I had the opportunity to join an acquaintance who was traveling to Hebron to visit the Cave of the Patriarchs. Hebron is in the West Bank but is partially populated by Israeli settlers. There are different rules for entering the different parts of Hebron, which are designated H1 and H2. Some roads are closed to Palestinians and some roads are closed to Israelis. Anyone who is not either of those generally has free access to both areas, but sometimes even non-Israeli Jews are not allowed to enter Palestinian areas.
Background on Hebron
The name Hebron is from the root haver, meaning friend, and the Arabic name, Ibrahim al-Khalil means Abraham the Friend. This title alludes to Abraham’s relationship to god (god’s friend) and the chosen-ness of his descendants. It is believed that Abraham, the father of all three of the region’s major religions, purchased the Cave of the Patriarchs and surrounding area to bury his wife. Subsequently, some of his children and grandchildren were buried here. This is what makes the site sacred to Jews, Christians, and Muslims
The Cave of the Patriarchs now houses a synagogue and a mosque, which are accessed through different entrances. The synagogue is accessed through the Jewish part of Hebron and the mosque, on the other side of the building, is accessed through the Arab part of Hebron.
The site has since been under Christian rule (during the crusades), Muslim rule (by Salah ed-Din and then the Ottoman empire) and finally, Jewish rule again. Palestine became a British mandate in 1917. In 1929, in what is known as the Hebron Massacre, Arabs killed or wounded 127 Jews and destroyed homes and synagogues. The British subsequently evacuated Jews from the area.
When the state of Israel was created in 1948, Hebron fell under Jordanian rule and Jews were no longer allowed to enter the West Bank at all. But after the Six Day War in 1967, Jews began to populate the area again with the tacit support of the government.
The Oslo Accord, in 1997, recognized some Palestinian authority in this area and divided Hebron into two areas, designated H1 and H2. H1 consisted of 120,000 Palestinians and control was given to the new Palestinian Authority under Yasser Arafat. H2 consisted of 30,000 Palestinians and 900 Jews and this area was put under Israeli control.
Since that time, the Arab population of H2 has dropped drastically. The reasons for this are commonly listed as: curfews, restriction of movement, closing of shops, and harassment by Israeli settlers.
Since the Second Intifada, which began in September of 2000, the Cave of the Patriarchs has been the site of two massacres- one by Arabs against Jews and one by a Jew against Arabs.
The Jewish Area
Upon our arrival to Hebron, my companion, Ben, asked a soldier if we were allowed to enter the mosque and, if so, how would we get there. To our surprise, he answered in unaccented English and told us he was new to this post, and to Israel, and he didn’t know the rules. He said he was from Milwaukee and he had made aliyah to Israel a year ago.
We thanked him and continued on through the Jewish area, which was a Twilight Zone-esque rambling of cobblestone streets and squares that did not permit access to cars. We had stumbled upon the world of what Israelis call “the very religious.” Little boys ran screaming and playing, with their kipas almost falling off their heads. Ladies dressed conservatively in long skirts and sweaters walked demurely through the square. Despite our markedly different appearance, nobody paid us any attention. The synagogue often brings outsiders.
We continued to walk and another soldier told us we could find Arab Hebron at the top of the hill, past what used to be the Arab marketplace, the souk. As we walked up the hill, an eerie silence combined with the late afternoon shadows to produce more Twilight Zone-esque feelings. The shops were all closed up, permanently, and most had the star of David spray painted on the doors. These images strongly echoed the anti-Jewish sentiments of Europe pre-WWII, but this grafitti was done by Jews, not against Jews. Like a dog peeing on a tree, they were marking their territory and telling the Arab merchants in no uncertain terms: we want you out.
One piece of grafitti even said, in Hebrew, “Gas the Arabs.” This was not the first time I had seen or heard Nazi ideas directed at Arabs but I am still surprised at it every time. 63 years after the Holocaust ended, nobody notices the irony of idolizing Hitler’s methods.
The scene reminded me of the setting of video games I’ve seen, like Call of Duty. One can see all the normal structures of a town: houses, shops, streets, sidewalks. But no people. And structures that were built for life are now a setting for war. Grafitti, barbed wire, and blackened sections of wall or floor that had been burned were the major features of the landscape.
Looking for the Mosque
On this road with the closed shops, we met two men walking toward us. After a short talk, we ascertained that they were Israeli peace activists who are working with the Palestinians. “With what organization?” I asked. “Just ourselves,” they answered. “We do what we can.” Ben asked how it was for the younger of the two men to serve in the army while having these ideals. “I didn’t serve,” he said. “I refused.” “And what were the consequences?” Ben asked. “I went to jail,” answered our new friend. We looked up to the second floor windows and saw some faces peering out behind the grates. “Do Palestinians still live in those apartments?” Ben asked. “Some do, yes,” the older man answered. “But the only access to them is through the roof. They cannot travel on this road. It’s an apartheid road.” Then they explained that the Palestinians had closed their shops because of this. This was not an official IDF policy, and therefore could not be protested, but so many Palestinians had been turned away for flimsy reasons that the shopkeepers could no longer keep their businesses open.
We continued up the hill, past more closed shops, and encountered another guard post with one soldier and one police officer. The officer asked us in Hebrew if we were Israeli and Ben answered that we were American. The officer then asked if we were Jewish, and when Ben answered yes, he hesitated to let us pass. He said usually Jews were not permitted to enter the Arab area, but that he would allow us because we were American.
We walked on.
Another guard post. This one was a small trailer, the sort movie stars get on set, stretched across the road. We got on, went through, and got off on the other side. Nobody stopped us this time.
The other side of the trailer was a different world. We had abruptly entered a busy souk with cars, bicycles, crowds, shops, garbage, and noise. The packed humanity stretched as far as the top of the next hill, and I couldn’t see farther. The setting sun cast long shadows over everyone as they conducted their business. Children, especially teenage boys, crowded around me, selling trinkets and trying to get my attention. They used what little English they knew in a frantically repeated loop: Where from? Where from? Where from? How are you? How are you? Adult men and women avoided my eyes, unless they were shopkeepers. In this case they summoned their best English and a grand gesture along with it to entice me into their shops: Welcome Americans! We have the best here! Only two shekels! Would you like to have coffee with me?
Merchants with carts pushed them along behind us, and by the time we neared the edge of the souk, we were trailing a caboose of Palestinians yelling, “Come back Americans!”
Abruptly we entered another area where the shops were all closed. We had gone downhill and entered a covered souk, so the air became fetid, the light receded, and the garbage became more profuse. As we turned a corner, a group of 10 or 12 soldiers appeared. They congregated in a hole in the wall of the souk large enough for a bulldozer to pass through. They were agitated and asked us, “What are you doing here? How did you get here?” Ben responded that soldiers at previous checkpoints said it was ok to go this way to look for the mosque. One of these soldiers said that was not correct and we needed to leave. When we asked how to do that, they pointed us in the direction of the mosque.
Before we walked away, my curiosity got the best of me and I asked Ben to see if the soldiers would tell him what they were guarding. To my surprise, they did. They were guarding another entrance to the mosque.
Finally we reached our last checkpoint of the day, at what we thought was the mosque, complete with barbed wire and a metal detector that nobody was paying attention to. When we reached the gate, the soldiers again asked what we were doing there and how we got there. They said they need to escort us back to the Jewish area but had to get their commander’s approval to let us pass. We gave them our passports and when they saw Ben’s, they joked, “like Benny! Can we call you Benny?”
Five of us stood there, passing the time together, smoking cigarettes. Me, Ben, two IDF soldiers, and a Palestinian selling postcards of the synagogue.
Finally, after what must have been a complete fact-finding mission, they got word from their commander that we could pass safely back to Judea. I anticipated a ride in an armored vehicle or a walk through forbidden streets, but the soldier walked “Benny” and I ten feet away, where we stepped through a door and found ourselves back where we started.
It had ceased to be Twilight Zone-esque and had become fully Alice in Wonderland.