Hebron, a city in the West Bank, is an interesting study of co-existence between Jews and Arabs, and is also the area in which the concept of settlements and the understanding of Israel’s role in the Palestinian Territories comes to life, perhaps more so than any other city.
Guided by Eliyahu McLean, one of the founders of Jerusalem Peacemakers, we visited Hebron on a dual narrative tour in search of a deeper understanding of life in the Occupied Territories. Our tour provided us with an incredibly unique perspective in that we were able to learn about Hebron, its living conditions and everyday life from both the Israeli and the Palestinian perspectives. As you will see, these are markedly different narratives.
Before I get into details and our experience on the tour, it’s worth understanding Hebron in more depth in order to really have a better idea of the city’s composition. It’s incredibly complex – and that’s saying something when we’re talking about an already astoundingly complex region. Hebron is home to 750,000 people and is a unique city within the West Bank in that it doesn’t fall under A, B, or C designations like the rest of the area. Instead, after the Hebron accords were struck at the Wye River, Hebron was given two desginations. Hebron is essentially divided into two parts, H1 and H2. H1 is controlled by the Palestinian Authority (PA) and comprises about 80% of Hebron, while H2 is administered by Israel, accounting for the remaining 20%.
We had spent time in the West Bank before on two separate occasions, but entering Hebron felt entirely different from Ramallah, Jericho or even Bethlehem. There were far fewer tourists here; in fact, we saw just a handful of other small groups visiting. We were entering an area that was far from a tourist center despite the religious and historical draws to the city. As our guide, Eliyahu, explained, we were about to hear stories; personal narratives allowing us to understand the conflict from two different perspectives. Naturally, neither can be taken as fact as there are inherent biases, but after this tour I hoped that I would be better equipped to have some sort of stance; to have an opinion that I could legitimately justify.
H1 // Palestinian Side
We began our tour in H1 with our Palestinian guide, Mohammed, an ambitious 25-year-old born and bred in Hebron, splitting his time between Palestine and Dubai. He would spend the next three-plus hours guiding us through H1, sharing the highlights and introducing us to locals who would share their personal stories.
Hebron is perhaps most famously home to the Cave of the Patriarchs, the burial site for Abraham, making it a holy site to all three Abrahamic religions. The space was once solely a mosque, but has since been divided into two distinct spaces: a mosque and a synagogue, the only place in the world where a mosque and synagogue exist under the same roof. For 10 days a year, Muslims have full control of the holy space, and the same is done for Jews, allowing each to commemorate their holiest of holidays at the site. This was our first stop with Mohammed as we entered the Muslim side of the cave.
On the day we visited it was quiet, nearly empty but for a few people worshipping, facing Mecca. The inside of the mosque was beautiful and bright, though not ornate. In the back of the mosque sat a small glass-covered opening leading down into the cave where it is said the patriarchs and matriarchs are buried. Within the mosque are tombs – facades that represent where Abraham, Sarah, Isaac and Rebecca are buried. Mohammed briefly explained an infamous incident that took place in 1994 that was the impetus for discussions on Hebron’s status (H1 and H2 designations) and the division of the mosque and synagogue in this holy space. Jewish-American Baruch Goldstein, a member of the Kach movement, walked into the mosque and murdered 29 Palestinians worshipping inside, injuring over 100 others (read more here). I found it interesting that he explained the story without the emotion that I would think it would evoke (sadness, anger); rather, he made this reference as if this were a normal part of existence, another sad blemish on Arab-Jewish relations.
After exiting the mosque, we walked down to the main market which we’d heard was a fascinating, interesting and raw experience. It was all of that. We didn’t shop – we didn’t have time and there wasn’t anything particularly captivating in all honesty. It was clear that we were in a place that wasn’t touristed. We continued walking until we made our way to a shopkeeper that shared his story along with the story of the market itself. immediately above us was a metal netting that captured garbage; literal rubbish that was thrown from people into the market below. If the netting didn’t capture the garbage, heaping piles would accumulate in the streets below. We were told by the shopkeeper that the garbage was thrown by Jewish settlers and IDF forces. A competing story would have us believe that the garbage was thrown by other Palestinians. I can’t be sure which story is true but I do know that the garbage represented an incredibly thick layer of trash, piled up directly above us, a dreadful sight for tourists and an even more disheartening sight for those that would have to look at it on a daily basis. Whether it’s thrown with hatred, anger or a pure disregard for one’s surroundings, the result is a sad environment.
We left the shops and made our way to a family residence where we talked with a child in an affected family, a nine-year-old accompanied by his two-year-old brother. The boy explained his situation to us, being situated in a space where IDF forces overlook their home from above and below. His mother had a number of children, and the youngest child, a baby, was murdered by forces that entered their house.
One of our last stops on the Palestinian side was a home where we would enter and meet with a family residing in Hebron. We made our way down a quiet pathway until we entered a residential space where we were to have coffee and hear the personal story of someone highly affected by living in Hebron with IDF forces present. The man we sat with explained to us the realities of living as a Palestinian in Hebron. While Arabs make up the ethnic majority, he argued that the Jewish population with IDF forces made their strength known in the region. Curfews could be implemented and enforced by any one of the 2200 soldiers that resides in Hebron to guard the population of Jews. This man, in a home that many North Americans wouldn’t look twice at (location aside, it was a modest home), explained that he was offered $4M for his space. Anyone wanting to reside in Hebron cannot build – your option is to buy if you want to live in the area. He turned down the money because the home – the land – mattered more to him, had sentimental value and the notion of selling would simply be a dishonor to his family. Instead, he stayed, only to have his wife killed (shot in the head five times) and his son blinded after being burned. I couldn’t help but wonder: what price do you have to pay? Why not sell and move to a place where you family – your kids – have opportunities to live a normal and prosperous life?
We ended our time in H1 at another home, noshing on maqlub – hot, plump rice, chicken and veggies in a heaping pile – in a gorgeous courtyard. We said our goodbyes to Mohammed as we ventured to H2 to hear the Jewish perspective.
H2 // Jewish Side
Eliyahu met up with us once again when we’d made it back to the Jewish side after lunch. Beyond a physical border that separates H1 and H2, there’s an invisible line that all residents are aware of, and it marks the point at which Palestinian cars are banned from traversing.
We met in a synagogue to learn a bit about the history of Hebron and gain a deeper understanding of the complexities. We were now discussing the Jewish perspective and historical events that changed the course of history in Hebron and perhaps in the region broadly. We learned the story of 1929, what Eliyahu referred to as a black mark on Arab-Jewish relations, a story that I hadn’t heard earlier in the tour and was one that was extremely relevant before we were to head to the house of a local Jewish woman to hear her family’s history. Hebron, now a place that witnesses a great amount of conflict and tension, was a place of peace and tolerance between Jews and Arabs prior to the massacre that took place that year. 133 Jews were killed during the massacre and by most accounts, Jews and Arabs had been co-existing within this area peacefully, as friends. False rumors of Jews massacring Arabs and trying to take over Muslim holy places ignited the killings and forever changed the dynamic of the once-peaceful city.
We ventured to the home of Sibi, a Jewish woman living in Hebron, one of 750 Jews that currently reside in the city. She sat down, photo albums in hand, and shared her story that was tied into the events of 1929. Her father, a highly respected rabbi in the community, was killed in their family home by a neighbor – an Arab – who came into their home and stabbed him. As he ran to get help from his wife in a neighboring room, the intruder followed him and killed him in her presence. Hearing about a massacre is one thing – we hear about them on a regular basis and as humans it naturally evokes feelings (we’re sad that this is happening or upset that the world is a violent place), but hearing about hundreds of faceless and nameless people in some ways is less powerful than hearing a first-hand story. We realize that these people aren’t at all faceless and nameless; they have lives, they have families, they have jobs and are living life just like us. Hearing Sibi’s story brought the incident in 1929 to life for us; we could see her emotion and hear the sadness in her voice as she recounted the tale.
We couldn’t help but ask: why do you live here? You can live anywhere in Israel… why stay in Hebron? Why live in a home just two doors down from where you own father was murdered? Sibi’s response was similar to many responses that we heard throughout Hebron from both Palestinians and Jews: this is home. It’s a feeling that may be hard to grasp, especially as an American where a house is something we live in for a brief period before moving on. We don’t really have ‘family homes’, or communities where we’ve stayed for generations upon generations. Here that sensation is strong. The land and the community are woven into the fabric of these families.
After our time with Sibi, we strolled through Hebron’s ‘Ghost Town’, a street that was once bustling and is now completely evacuated due to repressive measures that caused Palestinians to abandon their homes and businesses. It’s eerily deserted, door after locked door lining the street. Photos from the 90s show a different picture of this same street: alive with people and shops.
After visiting a few other historical sites in the area, including ruins that provide proof of Jews residing in the region millenia ago, we made our way to our final stop of the day: Cave of the Patriarchs, the place Abraham purchased as a burial place for his wife. Our trip was coming full circle and we would end our day visiting the synagogue instead of the mosque. We made our way up to the building and listened to the tale of the cave, how a few people recently (in the 1980s) descended into the earth and climbed through a passageway and did, in fact, discover a cave where people were buried. Some also believe that Adam and Eve were buried here and tradition holds that the scent in the air escaping the cave is always light and sweet, perhaps the gateway to the Garden of Eden.
Being in the synagogue is an interesting experience (the same can be said for the mosque) in that the two holy places are separated but both have view points into the Cave of Abraham. Standing on one side, you can hear chatter on the other side; you could conceivably have a conversation from one side to the other. You can peer through, past the bars and see thick, yellowing bulletproof glass that is the barrier between the two sides. In many ways this represents Hebron: two populations living so close to one another, separated by an imposed boundary.
I had gone into the tour hoping that I’d leave with a better understanding of the conflict and perhaps a more confident stance one way or the other. I’ll be honest: this post took me the longest to write. I left feeling more confused than ever, which is precisely the goal of this tour. You’re hearing two people’s stories – their memories, their feelings, and their histories – which provide two distinctly different view points. Both are emotional, and I found myself unable to muster up any questions for either group after hearing their narratives. Reading about the stories of nondescript people is one thing; hearing someone’s personal recollection is a totally different and vastly more real thing. Sitting in a Palestinian’s home, I couldn’t help but think that I’d never be able to fully understand the other side. When I sat with Sibi, our Jewish host, I found myself understanding her perspective and the mistrust that exists.
That being said, I think this tour did exactly what I had hoped it would (though not to the end that I had a stronger opinion one way or another): it solidified an undeniable truth, especially for someone who has an opinion but no tie culturally to either the Jewish or Palestinian narratives. As people hearing the news, reading studies, listening to stories, and trying to gain a grasp on the different perspectives and schools of thought, we should remember this: we are gaining snippets; snippets of the realities on the ground and snapshots of a picture that is so much bigger and so much more layered than we can really understand. To make a judgement call based on one instance, one story or one event (or even a handful of events) is unfair. Perhaps the most important thing to remember – and this was something I felt myself saying over and over during our time with Inspiration Tours (more on that to come) – is that there are two sides to every story. We may not hear all the details and realities of both sides, but to take one perspective and one narrative as fact is a dangerous proposition. Learn more and dig deeper before latching onto one perspective as unequivocal truth. Thank you to Eliyahu and Mohammed for sharing your stories and insight, and for reminding us that there are multiple narratives to understand.
From the Middle East,
A big thank you to Abraham Tours, Abraham Hostel and Tourist Israel for making this trip possible. As always, all thoughts and photos are my own and are genuine.