Hebron is complicated.
A web of fuzzy boundaries, intruded spaces, complex unresolved issues piled on top of each other. Hebron is the story of the lineal descendants of two half-brothers of a common father, perpetually at war over one question: Who has more rights.
Have you ever wanted to understand the Israeli-Palestinian conflict? Okay, ‘understand’ is perhaps being overly ambitious. How about inch a little bit closer to making sense of the dynamics between the two?
If yes, then head to Hebron. The answers are there.
Thirty kilometres south of Jerusalem, Hebron is the largest Palestinian city in the West Bank. An industrial town, it generates one-third of West Bank’s GDP. Its UNESCO World Heritage Site status celebrates the limestone Mamluk-era Old City and the world’s only public building within which has stood intact for 2,000 years, and continues to serve its original purpose. That of a monumental memorial and place of worship.
But apart from the above two, and more than the two, Hebron is also a microcosm of the Israeli ‘occupation’ of Palestine. 800 Jewish settlers, protected by hundreds of Israel Defense Forces [IDF] soldiers, live among 200,000 Arab Palestinians. International law considers these Jewish settlements as illegal.
Hebron means ‘connect’ in Hebrew. Palestinians call the city al-Khalil, ‘Friend of God.’
Every story has two sides. Mired with blood, tears, and conflict, Hebron more than others, as I discovered one autumn day in Israel’s Occupied Territories.
IDF soldiers at the entrance of Hebron’s Old City. A way of life for Israeli youth. National military service is compulsory for all Israeli nationals above age 18.
“It would be my greatest sadness to see Zionists [Jews] do to Palestinian Arabs much of what Nazis did to Jews.”
~ Albert Einstein, Physicist
Burial place of Judaism and Islam’s patriarch, Abraham
I am going to begin this post with a legend. Just in case you have not heard it before. A legend that is the bedrock of Judaism and Islam. It is also the story of Hebron.
Somewhere around 1800 BC, lived a wise, old, virtuous man called Abraham, born Abram. When he was 75 years of age, he received his calling from god. In return for his devotion and loyalty, god promised him descendants as many as the stars and the ‘Promised Land.’ But Abraham was old and had no offspring.
His wife Sarah suggested he bear a child with her handmaid Hagar. Abraham agreed, and Ishmael was born. Fourteen years later, when Abraham was 100 and Sarah was 90 the two had a son. They named him Isaac.
Isaac’s descendants became Jews, and those of Ishmael became Muslims.
The Cave of Machpelah [meaning ‘double cave’] in Hebron is the burial cave of Abraham and his wife Sarah, son Isaac and his wife Rebecca, and his grandson Jacob [later called Israel] and his wife Leah. Jewish mysticism claims the cave is also the entrance to the Garden of Eden and the burial place of Adam and Eve.
Fast forward to the 1st Century BC. Jewish King Herod covered the caves with a monumental structure which in the ensuing years alternated between a mosque and a church depending on who was in power in the city.
That is until 1967, when it was divided into a synagogue, nestled plonk in the middle of a mosque: The Tomb of the Patriarchs and Ibrahimi Mosque. And that is where I found myself in, on a visit to Hebron. Everything else, I learnt, stemmed from here.
Entrance to the Tomb of the Patriarchs aka Cave of Machpelah aka Ibrahimi Mosque. Muslims call Abraham, Ibrahim.
King Herod’s 2,000-year-old enormous structure over Abraham/ Ibrahim and his family’s burial cave. Three pairs of cenotaphs are arranged on the ground floor used for worship. Deep underground, below the building, are the actual tombs.
Children inside the Ibrahimi Mosque, the Muslim-controlled part of the building.
Left: Ibrahim’s cenotaph. Right: Opening of the underground cave where the patriarch Ibrahim and his family are buried in the Isaac Hall, Ibrahimi Mosque.
Left: Wooden Fatimid-era minbar dated 1092 AD brought to the Ibrahimi Mosque by Salah al-Din in the 12th Century. It is the oldest Islamic wooden minbar in the world still in use. Right: Prayer rugs, a flowing black abaya, and me.
“The Israeli-Palestinian conflict and Jihadism have nothing to do with each other.”
~ Steven Spielberg, American Film-maker
Who came first—Judaism or Palestine?
It is a tricky question for they both seem to feature equally when one goes back in history. Even if Abraham and Moses are shrouded in myth, there is archaeological evidence of Jewish history dating back to King Saul. And that’s around 1000 BC. His son-in-law King David’s capital was Hebron before he moved it to Jerusalem.
This region was the ‘Promised Land’ Yahweh [G-d] had promised Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob in Judaism; A promise mentioned many times over in their holy book, the Torah.
Meanwhile, the same region was first called Palestine by the Ancient Greek writers, a translation of the name ‘Peleset’ which appears both in Egyptian hieroglyphs, dated 1150 BC, and the Hebrew Bible.
Maybe it’s safe to, thus, surmise, that as long as there were Jews who practiced Judaism, there were Palestinians, the indigenous people of the region.
Unlike other Palestinian cities, Hebron was partitioned into two parts in 1967 when it was occupied by Israel after the Six-Day War victory against Jordan—H1 and inside it, H2. 170,000 Palestinians under Palestinian Authority live in H1. 30,000 Palestinians and 800 Israelis, under Israeli military control, live in H2. The latter includes the Old City. A partition that was unnatural and doomed for constant conflict.
I found sealed roads, lockdowns in neighbourhoods and a stark difference between the municipal services of the two parts in the Old City. There were the clean, well-built, guarded Jewish homes and the dilapidated, battered, bullet-marked Palestinian homes. Right next to each other. Housing families who never talked to each other.
Yet neither party wants to give up their hold. Each has carved out a community for itself, where they continue to laugh and cry and love and live, within this distorted, divided city until one day, maybe, one side wins, and the other has to leave.
When will that happen, I ask a few Palestinians as I wander through the local market. “One day, inshallah [god willing],” is the constant reply.
Falafel anyone? Local Arab market in the Palestinian side of Old Hebron.
Tourists are rare and far in-between here. These markets are for the Palestinians.
I made sure I had a bite of fresh lavash and a sweet roll when strolling through. There’s something about the smell and taste of freshly baked bread!
“We must not give up on the right of Palestine to exist, just as we must protect the right of Israel to exist in peace and security with its neighbours.”
~ Ban Ki Moon, Former UN Secretary-General
1929, 1980, 1983, 1994, 1995, 2001, 2002
1929: Incited by rumours of a Jewish plan to grab control of Temple Mount in Jerusalem, Arab rioters massacre 67 Jewish men, women, and children, and raze their homes and synagogues to the ground. Yet, more than 400 Jews survive because they are hidden by their Arab neighbours.
1980: A grenade and firearm attack kills 6 yeshiva students on their way home from Sabbath prayer at the Tomb of the Patriarchs.
1983: Israeli settlers attack Islamic University and shoot dead 3, and injure over 30.
1994: American-Israeli physician and local resident Baruch Goldstein opens fire on Muslims praying in the Ibrahimi Mosque during the holy month of Ramadan. 29 are killed, 125 wounded. The survivors kill Goldstein.
1995: Gunmen fire at an Egged bus on the outskirts of Hebron killing Nachum Hoss and Yehuda Partouche.
2001: Palestinian gunman targets and kills the Jewish baby Shalhevet Pass.
2002: Attackers shoot Shlomo Yitzhak Shapira from Jerusalem dead and wound 3 of his children near the Tomb of the Patriarchs during Sukkot Festival.
Years and numbers lash out throughout the narrative. Till it becomes unclear who started the vicious cycle. Hebron Jews refer to the Arabs as ‘terrorists’ in their communication and propaganda. The Arabs call themselves freedom-fighters.
Barbed wire protecting a Jewish settler’s home, H2.
Jewish settlers ‘occupy’ the upper floors of the shops in H2’s Palestinian market. A mesh holds up garbage the Arabs claim settlers throw at them.
Street scenes in H2.
Since the riots which followed Baruch Goldstein’s 1994 massacre, H2’s main street, al-Shuhada, has been closed to Palestinians by Israeli military orders.
“Israel uses sophisticated attack jets and naval vessels to bomb densely-crowded refugee camps, schools, apartment blocks, mosques and slums to attack a population that has no air force, no air defense, no navy, no heavy weapons, no artillery units, no mechanized armor, no command in control, no army, and calls it a war. It is not war, it is murder.”
~ Noam Chomsky, Linguist
Jewish settlers ‘resettling’ their ancestral homes
Land-grabbing or legit ownership? Depends which side you are looking in from.
The Jewish Quarter in the Old City of Hebron is believed to be a thousand years old. Its central feature is the Avraham Avinu Synagogue built in 1540 by Spanish Jews.
After the 1929 Hebron Massacre in which 67 Jewish people were killed and scores injured, the then ruling British of Mandatory Palestine relocated all Hebron Jews. Not a single Jew was allowed to stay back.
The equation changed when Israel took over the city in the 1967 Six-Day War with Jordan. But not immediately. It is a quirky story; recounted by the Beit Hadassah Museum guide with much gusto and emotion.
Beit Hadassah used to be a medical centre run by the Hadassah Jewish Women’s Organization. Established in 1893, it offered free medical services to Jews and Arabs alike till 1929.
Fed up of waiting for a go-ahead to resettle in Hebron after the 1967 war, a group of 10 women and some 40 children clambered into the building one midnight in May 1979 to establish a permanent Jewish presence in the city. Their goal was straightforward: To return to the ‘land of our forefathers.’ When they were caught out the next morning, the Israeli government laid siege to the building. For two months, no one in the group was allowed to leave and if they did, they could not return.
One year later, these women were finally joined by their husbands. Floors were added and the clinic complex turned into an apartment complex with 30 families. A path paved for a Jewish Settlement in Hebron by 10 women and 40 children. Whoever said the fairer sex was the weaker sex? Think again.
The restored 16th Century Avraham Avinu Synagogue in the Jewish Quarter, H2.
Modern Murals on ancient Jewish heritage, street in the Jewish Quarter, H2.
Beit Hadassah, a 19th Century medical centre, contains the Beit Hadassah Museum in its new avatar, H2.
Pioneers of the first Jewish Settlement in Hebron: 10 women and 40 children.
“I have been to the occupied Palestinian territory, and I have witnessed the racially segregated roads and housing that reminded me so much of the conditions we experienced in South Africa under the racist system of Apartheid.”
~ Desmond Tutu, South African Cleric
One half-brother’s superstition is another half-brother’s fixation
For almost 700 years [from 1267 to 1948], Jews were not allowed inside the Tomb of the Patriarchs. Undeterred, they still worshipped from outside, on the ‘7th step’; their ardent loyalty and devotion never waning.
In 1948, this negligible permission too came to an end when Hebron was annexed by Jordan. Imagine their joy, when in 1967 they could finally enter the monument. It had no bounds!
But just being allowed inside the edifice was not enough. The Jews were filled with a longing to reach the underground caves where their patriarchs and matriarchs were buried, the Cave of Machpelah mentioned in the Torah. Untouched and undisturbed for millennia.
On the other hand, the Muslims who had been using the structure as a mosque, on and off since the 7th Century, preferred to leave the remains alone. Call it reverence or superstition. Their motto was simple: Let the dead sleep in peace.
Not once, but twice, the Jews did make their way inside, in secrecy, behind the Muslims backs. The first was in 1968. A 12-year-old thin Jewish girl by the name Michal was lowered into the opening, otherwise covered with a grate, in the middle of the night. She found a circular room, corridor and stairs, but no caves.
Not ones to give up easily, in 1981, they entered again, this time from another opening beneath the Arab prayer-rugs. Under the pretext of singing and dancing in a midnight prayer service, a group of men hammered the stone slab open and made their way in, down to the same circular room Michal had set foot in 13 years ago. They felt a breeze. With hearts pounding they cleared the floor and voila, an opening to two underground caves was revealed. Inside were bones and 2,900-year-old pottery.
Overwhelmed with emotion, they worshipped in the presence of their forefathers and foremothers. A plaque inside the Jewish-controlled part of the Tomb of the Patriarchs narrates the two incidents with passion, pride, and piety.
Grate covering the opening of the burial caves at the Tomb of the Patriarchs. Jews have entered the cave twice, in 1968 and 1981.
Tombs of Kind David’s father [Jesse] and great-grandmother [Ruth] in Tel Rumeida, Biblical Hebron. Since 1967 it has been an IDF look-out point.
Hebron Old City from atop Jabel Rumeida. The climb down the ancient steps, surrounded by shadowy archaeological ruins under a silver full moon, back to the Tomb of the Patriarchs, will always remain one of my most sharply-etched memories of Hebron.
“And in this respect, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict has been a tragedy, a clash between one very powerful, very convincing, very painful claim over this land and another no less powerful, no less convincing claim.”
~ Amos Oz, Israeli Writer
The 10-day annual exchange program between the sons of the sons
Blood is thicker than water, if a pact can be reached.
For 10 non-consecutive days in a year, the two lineal descendants hand over their portion to the other. In order that each faith may celebrate its festivals with joy, unhindered. This pact was reached in 1996, following a string of bloody attacks by both sides from 1967 onward when the Jews laid claim over the monument.
It was Milad un-Nabi, Prophet Muhammad’s birthday, the next day of my visit. As I made my way, this time through the Jewish part of the memorial, the faithful were, without any regret or anger, clearing their sections for the Muslim congregation who would arrive shortly. Some were still busy with last minute prayers, doused in fervent devotion—they would only be able to return the day after to their beloved forefathers’ shrine.
Ten days later, on Chayei Sara, the tables would turn. This time around the Muslims would empty the building so that 50,000 Jews from all over the world may camp on its lawns. The festival commemorates Abraham’s wife Sarah’s death and his negotiations with the Hittites to purchase Machpelah, her burial place.
I finally understood the phrase, time and again repeated to me throughout my 2-week travels by both Arabs and Jews alike: “It is not about the religion. It is about the land. Only the land.”
Jewish pilgrims praying at Jacob’s wife, Leah’s cenotaph in Jewish-controlled Jacob Hall.
Last minute prayers in Jewish-controlled Abraham Hall. On the other side of the wall are Isaac and Rebecca’s cenotaphs in the Muslim-controlled Isaac Hall.
Jewish-controlled Inner Courtyard emptied for the Muslim congregation’s Milad un-Nabi festivities. No fuss. No delays. The 10-day exchange is a pact both faiths adhere to since 1996.
My Hebron souvenirs. A Palestine wrist-band and a Jerusalem purse. Being a practicing minimalist, I don’t buy souvenirs. But I broke my own rules in Hebron. I bought the two for a dollar apiece from a couple of Palestinian beggar kids being chased away by IDF soldiers. Goodbye Hebron. Stay safe. ❤
“The battle between two men over a girl is the same as the fight for two men over a piece of land. It is all about desire. There is no difference between a love triangle and the conflict between Israel and Palestine.”
~ Bruno Dumont, Film Director
- Please explore Hebron with an open mind.
- I took a dual narrative tour with 2 specialist local guides in the Old City, one for the Settler side and one for the Palestinian side. It was run by Abraham Tours and was in-depth, riveting, revealing. To know more about the tour, click here.
- You can also explore Hebron independently if you wish, but the IDF soldiers might deny you access to some sights.
- Israelis cannot enter the Palestinian part of the city, and Palestinians cannot enter the Settler areas.
- To know more about Hebron from a Jewish perspective, check out Hebron Fund. To relate to the city from a Palestinian point of view, click Friends of Hebron.
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The format of this post [a mix of narrative, photos, and quotes] is inspired by twobrownfeet’s blog, a blog I avidly follow.
[Note: This blog post is part of a series from my solo and independent travel to Israel and the Occupied Territories for 15 days in November 2019. To read more posts in this series, click here.]