A visit to Hebron was never going to be an easy one. It epitomises, in many respects, the key issues for Israel and Palestine. Hebron is a fair sized city, predominantly Palestinian, about 25 miles south of Jerusalem. It is one of the most densely populated in the west Bank and is divided into two areas, the larger under the control of the Palestinians. But within this zone there are a number of Jewish settlements under military protection. There are approximately 500 settlers, with a military force of between 500 and 2000 soldiers (depending on tension levels). This within an area housing 30000 Palestinians.
The settlement areas highlight the imbalance of power. It is the Palestinians who are prevented from particular areas, including some of the main roads. Access to their houses is through dirt tracks and neighbours gardens. A Palestinian brave enough to take to the main road risks being shot – it is easier to minimise the ‘risk’ by assuming everyone is potentially hostile and to shoot first. There are no questions later – it’s military law in force. In fact, even the Jewish settlers go around openly and well-armed. As we wandered down a deserted street, the Palestinian shops all closed and unoccupied because it is a no-go street for them, we were brought up short by the distant sound of gunfire, followed soon afterwards by the unmistakable sound of an ordnance explosion. Our guide for the day reckoned it was probably from the nearby military barracks as the tension levels were low at the time.
Our walk through that part of Hebron was to take us to the Tomb of the Patriarchs. The site of the tombs of Abraham (and his wife Sarah) and his descendants Isaac and Jacob. As we approached a checkpoint nearby we noted that the road was divided (unevenly) by a concrete barrier. Jews were allowed to use the broader lane, wide enough for cars; Palestinians had to use the narrower side. We opted to walk on the Palestinian side and also chose the mosque side of the Tomb of the Patriarchs. A single building covers the site, but it is split in half – one side a mosque, the other a synagogue. In one sense, completely understandable given the common reverence for the Patriarchs. Yet the irony was not lost on us. Having visited the mosque, where we were made welcome, visiting the synagogue was not an option. Again, we had made our choice.
Our route back to the city centre took us through a souk and the picture above is one part of it. The wire mesh is not a convenience for hanging things from, but an absolute necessity. The buildings above are part of the Jewish settlements and it is common for the settlers to throw their rubbish and rocks down into the souk. Such is their contempt for those who do business there.
Our guide for the morning was a young woman volunteering with EAPPI – a World Council of Churches initiative to help and highlight what is happening around such settlements. The volunteers serve for 3 months and there job is simply to observe the checkpoints. It seems that the Israeli military is somewhat less inclined to be so oppressive when there are international observers with cameras around. It doesn’t mean that EAPPI, and the many similar groups, don’t get harassed themselves, but it does help the overall situation.
The afternoon brought us to Bethlehem. If there’s one thing about the Holy Land, it’s that if there is the hint of a ‘holy’ site, there’ll be a place of worship on top of it. But there are also the commercial opportunities to be had. I have to say that Bethlehem seemed to have some of the most tackily named tourist shops we have come across so far. John the Baptist Souvenir Shop or the Christmas Bells restaurant, every opportunity is grasped to link with the relevant site. I can’t help but wonder though if the heavily-pregnant Mary might have found the going easier if there were escalators to hand to get her to the stable room.