Palestinians believe Hebron has been used to test methods now applied on a wider scale in Jerusalem, such as building settlements on Palestinian territory, installing checkpoints, seizing sanctuaries and taking away jobs and food from the people.
Palestinians are convinced that the de-Palestinization of Jerusalem, including taking away their sanctuaries, lands, houses, cafes, and shops, and squeezing Palestinians out of Palestine, is taking place according to the same scenario that had already been used in Hebron, the city of Abraham (Ibrahim).
Hebron is located some 30 km from Jerusalem.
“We lost Al-Haram (aka the Ibrahimi Mosque) the way we lost al-Quds (aka Jerusalem),“ says Taghrid al Mehidseb, 40. She lives in Hebron’s Old City, taking care of children.
She hasn’t visited Jerusalem for 20 years. Since then, she would be required to get a special pass to access the city, which she as a Palestinian would not be granted.
She has no children of her own, but her sister has a whole bunch of them.
For Hebron’s Palestinians, eras are divided into “before occupation” and “after occupation,” namely, since 1967.
«We have no control over anything here. On Jewish holidays, not only the mosque is closed off to Palestinians, but so are the stores and stalls. It’s a no entry zone. They shut the mosque gates whenever they want by closing the checkpoint, without even a warning or an explanation,» Taghrid says.
Called al Khalil in Arabic, it is one of the world’s oldest cities.
Hebron is a Palestinian autonomy, rather than a part of Israel. Its population is around 180,000 people, or up to half a million if you count the suburbs. I haven’t met a single Palestinian policeman there, but there are lots of Israeli troops, checkpoints and military hardware in the city, watching over the safety of 800 settlers.
The city is home to the Cave of the Patriarchs (Al-Haram), where Abraham (Ibrahim), his son Isaac (Yitzchak), and his grandson Jacob (Ya’akov) are buried, as well as their wives Sarah, Rebecca and Leah. Muslims believe Ibrahim, Yitzchak, and Ya’akov are prophets. A large mosque stands over the burial cave.
For Jews, Hebron is the second sacred city after Jerusalem.
Up until 1994, Muslims, Christians and Jews alike were free to come to the mosque. On February 25, 1994, an armed Palestinian, US repatriate Dr. Baruch Goldstein, opened fire on Muslims in prayer in the mosque, killing 29 people and wounding 150. Since then, the mosque was split into the Jewish and Muslim sections. Settlers seized a part of town, which they called the Jewish district. And a large settlement grew next to the city.
Jewish districts and the Cave of the Patriarchs are guarded by the Israeli Defense Force. There are two dozens of permanent and temporary checkpoints across the city. Palestinians are banned from going inside the guarded areas.
Two sides of one tomb
The road to the mosque lies through the old market, which ends with bars, revolving gates and an Israeli checkpoint. Then there’s another checkpoint where you have to open your bags, show your cell phones and other equipment, and show your ID. Any Palestinian could be detained here.
There are several soldiers at the checkpoint. They inspect my bag, and ask questions:
“Are you a Muslim?”
“I’m Russian Orthodox.”
“As a Russian Orthodox, you have to go through here.”
This means going to the mosque through the entrance for Palestinians. The other entrance is a synagogue for Jews and tourists.
The Muslim entrance is on the side of the building, but their part of the mosque still has the two wells over the cave with the tombs of the patriarchs, where people place lamps and put their notes. One can barely see Jews praying behind the three rows of bars.
A Palestinian woman peeps through the keyhole of a large ancient door between the Jewish and the Muslim parts, and pulls away.
“There’s an eye there! And it’s watching…”
The large prayer hall is decorated with carpets. I am pointed to the spots where Goldstein came from, where the dead and wounded were lying, and where he was killed as well.
“Before that incident, Jews were praying anywhere in the mosque, even though the army was prohibiting them from entering the mosque. Then after Goldstein’s massacre they seized the mosque, as if fulfilling his will, although he was a criminal. Now they’ve separated the mosque, and they can close it off for us any time they want. They can always go to the mosque, whereas we have to wait for their permission,” explains an elderly Palestinian, the maintenance man of the mosque.
“We don’t let our kids go anywhere, as Israeli soldiers abduct children, and search and question them. If a child disappears we cannot even go looking for him, we have no right to go beyond their checkpoints,” comments a Palestinian woman with grandchildren.
“We suffer from numerous bans and restrictions. It’s hard to explain, but it affects our everyday life,” she adds.
To enter the Jewish part of the mosque, one has to walk down the street with new souvenir shops, which look like they are never visited by tourists. Then you walk by several lines of Israeli soldiers, military hardware and an access barrier. You don’t get checked here; soldiers merely glance casually at rare bypassing settlers.
The whole large front yard with a garden, olive trees, fountains and flowers belongs to the Jewish part, and so does the main entrance with a large marble porch and a beautiful staircase.
A lone Jew wearing a hat is praying near the tomb wall. The main entrance is meant for Jews and tourists only, whereas Palestinians aren’t allowed to use it. The third entrance is closed altogether.
An armed female soldier is sitting at the entrance. There are no women wearing long skirts or head covers, although some are praying hard with their hair down. The worshipers are divided into separate chambers by partitions. Next to them is a particularly noisy room with tables and benches, where groups of pilgrims enjoy their snacks.
There are several Jewish fast-food stalls at the exit. Several settler families with lots of children are having their meal there.
The city is filled with morning sunshine. Some stalls and stores are open. Numerous children are carrying blue buckets, thermos flasks, pots and even kettles. They are on their way to get Ibrahim’s soup.
Legend has it that Ibrahim once fed three travelers. Theologians called them angels. In the Russian Orthodox tradition, it is believed that this particular scene is portrayed on the Russian icon, Trinity, by Andrei Rublev.
The tradition of feeding soup to hungry pilgrims and needy locals has remained, in memory of Ibrahim’s hospitality.
Lots of children of various ages are waiting outside a two-story building not far from the mosque, holding their blue containers. The Palestinian women who brought me here stopped at the market to buy several containers, which keep your soup or tea hot for several hours.
Chef Waddah al Jabari has been working in the soup kitchen for 20 years. He has four assistants helping him. He is stirring a steaming brew in a huge pot. The food, cooking and building maintenance are funded by donations.
Waddah al Jabari makes enough soup to feed 50-60,000 people daily. On “meat days,” he uses 1,200 kilos of poultry, and 5,000 kilos of meat. On Mondays he makes chicken soup, and on Fridays, meat soup. When I came there it wasn’t a meat day, so he cooked a delicious fragrant wheat and spices soup.
“I prefer getting meat and other food products from people directly, rather than buying them with donations,” says the chef.
His father worked in the soup kitchen for 40 years. His brothers also worked at this place.
“Ibrahim’s soup has been served here for over a thousand years. In Jordanian times [Jordan was in charge of the West Bank until 1967], they destroyed the old kitchen next to the mosque. This is the third building since then. Initially the soup kitchen was a large 50-room building where people used to have soup,» says Waddah.
Kids who’ve just barely learned to walk push their little containers through the window.
“I am reluctant to give hot soup to the little ones, but what can you do? Their parents send them over,” says the cook.
Soup is served not only in the city but also in villages, where a lot of poor people live who cannot afford other food.
Cobbler from Al Khalil
A cobbler is a traditional trade in Hebron, and there about 300 workshops with almost 30,000 people repairing shoes.
Cobbler Samer is 40. Over the centuries, his relatives have been buried at a local cemetery. He grew up and studied at school in al Khalil, and like his ancestors, has he been making and selling shoes for years.
“I have seven children,” says Samer. “I’ve been unable to make a penny for two months. You can see that the city is empty. There’s no work here.”
He is desperate, but he says he is not leaving Hebron.
“We don’t even send our children to get Ibrahim’s soup. Praise the Almighty, we’re still alive. We don’t take that soup because we have food. I can always borrow from my relatives, as some of them are well-off. We help each other, and we’ll keep going for as long as we can,” Samer says.
Unlike many Palestinians, Samer visited Jerusalem last week, although it wasn’t for any happy reason.
“My aunt had cancer, so I was granted a permission to stay with a patient for three days,” he says. “It was a permit for one hospital only; I was unable to leave it under threat of being arrested. The permit had the name of the hospital written on it, so I just followed my aunt by bus straight to the hospital. I wasn’t allowed to stay there overnight, as my papers indicated the time when I had to leave. But some people stayed at the hospital according to their papers, which prohibited them from going out.”
Samer didn’t want his photos taken, he says. Next time he wouldn’t be given a permit if he is too open with the media, he explains.
How to kill a city
Any walk you take in Al Khalil always ends in a blind alley, which means there are settlers living on the other side of the wall.
The longest shopping street is covered with nets, and even with cover-up film. Shop keepers explain that the top floors are taken by settlers. Occasionally the latter throw garbage and spill waste right on the heads of passers-by.
A shop owner demonstrates beautiful Palestinian dresses and shirts ruined by waste.
You cannot see any settlers by looking at the top floors. The windows are closed with blinds. However, you can see checkpoints on the roofs at crossroads, and soldiers enjoying the sunshine under Israeli flags.
“Settlers can throw down eggs, or something worse,” says a local shopkeeper. “What else can we do other than cover up with a net? Our police cannot fine them, whereas the Israeli army doesn’t notice their wrongdoing. The court doesn’t consider our complaints.”
Muhammad Shadit, 75, is sitting near an old district mosque. This used to be a flourishing area, which now features a shabby municipal building separated from a deserted garden with a net. On the other side a Jewish educational facility is being built. There’s a dumpster near the net on the Israeli side.
“I used to have a good store, but it’s not working like it used to,” says the old man.
He explains that 12 years ago this district was taken over by the new settlers, who kicked out Palestinians and closed all stores according to martial law. The Palestinians had no right to challenge it or ask for compensation.
“Our madrasah was captured, and now they are building their yeshiva instead,” says Muhammad, pointing at the tall building behind the net rising above old two-story Palestinian houses.
“No Palestinian can access the part of the city seized by them. Even Palestinians living in Israel cannot get there. Even Palestinian parliamentarians have to request permission, which is not promised to them either,” he adds.
He takes me farther down the street into a similar dead end:
“This used to be a bus station and one was able to take a bus to Amman,” he says. “That was before the occupation; and even after the occupation the living wasn’t that bad. Things changed after Goldstein’s massacre. Even azan in the Ibrahimi Mosque is now prohibited,» complains the old Palestinian.
«This used to be a lively street, up until the year 2000, and now it’s empty. There’s no transport or tourism. Israel killed this city, and they want us gone from it. I am not afraid, I’ve got nothing to lose. We Palestinians have nothing to lose anymore,” he explains.
I pull my headscarf over my hair, and start walking toward the dead street.
“It’s dangerous to go there like this, they won’t let you though,” the Palestinian women warn.
“We’ll see,” I replied.
Five hundred meters later I see the first checkpoint, with Israeli soldiers sitting on chairs. They flip my journalist ID back and forth, make a call, and let me through.
I walk past empty buildings with Israeli graffiti on them. Here and there you can see Palestinian families holding on to their apartments on second floor. They have barred windows, and posters with calls to the international community, the UN and mankind. The entrances are walled up, so they can only leave their apartments by going into the Palestinian area.
Occasionally you run into settlers, most of them carrying arms. Schoolgirls pass by. Nobody wants to stop and answer questions; instead they speed up and turn their faces away from the camera. An American tourist couple leaves the settlement.
To your right, you can see buildings seized by settlers, and to your left, an old cemetery. And up the hill there’s a Palestinian village.
I climb up a wobbly staircase to look at the graves, but the access to the cemetery is blocked by coils of barbed wire everywhere.
I see people gesturing and yelling something from the hill road. Finally I realize that it’s some Palestinian teenagers who want to know who I am and whether I understand how dangerous it is for me to be there wearing a head scarf, and that I could be taken for a Muslim or a Palestinian. They mimic shooting a rifle to demonstrate what could happen to a Palestinian woman.
But the soldiers don’t even look out of their large checkpoint. The atmosphere of dormancy and inertness is all around.
A soldier walks past me toward the wall between the battlements and the city, turns round the corner, and a minute later walks back. He appeared to be going to the toilet.
Two hours ago, I was talking to old Muhammad on the other side of this very wall, and he was telling me that Israel had killed the city. What was the purpose of that? To kick Palestinians out of their homes, to take away their jobs, and to pee in old Palestinian backyards, and to throw garbage on their heads?
Certainly settlers don’t think about it in these terms. They believe this land belongs to them by the word of God, and their graffiti claims their right to it.
Withered symbol of meeting
The Monastery of the Holy Trinity is located at the other end of Hebron. The gate is locked, and the Palestinian gatekeeper pretends not to notice us driving up to the gate and honking.
Finally, he comes up to us and says that he can’t let anyone in, because Israeli soldiers are coming soon. He leaves, but comes back in a bit, opening the gates and asking us to finish up quickly.
A road approximately 1km long leads through a grove to the monastery. A small group of Russian pilgrims from Moscow are praying along with the priest inside the church.
Young novitiate Dmitry has been here for three years. He was born in Sochi.
Novitiate Abraham first came here in 1993. He returned after the monastery, formerly owned by the Russian Orthodox Church Abroad, came under the jurisdiction of the Russian Orthodox Church.
He recalls that in 1997 and 2000 the late Patriarch Alexy came here.
Orthodox Christians don’t have it easy in the Holy Land either.
“You have to wait for a year and a half for a religious visa, it’s very hard to get. But it allows you to travel all over the country,” Abraham says.
“We are not allowed into the settlement, and they spit in our face in synagogues. The elderly spit on the ground, and look upset when we smile. The young ones spit right in our faces…” Abraham says.
He visited the Ibrahimi Mosque a number of times and prayed there before it was divided into two parts. He visited it afterward as well.
He doesn’t recall there being problems with the Palestinians.
“The mosque didn’t use to have partitions, you could pray anywhere. On the Muslim half of it people are still friendly and kind,” Abraham tells us.
“We live with Muslims around – in our part of town there are no Jews or Christians,” he explains.
He says that no one has gone down the caves where the patriarchs’ graves are for many centuries.
“The caves were closed in 1470, but people still throw coins and notes in the wells. They disappear, so I guess someone picks them up,” he says.
He explains that the Oak of Mamre, which is said to mark the place where Abraham entertained the three strangers, is on the territory of the monastery.
“Jews come to the Oak to pray. Back when it was allowed to come close to it, they used to put notes into the bark… It’s some kind of new paganism, like with the Wailing Wall,” Abraham says.
“The oak withered in 1996, and in 1997 the Palestinian authorities gave this whole territory with the Oak, the garden and the monastery to the Russian Orthodox Church. It’s a very strong tree – you can do whatever you like to it, even burn it, but still new sprouts appear.”
I walk up to the Oak of Mamre. There are no new sprouts.
It’s hard to get rid of the thought that the very symbol of Abraham meeting the three angels has withered and died.
The dead tree is surrounded by a fence. There are baskets with acorns next to it, a memento for visitors if they want one. The oak has not produced a single acorn for a long time, but there are other oaks growing nearby, and their acorns are gathered for tourists and pilgrims.
The siren wails and the brakes screech as a number of Israeli military cars stop in front of the oak, forming a semi-circle and cutting off the road. Soldiers and officers take pictures with the oak in the background, laughing and joking about, talking via radio.
I approach them and ask if any of them speak Russian.
Private Dima has blond hair and doesn’t consider himself a Jew. He repatriated with his family after the collapse of the USSR. His mother is Christian, and she went to live in Spain, while he and his father remained here. They live close to Hebron, and this is where he serves, too.
“We just came here for an excursion. No one is religious in my regiment. This is never going to be over. This conflict is 2,000 years old. All the problems arise from the settlers, they’re very zealous,” Dima says.
The part where the army protects the settlers, including in Hebron, he considers “a political issue.”
“What’s the point in talking about politics?” Dima asks.
The soldiers step back to let through my Palestinian guides in their car. We leave the premises of the monastery, and see a group of Palestinian boys outside the gates, waiting to throw the stones they are holding at the Israeli soldiers.