“So why did you choose to move to Hebron even though there are frequent rocket and knife attacks aimed at you?”
Mika shifts on his feet and non-chillingly offers his answer;
“Well, have you ever been to West Detroit?”.
I haven’t but I concede Mika’s point; at least the weather here in Hebron is pleasant.
Mika is the American born, elected spokesperson for the settlement movement in Hebron and this, not entirely easy, interview with him is the climax of what has been a tense day exploring the “disputed territory” of Hebron. After the interview I shake his hand and thank him for his time and as I do I cannot help but notice a handgun sticking out from his pants. When I ask him why he feels the need to carry this, he informs me that there have been several attempts on his life.
You may have heard of Hebron. It is an ancient site located in either “The West Bank” of Israel or in Occupied Palestine depending upon how you look at it. It is sacred in both Judaism and Islam as the resting place of Abraham and several more biblical heavyweights. Hebron is however more infamous these days on account of its notorious prominence as an Israeli “settlement” which international opinion widely calls an unlawful land grab. The city is technically in Palestine, not Israel, and yet Israeli’s have been acquiring property and building houses here since 1969. The troubled city semi-regularly makes international headlines for bloodshed as Palestinian militants clash with Israeli security forces. All too often it is civilians on both sides who suffer.
The temple which adorns the legendary burial lot, The Tomb of the Patriarchs, is now split into two separate spaces. The entrances to both the mosque and the synagogue are heavily guarded by IDF Soldiers. This is Hebron encapsulated, a city where divide, tension and fear have sullied the common ground which should unite the Abrahamic religions and where Ismail and Isaac’s ancient, sibling rivalry is played out in a devastating fashion. If the Tomb of The Patriarchs is Hebron encapsulated, then Hebron is the West Bank and the entire Israel/Palestine dispute itself personified; today I feel I have better understood this region than I ever could have done by simply propping-up all night bars in Tel Aviv or floating aimlessly in the Dead Sea.
The Wheels on The Bus
My Hebron experience began early that morning as I shuffled onto a bus departing from Jerusalem central. By this point I had done some serious mileage on Israel’s bus networks but as soon as I took my seat I noticed some harrowing differences about this vehicle; the windows were tinted, bullet-proofed and lacerated with dents and scratches which I can only deduce were the marks left by stones thrown at them. This was what they call a specially modified “settlement bus” designed to withstand attacks from both angry teenagers hurling rocks and militants firing bullets.
My guide for the day, David, was another American born Orthodox Jew who had settled in Israel on Aliyah some years ago. He retained his Californian accent and spoke of re-discovering his Jewish faith only after extensive dabbling with the esoteric, eastern religions which were in vogue in 70’s California. He made a point of buying his sandwich and coffee from the bus station as he knew he would struggle to find kosher foods in Hebron; Hebron is afterall technically in Palestine which remains a Muslim state.
Whilst a zealous Orthodox Jew and settlement advocate, David is also a peace activist who is working closely with Palestinian community leaders in Hebron to try to end the hate and find a solution whereby both peoples can live side by side in peace. It is through this connection that he met Mustafa who will take me into the Palestinian area of Hebron which David is not allowed to access.
The bus arrived in Hebron and we departed. It was early in the day and the Middle Eastern summer heat pleasant. After providing a loose orientation, David handed me over to Mustafa and I agreed to meet David again after lunch.
Mustafa showed me to the Mosque which we were allowed to access after a routine passport and bag inspection. The temple originally existed as a shared, dual-faith worship space for many years until 1994 when hard-line Jewish extremists opened fire on Palestinian, Muslim worshipers during Friday prayers. The act was universally condemned throughout the Jewish community but the resultant fallout was the partitioning of the temple and permanent stationing of soldiers for security reasons. This was my first time in a Mosque as generally, Non-Muslims are not permitted access.
Upon leaving the Mosque, Mustafa took me the short distance to the Old Market which could only be accessed through another army checkpoint where I was asked to confirm my Nationality and produce my “Blue Card”. The market was a long, straight line of ancient stalls built into stone kiosks flanked by another, larger wall. Overlooking the market thoroughfare was a row of elevated houses which Mustafa told me are now occupied by Israeli families;
“They took the houses illegally and sometimes they come up and throw litter down onto us”.
Mustafa directed my attention skywards to protective netting spread across the open street which is strewn with old newspapers and trash which Mustafa tells me were callously hurled down from the houses above. Mika would however later refute that accusation suggesting that the trash had most likely been blown down by the breeze.
The market was quiet with several derelict units. The ones which did remain sold nothing of any interest or anything that appeared to be of much value; I could not help but make a mental comparison between this and the bustling souks of Tel Aviv and Jerusalem. As we explored, I was hounded by kids selling “Free Palestine” bracelets repeating “Please Sir…only 5 Shekels” despite my repeatedly declining their offers. The market traders were also pretty damn full on in trying to entice me into buying their wares and one even chased after me, grabbed my arm and implored “You don’t buy anything from me. WHY?!”. It recalled the intense bothering I encountered before only in Morocco but with an added element of sheer desperation; it was not a pleasant experience.
As we explored the market we had been joined by one of Mustafa’s friends, Fatima who had followed behind us quietly. To be perfectly honest I was not sure why Mustafa had actually brought her but now it became clear as he suddenly stopped right in the middle of the street;
“We will have to leave Fatima here as she is not allowed to go any further”.
Apparently owing to profiling by the intelligence forces Fatima was considered a potentially dangerous person and going any further would be breaking her curfew and would risk arrest. Mustafa had brought her along as a living illustration of the arbitrary absurdity of the curfews and restrictions on movement that impede day to day life for so many in Hebron.
Old Enough To Cross The Street
As Mustafa is now over 30 years old, he is considered safe to cross the street so he took me over to show me a building. It was a school which had once been the site of the occupying Headquarters during the “British Mandate” era between the world wars (Mustafa, like many Palestinian’s, by the way, blames the British for the current situation as it was they who authorised the state of Israel). It was now an Orthodox Jewish school surrounded by high barbed wire fences with a machine gun turret built into the corner wall manned by a Hasidic IDF soldier, his curl hanging down from beneath his helmet.
Mustafa told me that it had previously been used by the local Palestinian governing body as a boys school until 1969 when the army had shut it down for security reasons. Apparently, they operated it as a base for a while before handing it over to the settlers who re-opened it as a Jewish religious school, an act he calls property theft. As he was telling me the story, the Solider in the gun turret joined the debate;
“The school was purchased by the Rabbi…he bought it from the local Palestinian authority”.
The two shouted across the street, arguing with one another about the legal ownership of the property. For a split second it did occur to me that one of the protagonists had the potential to settle this at the barrel of a gun although in the end, they agreed to disagree almost with civility. As we made our way towards Mustafa’s home for lunch we had to pass back through the checkpoint. This time around we were, for reasons not clear to me, kept waiting for 5 minutes as pedestrians were buzzed through one by one with long intervals between admittance. Apparently, this is not unusual and the locals are often late for appointments and even school on account of been left waiting at checkpoints.
Over lunch (which was delicious and plentiful although I was carrying a post-India stomach bug so I stopped at only two helpings) I asked him to elaborate on the alleged “property thefts” and why the soldier at the school believed that the Jewish settlers had actually purchased the property. Mustafa conceded that the settlers have produced documents suggesting they legally and properly acquired the disputed properties but that, in his opinion, these documents are either forgeries or not satisfactory contracts. He explained to me that the way properties are held in local custom would have made it impossible for the settlers to buy them in the methods they claim to have done. Once his explanation of Palestinian conveyancing was over I commented that the system seemed almost to invite ownership dispute.
After lunch, Mustafa showed me some YouTube video’s which he claimed showed IDF soldiers shooting unarmed Palestinian children although to be quite honest it was not clear what was going on in the footage. What was clear though is that Mustafa is dealing with a lifetime of anger and it seems to me that in his own mind he has turned, not only the IDF & the settlers, but all Israeli’s into folk devils and cruel persecutors. This is even though, through the restrictions he is subject to, he has not really ever met any Israeli’s not wearing uniform. It was also clear that my opinion, and wider international opinion, is very important to Mustafa and to the Palestinian’s in Hebron. They are almost desperate for my sympathies and for me to take their side presumably in the hope that I will go out and tell the world. I will soon find that it is the exact same situation with the Jewish settlers.
Good Afternoon David
David is waiting for us outside Mustafa’s house after lunch. He is speaking with Mustafa’s Father who I gathered was well respected amongst the Palestinian community. Watching him and the Orthodox David talk with genuine mutual respect was encouraging and gave me some hope that, despite the resentment and distrust I had witnessed that morning, there was still some hope. Mustafa gave me a bottle of water which he refused payment for and I was on my way. It was by now after midday and the sun was beating down intensely.
“Come on let’s get into the shade of the Synagogue”
Dressed in the Black, heavy garments of the Orthodox, David was now sweating. As we headed towards the Synagogue, known as Macpellah, we passed yet another checkpoint. We also passed a street stall where a Welsh-born settler was handing out leaflets, written in 5 different languages, explaining the Jewish heritage of Hebron and how Gentiles too can keep Torah. Inside the Synagogue I peered through the bulletproof glass at the tomb of Abraham where earlier that morning I had looked from the other side whilst in the Mosque; the whole experience was a bit surreal and I could not help but draw a convenient metaphor about “looking at the same thing from two different angles” as being a perfect one for the whole Islam/Judaism divide.
There were soldiers inside the Synagogue as well as around 30 Orthodox Jews rocking back and forth in Prayer. David told me how the book of Genesis records Abraham purchasing this land as a burial place for his beloved wife Sarah thus beginning the legacy of a Jewish community in Hebron.
“Some here would have you believe that we only showed up here in 1969 after the six day war but in truth we’ve been in Hebron for 3000 years”.
The interior of the building isn’t all that impressive (on either side) so after paying my respects to Sarah, Noah and Jacob we moved on.
After 10 minutes walking in the heat, we arrived at a long, steep, derelict street. David explained that this is the so-called “Apartheid Street”, a prominent flash point of the Hebron conflict. It was once the main market street where over 80 Palestinian businesses had operated. The entire street had however been shut down and closed off for security reasons by the IDF in 1994 following a number of assassinations. The IDF claimed that terrorists were using the street to target Jews en route to Synagogue and therefore it had to shut down. The buildings are now all shuttered closed and beginning to crumble and rust. Access is now only permitted by special privilege granted to local dignitaries and activists although soldiers patrol either end of the empty street as if guarding the spectres.
The effect was of an eerie ghost town or a land that time had suddenly forgotten all about one day. Whilst I am no military strategist, I couldn’t help but think that the rationale for closing the street was questionable. Firstly, the response seemed exaggerated and installing checkpoints (like elsewhere in the town) would surely have had the desired effect of curtailing would-be terrorists. Furthermore, in reality, there are still many other ways of accessing the Synagogue for anybody with sufficient, determined, murderous intent. Rather it seemed plain to me that the closing of the street had been a “punishment” for the assassinations, it was the occupying forces sending a clear message that they would not tolerate the killing of Israeli civilians and that there would be harsh consequences. Perhaps it was also intended to turn the Palestinian populace against the militants within their midst. Either way it was psychological warfare.
As we made our way towards the Israeli housing projects I noticed a plaque on a wall commemorating the spot where one of the assassinations had occurred. The dedication on the plague read (not in Hebrew or Arabic but in English…)
“Here is where Rabbi Shapira was murdered by Palestinian Terrorists“
I questioned David about the emotive language employed and pointed out that “Killed by gunmen” would have made the made the point in a far more neutral, less accusational way;
“Neutrality is a luxury only Europeans can afford” was David’s response. “Everybody out here has a victimisation complex”.
The next stops on our tour were a reconstructed Synagogue, built on the site of the original medieval one, and then the Hebron museum which told the story of Jewish habitation in Hebron from Abraham through to the modern day. It was here that I heard the most horrific story of the day.
The Jewish community has lived and flourished in Hebron for 1000’s of years living peacefully with their Arab neighbours. Under the Ottoman rule, they had been encouraged to settle and were seen as a vital part of the cities fabric. However, in 1929 things took an unpleasant twist when an Arabic mob turned on their neighbours and massacred 69 of the Jewish residents. The bloody massacre was only halted by the British army after one of their officers had been attacked. Following the massacre, the British made the decision to force relocate the Jewish survivors beginning a 40-year exile from Hebron which only ended in 1967 when descendants returned to reclaim what they felt was their ancestral right.
In David’s mind the massacre is central to the continued mistrust that persists between the communities here as it is still deeply ingrained in the Israeli national psyche that Arab’s just cannot be trusted because, despite even 1000 years of harmony, they can suddenly turn on you. This notion is an ongoing, real obstacle to the peace process. However, David is at great pains to point out a crucial piece of the narrative that is missing from the museum’s history;
“What is not been told here is how more than 50 Palestinian homes opened their doors and sheltered us. One elderly Palestinian man even lost his arm defending his Jewish neighbours from the mob”
Not In Kansas Anymore
The climax of the day was to be a meeting with Mika, a prominent and controversial figure in the Israeli settlement movement and elected spokesperson for the community here in Hebron. We awaited him in what appeared to be a small lecture hall with a lectern at the front, rows of pews and tables and shelves full of books around the room.
Mika began our meeting by explaining the movement’s history. Following the Six Day war in 1967 a number of Israeli protestors came to Hebron to reclaim the Hebron Hotel building which they felt had been wrongly taken from their descendants following the 1929 massacre and forced evacuation. Since then more and more Israeli’s had returned to Hebron acquiring buildings and land on which to build new houses. Whilst I was at great pains to emphasise to Mika that I had no firm opinion on the situation or any agenda, he was nevertheless somewhat guarded. Rather than simply employing the politician’s trick of re-phrasing my questions into something he wanted to answer, he instead just turned them back on me. I concluded that his defensiveness was perhaps an awareness of an unfavorable international opinion and possibly prior bad experience with the journalists of the world.
He did, however, offer some very frank insights when asked why the arm of martial law was so oppressive;
“This is the Middle East. Look around at what’s happening in Syria, Egypt, Iraq, and Lebanon. You either arm and defend yourself or be massacred. We learned that the hard way from history as did the Kurds and the Armenians”.
What he was saying is that whilst Western opinion regularly calls Israel’s responses “disproportionate” (such as the permanent closure of Hebron’s entire High Street following 2 deaths) it doesn’t take into account that we are not in Kansas anymore, that things are very different out here and that maybe, just maybe, the regular rules don’t apply. Whilst the bitter realist in me understood Mika’s rationale, I could not help but think that this mindset could only perpetuate a circular legacy of violence. But of course when there is such endemic mutual mistrust, who is going to lay down there arms first?
According to Mika the bullets and rockets continue to fly, there have been attempts on his life and he informs me that only days earlier a rocket landed on a playground frequented by his children. This is what prompted my question of why he doesn’t simply pack up and go back to the relative safety of the United States.
Following the meeting, David took me up a steep hill for a panoramic view of Hebron. As we made the ascent we passed yet another checkpoint where in the past few months a number of soldiers have been wounded by knives and their assailants killed. Fortunately, it was quiet during my visit and as we overlooked the city it seemed so tranquil and peaceful with pretty olive trees, stony hillsides and white houses. From here it was impossible to identify which neighbourhood was Palestinian and which was Israeli. It was all simply Hebron; an ancient little hillside town basking in the glow of a serene sunset.