My Thoughts. My Perspective
“Hebron is a microcosm of the Holy Land issue overall. There are just different narratives of the same holy place – Jewish and Palestinian narrative of the Holy Land being the biggest riddle in the entire world.”
That’s what Eliyahu, our Jewish tour guide, said as we were on our way to Hebron – the most heavily contested area of the West Bank in Palestine.
It was an absolute given that I would be visiting the West Bank during my travels in Israel. Personally, I think it’s an essential part of travelling here, to understand what is going on outside of the particular bias reporting of our own country’s media and away from the strong perspectives of our peers, which can easily sway us.
Yet also it’s important to realise that BOTH the Jews and the Arabs have their own stories to tell.
It’s narrow-minded to take one side, when hardly any of us are historical or conflict resolution experts. While I do not in any way support the notion of Jewish settlements, I can see how people desperately hold onto history and heritage. And while I see how Palestinians in Hebron are encroached upon in a land that was once free and shared by all as peaceful neighbours, I do not believe that fighting violence with extreme violence is the answer. In short, it’s not a black and white situation and neither am I qualified, politically, to take a side.
But that doesn’t mean that I can’t gain an educated, well-rounded and balanced perspective on it. Because what I do know is that there’s actually an amazing group of Israeli and Palestinian people working together for the greater good.
Visiting the West Bank / the Palestinian Territories / Palestine teaches you one important lesson that you should carry with you through your days of travelling in this region – that the actions of extremists on both sides are in no way reflective of the people in both countries who go about their day-to-day lives while all this is going on.
So next time you call out Israelis for being bullying, gun-touting land-grabbers and Palestinians for being fanatical suicide bombers, remember that there are normal people on the ground who have nothing to do with the wider agendas of their governments or religious factions, but who see each other as neighbours and who are calling for the same thing – resolution and peace.
I know that, because I call these people my friends.
Visiting the West Bank
While you can tour the West Bank safely and easily, visiting the key cities of Bethlehem, Jericho and Ramallah, this story is specifically about Hebron. I joined a ‘Dual’ Narrative tour in the city, a joint partnership of the Israeli owned Abraham Tours and the Palestinian Visit Hebron-Palestine initiative, where half of the day would be spent with a Palestinian guide, and the other half with a Jewish guide.
Why? Because Hebron, the largest Palestinian city after Gaza, is divided, and is said to be where the settlement movement started – a major issue in today’s ongoing conflict.
Home to over 750,000 Palestinians and around 850 Jewish Settlers, Hebron is split into two areas. Following the Oslo Agreement Hebron Agreement in 1993, which saw the withdrawal of Israeli forces in parts of the West Bank and the establishment of the Palestinian Authority who would control Palestinian cities in the area, Hebron was an exception and given its own terms of agreement.
Considered the second holiest city after Jerusalem for the Jews, it’s also one of the four holiest cities of Islam (after Mecca, Medina and Jerusalem) and hence control of this part of the West Bank is more complicated.
Here, the Palestinians authorities control H1 (80% of the population). H2 (20%) is controlled by Israel – nearly 750 Palestinians live here alongside approximately 850 Jewish settlers and 2,200 Israeli soldiers. Overtime the Palestinian population in H2 slowly decreased following rule, curfews, restrictions on movement, the closure of Palestinian businesses and commercial outlets and settler harassment. The Jewish ‘settlers’ are a separate component to the puzzle, governed by their own administration and with their own agenda, but essentially Israeli forces protect them.
Are you still with me? Right…
Our Jewish guide, Eliyahu, chaperoned us from Jerusalem to Hebron, which is easy enough to get to from Jerusalem’s central bus station via a public, bullet-proof bus, where we were given a brief overview of the history and present day situation. On arrival, we immediately met our Palestinian guides, leaving Eliyahu behind for a few hours while we were to go to H1 (he, of course, being Israeli and unable to enter).
We met our two Palestinian guides, Mohammad and Leena, on what is called ‘Apartheid Street’ (Shuhada Street) – given that name by Palestinians (since they are barred from using it) and being seen as a space of protection by the Israeli’s. Once a thriving shopping lane, and now an eerie empty space, you feel the atmosphere here as you wander slowly past the closed shops towards the simple yet daunting checkpoint at the end, guarded by heavily armed Israeli military. It made the seriousness of the situation all the more real.
Crossing through, we entered into another world – a chaotic old city, full of cars, bikes, food carts and throngs of people. We were told it was once a ghost town but then the Palestinian government put initiatives in place to encourage people to come back to this old part of the city. We meandered the bazaars and spoke to locals, many having closed their business, and others desperately holding onto those which their fathers and grandfathers had once set up.
I never once felt unsafe here and nor do the Palestinian people make you feel unwelcome. In fact, many treasure the opportunity to share their stories, knowing that you will share them too. But there’s no denying that you could feel the tension, and then we worked out why.
We looked up and saw that modern stone buildings standing high above the old crumbling market place, inhabited by Jewish settlers, the walls literally touching that of the old city. The thoroughfare of the bazaar was covered in a roof of wire mesh, that had collected stones and plastic bottles like a giant sieve, items that the settlers are said to have thrown below, including urine and bleach (the other side of the narrative being that the Palestinians were too throwing items at the settlers).
We took a look around abandoned alleyways and noticed the end of old passages boarded up with sheets of steel, stone, plastic and whatever else could be used to block the entrance… to land that is now occupied by Jewish settlers.
We walked through houses and stairwells to reach the rooftops of local Palestinian properties to find Israeli checkpoints all around us, where armed soldiers took guard on rooftops and hillsides. We were told that Palestinian people are not allowed to lock their doors and that Israeli soldiers could come in at any time; that houses are taken by force since many Palestinians refuse to sell their properties for the millions of dollars offered by the settlers. Essentially, they are watched and controlled here at all times, not only with checkpoints but with 100 or more cameras – supervision in H1, which shouldn’t have any Israeli control at all.
Some of us cried and some sat in silence full of anger after we had entered the mosque side of the Tomb of the Patriarchs (a place divided in two after a massacre in 1994 which saw a Jewish man open fire on Muslims on Ramadan) and watched Israeli military act disrespectfully. Walking around with their shoes on and the women not covering their heads, many made smirking gestures and one even curtly told our Palestinian guide to leave the room we were in.
These were not like the Israeli soldiers we had seen elsewhere and watching Leena break her heart over the whole situation proved that a whole different level of control and attitude exists here unlike that of anywhere else. I can only imagine how being posted in Hebron could send you crazy or make you devoid of all rational thought and feeling, although this is no excuse for the overarching agenda of the system deploying them here.
Our time in H1 ended with having lunch with a Palestinian family, although by this point we were not in the highest of spirits. All we could do was watch the happiness of the children playing, hoping that one day things wouldn’t be so bad for them – they being the next generation who can make change.
We bid a sad farewell to our guides, feeling as if we had known them longer then just the few hours we spent with them and grateful that the insight here wasn’t full of extreme hatred and bias.
We had seen enough to make our own opinions.
It’s fair to say that Eliyahu inherited our group in a bad mood, and for that we later apologised. At the time we were so emotional that we were almost not listening, or wanting to care what he had to say. But the beauty of camaraderie, which is exactly what this tour forges, is that we all willed each other to give the Jewish side of the story here a fair chance.
We entered the Tomb of the Patriarchs again but this time to visit the Synagogue side, which was just as beautiful but more sad when you saw how both sides ‘peer through’ to each other, blocked by a bullet proof screen at the tomb of Abraham – the one person central to both religions. We were told how the entire building is open for 10 days a year under Islamic control and 10 days a year under Jewish control – the only means of sharing this holy site.
Visiting a residential area, we learnt about the reasoning of settlement here, which is basically about the ‘reclamation’ of land (with archeological sites used as markers also) based on the heritage of forefathers that dates back to Biblical times (as is the reason used now for settlement in other parts of the West Bank). A synagogue has even been rebuilt here on the site of the original, as historical claim, which we visited.
To add to that, there’s also what we were told was “the Zionist response to a terror attack” which is to rebuild where an act of terror took place, and we saw many buildings that had been erected bearing plaques with the names of those who had died at the hand of suicide bombings.
Visiting the Jewish museum, we learnt about the 1929 Hebron massacre, with pictures depicting the slaughter of 67 Jews and the ransacking of homes and Synagogues by the people they once lived peacefully alongside – their Arab neighbours. This terrible event is seen as an open wound and another reason given for current Jewish presence here – it is seen as a form of resettlement after they fled the area because of it. However, as pointed out by Eliyahu, the museum is somewhat bias, with no mention of the 400 or more Jews who survived thanks to their Arab neighbours who hid them and tried to protect them.
It’s fair to say that there’s been continuous Jewish presence in Hebron throughout history (as with the Holy Land as a whole), but with Jewish people moving out after the massacre and returning decades later. However, whether or not the Jewish people living here now have a direct ancestry line to those who lived here decades and centuries before, the issue is not with Jewish people as a whole (again, we have to be careful not to categorise ALL Jewish people in Israel), but with the strong nationalistic sentiments of this particular stand of Jewish thought – the ones who firmly believe they have a right to be here, in spite of rational thought and the idea of coexistence.
We ended our time up on a hill, on another Jewish settlement where a Jewish man had been murdered, resulting in the Israeli government giving permission for the settlers to build there. There are so many fractions of settlements in Hebron, each with their own distinct reasons to build in a particular spot, that this issue in itself is complicated.
By that point we had seen and heard enough. We understood both sides, but it didn’t mean we had the answers to everything. It just helped to give perspective on what is possibly the most complicated issue many of us had ever heard about. But for a few minutes we stood on that hill and looked out across the spectacular Hebron landscape – beautiful, peaceful and full of history. For a few minutes, It was almost as if nothing was happening there at all.
After the long and emotional but thoroughly insightful tour, many left to head straight back to Jerusalem (this is the kind of tour that requires a rest afterwards). Still, five of us choose to cross into H1 again to meet Mohammad since we wanted to see new Hebron – the modern side of the city away from the heart of the conflict and Israeli control – a city very much like the other cities in the West Bank, full of stores, restaurants and other big businesses.
We tried local coffee, smoked shisha and indulged in a hummus feast before getting on a bus to Bethlehem to cross the border back into Israel. None of us will forget that quality time with Mohammed, our new Palestinian friend, knowing that we would return to Jerusalem to do the same with our Israeli friends that same day.
Maybe one day we will all get to sit around the table together in both Hebron and Jerusalem, without the need for divisions, checkpoints and explanations. That’s why these Israeli and Palestinian people are working together after all – to prove that peaceful communication is possible.
Whatever your opinion, from what you’ve read or watched or listened too, there’s nothing more important that actually being here and forming your own. By being here you simply become another part of the narrative and you may well be surprised at how your own fervent, one-sided opinion becomes more balanced and informed.
Of course, there are many strands of narrative, including those of the army, civilians, left-wingers and right-wingers and everything else in between. But I will leave you with these wise words we were told…
“There’s room for all manner and strands of beliefs. Nationalism is poison. The only thing we should condemn is violence, but still love the Holy Land.”
Details and booking details of the Dual Narrative Tour in Hebron with one of my trip partners, Abraham Tours, can be found here. The full day tour costs £51 / $83.