It was the Second Day of Christmas, also known as Boxing Day even though it (unfortunately) has nothing to do with boxing. Christmas was over and things were back to normal in Bethlehem. Most tourists had gone back to Jerusalem but I was heading in the opposite direction to the city of Hebron.
I wasn’t traveling too far, but it somehow felt like I was traveling to a different country. Hebron, the second-largest city in the West Bank, is a mere 20 kilometers from Bethlehem but the realities of both cities couldn’t be more different. “It’s very close but I haven’t been there in many years. I don’t like going to that city,” told me Maurice, the Palestinian Christian who hosted me in Bethlehem. He also told me to be careful. In Hebron, the Israel-Palestine conflict can be experienced in a very immediate form within a very small space, as there is an Israeli settlement right in the city center. I had been to a couple of divided cities before, namely Sarajevo and Belfast (and Berlin if you want to get technical), but Hebron is in a league of its own. Sadly.
I left my rental apartment and walked to Hebron Rd., the main road that goes all the way to Hebron. The weather had changed dramatically overnight: it was extremely windy, cold, wet and bleak. I walked to the bus stop and got in a small van. A few minutes later we were on our way to Hebron, passing through settlements guarded by ominous concrete towers.
We were free to drive through Palestinian villages, but Israeli settlements were off-limits because we had green (Palestinian) license plates. Signs at the entrance of each village or settlement tell visitors whether they are entering an Israeli or Palestinian area.
The Palestinian Side
The trip to Hebron was short. When we arrived, the driver let us out at the entrance of a bustling market at the edge of the city center. I had to walk through the market to get to my rental apartment, and the rows of vendors seemed endless. I got the impression that you could find anything there but didn’t stop to look. The market was full, loud and goods were on display everywhere, even hanging from pieces of tarp that covered the entire street.
It took me a bit to find my rental apartment, as the instructions on the website were not entirely clear and the backstreets of Hebron are a little difficult to navigate, but my host eventually came to pick me up and took me to the apartment. My host, Zleikha, was a short and stocky older woman wearing a hijab. She also spoke flawless English. We walked for a few minutes and eventually got to a building with a huge metal door. There were roosters on the street for some reason. Next to the apartment was a huge concrete wall separating the Palestinian side of the city from the Israeli settlement.
We went up the stairs all the way up to the rooftop, which is where my room was. I went up and waited for Zleikha to grab the key. The terrace was spacious and full of old plastic chairs and pieces of wood. It looked more like a storage area than anything else. The building across the street was abandoned and right behind it was an Israeli military outpost defending the Avraham Avinu settlement. Fun fact: There are more soldiers stationed in Hebron to patrol the settlement than actual settlers. As far as my room goes, I wasn’t expecting any type of comfort and I’ve certainly slept in worse places, but the room was very, very rough: windows without glass, mold, you get the deal. But it was part of the experience.
I had an amazing view over Hebron’s old town from the rooftop. The apartment also just so happened to be right on Shuhada St. If you’re interested in the Israel-Palestine conflict you’ve definitely come across that name before, as the street was famously made part of a settlement at the heart of the city. For that, residents were evicted, businesses closed and the street is, to this day, off-limits to Palestinians. “If you go on Shuhada street you’ll walk by my front door,” said Zleikha with a hint of nostalgia.
We walked to the edge of the rooftop. The street below was deserted. Across the street was a huge, sprawling cemetery, and up on the hill, in the distance, was a military base. Next to the base was a huge metal Menorah. Zleikha directed my eyes to her balcony, where she keeps her plants. The balcony was enclosed by a steel mesh covered in stones. “The settlers come throw stones at the houses from time to time.” She didn’t seem to care but I sensed that what she said and what she felt were two completely different things.
So let me go back here a little bit to give you a grossly brief overview for context. Hebron is an ancient Biblical Jewish city that, like the rest of the Holy Land, changed hands many times. By the 20th century, the city’s Jewish population had shrunk to a small minority. In 1929, the very small Jewish population of Hebron was massacred by its Arab neighbors; the ones who survived left. It wasn’t until after the Six Day War from 1967, when Israel occupied the West Bank, that Jewish life returned to Hebron in the form of a controversial settlement.
Seeing the settlement of Judea and Samaria (the West Bank) and particularly Hebron as their Biblical duty, groups of “National Religious” Jews created the settlement of Kiryat Arba next to Hebron in the late 1960s and then started settling the actual city with the protection of the Israeli Army. The Hebron Protocol from 1997 effectively divided the city into two areas of control, with 20% of the city administered by Israel and the rest by the Palestinian Authority. The Israeli area has been closed-off to Palestinians (and vice versa) since the mid-1990s, and its areas are still off-limits to them today.
The settlement of Hebron is very controversial even among Israelis—also among the descendants of the city’s pre-1929 Jewish community. My host in Tel Aviv told me that he was deployed to the Hebron settlement when he did his obligatory military service and distanced himself from the settlers, who are in the most extreme fringe of radical Zionists. One of them, an American immigrant named Baruch Goldstein, opened fire in the Cave of the Patriarchs in 1994. Violence has been initiated by both sides on an ongoing basis since settlers started arriving to Hebron, and obviously each side has its own narrative.
Back to the story. It was getting a bit late so I decided to go for a walk before it got dark, try to find some food and see some of the city. Hebron’s UNESCO-inscribed old town is full of ancient stone buildings crammed next to each other forming what would appear to be one single block of houses. I reentered the labyrinthine streets of Hebron’s old town and walked around for a bit. I took a minute to look at a gate to the settlement that was guarded by a decommissioned tower. The most striking is that the area beyond the fence looked and felt abandoned.
There is a very bizarre part of Hebron’s city center where the streets are in the Palestinian side but the buildings above it are part of the settlement. Settlers often throw garbage out the window onto the street down below, so the street is covered with a steel mesh full of discarded items. It was so weird to look up as a visitor because I could only try to imagine what Palestinians feel like when walking down that street everyday (I obviously failed).
I decided to walk to the Tomb of the Patriarchs, otherwise known as Ibrahim’s Tomb to Muslims. To get there I had to enter a section of the old town that was basically a tunnel. The whole tunnel was lined with street vendors. Halfway through it I saw an open area with some crumbling buildings and stopped to take a picture. As I was looking at the buildings a man approached me and told me that I was looking at an old mosque. He also advised me not to spend too much time there, and then he pointed at the sky behind me. I turned around, looked up and saw a small turret with an armed Israeli soldier. I felt uneasy, not because of seeing a soldier but because of the idea of living under that kind of constant surveillance.
At the end of the tunnel I saw the checkpoint and walked toward it. It was a weird feeling, like I was about to enter an airport or a new level in a video game. Seriously, can you imagine just how weird it is to have checkpoints in your city? Think about that for a minute. Imagine you’re hungry and walk to the store around the corner, but to get there you have to go through a metal detector and eventually show your documents to a heavily armed policeman. That’s a trip, right? Well, that’s what Hebron’s city center is like.
The Tomb of the Patriarchs is another weird spot. Basically, the place is important because that’s where Abraham is said to be buried. Abraham is the patriarch of Abrahamic religions (Judaism, Christianity and Islam) and is therefore venerated by Jews, Christians and Muslims. Long story short, King Herod built the first structure around the tomb, which still stands today. Later, sometime in the fourth century, the Byzantines built a small chapel. Then, after Islam conquered the area three centuries later, it was turned into a mosque.
Today, the Tomb of the Patriarchs is divided between Jews and Muslims. Each have their own entrance. One half of it is a synagogue and the other half is a mosque, but the tombs are in rooms visible from both sides. I first visited the mosque. As opposed to Muslim sites in Jerusalem, you are free to enter this one. Afterward, I visited the synagogue. To get there I had to go around the building and cross another checkpoint. At that point, I was in the Jewish part of town.
I noticed a small trailer serving as a tourist info center and I went to ask for a map. A thin older man with a white beard rushed in and I felt bad for interrupting him on his smoke break. He spoke with an American accent and said he would just wash his hands real quick. When he came back I noticed he was carrying an automatic gun. The guy was friendly and gave me a map, which obviously underscored just how Jewish Hebron really was. And I don’t dispute that Hebron is an ancient, Biblical Jewish city, but the map was rather trying to make a case for the modern settlement.
I decided I would check out the Jewish part of the city the following day and went back across the checkpoint to hopefully find some food. It was getting dark, and the tunnel was now empty. The vendors were gone, and the tunnel seemed to be twice as long.
The life and movement I had seen in Hebron when I first got there a few hours earlier was gone. The streets were entirely deserted, like the market and the vendors and the hustle and bustle had all been an illusion. I walked up the street in the direction of the bus stop where I had been dropped off, and that street, bar a few pedestrians, was also empty. I could then see the bare, dark facades of the abandoned houses. Closer to the square there was a bit of life: children and teenagers burned garbage in a steel barrel while others just sat around. I figured that the probability of getting mugged was higher there than anywhere else during the trip so I put my camera away.
It started to rain so I went back to my rooftop feeling somewhat sad. The lights of the Israeli army base shone bright, but both the Israeli settlement and Hebron’s old town seemed dead. Up on the hill, in the distance I saw the lights of the military base with the giant metal menorah.
The Israeli Side
The following morning I woke up to heavy skies. It had been raining on and off throughout the night, but I figured it was time to go out and explore a bit more. I again walked through the tunnel, through the first checkpoint and then the second one before entering the settlement.
What’s your idea of a ghost town? As I faced the street leading up to the cemetery, I saw nothing but abandoned houses extending along a dirt road full of puddles. At the end of the street was another small little house with an armed soldier inside. As I walked in that direction I could see the guy coming out of his little house and thought to myself, “I was just asked for my documents over there. He saw it. And surely he knows if I made it these 20 meters I’ve had my documents checked already. He’s not going to ask to see my passport again.” Wrong! I don’t know if he did it out of boredom but he asked for my passport again. I somehow wasn’t surprised but was a bit baffled at the logic. Maybe it’s just a scare tactic, but I will admit I didn’t really look like someone you’d like wandering in your neighborhood (black clothes, leather jacket, full beard, hoodie), but I digress.
Then I got to Shuhada St. To my left was the cemetery, and to my right the front door of my house and Zleikha’s balcony. Again, nothing, no people walking down there, no cars, just closed doors and emptiness. I entered the cemetery, jumping over razor wire and puddles, and took a few pictures. I turned around and saw a soldier looking at me suspiciously and I knew he’d ask me again for my passport, so I said “good morning” to him and walked back down the stairs. He asked me what I was doing there. “Oh, I just like to visit random cemeteries” would have been the most accurate and truthful answer but I just said I was walking around. He told me not to stray off the main street as that could be dangerous. I took his word at face value, for Hebron has a history of violence and not only soldiers but also settlers pack guns.
The Jewish settlement in Hebron is really tiny and basically just the Tel Rumeida hill. I walked all the way up to the top of the hill. The streets were eerily empty, and I was asked for my documents by every soldier I came across. Most were young and friendly, and of all different ethnic backgrounds. The settlers I came across greeted me kindly but had no interest in any further interaction. They all wore the knitted kippahs usually worn by religious Zionists.
Up the street I came across a Jewish cultural center that I had seen from the Arab part of town. I went in to see if I could get a coffee. The place was full of families and one curious settler who kept staring at me and approached me more out of weariness than friendliness, but kept it casual. I forgot his name by now but I’m pretty sure he was American (and probably had a gun on him). We talked for a little bit and he was genuinely kind of perplexed to find a lone tourist from Mexico there. But the guy seemed to be a chill family man and that gave me an impression of what settlers might be like.
On my way back, I asked a young soldier if it was cool to walk around the Avraham Avinu settlement, which I could see from my terrace. After checking my documents and calling his supervisor he agreed. The settlement was very small. The houses, just like the ones I had seen in Jerusalem, had limestone facades. I walked past some settlers loading stuff into a truck. One of them had long locks falling from the side of his head and wore glasses. When he turned around I spotted a gun tucked behind his back. In their minds, settlers seemed to live in a warzone and were ready for shit to go down any minute. It was unsettling, to say the least. I mean, why would anyone want to live like that? But they believe, like the Blues Brothers, that they are on a mission from God.
Considering the history of violence and hatred between both sides, I can’t see how they will get out of this situation. I can understand the anger and fear on either side, but can’t imagine anything other than some kind of compromise as a way forward, because the fact is that neither party is going to pack up and leave the city.
Could some kind of tolerance be achieved like in Sarajevo or even Belfast, where people have their own part of town but just don’t kill each other? That unfortunately doesn’t play with the ideology of the radical settlers either. But still, there are people on both sides who advocate for peaceful (even if begrudging) coexistence. I mean, the city is big enough for both, but there’s so much hatred on both sides that they seem to be stuck in this nasty situation.
I walked back to my apartment and asked Zleikha if she knew where I could get some food. She said that it was too late to go anywhere and would bring me some stuff. A few minutes later, she came in with a plate full of cheese, bread, hummus and some fruit. The bread was frozen so I should just put it on the radiator.
I ate and then looked out the one window. The window had metal bars so it made me feel like I was in a prison. It was already late but the lights of the Israeli military outpost we all on. They always are. They actually illuminated my whole room. I looked at the base for a bit and then sat on my bed. Up on the moldy wall I saw a wooden picture of Handala, a cartoon Palestinian kid who symbolizes the suffering of Palestinians and won’t grow up until Palestine is free.
Hebron was the most unusual city I’ve ever visited. It was a heavy (really heavy) experience. It was interesting to finally have been there and seen how people live, and to talk to both Israelis and Palestinians. To know what it’s like to have to cross checkpoints within a city. I wondered how I would feel if I lived there—if I was an Israeli settler, I would feel constantly on edge, and if I was a Palestinian I would feel humiliated and angry.
Hebron is a beautiful city of great importance to many people, but being there made me feel conflicted. The longer goes by, I feel the more difficult it’s going to be for them to get out of this situation, but I really hope they find a way to live in peace.
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