The tensions of life in the Palestinian city of Hebron
If there is one place in Palestine where the stark realities of the occupation and the seemingly irreconcilable differences between the two sides cannot be hidden, it is in the ancient city of Hebron. Here, unlike elsewhere in Palestine, a Jewish community lives within the city itself.
Even before you are confronted with the hard evidence of Hebron’s troubles you can pick up on the slightly downbeat feel in places, it doesn’t quite have the same sheen as elsewhere in Palestine, away from the refugee camps of course. The market, although fairly busy, looks a bit shabby but it’s with the few stallholders selling things that might appeal to the trickle of tourists that you can sense an atmosphere which isn’t simply suffering economically. I’ve spoken to a multitude of street traders on numerous poor countries but never have I felt such a note of desperation in sales pitches as Hebron. Elsewhere, a struggling economy is more likely to create a resigned shrug or some creative sales techniques than desperation.
The hard evidence of the struggle comes in the solid steel of checkpoints separating Palestinian and Jewish areas of the old town: the harsh functionality of grey turnstiles and cages to channel begrudging locals. The turnstile locks are released electronically from a control point at one end of each channel, staffed by soldiers little inclined to social niceties, even for tourists like me – unless maybe I had the look of a typical Palestinian sympathiser but once in a while elsewhere in the world I have been asked if I am Jewish, so I could only hazard a guess at what defines either image for Israeli soldiers . When queues form at busy times there are regular grumbles and shouts to open up when the controller shows little interest in creating an efficient flow of reluctant customers.
It must be understood that Jews have a perfect right to live in Hebron, after all it dates back to the earliest times in Jewish history in the region, with numerous Biblical mentions. They also have a right to bitterness over events in not so distant history in remembering the 1929 massacre, where, after a period of rising tensions and wild rumours, Arabs killed up to about 70 Jewish residents, including women and children. Hundreds were however saved by local Arabs sheltering them in their homes, often at great personal risk. The British evacuated the remaining Jewish population and it wasn’t until the war in 1967, when Israel annexed the West Bank, that Jews returned. The radical settlers who came had little connection to the original displaced population and have even been criticised by descendents of the 1929 victims. This was exemplified by the awful rebalancing of the death toll, when in 1994, a settler with his army issue machine gun killed dozens in the Ibrahimi mosque. The grave of the killer Baruch Goldstein is treated as a memorial in honour of this “hero” by some. If there is a similarly unhelpful equivalent on the Palestinian side, it is the homages to Saddam Hussain that can be found in places, due to his open support for the Palestinian cause, which almost certainly was more a matter of political expediency than genuine sympathy.
This dark history colours relations today and is again represented in steel, this time a mesh over the passageways on the Palestinian side of the border in the old city, to protect the people from rubbish and other unsanitary objects hurled by settlers living in the buildings above. This has forced the settlers to become more creative, so now throw buckets of piss, bleach or even the occasional molotov cocktail in the direction of their Palestinian neighbours. Actions like these and the intense security measures have decimated the economy in the old city leaving many businesses boarded up, the highest unemployment rate in the West Bank and low wages.
Best to look up unless you want an unwelcome surprise when walking down this street
Some Palestinians still live in the Jewish area, suffering the daily ignominy of negotiating checkpoint security. While I was there, another family of Palestinians was illegally evicted from their home by settlers, under the approving eye of the Israeli military, another having been taken a couple of weeks before. Little surprise that tensions exploded during my short visit. Walking into the town centre on a friday I stumbled upon a standoff between stone throwing youths and a squad of Israeli soldiers on the flat roof of a building. Appreciating the evident volatility of the situation I prudently turned off the line of fire just in time: within a minute shots rang out and I joined the more sensible locals getting the hell out of there. A fortuitous encounter with my guide from the previous day meant that I spent the rest of the day in his home as we listened to sporadic bursts of gunfire. Thankfully no deaths were reported but a serious head injury and the knowledge that live ammo is commonly used as well as rubber bullets underline the seriousness of events.
Building taken by settlers the previous night, guarded by Israeli soldiers
Although the Jewish district has some new buildings, it has just as much an air of neglect as the Palestinian parts. It is a far cry from the gleaming new settlements built in the countryside and settlers still only number a few hundred. Has the radical nature of the community deterred a large influx of newcomers? The Israeli government clearly hasn’t bankrolled a model development as a showcase for Jewish settlements.
As much as some voices would like to define the struggle as a religious one between Muslims and Jews, the reality is that it is far more of a political struggle, besides, the absolutism of religious justifications is a poor basis for a resolution, as much as both faiths have a tradition of upholding values like compassion and forgiveness. However, the religious factor plays a key role in Hebron as it is the home to the Tomb of Abraham and members of his family. Judaism, Islam and Christianity all trace their roots back to Abraham, who is equally revered among followers of all three faiths. The core of the building dates back to the time of King Herod in the first century BC and its ownership has juggled between the three faiths ever since. Currently it is divided into the Ibrahimi Mosque for the Muslims and what is known as the Cave of Machpela to Jews, with the Tomb of Abraham between the two. The tomb can be viewed from either side but a bullet proof screen is a sad testimony to the violent disagreements between the communities.
On both sides of the argument there are many who would be prepared to live among each other again in peace, as Jews and Muslims have done for centuries, once a final deal is agreed. This seems like a distant prospect at the moment as radical voices on either side do few favours for the majority. Given the total lack of interest of the current Israeli government in making even modest concessions and the unwavering backing of the U.S. government, it must only be longer term changes in political realities that offer any hope for peace. Particularly for the sake of the people of Hebron, we can only hope that calmer voices prevail.