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A winding road, smooth and freshly paved, carries passengers from Jerusalem to Hebron, situated deep in the stomach of the West Bank.
This route, like 80 percent of the total highway system in the West Bank, is prohibited for Palestinian use. Built on private Palestinian land confiscated by the Israeli Defense Force (IDF), these highways bisect through villages, dividing families, and boxing Palestinians into enclaves often described as “Bantustans.”
The bus passes through the first military checkpoint, and we are almost out of what the Israeli government anticipates annexing in any two-state solution. We beat on through the mountainous terrain.
I see a large Israeli settlement to the right: it has playgrounds, electricity grids, and an immense water tower. It’s as if a small strip of Southern California suburbia was airlifted into the throbbing heart of Palestine.
The further we go, the greater the distance between settlements, the larger the Palestinian villages.
A litany of armored vehicles is parked in a scanty valley littered with jagged, pale gray rocks. Soldiers sit atop the hills, binoculars in hand, M16s cradled in their laps. Squatting on their haunches, they appear to be focused on something deep in the vast panorama of rolling hillocks.
All I can see in those hills is a child on a donkey, being patiently led by a decrepit old man in a pallid, almost glowing keffiyeh. Behind him, a long pearl robe flows like a blank flag, flutters against the backdrop of the dim day.
We enter the South Hebron Hills and pass Susiya, a cringing village of tents and caves, where the residents have been displaced by military demolitions five times since 1985.
Once we enter the old city of Hebron, the final stop is Shuhada Street, where some 500 Jewish settlers reside amid over 165,000 Palestinians.Nowhere in the West Bank is the suffocating air of the Israeli military so palpable.
Of the over 350,000 settlers in the West Bank, those living in Hebron most frequently attack Palestinian civilians, and are quite possibly the most ideologically-drunken band of theocrats that the Israeli colonial establishment has to offer. Indeed, it is commonplace for the settlers to unleash indiscriminate vigilante force on the local Palestinian population.
In 1994, Baruch Goldstein, a New York born settler from the neighboring Kiryat Arba, robed in military insignia and entered the Ibrahimi Mosque. The mosque is home to the Tomb of the Patriarchs, an ancient relic holy to both Muslims and Jews. Goldstein opened fire on the worshipers, killing 29 and injuring 125. He fired until he ran out of ammunition, then was beat to death by the surviving worshipers.
Since 1994, an estimated 10,000 militant Jews have made “pilgrimages” to his gravesite to celebrate the annual anniversary of the massacre.
Hebron also breeds the most extreme factions of the Palestinian spectrum. In 2001, as the Second Palestinian Intifada began acquiring momentum, a militant sniped an 11-month old infant, the child of settlers, through the skull.
These are both extreme examples, but not a day passes in Hebron without violent confrontations.
By no means, however, is the confrontation between two equal sides. Hebron’s settlers, vastly more aggressive and violent than anyone I’ve ever encountered, enjoy the rigorous protection of roughly 3,000 IDF soldiers who are stationed in and around the city.
A heavily-manned military checkpoint regulates who enters and leaves Shuhada Street. “One at a time,” barked an olive-garbed soldier with an oversized helmet and a determined face. “Germany, huh,” he says to a friend of mine, scrupulously examining her passport. “My people have a lot of history with you.”
She passes without responding to the soldier’s subtle threat.
Hebron’s old city looks like an actual ghost town. Thick pigtails of razor wire block the corridors that line Shuhada Street. The metal doors of over 2,000 shops, which together once constituted a lively Arab market, have been welded shut. Part of a Palestinian market that already relies heavily on international aid and is essentially held captive by the military occupation, Hebron’s economy plummeted as a result of the closures.
Hebron has never been included in Israeli territory in any potential two-state solution, but the street is lined with Israeli flags.
Hebron is fully segregated. Without an IDF permit, Palestinians are not allowed on Shuhada Street. They are rarely allotted permits, and the children who live in the old city have to cut through a graveyard to get to school each day. Palestinians have to walk on narrow pathways in the old city and cut through overgrown lots, though Israeli settlers are allotted almost complete freedom of movement.
Every Saturday, when Shabbat (the Jewish day of rest) concludes, a band of settlers storms through the Arab market, waving Israeli flags and taunting the locals. Though it is illegal even under Israeli law for them to enter this part of Hebron, gun-toting soldiers accompany and protect them.
An elementary school for Palestinian girls is blanketed in graffiti. “Death to Arabs!” one tag reads in crudely-sprayed blue paint. “Gas the Arabs—JDL,” another says. Baruch Goldstein had been a member of the JDL, or Jewish Defense League, which espouses an apocalyptic ideology rooted in the commitment to taking a greater Israel by force of arms.
“Palestine will be free,” another wall reads, “from the Jordan to the sea.” Someone has spray painted an X over “Palestine” and written “Israel” above it. Tagged underneath it is “Zionism is racism.” “Racism” also has a large X spray painted over it, replaced this time by “the answer.”
Three checkpoints later, we enter the Ibrahimi Mosque, what the late journalist Christopher Hitchens described as a “supposedly sacred boneyard in a dank local cave.” All traffic in and out of the mosque is contingent upon the Israeli military’s approval.
“What religion are you?” a soldier asks me, scanning the pages of my passport.
“None,” I answer.
“What do you mean?”
“I don’t have one.”
He looks at me suspiciously. “What religion are your parents?”
“Grandparents?” he says, obviously frustrated.
“I guess they were Christian.”
The mosque has been severed and half of it turned into a synagogue. The doors which connected the two halves have been boarded up. Just as the muezzin sounds off and many Muslim worshippers begin their evening prayers, a noisome racket comes from the synagogue side. Children are slamming their fists against the doors and singing in Hebrew. “Jerusalem, oh Jerusalem, is ours,” they chant.
Better to leave, we reckon. We step out into dusk. To make our way to the Arab sector of the city, we have to pass by the settlements again. This time, there are loads of people in the street. Hebron’s settlers are notorious for initiating physical confrontations with internationals. A government issued rifle around each of their necks, a group of men dressed in traditional Jewish garb stare coldly.
They have posted signs all over the old city. “This land was stolen by the Arabs in 1929,” one reads, referring the 1929 Palestinian riots, a violent uprising ignited by a sharp increase in Jewish immigration to Mandate Palestine. The riots cost the lives of 67 indigenous Jews, and ultimately led to the reorganization and rearming of Haganah, a Jewish paramilitary organization that later became the foundation of the Israeli Defense Forces. “We demand the return of our property.”
We cross through the final check point and make our way to the market. After the closure of Shuhada Street, a small portion of the vendors were able to relocate one street over. The new market sits behind the settlements, however. After months of having large stones and other objects thrown from the settlements, the vendors constructed a protective net from chain link fencing. It does not protect from smaller stones, and it does not prevent urine or feces from being tossed down on the heads of those in the market, as a friend of mine quickly learned when a cup of urine flew from the window of a settlement and landed squarely on his head.
Above one store a sign read, “Men can do some things, but women can do anything.”
The shop owner tells us she is the only female shop owner in all of Hebron, a deeply religious and traditional city. “I’ve lived here all my life,” she says. “My eleven kids were born here. We are not leaving—this is home.”
We sit, drinking tea, and speak to her for well past an hour. As we get up to leave, she hands us her card. “Next time you’re here, email me first. My family and I offer a very cheap guesthouse, and we give a special discount for students and activists.”
A former IDF soldier had once told me that everyone dreaded being stationed in Hebron. “It’s disgusting. I don’t want to protect those settlers,” he had said.
“The settlers start over 90 percent of the violent confrontations. If I could, I’d drag every single one of them out of there myself. Everyone—I mean everyone—hates serving there. It’s the worst place on earth. It’s hell on earth.”
We make our way towards to the bus station. A man signals us, speaking first in French. “Ah! You speak English!” he says, noticing the blank looks on our faces. “I’m an English teacher.”
We listen to him speak about Hebron for a while. He tells us about life in the city before the Second Intifada, which ushered in a period of much worse IDF repression. Before we depart, he says, “Thank you for visiting my city. But just remember: we are all human beings, and we all deserved to be treated as such. We have to respect each other, or else what are we doing here on earth?”
Do not mistake this pop-philosophy humanism as simplicity or naivety. Such words have perhaps never been spoken in a more appropriate setting.
Patrick O. Strickland is a freelance writer living and traveling on both sides of the Green Line in Israel and the Palestinian territories. He is a weekly Israel-Palestine correspondent for Bikya Masr and writes regular dispatches on his blog, www.patrickostrickland.com. He is a graduate student of Middle Eastern Studies.