriarchs (also known as the Sanctuary of Abraham). This is where Abraham (or Ibrahim, in Arabic) is buried. The building has been split in two to accommodate both faiths. Until 1967, when Hebron fell under Israeli control after the Six Day War, Jews were only allowed to go as far as the 7th step outside the cave.
You will walk up a view point – the terrace of an apartment building – to get a full view of Hebron. From up there, it looks like the most normal of cities: full of history and culture, and beautiful. But then, going back down you’ll get slapped in the face by the reality of life in this city. Desolation and sadness is what you will mostly feel when walking through the Jewish quarter during your visit.
King David street, once buzzing with life and business, is now a ghost version of itself: the only people in sight are the few tourists and the Israeli soldiers – some incredibly young – that stand at street corners and check points.
You will see new buildings and commemorative plaques. These are located in places where the Palestinians have carried out attacks against the Jews, to remember the victims. That’s the Zionist response to a terror attack.
You will ask yourself: why would any Jew want to move to Hebron, in a place that is so openly unwelcoming to them?
Meeting with a representative of the settlers community during your tour, you will get an answer. Hebron is important to Jews. It is seen as the cradle of the Jewish civilization, where the most important religious figures for the Jews are buried. Not allowing Jews to Hebron would equate to not allowing Christians to go to Jerusalem, or Muslims to go to Mecca.
Visiting the Palestinian side of Hebron
Once you’ll leave your Israeli guide, you will meet your Palestinian guide to continue with your Hebron tour. He will take you to his home, where you will be welcomed by his family and offered a delicious, home cooked lunch. Over lunch, the impression you will get is that of sitting with a group of old friends – that’s how friendly Palestinians are.
H1, the Palestinian side of Hebron, feels completely different from H2. This part of the city is bustling with life: cars, bikes, food carts, families with small children, shop owners inviting you in, people going about their daily business.
It almost feels like a completely normal city, at least until your guide takes you further into the bazaar, and the buzz is completely gone. Once again, there is hardly anybody around and you will be overwhelmed by the desolation of the place. A lot of buildings look abandoned, furniture left to rot on the streets. Many blinds are down.
Even within H1, Israeli soldiers stand to guard some buildings, armed in their watch towers and observing every move.
Local shop owner will share their story and views with you. Looking up, you will realize that on top of the crumbling old buildings of the bazaar stand shiny, stone buildings where Jewish settlers live. It doesn’t make any sense to see Jewish settlements on areas that are evidently Palestinian (as if the separation made sense at all, actually).
As if this wasn’t enough, a roof of wire mesh works as a separating net between the two levels. Throughout the years this has acted like a sieve, collecting stones, plastic and glass bottles (at times containing urine or bleach), cans and whatever else the settlers have thrown against their Palestinian neighbors.
It’s disturbing to know that such things can happen, especially when taking into account that less than a century ago Palestinians and Jews lived peacefully next to each other.
Taking a guided Hebron tour
The Dual Narrative Hebron Tour is offered by Abraham Tours every Sunday and Wednesday. It costs $85 USD. While it is not necessary to take a guided tour of the city and tourists are perfectly safe, a guided tour will give you better insights on the history and politics of the city.
You can book your Hebron tour here.
Getting to Hebron, West Bank
You can easily get to Hebron from Jerusalem by public bus from the Central Bus Station. The bus has bullet proof windows. After making several stops along the way, it stops by the Tomb of the Patriarchs in Hebron. The overall journey lasts one hour.
Hoping for peace
Violence in Hebron is a tragic reality, but it occurs in waves. It is now facing a period of relative peace after the conviction of Elor Azaria. Attacks happen on both sides, carried out by Hamas forces as well as by the Kach Party (a Jewish terrorist organization). Tourists may feel discouraged to visit, but they are hardly a target.
Before visiting Hebron you will walk in with your own ideas. During your visit you will quickly learn that it is not nearly as black and white as you may think, and you may leave more confused than when you started.
You will keep wondering why the Palestinians and Jews of Hebron can’t live in full peace today, as they have done for centuries. Why are they so stubborn, fighting over matters of principle, and can’t just accept that yes, tragic events have occurred in the past, but it is time to move on and finally forgive.
Make sure to read my other posts on the West Bank and on Israel:
- Everything You Need To Know Before You Visit Palestine
- 29 Things To Do In Jerusalem You Can’t Miss
- 9 Fantastic Day Trips From Jerusalem
- 21 Absolutely Unmissable Things To Do In Tel Aviv
- The 10 Best Places To Visit During A Trip To Israel
- The 13 Best Day Trips From Tel Aviv
Note about the comments: I know that the Palestinian – Israeli conflict is a controversial topic, but keep your comments civil. I appreciate disagreement but I won’t tolerate rudeness and profanities.
Legal disclaimer: I was a guest of Abraham Tours during my visit of Hebron, however all the views expressed are my own.