I guess the name sounds familiar to everyone who is at least slightly interested in the current events. Hebron used to be pretty often on the front pages as that’s where the Israeli-Palestinian conflict was escalated to the maximum. But the day I spent in that divided city taught me that nothing is black or white, nothing is like the media show us and while all we hear about is the tension and the conflict there’re people trying to live the normal life in that difficult reality. And each side has their own story to tell.
Hebron is a home to around 250,000 Palestinians and 800 Jewish settlers. It is the second biggest city of Palestinian territories and the biggest city of the West Bank. Hebron is divided into two sectors: H1 that is controlled by the Palestinian Authority and H2 – ruled by Israel – that is around 20% of the city. The Jewish inhabitants that stay mostly in the old town are looked after by some 1500 soldiers of the Israeli Army – you can see them all over the city. Here you can read more about the conflict in Hebron
I visited Hebron with a tour organized by Abraham Tours and I can easily say it was the best tour I’ve ever been at. I met people who visited Hebron on their own but their experience was so much different from mine. While they could see the closed Shuhada Street, cross the checkpoint or visit the Cave of the Patriarchs I had a feeling they didn’t go deeper into the city, didn’t have a chance to fully understand it. That wasn’t the case with the Dual Narrative Tour where you spent half of the day on the Palestinian side with the Palestinian guide and another half on the Israeli side with the Israeli guide.
We were supposed to take the local bus to/from Hebron but on the day I went for the tour there were so many people that we had our own bus hired instead. After arriving into the heart of the Old Town we split into two and my part of the group started a day in the H1 – the Palestinian side, accompanied by the young local guy, Mohammad. But before we got there each person had to show the passport to the soldier standing alone on the abandoned Shuhada Street and then we proceeded to the check point to go through the metal detector…
What we saw just after the check point was a completely different world. While Israeli side felt like deserted, ghost town the Palestinian was a busy, bustling, chaotic neighbourhood. Next three hours were spent learning about the history, the conflict, the life going on in the divided Hebron. We’ve heard some heart breaking, sad and unbelievable stories that showed us the devastated city and the community that has to struggle so much. One day they had to leave their houses, they were banned from visiting the areas of the city where settlers live, their lives changed drastically almost overnight. Now Hebron is under constant surveillance, with numerous cameras observing every step. Yet people try to live the normal life in these difficult circumstances, they take the time to sit down for a coffee, stop to chat with their friends, bargain while shopping.
Big part of Palestinian community moved out from the Old Town after the constant harassment from the settlers. To give you one example: the main shopping street, right on the border with the Israeli part, is covered in a roof of wire mesh to protect people from stones, bottles etc thrown by the settlers. The biggest problem is Israeli soldiers are there to protect the settlers hence they can’t really do much in such situations… They are torn, between water and wind and even if some of them overuse their power it’s still not a fun situation to be in.
The very center of the conflict is the Tomb of the Patriarchs. It’s the only one building like that in the entire world – half of it (with the tombs of Isaac and Rebekah) is a mosque and the other half (with the tombs of Jacob and Leah) is a synagogue. The tombs of Abraham and Sarah stand in the middle. The whole structure used to be open to both Jewish and Muslims but then in 1994 one of the settler stormed in and opened the fire to the praying people resulting in 29 fatalities (plus 25 more in the riots afterwards) and 125 wounded people. That event changed the life of Hebron forever. Not only the holy building was divided (however each year during holidays both Muslims and Jews “rent” the whole structure to each other) but the conflict, the tension and the separation was put into the new level.
After the very sad and depressing visit on the Palestinian side and the lunch with the Palestinian family it was time to face the reality of the Israeli side and listen to their stories. That’s actually what’s the best about this tour – while most of the people come to Hebron already with the opinion about the conflict (based on media relations), over the day they can hear opinions of both sides and realize that things aren’t as easy as they seem and the whole problem is so much more complex…
Our Israeli guide Eliyahu told us all about the settlers and their reasons to return to Hebron, about the life in the divided city, about the terrorist attacks and how they resulted in the ghost feel of the center. What used to be the commercial heart of the city, with shops and other small businesses open to everyone, either Jewish or Palestinian inhabitants, turned into the empty space. And all of that for security reason. Every few steps we could see the boards commemorating those who died in the tragic events, the youngest one being a 11-month old infant. There were lots of empty, half demolished buildings that were haunting on every corner – most of them were an arguable possession hence the state they are in.
One of the last things in the agenda for the day was a visit in the Jewish Museum that focus mostly on the (almost) constant Jewish presence in the city and on the1929 Hebron massacre. During these events 67 Jewish inhabitants were slaughtered and most of the Jewish property (houses, synagogues etc) were demolished. When I read and listened about this whole unfortunate accident I’ve realized I’d heard the story before. The whole genesis of the Hebron massacre was exactly the same as the one of Armenian Genocide, the Balkans War or Holocaust – it all came from the insecurity of the group of people that eventually lead to such a tragic events. It’s just terrifying that people don’t learn from these mistakes and such things still happen in the world. What the Museum didn’t mention and what is often forgotten (yet what Eliyahu mentioned) is that there was a big group of Palestinians that risked their lives to save their Jewish neighbours
During the visit in the Jewish Museum we were lucky to meet David Wilder – the spokesman of the Jewish Community of Hebron. He told us his (and settlers) story of the conflict and refereed to this small group as “we, Israel”. All he had to say and the opinions he tried to force on us left me (and most of the people in the group) disgusted in a way… Neither Mohammad nor Eliyahu tried to talk us into their point of view or to prove which side is right. They both did a really good job with showing us the reality of Hebron and the complex situation there and all of that could have been easily destroyed by this one person who represents settlers out there in the world. All the Israeli people that I’ve met and talk to showed me a completely different face of Israel, the one where both sides of the conflict work hard together to establish a peaceful and understanding life for everyone. Yet this one person (and I assume many settlers are similar in that case) is driven by radical and nationalist emotions that eventually can lead to the tension…
I tried to encounter Hebron with the open mind, not to judge, not to take sides but just learn and try to understand. I’m still far from that as these few hours were enough just to briefly cover the issue. But the biggest lesson for me was that always we have to listen to both sides, there’s never only one to blame and nothing is just black or white. What we see is just the surface: the settlers living in the heart of Hebron and harassing Palestinians, the Palestinian terrorist attacks aiming at settlers (hence the big part of the center is closed), the constant checkpoints and passport controls, the fences built from everything (from plastic to wires and concrete). But everything is so much more complicated than just that…Noone is happy about the situation they found themselves living in yet they have to deal with it, somehow. I just can’t fully understand how.
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After the day spent in Hebron my head was buzzing with thoughts and emotions. It was one of the hardest days in my travel life and I still can’t get over it but I’m more than glad that I had a chance to experience it. Hebron is one of the places that you just have to visit to understand it, even if just a little bit, so you can tell the world around how the reality there is. The stories I’ve heard proved me that the problem is with the small nationalist group (on both sides) and the politics is way too involved. The normal people just want to live their life peacefully, without worrying which unfortunate event may happen today. Fortunately there are people like Mohammad, Eliyahu or the crew behind the Abraham Tours that work very hard to make this dream of the safe, united world happen.
Have you visited any divided, conflicted cities?
Hebron Dual Narrative Tour leaves from Jerusalem every Wednesday and Sunday. It costs 290NIS.
During my visit to Israel for most of the time I had my base in Abraham Hostel in Jerusalem and I can say it was the best hostel I’ve been to! It’ll be hard to beat that! Here you can book you a place to stay in Abraham Hostel. If hostels are not your thing take a look at other accommodation options in Jerusalem.
If you think of visiting Israel or just want to read more about the country take a look what else I wrote about it!
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