Friday, July 20, 2007

A Tale of Two Cities


I’m still trying to process it all: military checkpoints, M-16s pointed at me, metal detectors, bustling Arab shopping districts, bulletproof glass, confrontational Americans, tombs of prophets, bullet holes in a mosque, frighteningly empty streets, and an armed military convoy accompanying my bus back to Jerusalem. I experienced all of these yesterday on my journey to Hebron in the West Bank, Palestine.

We decided to go to Hebron on a whim yesterday morning, and although I had my reservations about visiting one of the flashpoints in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, Hebron has been relatively calm over the past several years. Plus, it houses the tombs of the patriarchs, where Abraham, Sarah, Isaac, Rebekah, Jacob, and Leah are buried.

Traveling to Hebron was relatively painless. East Jerusalem to Bethlehem, one bus transfer, and in less than two hours, we had arrived in the Palestinian section of Hebron. Immediately, without being asked, we were all handed lemonade concoctions (which tasted more like lemon-flavored sugar water than lemonade), exchanged mobile numbers with several of the men selling sweets and juices on the street, and were invited to one man’s house for dinner. Arab hospitality at its finest. As we wandered through the narrow streets in the market of the old city of Hebron, we were constantly asked in both Arabic and English where we were from. When answering, “America,” everyone replied with a warm and enthusiastic, “Welcome to Hebron!” It was the beginning of what could have been an extraordinary day.

However, as we continued walking through the old city, the city began to quiet. Shops had their doors shut, or were abandoned, perhaps. Within 500 meters, the city we had witnessed on our arrival – vibrant, warm, and inviting – began to drift away. The lively sounds of merchants became distant, the children following us on foot and on bicycle turned around, and the aroma of falafel faded away. We turned a sharp corner and were faced with an Israeli military checkpoint. After passing through the metal detectors, showing our passports, and having our bags inspected, we had arrived at the Tomb of the Patriarchs.

We walked up to the entrance of the mosque and shrines, but the military asked us to wait 30 minutes because we were not allowed in the mosque during prayer. As we waited at the small mini-mart opposite the mosque, with military guard towers and checkpoints surrounding us, I had time to contemplate the landscape.

* * *

Now, I can certainly understand the need for such heavy military security in an area like Hebron. After all, this was the city where Arabs massacred 67 Jews in 1929 – and the city where an extremist Jewish settler gunned down 29 Palestinian Muslims while they were praying in 1994 (the evidence of this can still be seen in the form of bullet holes in the mosque). Of all places in the West Bank, tensions here between Jewish settlers and Palestinians are the highest. In most places, settlements are built on a hill, away from Palestinian villages. But here in Hebron, in addition to the settlements on hills around the city, there are several small Jewish settlements in the city itself.

These special circumstances have resulted in a series of rules that restrict where Palestinians and Israeli settlers can travel in Hebron. These restrictions manifest themselves in curfews, in the mandatory and permanent closure of Palestinian shops in the now Israeli-controlled area, checkpoints every few hundred meters, concrete barriers and razor-wire separating the two areas, and armed guard towers on the border overlooking the happenings in the Israeli area.

* * *

In the Tomb of the Patriarchs itself, there is a Muslim entrance and a Jewish entrance. The tombs of Isaac and Rebekah rest in the Muslim area, and the tombs of Jacob and Leah can be found in the Jewish area. The tombs of Abraham and Sarah can be seen from both the Jewish and Muslim side; however, bulletproof glass can be seen between the two viewing areas.

As Christians, we had the luxury of being able to enter both the Muslim and Jewish areas. Other than the clear division of the shrines, and the metal detectors, and the bulletproof glass, and the bullet holes, and the brief military exercise we saw outside the Jewish entrance (Israeli soldiers with their guns drawn, crouched around the corners of the building, and waving other soldiers on indicating that the area was clear), there was nothing abnormal about the worship inside both areas. Muslim and Jewish pilgrims wept at the site of the tombs, Jews were studying the Torah, and Muslims were reading the Qur’an.

After visiting both sides and paying our respects to the prophets, it was around 7:00 p.m., and we decided that it was time to return to Jerusalem. However, because we had not yet walked through the Israeli/Jewish area of Hebron, we decided we would take a stroll there before returning to the Arab area to the bus stop.

During our visit, we had picked up a 14-16 year-old Palestinian boy who had acted as somewhat of a guide, and when we walked through another checkpoint to get to the Israeli-controlled area, the soldier asked for our passports. After briefly glimpsing at them, he asked the boy if he was with us. When we said, “No,” the boy answered the solder in Hebrew, and walked through the checkpoint with us. When I asked the boy if he was allowed to be with us, he answered me in Arabic: “I am forbidden here.” This, of course, made me a little uneasy in such a heavily armed military zone in such a tense area of the West Bank.

The streets in this area were deserted, and it felt like we were walking in a ghost town. Only a few Israelis were walking on the empty road, abandoned stores that used to be owned by Palestinians lined the street on both sides, and military cameras and soldiers monitored our movements.

We approached the next checkpoint a few hundred meters away at the same time as a group of American Jewish students who are volunteering this summer restoring Jewish gravesites. When we were asked for our passports, our Palestinian friend couldn’t produce one. The Americans started shouting at the Israeli soldiers: “Call the police! He’s a local! He knows he’s not supposed to be here! The only reason he would be here is for violence!”

The Israeli soldiers were very professional in their interactions with the boy. He gave them his ID card, but as they interrogated him, the Americans were quite rude to us. They mocked our reasons for visiting Israel and Hebron, and even snarled to my friend who is ethnically Greek, “You don’t look American,” implying in a derogatory way that he might be Palestinian. After we asked them what an American actually looks like – noting that there are dozens of large ethnic groups in the United States – and after the soldiers essentially told them to leave, they continued walking.

We also slowly walked away, but continued to look back at our Palestinian friend to make sure that he was going to be alright. The soldiers searched him, told him to go home, and released him.

We continued our trek up the eerily empty street, looking for a way to make it back to the bus station where we were dropped off in the Arab section. After asking several soldiers, it became clear that in order to make it back to the bus station, we would have to return the way we came – a long walk back down the abandoned street and past many more checkpoints. At this point, after our stressful day in Hebron, all we wanted to do was to get back to Jerusalem – a place whose problems we welcomed compared to those we had just witnessed. The soldiers told us how we could take an Israeli bus back to Jerusalem, and so we waited for the bus to arrive at the stop across the street.

As we stepped onto the bus and found our seats, we thought that the day’s tensions had ended. However, the military convoy that accompanied our bus through the Arab areas of Hebron served as another unpleasant reminder of the harsh realities that people living there face every day. After stopping at several settlements to pick up travelers, we finally made it back to Jerusalem.

Even as I write this, I am still trying to digest all that happened. The importance of the religious site to different groups, the security, the Palestinians’ and Israelis’ separation, the antagonism by fellow Americans, the stark contrast between the two areas of the city. All of these are parts of the larger Israeli-Palestinian conflict. And this visit to Hebron reiterated just how complicated and difficult this conflict will be to solve. We can talk all we want about a political solution to the conflict, but even as optimistic as I tend to be, after a day in Hebron, real peace seems so far away.


Naimul said...

This was fantastic. I really enjoyed visiting these places with you. What an interesting experience. I hope you don't face any violence when you're down there, stay safe. I'd say, if you added some details about how the place feels and smells (sandy and dry with a waft of frankincense) the sensory images will be complete. Keep these coming.

Sarah said...

Lovely post Brian!
Hope to hear/see more about your adventures.
We should be arriving in Jerusalem on the 3rd till the 8-10, will you be around then?

Matt said...

Beautiful post. Really enjoyed reading it.

Clayton said...

Astounding post, Brian. Hope all is well.

Aisha said...

your descriptions are vividly moving, i really enjoyed this post!

Taylor said...

this is why people like to hear you tell stories. of course the drunken/broken arabic (how ironic) doesn't hurt, either.

it makes me glad that someone like you is having these experiences - someone who can digest it with bewilderment, in one of those rare cases when confusion is mature.

AnArabiaNight said...

WOW Brian! Awesome post. I wish I could go to Falasteen.

outspokenarab said...

stay safe brian

and an awesome post man

Marium said...

loved it...cant say anything else...cant wait to see you guys! InshAllah!

Gale said...

I am so pleased to have "felt" your fears, maybe shock at the lack of kindness and "normalcy" for all in the area. The absurdness of it all. Who are we?

Lauren Jill Hatshepsut said...

I mourn. I rejoice for instances of humanity being shown. I mourn.