I skipped off work on the last day of last week (the weekend is Friday / Saturday here, incorporating both the Muslim and Jewish holy days), and headed to Hebron, a small city in the southern part of the West Bank, initially to join two of the ‘cool group’, again at a conference. However, by the time I had headed into the office, become frustrated, left, caught the bus and arrived in Hebron, they had already departed, and I was left with a day to myself.
Having no plan, I wandered towards the Old City, hoping to explore the Souk and talk to some people….Hebron has a particularly vivid history in the Palestinian-Israeli conflict, and strikingly is the only major urban centre where Jewish settlers reside right in the city centre, on top of and within Palestinian residences. Unsurprisingly, this makes it one of the most likely places for clashes to erupt. Whilst the Wikipedia entry for the city is worth a look to understand this particular context, especially the importance of the city for Palestinians, economically, historically and socially, the neatest summary might perhaps be expressed as this:
Hebron is undoubtedly an occupied city. Israeli organization B’Tselem states that there have been “grave violations” of Palestinian human rights in Hebron because of the “presence of the settlers within the city. It is divided into two parts – H1, which contains around 120,000 Palestinians, and In H2, where more than 500 Jewish settlers live among 30,000 Palestinians, the Palestinian populations’ movements are heavily restricted which Israel argues is due to terrorist attacks. For instance, the Palestinians are not allowed to use the Shuhada Street, the principal thoroughfare, which was renovated thanks to fundings by the United States. Estimates put the number of troops – to protect these settlers – at between 2000 and 4000. As a result of these restrictions, about half the shops in H2 have gone out of business since 1994, in spite of UN efforts to pay shopkeepers to stay in business. Palestinians cannot approach near where the settlers live without special permits from the Israeli Defense Force.
In these photos, you can see the Jewish settlement (the newer building) on top of the Palestinian building. Note that the lower stories are empty; their doors have been welded shut by Israeli soldiers.
This image also shows the particular way that settlement is carried out in Hebron; the newer looking extensions are all Israeli additions on confiscated buildings. Settlers, aware of the risks they face in such blatant transgression, employ private armed security.
The Settlers in the sky routinely throw their rubbish onto the Palestinian society below, to which the Palestinians have raised metal guards in protection. Sometimes, the situation escalates, with sewage, stones and even Molotov cocktails being thrown down to the streets amidst market trading.
The image above shows the guarded concrete barrier that forms part of the distinction between H1 and H2. My photography is monitored by a bored soldier. Indeed, the soldiers don’t want you taking photos of their base, which sits in the heart of the neighbourhood. “It OK to photograph me”, he says, “but don’t look at the base”. The base sits next to the white cylinders under my prop’s straw hat, and is visible from the ground within the Israeli controlled part of town.
Palestine has some recognisable features of a different country…like its own phone network.
The Christian Peacemaker Team (CPT) are ‘getting in the way’ in Hebron – I’ll add videos that elaborate, but they feel their role, as Christians, in the midst of a conflict is to help those oppressed by it. They puruse an agenda of observation and Palestinian community advocacy within Hebron; Paulette was giving a tour when I stumbled across her group, and kindly allowed me to join. This proved an invaluable grounding in the city…
(437) Sahid showed me to his roof, right on the division between occupied buildings and those the Palestinian market traders are still allowed to use. Particularly he showed me the bullet-holes in his water-tank, the victim of further Israeli pressure on Palestinians to move well away from the settlements (571).
The Ibrahimi mosque is the second-most important site for Muslims and Jews in the Holy Land, and is partitioned to accommodate both, with separate check points for each, and an armed guard to keep the peace. I made this illuminating video as I passed back out of the Jewish side of the mosque – as a tourist, I was in a unique position, being able to pass between the separate areas.
What is astonishing is the age of these soldiers. Many are younger than me; hello-kitty watched and M16s make for an unsettling combination in an area so prone to outbreaks of violence…
Checkpoints are arbitrarily enforced; these young arab men were made to remove everything from their pockets, whilst I was beconed freely through the metal detector without having to remove even my bag. (VIDEO…coming soon). You are never far from the military….
But the soldiers here want to talk to me as much as the Palestinians do. I get the impression that in this apparent international backwater, people are keen to tell you their story. They are aware of the press they get in the world beyond; the Palestinians desperate to illustrate their oppression, and the soldiers sometimes critical of their own involvement….Hebron has certainly been an interesting chance to talk to both sides.
But while one child plays with a soldier on duty, another told me that the same soldier hit him.
The terminology in the Israeli-controlled parts of town is different…and characterizes the selective reading of history of which both sides are guilty.
Israel’s selective application of planning procedures is eident here; this was fenced off as an ‘archeological site’, until a settlement was deemed necessary…
The border between H1 and H2 is economically dead, due to Israeli restrictions on movement ‘for safety resaons’. And watchtowers sits on the tops of every neighbouring hill . Even ‘tourist sites’ are not immune; the tombs of Jesse and Ruth, mortal visitors to the garden of Eden, site quarantined by the uncompromising architecture of a settlement atop one of the neighbouring hills. The entrance is through an Israeli military camp (VIDEO…coming soon).
I got talking to Abed, who sold me some things and dressed my in a Kafir whilst telling me Hebron’s stories over many cups of Arabic coffee. He showed me the old Souk, from which traders were ejected after Israeli’s settled on its upper stories; a school at the end of this street was closed, only to be replaced by an Israeli one, whilst the Souk itself is now a rubbish dump for the settlement.
There was a festival on – celebrating the 15th anniversary of international aid for the the rehabilitation of Hebron’s Old City…a touching celebration of thanks, featuring transformation of public space into an outdoor photogallery, showing the results of a competition for a defining image of rehabilitation, and an eclectic brass-band playing to hundreds gathered in the audience.
Returned to Damascus Gate, (VIDEO…coming soon) the logistical hub of the old city, and met up with Dorota for a dinner of vegetables and chicken, before heading out to a Ziggy Marley concert…interestingly near Mt Zion.
I’ll update this post with videos as soon as I can find a good enough connection. But I’ll post to say that I have.