Having grown up on the streets of Northern Ireland in the 1980s, cultural, political, religious and geographical divides have always been a part of my life. Whether I’ve wanted them to be or not. As my travel lifestyle has developed over time, I have become much more intrigued by the parts of the world that are sadly still experiencing war, hate and bloodshed and those trying to change from a history of problems and move on. Turning these problems into peace is every man’s dream. But the reality is, places like Hebron in Palestine are divided cities for a reason. Until you’ve been there, you don’t have a clue! So it was time to go…
So I was backpacking in Israel and Palestine and decided on a full day trip to Hebron as part of a tour that allowed us to spend half a day on both sides of the city – I’d get to experience what life as an Israeli and life as a Palestinian is like. Our bus left from Jerusalem main bus station and yes, the windows are protected and almost “bullet proof”. Just to put things into context here, the week before my visit to Hebron, an Israeli soldier was shot dead by a Palestinian sniper. This trip ain’t for the faint hearted. It’s an eye opener. In general though, it’s a safe enough trip and you’re advised to do it with a guide – besides you get a better insight into the situation with a local guide.
The special thing about my trip to Hebron was that I got into both sides of the divide, on a “double narrative tour” run by Abraham Tours (they are based in Jerusalem and highly recommended). I was with a Jewish tour guide taking me through the Israeli controlled section, and I was with a Palestinian tour guide taking me through the Palestinian controlled section. It was Palestine in the morning, and Israel in the afternoon, well so to speak. Locally, in English at least, the sides are known as H1 and H2, almost as a cover up for the fact the city’s name is Hebron. Or to be . I’d prefer if it was called Israeli Hebron and Palestinian Hebron though, as throughout the day I got confused as to which part was H1 and which was H2.
To start the tour we get off the bus on Apartheid Street. Nice introduction. With a name like that I had flashbacks to my time in Soweto and Pretoria. Here though, the meaning is the same. It’s two separate religions or cultures, separated by a street which these days nobody lives in. And why would they? The street was evacuated some years ago due to the high tension. All the houses are boarded up, they have turquoise doors and the place hasn’t seen any dwellers since the 1990s. Currently, that’s the way it will stay. We leave our Jewish guide at this point, and head to H1. H1 is a Palestinian area only. Israelis are not allowed in. Let me explain…
Modern day Hebron is a Palestinian stronghold and houses a Palestinian population of 160,000 or thereabouts. There are also around 700 Israelis living in Hebron giving it that divided edge. These figures don’t include the Israeli army that man the city day and night – 24 hours a day this place is under Israeli army control. They’re all armed. It is illegal for the Palestinian soldiers or police to carry a gun. It is illegal for Israelis to enter H1. For these reasons, Hebron is split into two and referred to as two separate parts – H1 and H2. H1 is controlled by Palestine and H2 is controlled by Israel. However the borders are manned by Israeli soldiers. You can feel the tension in the air. You can see it with your own eyes.
We meet our Palestinian guide Mohammed and are taken through a security hut which doubles up as the border between H1 and H2. We leave H2 and we are now in H1. We’re on a prominent corner in downtown Hebron but we take a walk down a side street again and back towards the border. Mohammed points out the dividing wall. It’s a dead end street with bricks, bottles, barbed wire and a notable gap between what you could describe as Israel and Palestine. This is a world border right here. Hebron is sadly a flashpoint in the conflict here and this becomes apparent.
We are taken through the market to meet the locals. On route there’s a sign that the Palestinians are hemmed in. They don’t appear to have any freedom here. There are bricks on top of wire fencing over the market. It’s not pretty on the eyes. It’s a hard life for them here, that’s for sure. You don’t make stuff like this up just to show the tourists. The bricks have come from the Israeli side, but the locals refuse to surrender to their demands. We have coffee with a local guy who lives right on the border – he’s been through it all, ten times over. One of our tour group asks him why he doesn’t move to a new flat, when his children are at risk. He gives the obvious and expected answer “this is my home. I’m not moving”. He also admits that for $100,000 US Dollars he also wouldn’t move. These are Palestinian family homes and have been for generations. For now we side with Palestine.
We head into the Ibrahimi Mosque. this Mosque has security gates on the way in, and we are on the Palestinian side. The Mosque is also a synagogue. This building has an entrance for Jews and an entrance for Muslims. Even the religious buildings are segregated. Probably the saddest and most telling part of the entire tour. There was a shooting here in 1994 – while Muslims were praying a Jew walked in and opened fire.
Inside its a holy Muslim place of worship, so we dress appropriately and take our shoes off. As we should and as you should too. However I get angry as I see a lot of disrespectful Jewish people walk on in, without removing their shoes, some of them even wearing shorts. I find it completely disrespectful to the Muslim religion. In a holy place. These Jews even have the audacity to take photos and laugh at the fact that Muslims are prayer. I’m a bit disturbed by it, as is Mohammed and most of our group.
After this I buy some Palestinian coins in the local market for my collection. Palestinian banknotes are not available, and I have picked up some postage stamps in Bethlehem before. It feels like a different country. We head to a viewing tower which again shows how the Palestinians are denied freedom here. All around there a guard posts manned by Israeli soldiers. I thought of West Belfast for a second then realised – no, these people have no freedom, in West Belfast they do. It’s almost like their city has become a prison. For a Palestinian to escape their home town and go abroad is an arduous task. Getting to the border and into Jordan can take the best part of 11 hours.
Lunch is served politely, courteously and in generous portions as we eat hummus, salad and chicken with a local Palestinian family. After lunch, we are “relaxed” back into H2, the Israeli controlled side of Hebron for our tour by the Jewish guy. This is where things get odd. We’re now seeing the same city for a different point of view.
We walk into the same building we were in before (The Ibrahimi Mosque) and we are now in a synagogue with lots of Jews praying and reciting verses. There seems to be a denial or a disbelief that Jews viewed from the other side were wearing shoes and laughing at Muslims. I almost wanted to call Colombo (Peter Falk) and get him to investigate the case. Although, for today thankfully no homicide, just a mystery of conflicting views and opinions within the same building. Our Jewish guide insists this building belongs entirely to Jews and the Muslims shouldn’t be allowed to lay claim to it, as they took it illegally. Earlier we heard a similar tale from Mohammed our Palestinian Guide.
We head to the point in the road where last week a soldier was shot. It’s a poignant moment and for now, we side with the Israelis. it’s an emotional sectarian drama before our very eyes – and we came here as tourists. Another spot in the road was the scene of a horrendous suicide bombing, where Israeli children were killed some years ago. This is sad. We visit the memorial, which is still there. A Jewish synagogue is also here and in good condition. It’s survived some bad times.
Murals on both sides seem to portray the exact opposite to one another. I have a chuckle at the “Free Palestine” and “Free Israel” signs. On a later trip to Bethlehem, I was also startled but not surprised to see the Israeli Jews being compared to Nazi Germans in a wall graffiti act bearing the Swastika. It’s interesting when you look at the world from someone else’s point of view. The Palestinians are the weak ones here – they’re enclosed in a vacuum.
The Jews are in the major minority in Hebron, but we catch up with a local lady who has been through family deaths and lives a tough life. We totally side with her and later walk up to a guard post. The Israeli soldier there talks for 5-6 minutes. He has no fear in life. He shows us the exact location where the Palestinian sniper came from the previous week and killed one of his army colleagues. It’s a matter of life or death in parts of Hebron and it’s truly sad. Israelis find it hard to trust any Palestinian.
Our final part of the tour on the Jewish side takes us to the Jewish Museum, which I find biased. It completely only shows things from the Israeli side. There are no photos or mentions to the fact that the Palestinians are blocked in and controlled by the Israeli state who man the borders. Palestinians live here too and are good honest, hard working people for the most part. That’s the reality. But how can a tourist solve a problem which has been going on for years.
A tour of Hebron is one of the biggest eye openers from my travel journeys and completely educated me on the whole problems with the Israeli – Palestinian conflict. I also visited Ramallah, Bethlehem and Jericho in Palestine, but Hebron is the place to see things at first hand.
It’s sad to see the divide and how the Palestinians are completely enclosed. Whether a two party state or a one party state is the best option for peace, one thing’s for sure, closing people off from fellow humans is in itself absurd and inhumane. My heart goes out to everyone in Hebron. I highly recommend this to anyone visiting the region. By far this trip was more interesting than Masada, Akko, the Dead Sea and Nazareth.
To the people of Hebron, “Your destiny will keep your warm”
Peace, love and safe happy travels to one and all.