Today Geoff and I visited Hebron, hailed by my Lonely Planet guidebook as ‘without doubt the hidden jewel of the West Bank’. It is the largest Palestinian town, larger than Ramalla, and visiting it felt like a real adventure. Our guide for the adventure? A former PLO activist who has spent 11 years in prison. Abu Hassan looks like Maradonna, he is not much more than 40, and is very free with his opinions – hence the 11 years he has spent behind bars so far. He tells us that his family has lived for generations in Jerusalem, but since 1967 he can only get a temporary residence permit that lasts ten years, “and I must prove to the occupiers I live within Jerusalem otherwise I will loose my residency!” He cannot marry someone in the West Bank because since 2005 no residency applications are allowed.
This chimes with what I know about the Dean of St George’s wife called Rafa. She is a Palestinian Christian born in Nablus and has been married to Hossam for ten years now. Under international law, after 5 years she should take on her spouse’s citizenship, but the Israeli government has ‘suspended’ the law, so she has had to renew her residency permit every 3 months – recently upgraded to every 12 months – just to live with her husband and three children at St George’s. To make it worse, she is not allowed to work, drive or even open a bank account or phone contract. Talk about second-class. I would so hate that.
Anyway, onto Hebron. We drive along an Israeli highway that only allows cars with yellow number plates (residents of Jerusalem/Israelis). Palestinian villages along the highway have to use smaller roads that tunnel under the road, the highway separates many farmers from their olive groves, with the obvious economic disadvantages. We pass new Israeli settlements set on hilltops near Hebron – rows of porta cabins fenced around with barbed wire. These will become the next built-up settlements, all on Palestinian land. “They are killing the idea of a 2-state solution, there is nothing left,” says Hassan.
He explains that everything – the walls and fences, the checkpoints, they are all done in the name of security, but what it is really about is taking and controlling the land. This is proved when we return to Israel-proper through the Jerusalem checkpoint: with Hassan’s yellow number plates we sail right through, no security, no checking of anything in the car, because Hassan looks Israeli and behaves like he owns the place. It is a completely racist system!
Onto Hebron we continue. As we drive through the outskirts we spot a butchers with carcasses hanging up, and I kid you not: we saw a carcass with a camel’s head. They eat camel in Hebron traditionally, because of the proximity to Bedouins.
Hassam explains that Hebron is divided into two: H1 and H2. H1 covers 80% of the land area, is home to 120,000 Palestinians; H2 covers 20% of the area – including the main market streets and 70% of the Ibrahim Mosque – and is home to 500 Israelis, guarded by 4,000 soldiers. Under the 1997 Hebron agreement Israel is supposed to have withdrawn from Hebron.
We progress through the turnstiles and X-ray checkpoint up to the Ibrahim Mosque. We take off our shoes to enter, and I am told to put on a cloak thing, I presume to cover my hair (Geoff doesn’t have to, but then he doesn’t have much hair!). As we look around Hassam tells us the awful history of this place. In 1994 an American-born Israeli Dr Baruch Goldstein, a member of a far-right movement, opened fire on 800 Muslims praying in the Mosque. He would have had to go through the same checkpoint we did – but Israelis are allowed to carry arms, so if it was assumed he was a soldier or guard he would have been able to carry in his assault rifle and amunition. He injured 300 and killed 29 people before someone knocked him out with a fire extinguisher and others beat him to death – Hassam pointed to the corner of the room where it happened. With unbelievable audacity, Goldstein’s wife is still trying to find out who actually killed her husband.
While we are there, 20 or 30 soldiers file into the Mosque to be told something about it, two soldiers at the end stand poised with their assault rifles up. Hassam points out that the soldiers never take off their boots: they refuse. I am completely shocked – this is such desecration. And of course, no Palestinians are allowed into the synagogue part, which used to comprise the Mosque. Why can’t the soldiers be told about the patriarchs from their synagogue side? We see the dividing wall. I learn that the Israeli government condemned Goldstein’s act, but the extremist settlers celebrate it: there is a shrine to him somewhere. And the Palestinians has suffered the most as a result: Hebron was closed for 6 months (we drove past the gates to the city, which the soldiers often close even now), the Mosque was closed for 9 months, and when it was re-opened it was divided into the synagogue and mosque. “But it was never a synagogue!” says Hassan.
We take pictures of the tombs of the patriarchs, of Abraham, Sarah, Isaac, Jacob, Rebecca and Leah, but by now I have little enthusiasm for this. We are shown a pretty sort of pulpit made of 500 pieces of wood without nails. We leave.
Next we visit what used to be the main market streets: they are deserted, a wasteland of peeling paint and rusted shop canopies. 1700 stores here have closed. This is because the settlers have taken over the central area and the road has been closed off to Palestinians. Incredibly, the Israeli Supreme Court ruled that the street should be opened, and has made 20 or so rulings on Hebron, but the army refuses to enact them. “This is not a democratic state!” says Hassam, “It is a military state! People don’t know this.”
But it is not completely deserted. There is one building with an open door, there is black graffitti over the door (settlers again) and Hassam tells us it is a Mosque. The Imman is 90 years old and his house is just above the Mosque behind, and used to be accessed via a short stone staircase to the Mosque. But the army have put massive concrete blocks up to bar his way down to his mosque, so now he has to walk a long way around through the checkpoint to get to it. We open the door and he is the only person there, and he beacons me in, asking me to take off my shoes. It is a smallish square room that smells incredibly musty, because the roof is damaged and he is not allowed to repair it, so the rain comes in and wets the carpet. The settlers have set fire to the mosque 6 times, you can see the smoke damage to the ceiling, along with the peeling paint. In the corner I see a small foam bed and blanket where he obviously rests. For some reason, as we walk away from this place, this is what gets to me most: the vindictiveness against this humble 90-year-old imman.
Geoff and I then take a walk into the settlers’ neighbourhood alone, because Hassam can’t come, and find a couple of interesting signs. One speaks of 67 Jews killed in 1929 and that the land was stolen from Jewish people then, demanding it back (they have taken it). And another commemorates someone who was killed in 2002. It’s a pretty depressing sort of area, although we see one newish-looking playground, with a soldier patrolling above the barbed wire. When we leave a soldier asks to see our passports.
Hassan then shows us where the market areas have gone to, and there is netting strung above the street to protect the vendors and customers from dirty missiles. We see the evidence for them: teabags, dirty nappies, bags of urine, thrown from the settlers’ houses onto the market that still hang there.
We buy some beautiful crafts made by the Hebron Women’s cooperative in the Souk, then carry on into H1 which suddenly is vibrant with life, market traders calling out and masses of articles to buy. Wherever Geoff and I go people say ‘welcome’ and ‘where you from?’, we find that people are so friendly and pleased to see us. It is a normal city at last, but speaking to some boys younger than me I can see the strain in their faces. And there is so much poverty here now: it is no longer the gem it once was.
On the drive home we learn of Hassam’s past: he was first arrested aged 13, charged with stone-throwing (he swears this is not true) and spent 6 months in prison. His family weren’t told where he was for 62 days. “It killed my childhood,” says Hassam. “I became a hater when I saw any soldiers.” When he was 15 his brother was killed by settlers. “Then I joined the PLO.” Six months later, aged 16, he was accused of different activities for the PLO and given 12 years in prison. He was released during international peace negotiations after six years, “I was lucky,” he says. After being out for just one year he was re-arrested and given 15 years due to his PLO membership and work for the youth movement of the PLO. He was initially given 8 years but at the trial he was asked whether he felt any shame for what he’d done. “I said, ‘the only shame I feel is to stand before you, the occupiers, for this trial’, so they doubled my sentence to humiliate me.” This doesn’t sound like justice to me. Hassam got lucky again, he was release early again when 2500 prisoners were released during the Oslo Agreement. Since then he has been in prison for shorter periods due to his work as a political tour guide. Geoff asks Hassam how he copes with it all? He is obviously a very clever person, not fulfilling his potential ferrying people like us about. “I love to dance,” says Hassam. We learn that he likes 80s music, and is an avid supporter of Arsenal – he will watch a match this afternoon. “If I didn’t dance every night I would go crazy!” We ask is he has any Jewish friends, and he tells us he had a Jewish girlfriend, although she wasn’t practising.
Geoff and I chill out in Jerusalem by visiting the Armenian Cathedral of St James’ for the 3pm prayers, with wonderful gregorian chanting, then we have mint tea and baked treats in an up-market tavern in the old city where the ovens are 800 years old.
I must now go to meet them for traditional chicken dish Mousachen at a restaurant nearby. Shalom!