“The starboard hand of every woe,” Palestine, Pt. 4
Yesterday, we visited Hebron in the southern West Bank. We passed west around Bethlehem, a long road with Biblical landscape on both sides, tiered green hills, moss and grass spread over stone. Settlements dotted the fields, trailers on both sides of the shared road that presaged larger homes and the eventual colonization of that road after Government Forces connect the services, electricity and water, of the two small communities.
Downtown Hebron looked very much like many other downtowns I’d seen in urban Palestine, older men crowded at a ‘Bank of Jordan’ ATM, adolescents in t-shirts and jeans congregated outside a mall. Hijabi women and young men in stylish button-downs. On this part of Shuhada Street, there were no Israelis. But the further up we walked, a trailer came into view, blocking the street. In it was a metal detector and a few Israeli soldiers. On a balcony overhead, an olive-uniformed soldier, assault rifle draped across his body, waved at us, mocking.
In Hebron, roads to homes are cut off and many Palestinians have to negotiate through the houses of their neighbors or over rooftops to return from work in the evenings.
Eyes on the trailer, we listened to our guide tell us of the February ’94 massacre when a Jewish settler, a doctor, entered the Ibrahimi Mosque, the city’s holiest site, and opened fire on the men and women praying within, killing 29 and wounding over 100. He told us of how the military and the settlers occupied wholesale markets, cutting off fruit supply, how one day a group of settlers rented rooms at a local Arab hotel and refused to leave, departing only after they had turned the building over to the Yesha, the local Settlement Council, a trade our guide likened to individual gangsters handing their conquest over to mob bosses. The settlers and the settlement associations deal with each other, not the Palestinians they steal from, said our guide with no small amount of acid.
The city is divided into two sectors: H-1, governed by the Palestinian Authority; and H-2, governed by Israel. The borders are often marked by red signs warning away the other side, and you can see, passing through these gateways, dead areas where shops have closed down.
A group of teens walked by, one of them angrily kicking a soda can, on their way to the border trailer.
We passed through the trailer and on the other side of the checkpoint was a patch of ghost town. Occasional police vehicles with Hebrew on their fronts and their flanks lounge on street corners. The roads are paved by American funds, the shuttered storefronts doused in uniform American-supplied paint, the windows overhead barred by metal gates to protect the remaining Arab residents on this side of the division from the stones thrown by the settlers on the street. When the muezzin chants over the empty street, one feels haunted.
At the corner of Beit Hadassa, at the end of the street, Palestinians turn right, go around through the Muslim cemetery, then come back down another hill to arrive at the southern part of the city, instead of taking the path straight ahead.
Often, in between trailers, there are no signs demarcating these boundaries; one simply knows where one can walk and where one can’t.
In the market, back in the Palestinian section of town, there are tables laden with shades, hats, food, jeans, presses, dresses, shirts, backpacks, almonds, scarves, flats, heels, teapots, cosmetics. And behind a fence are the settlers whose garden we peeked into earlier. There’s a dead end by the fence, and while we walked through the market, store owners and hawkers peppered us with ‘Where are you from’s’.
If you crane your neck and look up, you’ll notice a grate overhead, heavy with metal bars and bricks and bottles, socks filled with feces and urine and occasional residue from acid thrown earlier. Detritus. Things the Jewish settlers have aimed at the Palestinian market below.
There’s a bridge overhead, several meters down, that the settlers use for a new angle of attack sometimes.
Further down, children in sweats and beaters and soccer shirts kick around a half-deflated soccer ball, knock it against shuttered storefronts, horseplay. Then there’s a section of the souk that’s been abandoned.
Past that, one can see, through the barbed wire fence, a Yeshiva school, guarded by Israeli soldiers in various towers armed with security cameras surrounding the thing, a school that was built on top of a Palestinian school that the Arab children, for obvious reasons, have stopped attending.
Further down the street, past a building scarred by a long, vertical fracture, is a stone plaque in Hebrew, commemorating the first settler murdered in Hebron. Stabbed. Palestinians will occasionally come by and paint over the plaque, and settlers will arrive later (sometimes during the Saturday settler tours) and clean it.
You see, in the eyes of the younger a quiet coiled violence; in the posture of the women the silent strength born of furious continuance; while the older men are buried beneath their eyebrows, their frowns hidden under the shade cast by their mustaches.
Construction often indicates settler homes built on top of Palestinian dwellings. And on the ground through this main market street is stomped shit from animals that are nowhere to be seen. A cross-street to the wholesale market is blocked by a metal panel and when it rains, it all drains down this street, ruining the markets here and the buildings.
Adolescents in the darkened hallway shout louder than necessary at each other, and I saw an older brother, a storefront manager, corralling them with a long stick, eventually smacking one of the kids who ran, screaming, weeping, past us.
What’s the difference between an Arab and a diving board, our guide asked us. You step on a diving board without shoes, was the answer.
Near a jewelry shop was a board showing instances of settler violence and the homes the settlers build, their own fellowship with each other juxtaposed against the violence they used to build this place. Where we stood then, the Abraham Avril settlement looked down on us.
The cobblestone street outside of a café further down was soaked in effulgent. Opposite us, children banged on a metal door, and I didn’t know if they meant to open it further or close it.
At the very end of the street was a turnstile, a security checkpoint. To the immediate left after that was another security detail just outside the Ibrahimi Mosque, which is said to be the burial site of Abraham 2000 years ago with land purchased from Arabs.
Inside the mosque, the floor is laden with red-patterned carpets, a few fans spinning lazily, shoeless men reclining against the walls. The women in our group were given blue and brown hooded shawls, covering their hair and their arms. This was one of the rooms where the massacre occurred. Throughout the space are monuments marking the tombs of martyrs buried in a cave beneath our feet. Koranic scripture can be seen along the upper area of the walls, draping the columns, fans periodically hanging over their strips. Our guide tells us of a time when the Jews and the Muslims would worship in here together. The building itself is segregated. The mosque area is opened to Muslims and tourists who are not Jewish, the synagogue opened to Israeli Jews, Christians and tourists who aren’t Muslim. At the gate, a security officer asks your religion. Our tour guide told the officer we were all Christians. Along the enclave and the colonnade surrounding it, the bullet holes from the massacre are marked by small bits of paper that say ‘S24’ and ‘S43,’ other impacts similarly marked. An attachment to the mosque looks out onto the Abraham monument, and past that, the Sarah monument. Isaac, Jacob and Joseph of the many-colored coat are also said to have been at one point interred here. It seemed profane to take pictures in there. On the other side of a wall, Russian Jews chanted, shouting over our tour guide’s voice. They seemed only to hear themselves. In the shoe storage area, there’s Arabic script above Sarah’s tomb praising the city’s last Turkish settlers from long ago, and above that, an Israeli security camera. When the mosque is crowded, the men and women worship separately. When it isn’t, they worship in the same room.
On a hill next to the mosque entrance is a gate with armed Israeli guards barring access to another Israeli/Jewish area of town. Five Palestinian families remain there and must pass through two checkpoints, one at the top of the hill and one at the bottom, to leave their street. They are forbidden from inviting friends over for tea. Once those families are convinced to move out, settlers will take their place.
Down by a barricade segregating the Arab and Jewish parts of town, a kid huckster charmed us in French. We passed through the barricade to arrive at a blockaded street blanketed in a quiet thick with tension, like when a black man walks into an all-white bar. Israeli soldiers with M-16s guarded the barricade, olive green uniforms, banana clips held together by black tape. As we leave, other soldiers erect a new barrier at the other end of the street.
On our way back through a previous checkpoint, a soldier manning the booth has his rifle aimed lethargically at the opposite entrance.
We turn a corner and pass through a tunnel that opened out onto a playground and adjacent plaza. Kids in open air. I finally found the goats, who were corralled in a separate pen. Children in a row by the swings chased us along, one of them giving marching orders in Arabic with a stick he had found.
Hebron in 2013 made me wonder what Belfast in 1993 must have looked like. Or Birmingham in 1963.
If you took Northern Ireland during the Troubles, Jim Crow America and interwar Germany, mixed those colors on your palette, you might be able to paint an image resembling present-day Hebron.
There aren’t enough tears in my body to weep for the world, and there’s not enough rage in the heart to hate all oppressors equally, but I worry about what this place is doing to me. My mother, in a response email to a missive I’d sent her assuring her that I was yet alive, told me not to get consumed by what I see over here. If my presence here can bring blessing to one person’s life, she assured me, then I will have done my duty in the eyes of the Lord. This same woman has exemplified the notion that it’s not enough to beat the Devil once. You have to wake up and knock him down every single day. I’d only thought that true of inner battles, but I see it here too. Jews aren’t the Devil, nor is Israel the embodiment of evil, but it is difficult, titanically so, to leave a place like Hebron without hate in your heart.