There was no way I’d go back to Jerusalem and not pay a visit to the West Bank and Hebron. After all, I worked as a human rights lawyer for 15 years, and although the focus of my research has always been the Roma minority and the protection of cultural identity, I have done quite a bit of reading about the the Palestinian – Israeli conflict. That doesn’t make me an expert at all. But I know for sure that I am interested to learn more about it, and not necessarily from what is written on books. I wanted a first hand experience.
To read more about Jerusalem, check my post “Traditional and Alternative Things To Do In Jerusalem.”
I went to Jericho, Ramallah, and Betlehem. Getting there was actually very easy, and they appeared to be not only very safe for tourists, but also very interesting and pretty to explore. I got to visit Yasser Arafat Tomb in Ramallah and talk about him as a political figure, but I quickly realized that I wouldn’t be able to really get a better understanding of the conflict unless I went deeper into my exploration of the West Bank.
I would have to go to Hebron to quench my thirst for knowledge. I decided to take a guided tour there, so that I would be showered with information and possibly find answers to my questions.
To find out why I recommend taking guided tours, read my post “Ten Reasons To Take A Guided Tour.”
When I told Janine, a girl I befriended at my hostel in Jerusalem, that I intended to go on a guided group tour of Hebron the following day, she wished me good luck, adding that she had been there the day before, that it had been an incredibly intense experience and that she was still trying to make sense of it.
That didn’t sound very reassuring. I was not sure what to make of it. I knew that Hebron was a city that the Palestinians and the Israelis fought over – actually, the most contested city in the West Bank. I had even followed the story of Elor Azaria, an Israeli soldier accused and eventually convicted for having killed a wounded Palestinian assailant in Hebron. And still, I wanted to see the city with my own eyes, and not just through a television screen.
So I went on that group tour of Hebron, as I said I would. Sold as a day trip from Jerusalem, it was obvious that this would be much more – and certainly not a jolly ride to la la land. I had willingly decided to jump head first into one of the most politically and emotionally intense experiences of my life as a traveler.
A Dual Narrative Tour of Hebron: One Story, Two Interpretations
The Dual Narrative Tour of Hebron which I went on is an 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 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 whoever visits Hebron hears two versions of the same story. And as it is obvious, each guide and each local met more or less overtly hints that theirs is the version that anybody would want to support.
What I know for sure is that I went to Hebron full of certainties, with my very own views of the conflict. But those certainties crumbled in front of the convincing stories of the two guides: it was hard to keep a neutral side to each story; it was hard not to side with whichever story I was hearing, because both guides (and both people) seemed to be having very strong arguments.
By the end of the day, exhausted, I had troubles making sense of the experience. Following, is a recollection of what I saw in Hebron. I am not even trying to understand anymore.
A bit of information about Hebron
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, Hebron 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. Another interpretation of the name is that 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; but sadly, instead of promoting links between the main monotheistic religions, this has made Hebron the most contested city in the West Bank.
Hebron fell under the 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 revolted 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 centre 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 currently divided in two areas: H1 makes up 80% of the municipality and it 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.
Arriving in Hebron from Jerusalem is rather easy – at least, for tourists. A bus with bullet proof windows leaves from Jerusalem central bus station and after making several stops along the way, it stops right outside the Tomb of the Patriarchs in Hebron.
That’s about the only easy thing about visiting Hebron. I don’t necessarily refer about the practical aspects of visiting the city, or about safety issues. Touring Hebron is easy enough for foreigners, especially if they are chaperoned by a guide. And I never felt concerned about my safety while I was there – whether I was on the Palestinian side of the city, or on the Jewish one.
What’s not easy is everything else – the sorrow feeling one feels going through the empty streets of the Old City, or listening 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.
The Jewish side of Hebron
The first stop of the Dual Narrative Tour of Hebron was 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 to Hebron after 1967. There, our guide Gabe opened 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.
We walked up a view point – the terrace of an apartment building – to get a full view of Hebron. From up there, it looked like the most normal of cities: full of history and culture, and beautiful. But then, we went back down and got slapped in the face by the reality of life in this city.
We walked along 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 who venture to Hebron, and the Israeli soldiers that stand at street corners and check points.
We saw many new buildings and commemorative plaques. Gabe explained that buildings and plaques 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.
As I walked along the empty streets of the Jewish quarters, a question kept running through my mind: 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, I got the answer to my question as he explained us the importance of Hebron to Jews. He told us that Hebron is the cradle of the Jewish civilization, where the most important religious figures for the Jews are buried. Not allowing Jews to Hebron, he continued, would equate to not allowing Christians to go to Jerusalem, or Muslims to go to Mecca.
I still didn’t fully get it. It may be that I am not religious at all. But I just would not want to live in a place where every day is a struggle for survival, where I have to watch whatever I do and I am not free to move around as I wish.
Desolation and sadness is what I mostly felt when I walked through the Jewish quarter of Hebron. Hardly anybody was around, save from the soldiers that patrolled each street and any building of relevance – some of them nothing more than kids. It just ached my heart to see a place that was once full of life become so deserted. We were so geographically close to Tel Aviv, yet a million miles away.
To read more about Tel Aviv, read my post “Twenty Things To Do In Tel Aviv To Fall In Love With It.”
The Palestinian side of Hebron
We left our Israeli guide Gabe to meet Mohammed, our Palestinian guide. He took us to his home, where we were welcomed by his family and offered a delicious, home cooked lunch. Over lunch, we chatted away, much like a group of old friends would do.
Mohammed told us anecdotes of his recent visit to Italy (of all places!), where he felt welcome and respected and (needless to say) loved the food. We laughed about the most common stereotypes of various cultures and nationalities. His child kept walking in, demanding his attention. His mother also came in to check whether were were enjoying her food – like any proper Middle Eastern mother.
I felt at ease; the feeling of desolation and frustration that troubled me for the last part of the morning at least momentarily gone thanks to the chit chat about nonsense stuff.
H1, the Palestinian side of Hebron, felt completely different from H2. This part of the city was bustling with life: cars, bikes, food carts, families with small children, shop owners inviting us in, people everywhere, going about their daily business as if Hebron isn’t one of the most contested cities on earth.
It almost felt like a completely normal city, at least until Mohammed took us further into the bazaar, and the buzz was completely gone. Once again, there was hardly anybody around and once again I was overwhelmed by the desolation of the place. A lot of buildings looked abandoned, furniture left to rot on the streets. Many blinds were down.
And even within H1, for incomprehensible (at least to me) reasons, Israeli soldiers stood guard of some buildings, standing armed in their watch towers and observing our every move. I was there for just a few hours and felt almost violated. I couldn’t help but wonder what it must feel like for those that live there and, day in, day out, have to walk under the stares of soldiers.
It was in the old bazaar that we met some local shop owners, who – like the Jewish settlers on the other side – shared their story and views with us. But it was when Mohammed invited us to look up that we realized that on top of the crumbling old buildings of the bazaar stood shiny, stone buildings inhabited by the Jewish settlers. It didn’t make any sense to see Jewish settlements on areas that were evidently Palestinian (as if the separation made sense at all, actually).
As if this wasn’t enough, a roof of wire mesh worked 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 any other items that the settlers have allegedly thrown below to 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 Jewish people lived peacefully next to each other.
Mohammed told us stories of when, as a child, he learned to outsmart Israeli soldiers who took every opportunity to get confrontational with the Palestinian community. He told us of the time when he was 7 years old, and playing football with his older cousin, the ball fell outside the yard, right on the feet of an Israeli soldier. They ran away, but the soldier followed them and threatened the kids to give him the ball, or he’d shoot them. And he did. He shot a child, for no understandable reason.
I didn’t know what to say. All I felt, at that point, was anger. Perhaps the same emotion Palestinians feel.
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.
I had my own ideas before visiting Hebron. I wanted to go because I wanted to have more insights about the daily lives of its inhabitants. All I can say is that it is not nearly as black and white as one may think, and I left perhaps more confused than I was when I went.
I could finally understand what my friend Janine meant when she told me she was still trying to make sense of what she had experienced. I wonder if she has finally managed to do so, because two months later I am still unable to. But it is just as well.
What I keep wondering, though, is 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 what to me seem like useless 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.
I look forward to the day when a peaceful solution to the Palestinian – Israeli conflict will come.
The Dual Narrative Tour of Hebron is offered by Abraham Tours every Sunday and Wednesday. It costs €73, or $82 USD. While it is not necessary to take a guided tour of the city and tourists are perfectly safe there, I recommend going on a guided tour to get better insights on the history and politics of the city.
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.
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