Hebron is the West Bank in microcosm. Once a case study in multiculturalism, tensions began to mount from the 1920s with the rise of both Arab and Israeli nationalism. With the tombs of Abraham, Isaac, Jacob and their wives contained in the complex of the Al Ibrahimi mosque, also known as the Cave of the Patriarchs, the town is a profoundly significant site in the histories of both Judaism and Islam. Its defining characteristic both historically and currently is being one of the only West Bank towns to contain Jewish Settlement communities within the town itself, now housing a population of some 650 settlers.
In 1994, one of these (Baruch Goldstein) massacred 29 Palestinians in the Cave of the Patriarchs. According to our local guide, the mosque was then closed for 6 months for security reasons. To widespread dismay, when the mosque reopened it had been fitted with extensive checkpoints restricting Palestinian access, and part of the facility converted to a synagogue. This marked the start of a rapid deterioration in already tense Arab / Settler relations.
Today, the once-bustling market centre of Hebron is an eerie ghost town. It resembles a battlefield more than any other place I’ve visited; whole deserted streets of windows and doorways are barricaded with sandbags and oil drums, and razor wire is piled liberally into any gaps. Check points litter the area, staffed by up to ten soldiers at a time, all wielding assault rifles and casting our group studied looks as our guide sermonises uncomfortably loudly about the impact the Israeli military and settlers have had on the area. It’s hard to argue with him – there is nothing around but closed and half-ruined shops. The only functioning entity in this quarter is a school, founded in 1911, where our guide studied and which the profits from his tours (ostensibly) contribute towards funding. We are told that students crossing the checkpoints to attend are so harassed by settlers that various international NGOs provide volunteers to protect them on their way to and from school.
This at least is the case in central Hebron, but just like the rest of the West Bank life and Palestine’s glorious material culture carry on outside the main conflict zones. Before our tour started we discovered a glassware shop selling exquisite pieces of every size and colour imaginable and were able to watch the glassblower as he worked. The deftness with which he fashioned the white hot sand into a beautiful vase in a matter of minutes was awe-inspiring, especially since it involved swinging a long pole around with such vigour that, had I been doing the work, would have taken most of the onlookers’ eyes out.
Perhaps the most unsettling aspect of Hebron is the settlers themselves. Vastly outnumbered by Palestinians in the metropolitan area writ large, they are nonetheless given extensive protection by the Israeli army and legal institutions. Settlers in Hebron are permitted to carry arms openly (Palestinians, of course, aren’t). It is a sobering site when, having explained this to us, our guide gestures towards a settler family walking back from synagogue towards their settlement, all in smartest worship dress and a huge assault rifle slung around the father’s shoulders. The guide is at pains to point out that the locals’ umbrage is with the settlers, and to a lesser extent the military, alone – every time I ask a question and unthinkingly frame the conflict as being between Palestinians and “Jews” or “Israelis” he is quick to correct me and extoll the virtues of organisations like Breaking the Silence, and the generally peaceful relations enjoyed between Palestinians and the majority of moderate Israelis.
On this note, I’m reminded that on the night we flew back from Tel Aviv my twitter feed buzzed with news of a huge demonstration against a new discriminatory law in the city, with more than 10,000 Israelis and Palestinians insisting that “Jews and Arabs refuse to be enemies”. Our guide is 25 years old – meaning he was 1 at the time of the Cave of the Patriarchs massacre. This conflict is all he’s known, but I’m heartened that he seems to be part of a generational movement on both sides of the wall that recognises peace and friendship as the ultimate goal. There is more than a century of nationalism and brutal conflict for this generation to unpick, and with the current regimes in charge the change is not going to start soon nor be over quickly, but there is hope.