Life in a Ghost Town

Visiting Hebron for a group of young Europeans is an unbelievable experience in the very sense of the word: it is hard to believe what is in front of your eyes, hard to believe that something like Hebron can even exist; yet it does, and this post is about what I saw there.

The bad habit of dividing cities in two.

Hebron, which paradoxically in Arabic is al-Khalil (the friend), is the largest city of the West Bank, home to approximately 250,000 Palestinians and the main economic hub of the region. It’s chaotic and rowdy, its streets filled with cars and trucks, women loaded with dozens of shopping bags, kids running to school and men pushing wooden carts overflowing with lemons and all kinds of vegetables, yelling to attract costumers and carelessly blocking the traffic. At first sight, just the ordinary crazy middle-eastern city; but as we approach the entrance of the old city everything gets worryingly quiet and – like in a creepy fantasy movie- you know that something bad is about to happen. Down the street there’s a checkpoint: a checkpoint in the middle of the city? Yes, get used to it because Hebron is no ordinary city: it’s two city in one, or, better said, it’s a partially occupied cityIMG_7040

Hebron is a holy place for both Muslims and Jews: it holds the Cave of the Patriarchs, which according to the Bible and the Quran was built by Abraham and contains the tombs of the patriarchs and the matriarchs of the Jewish people: Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Rebekah, Sarah and Leah. This explains the attachment of the Jewish people to this city and probably also the messianic fervour that guides the most extremists to settle here, in a land that doesn’t belong to them but that they desperately want. In 1998, following an agreement between Israel and the Palestinian Liberation Organization, Hebron was divided into two sections. H1, about 80% of the city, was given to the control of the Palestinian Authority, while Israel maintained control over H2, which contained significant parts of the commercial centre as well as the Israeli settlements. Today in H2 live about 35,000 Palestinians and 700-800 Israeli settlers.

I won’t indulge in talking politics and history because I’m neither a politician nor an historian; all I want to talk about is the everyday life I experienced in this crazy reality where nothing, nothing is normal.

The Ghost Town

After going through the checkpoint that divides H1 from H2 we enter in Shuhada street: Abdallah, our friend and guide, says with a grin “Welcome to the Ghost Town”. IMG_7053The view of the empty street is eerie: in 2002 all shops were closed “for security reasons” and Palestinian movement of any kind was essentially forbidden, turning the central thoroughfares into a desolated string of closed doors. The sadness is overwhelming: in large sections of H2 Palestinians cannot drive cars and every movement is controlled by the Israeli soldiers who get to decide who comes in and who doesn’t. This means that even ambulances need to ask for permission to enter the area: “A while ago a pregnant woman from the Abu Eishea family was stopped at this checkpoint and she wasn’t allowed to go to the hospital”, Abdallah tells us. “She gave birth at the checkpoint with only two ambulance operators helping her from the other side and only after the childbirth she was allowed to be carried to the hospital”.

We walk up the street to reach the settlement in the area called Tel Rumeda; we enter it while our Palestinian friends wait for us outside, under the vigilant eye of a soldier. There’s a small military base inside with soldiers walking around. I take a picture and with a friend I approach one of them: he’s a clumsy kid, pale and skinny but with a huge gun in his hands. He tells us he’s 19. “Must be boring to sit here all day long huh?” my friend says. He seems to have no clue of what he’s doing there, the contrast between his innocent face and that gun is impressive.

After Tel Rumeda we climb up the hill to reach its top, from where we can see all the city. Obviously enough all the control towers and the military bases are on the summits of the surrounding hills, in crucial positions from where it’s possible to scan every centimetre of the city. All the Palestinian houses at the same height have been demolished and all the tallest buildings have been closed down. It feels incredibly oppressing. Omar, another Palestinian friends, tells us how during the Second Intifada every night soldiers were shooting from this point to the Palestinian houses. Every night Hebronese families would hide in the bathroom, the safest part of the house because the less exposed, waiting for the shooting to end. On top of this there were frequent curfews during which Palestinians were not allowed to go out, not even for groceries. “The longest one was of 40 days”, Omar says. “We had to cross the fields and avoid all main streets to go buy something to eat”.

IMG_8779Violence, violence, violence.

Down the hill, in the heart of the old city, the open market quietly discloses a bit of life. The roof of the market is a net covered with trash thrown by the settlers who live in the houses above. We stop at every door because in every building there’s a family with a story to tell. Abdallah starts telling the story of the Sedeer family with growing anger in his voice, as we approach an old house which confines with the settlement:

Abed Al Rahman and his brother Shad in this house for 15 years and heir family has been living here for eight generations. In 2002, 300 settlers attacked their house, broke all the doors and threw the water tanks from the roof. Since then they’ve been continuously attacking their family, trying to force them to leave. In 2005, as Abed’s wife was to the roof checking the water tanks one of the settlers from Tal Rumeda shot her 5 bullets. She was pregnant.  She was transferred to the hospital and the doctors managed to save her child, but she died. Four years later, their kid went out to buy sweets and a settler threw a chemical water on him from the roof, hitting his eyes and making him blind.

The Israeli army continues failing to prevent these attacks and despite the frequent aggressions it doesn’t intervene and it tacitly allows the settlers to perpetuate their violent actions.

Propaganda for everybody!

IMG_7090Walking in the old city one feels like in an open-air museum of horrors: the walls seep grief and hatred, a hatred so thick and tangible to be perceivable in the air. These walls have turned into canvases scribbled with accusation and insults from both sides, leaving very little space to messages of hope and peace. What strike the most however are the Israeli propaganda posters attached everywhere: “This land was stolen by Arabs. We demand justice! Return our property to us!” recites one poster. Another one quotes the Bible : “1967, Liberation of Hebron and re-establishment of the Jewish community. ‘The children have returned to their own border’ (Jer 31:17)“. IMG_7196Many other “explanatory” signs are scattered around the main streets for unaware tourists to read: “After signing the Hebron Accords in 1997, Hebron was divided, leaving Jews the access to 3% of the city”. Too bad it doesn’t say that H2 actually constitutes 20% of Hebron, that Palestinians are not allowed to walk freely or to enter the Cave of the Patriarchs while settlers are escorted by dozen of soldiers and can even enter the mosque; too bad it doesn’t say that there are cameras on every rooftop to control every movement of every citizen, but when a settler hits a Palestinian those cameras magically turn on the other side. Too bad it doesn’t talk about the crazy settlers who try to run you over with their car as you walk in “their land”. I guess the sign is just too small for all this information.

As we walk on one side of the road, on the other side we cross a group of American Jews on a guided tour in the holy city. I then learn that young Jews all over the world are given the opportunity to participate to the Birthright, or Taglit: a free trip to Israel, to visit the land of their ancestors. I wonder what their tour guide is telling them: probably a very different story from the one Abdallah is telling us. In that very moment the paradox of the whole situation overwhelms me: I realize that some of them may think the same thing: they probably think that Abdallah is lying to us, while to me it seems as they have been distributed sunglasses to protect them from the truth and shields against reality; they have probably even been told that hummus is the traditional Israeli food and that the keffiyeh is a traditional scarf for Jewish weddings (as a settler told one of my friends outside a Palestinian shop). The ugliness of manipulation of history reveals itself to me with all its frightening power.

Is anyone up for some more Apartheid?

IMG_7215To take a break from our tour we stop at Munir’s shop in Shuhada street; a small room packed with colourful hand-made pottery, embroidery and old postcards. Munir offers us coffee and tea and then tells us how hard it is for him to carry on his business: Shuhada street used to be the trade centre of the city, but after its closure it is only visited by occasional tourists. He shows us pictures of the street in the ’90, portraits of an unrecognisable hustle. He has hundreds of anecdotes about his troubled everyday life: “One day I found the car of a settler parked in front of my shop, in a way that I couldn’t get in”. I waited for him to come back and asked him the reason of his behaviour. “I went to pray in the Synagogue”, he said. “Did God tell you to block my entrance?”, Munir asked. The settler stood silent and then left. “I have my ways to deal with them”, Munir adds.

The Ibrahim mosque is in front of his shop, patrolled by several soldiers, and the street who runs beside it is divided in two by a tall grid. Palestinians on one side, Israeli and foreigners on the other. What is this if not apartheid? Ah yes, I forgot: “Security reasons”.

IMG_7183The part of the city behind the mosque is a pile of debris, a display of the destruction left by the bombings of the Second Intifada. Behind the hill more settlements stand out in the landscape with their perfect red rooftops and their barbed wired walls, so purpose-made different from the surroundings, so arrogant and invasive, careless of the fact that they are all illegal according to International  law.

We leave Hebron unsure of what we experienced, full of anger and dismay. After seeing life here, any justification for Israel’s  behaviour and policies towards Palestinians in Hebron is simply unacceptable. Don’t these people deserve to live a normal life? Don’t these kids deserve to play something different from “kill the Jews?”. And don’t these Israeli soldiers deserve to spend their best years having fun, travelling and seeing the world, instead of playing with their guns and discharging their boredom on the first unfortunate Palestinian passing by? IMG_7173

After a week spent in this beautiful and sad city, without being an historian nor a politician of one thing I am more than certain: Hebron must be freed. 

More detailed information about the economical, political and social situation of Hebron can be found here.

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