Hebron: my very small introduction to the big conflict.

I think one of the reasons I had difficulties entering Israel with my passport stamps from crazy countries was that the security officer looked at my blog and might have been worried I would deliberately walk into danger to get a selfie of myself in a Hamas tunnel, or some similar stupid move. Of course, I did no such thing, but I wasn’t either going to visit the country without having at least some first hand exposure to the perennial conflict.

I booked something called the “Hebron Dual Narrative Tour”, which takes you to the Jewish sector of Hebron, with a Jewish guide, and then to the Palestinian sector, with a Palestinian guide. As far as I know, this is a unique activity in the country. These are my impressions of Hebron. I use the term “impressions” carefully. This is not my thesis, my opinion or my analysis. And it is about a small section of Hebron, visited for one day; not my take on the Middle-East.


Early in the morning, we saw a dove, universal sign of peace. But alas, a dog had killed it and was proudly showing us his catch. The tone has been set.


Actually, the tone had been set in Jerusalem, as we boarded a public inter-city bus. I was disappointed by the relative opacity of the windows, which certainly wouldn’t allow pictures along the way. While the buses looked like any other Israeli bus, the windows were triple layered ballistic glass (or possibly acrylic), to prevent injuries from rocks thrown when passing near territories controlled by the Palestinian Authority.

Hebron is divided into two sectors: H1, which is under full control of the Palestinian Authority (PA), and H2, under full control of the PA, minus security. Within H2 sits the tiny Jewish enclave, with a population of about 500 in a city of close to a quarter million. The purpose of the H2 security zone is to protect this tiny enclave of 4 “neighbourhoods”. I put the term in quotation marks because the so-called “neighbourhoods” are typically just a row of 3 or 4 buildings.


I got the impression our first guide, Gili, did the best he could to present a balanced and fair image of the situation from the Jewish perspective. (Although standing up there, he does look like he is preaching!) I am not in the habit of visiting religious buildings, but I have been to some of the great cathedrals, mosques and Buddhist temples of the world – as a tourist – but I think this was my very first visit to a synagogue.

Like most Jewish buildings in the sector, the synagogue is brand new. In 1929, bands of Arabs attacked the Jews of Hebron and killed 67 of them. While most citizens of Hebron had cohabited in peace for a long time, the Mufti in Jerusalem, Haj Amin al-Husayni, riled up hatred in the context of the Palestine riots, in an unknown and still debated mixture of nationalism and/or antisemitism.

Amin al Husseini und Adolf Hitler

Source: Bundesarchiv, Bild 146-1987-004-09A/Heinrich Hoffmann/CC-BY-SA, through Wikimedia Commons.

He certainly kept questionable company in those days. Following the killings, the British authorities decided they could not protect the survivors – or did not want to – and they forcefully deported them to Jerusalem. The synagogue and many other buildings were destroyed or left in disrepair, until the Jews returned following the defeat of the Arab coalition in the 1967 war.


Any politics aside, I learned about the scrolls of the Torah. They are actually written by hand, with an extreme attention to detail. If one of the 304,805 letters are out of place, the entire document is not useable in prayer. They even have software to scan the work of the calligrapher before the scroll is approved by the religious authorities.  It takes a year and a half to make one and they cost upwards of $80,000.

Shortly after the synagogue visit, we went to the house of Rabbi Danny Cohen, who runs one of the chapters of the Jewish outreach organization Chabad. Their mission is to “Utilize internet technology to unite Jews worldwide, empower them with a knowledge of their 3,300 year-old tradition, and foster within them a deeper connection to Judaism’s rituals and faith”. For everybody else, the website is a great Judaism 101.

The Rabbi discussed life in Hebron and I asked him what was the biggest hardship they faced in their daily lives (except times of violence, of course). He identified the restrictions imposed by the Israeli Government as the biggest source of frustration. In order to avoid provoking the Palestinians, they are restricted from making any new constructions, and this is interpreted in a very literal way.


This market was seized by the Palestinians after the 1929 massacre, but they were evicted in 2000, after several Jews were killed in terror attacks during the second Intifada. Despite Jewish families having legal titles to those lands, the Government does not allow them to retake possession of them. Much more, they interpret “development” as including “improvement”. So while the Jew’s houses are nice, their neighbourhoods are not, because even painting a vacated building so it doesn’t look like crap would be perceived as provocation. Keep this in mind when I mention what annoys the Palestinians the most in their daily lives.


Our guide in the afternoon, explaining something to our group.


Crossing the security gate is pretty surprising. Essentially you walk 20 m and bang! You could be in any Arab country in the region. Although this market could be anywhere, the signs, the cars (including how people drive!), of course the people themselves, everything is so different in an instant I couldn’t help being a little stunned.


While our guide focused exclusively on the inconveniences of living in the H2 zone, we could still witness the little normal things of everyday life. These little pancakes get filled with nuts and are folded into a delicious, not too sweet pastry.


The inconveniences are certainly present, as is always the case when living in a divided city. This is accentuated by the awkward geography of the Jewish neighbourhoods, requiring a much larger security apparatus than if they had a little circular neighbourhood on top of a hill.

For the residents of H1, the main inconvenience is the difficulties of international travel and trade. Transits to fly out of Amman require lots of paperwork and import restrictions to prevent the inflow of weapons limit business opportunities. Of course, they also suffer from horrible governance, but this is hardly Israel’s fault. In fact, in my humble opinion, only 3 or 4 Arab countries I have visited suffer from bad governance: Morocco, Oman, the UAE and maybe Jordan. All the others suffer from horrible governance.

In H2, and especially in the immediate vicinity of the Jewish neighbourhoods, the situation is very different, as all live under direct military control, with checkpoints, bunkers and cameras everywhere. In times of conflict, these people obviously find themselves in the middle of the crossfire.


During the last Intifada, the troubles were apparently very geographically concentrated in Hebron. This roadblock bears the scars of being hit by thousands of rocks thrown towards the IDF (Israeli Defence Force). Since the IDF would usually reply with tear gas, the apartments right above the checkpoint were eventually abandoned and remain so to this day.


The same goes for the second focus point of violence, this nearby place, where commercial buildings remained abandoned, the owners probably aware that the large investments required to fix them up could become a total loss as soon as some Palestinian group initiates a new wave of violence.


This was apparently featured on American television; nets and shields the Palestinians have built to prevent being hit by garbage the Jews throw on them. In such a tense environment, it is difficult to get a feel for what is truthful and what is exaggerated. And from the point of view of an outsider, it is difficult to read something into the actions of others; with very different attitudes coming from Governments, average people and extremists on both sides. And then throw in teenaged boys. Thrills trump reason, risk trumps purpose. Can I imagine myself, as a 15 year old Palestinian boy, throwing rocks at the IDF? Or as a 15 year old Jew, throwing garbage on the Palestinians? Honestly, yes, if my parents approve. And absolutely yes if they don’t.

But there was a clear difference between the two tours for me: falsehood. Some things are highly ambiguous, but some facts are not.


Apparently a woman was shot on a roof by the IDF during the second intifada. Quite possible, but this water tank was presented as being riddled with bullet holes. It is not. Surprisingly, I happen to be quite knowledgeable in the field of bullet holes, having studied ballistics in a graduate degree of engineering, but that kind of experience is not required to figure out that rifles don’t make square holes in a soft metal tank, with irregular shapes and sizes.


So why does anyone, Jew or Arab, want to live in such a place?


Mainly, for this, the Cave of the Patriarch. While the bulk of the building itself dates back “only” 2,000 years, constructed by the Jewish King of Judea Herod the Great, the cave under it is believed to be the burial place of Abraham and several of his descendants, thus making it, in a way, the birthplace of Judaism, Christianity and Islam.


Abraham’s cenotaph, inside the Jewish section of the building (it is now divided into two parts, but that’s a complicated story, and we were not allowed in the Muslim section). The cenotaphs are symbolic, as the bodies are believed to be in a cave deep under the building.


Between the Muslim conquest of 1188 and 1929, Jews were banned from entering the complex. They were only allowed to climb up to the seventh step, outside one of the walls. The staircase has now been destroyed, but some people still pray on the site of the seventh step. After the 1929 massacre, British authorities further restricted access to Jews and in 1948, after Jordan took control of the area, Jews were banned from the entire area of the Judean Hills. Only after the 1967 Six-Day War did a Jew (the head Rabbi of the IDF) enter the building, the first time in almost 700 years.


Like at the Western Wall in Jerusalem, worshipers place little paper prayers in the cracks.

So, it’s a big building; can’t they all get along?


The tone of the propaganda you see on the walls is not really geared towards peaceful cohabitation.


On either side of the fence.

Now, if I want something, and you want the same thing, and we are both reasonable people, we should be able to come to an agreement. But if what you really want is for me to NOT have that thing, then it becomes a lot more difficult. Even more so if what you really want is to kill me. Why is this situation a problem at all? How can having less than 1% of Jews in a city be such an outrage that people want to kill them, resulting in the ridiculous situation of a massive military presence just to protect a few tens of families?

“O you who believe! Do not take the Jews and the Christians for friends; they are friends of each other; and whoever amongst you takes them for a friend, then surely he is one of them; surely Allah does not guide the unjust people.” (Qur’an 5:51).

The bottom line is that 21st century Islam, as interpreted by most Muslim rulers, is a religion of exclusion. Even our Palestinian guide, who I am sure is not an extremist by any definition, deplored the fact that Jews could now pray at the Cave. “Before it was only for Muslim, a pure, sacred place”, she said. I wish I had thought at the time to ask an innocent, idealistic question, like: “But isn’t it better now that everyone can go?”.

True, some Muslim scholars try to reinterpret their holy book to sound more palatable, and I am totally open to being convinced that rulers have hijacked the original message. I am willing to discuss the matter in any of the following places:

– Mecca

– Madinah

– The Al-Aqsa Mosque

– The Great Mosque of Djenne, etc…

Of course, that’s not going to happen.

“Oh you who believe! Truly the idolaters are unclean; so let them not, after this year, approach the Sacred Mosque….” (Qur’an 9:28).

It is against the law of Muslim rulers for me, an infidel, to enter those cities and places, although I can certainly visit Hindu, Buddhist, Jewish or Christian places of worship worldwide. So, no debate being possible for now, I am right, and that’s the end of that.


Palestinian girls leaving their school in the Jewish neighbourhood. How often do the Jewish residents try to kill them? Can you imagine the reverse scene? The question is totally moot, since Jews are banned from entering any area under the security control of the Palestinian Authority, just as anyone who has visited Israel is banned from entering almost all Arab countries. More realistically, if Jewish children did go in H1 for some reason, they would be safe, surrounded by hundreds if not thousands of IDF soldiers imposing all manners of restrictions and hardships on the average Palestinians, just so that Islamists don’t get a chance to kill them.


The lunch we had was in a Palestinian house, in the Jewish neighbourhood. There are not many of those, but again, the reverse in inconceivable. The main dish is a typical Palestinian rice dish and there is an entire chicken inside! The mother being sick in bed, it was served by a couple of Palestinian girls in their late teens, early twenties, wearing yoga pants! No quite what I expected.


Between the two new houses of this Jewish neighbourhood, a Palestinian house (darker stones). Because they are literally living on top of each other, the Jewish community apparently offered the owner literally millions of dollars to sell the place (I assume with the help of the rich diaspora), but he refused. This made me realize one important thing; all these people chose this life. The Jews can live hassle free anywhere in Israel, and the Palestinians can move anywhere else in the huge city of Hebron and not have to deal with all the security issues. They also don’t have to deal with the construction restrictions in the rest of the city. Like for Rabbi Cohen, this was a major point of contention for them, but unlike the Jews who are restricted to about 3% of the territory, they can build whatever they want anywhere else in Hebron, except in this small part of the city.

But, more than anything, they all want to live near the Cave of the Patriarch. At least they have one thing in common.

It is very difficult for me to imagine a permanent resolution to such a complicated situation. Some say the Jews in Hebron are an obstacle to peace, and of course they are right. Removing them would easily solve the problem, just as the solution to home grown Islamic fundamentalism in the UK or France is super simple: just deport all the Muslims back where they came from. After all, they are only people.

I find it hard to justify why a few Jews whose grandparents purchased those houses in the early 19th century shouldn’t be allowed to live there, 38 years after being expelled by a murderous mob. But on the other hand, the massive security apparatus they bring – almost certainly larger than the population itself – is also a complete aberration, albeit one that is impossible to avoid in the current context.


Whenever closer cohabitation was tried, it resulted in deaths, such a the series of terrorist attacks in the heart of the Jewish neighbourhood at the start of the second Intifada.


This resulted in the closure of this major Palestinian commercial street, from which most of the attacks took place. This unavoidable security requirement cause significant economic hardship to the Palestinian merchants, who in all likelihood, were not the ones blowing themselves up in front of schools.

And the pattern is always the same, in terror and in war. The Jews accepted a deal in 1947 that was not very advantageous to them at all, the Arabs refused, attacked, lost and ended up with far less than what the deal promised. Again in 67, and 73, and the first and second Intifada, and every other attack. This continues to this day, as Israel retaliates against terrorism. Of course Israel cannot just react with open violence even though the IDF could kill everyone in a 500 km circle around Hebron if they wanted to. So they react with permits.


The fourth Jewish neighbourhood consisted initially of 7 mobile homes, these very ones. The Jews were strictly prohibited by the Israeli Government from building any permanent structures. Then a Palestinian broke though the window of their elderly Rabbi and stabbed him to death.


The Israeli Government approved this in retaliation, just on the other side of the little park.

I have no conclusion. It took me a while to write this because I wasn’t sure how to express my impressions, and because I know just enough about the Israel-Palestinian conflict to realize I know nothing at all. And because while I can write about the Afar tribes of Eritrea or the troubles in East Timor with a cavalier attitude, this conflict is more present and important to me and a lot of people I know.


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