By Emily* (with Ethan Stan’s editing skills)
*I originally wrote this while in Hebron, but waited a few weeks to post.
I’m not really sure how to start this post because there’s so many ways to start. I can start with the good – the hospitality, the food, the views – and lead into the bad, but ending this post on a sad note will probably enhance the feelings of hopelessness. Conversely, starting with the bad may discourage anyone from reading far enough to get to the good. But when it comes down to it, I just need to start writing this down, sharing this experience with my friends and family, because so many Palestinians asked me to.
Our first week in the region was spent in Tel Aviv, which Ethan and I immediately started comparing to San Francisco. Other than it’s coastal vibe and presence of many overpriced coffee shops, however, Tel Aviv had a feeling of safety and cleanliness I hadn’t expected. We saw families everywhere we went, enjoyed beautiful parks and greenways, and socialized with our Israeli friends often.
From there, we headed to Jerusalem – a whole different kettle of fish. The Old City astounded me with its maze of streets and alleys, where turning every corner would bring you face to face with a holy site. After all, the Western Wall, the Church of the Holy Sepulcher, and the Dome of the Rock are housed within the Old City’s walls – not to mention countless churches, temples, fountains, archaeological discoveries, etc. And other than one quick checkpoint to enter the plaza near the Western Wall, I didn’t really feel the tension that had been so prevalent in every conversation I’d had about Jerusalem. But that changed when we went to Bethlehem, and even more so in Hebron.
Like most tourists to this region, I’m absolutely unqualified to talk about the politics and problems between the Israelis and the Palestinians. I’ve been privileged enough not to know anyone directly affected, and like most Americans, a lot of what I do know about “the Middle East” is flavored with mass media sound bites and overheard conversations between passionate debaters (not necessarily those involved in the conflicts themselves, of course). I was raised Catholic – no longer practicing – so I could at least relate to the religious issues and histories in the region. But even that in itself is distant, because being religious in the United States is pretty different (almost entirely different) than being religious here. So I’ve spent the last week and a half talking to people, trying to hear their perspective and trying to keep an open mind (which isn’t easy for a stubborn and opinionated individual like myself).
On Christmas Eve, Ethan and I hopped on a bus to Bethlehem to check out the Church of the Nativity and the local festivities. We were dropped off outside a military checkpoint, with giant concrete walls extending upwards, topped with barbed wire. After wandering around in confusion, we found the entrance point, and handed over our passports for visa clearance before entering the city. It was hard not to wonder whether Jesus would have still been born in a manger if these had been in place at the time – more likely, today’s Nativity scenes would just be pictures of Mary and Joseph holding a child next to a graffitied wall. When we entered, we only found more walls and unmarked roads, which got us lost for about an hour before we found the way into town. The Palestinian side of the wall is famous for its extensive and beautiful graffiti art – apparently a Bansky is hidden there somewhere – as well as written pleas for peace and tolerance between Israel and Palestine. From the walls, we heard voices coming from down the road – and most bizarrely, a band of bagpipes.
Hundreds (if not thousands) of people had gathered for the Christmas Eve parade and religious ceremonies at the Church of the Nativity. High school bands, Christian leaders, local organizations, and local people marched from the north of the city to the Church, and we followed in their wake. (We later found out there were two bands of bagpipes, which both offends and confuses me). While quite a few tourists like us were present – we made a wonderful friend, Snjezana from Bosnia, along the way – most of the crowd were Palestinian Christians. While wandering the streets after leaving the parade route, we found the Milk Grotto Church (a monument to a story about Mary and Jesus not mentioned in the Bible) and browsed at the numerous souvenir shops. Once the festivities had subsided, we went into the Church of the Nativity. I was floored by the architecture (no pun intended) and the decorations in the church; gold, incense, and magnificent stones covered every visible surface. Ethan and Snjezana waited in line to go under the altar, where the supposed birthplace of Jesus is located, but I waited in the main area to people-watch.
The rest of Bethlehem was filled with Palestinian soldiers with guns on nearly every street (I assume more were there due to the rigamarole) but the Church of the Nativity held mostly tourists, families, and fatigued church personnel. When we exited, the weather had gotten particularly cold, so Ethan and I bid Snjezana goodbye and headed off to find a bus back to Jerusalem. We managed to find a bus, but only a few minutes down the road, we were once again stopped at a checkpoint.
Israeli soldiers boarded to look at everyone’s passports, and they barely glanced at Ethan and me before turning their attention to an Arab-looking man behind us. He showed them his documents, but they threatened to take him off the bus for more questions. What followed was about 30 seconds of tension – the man refused to get up, saying (in Hebrew) what we could only imagine was either an insistence of his rights or an insistence of how unnecessary it was. After a bit of back-and-forth, they left – and that was the first time I witnessed racial profiling at the borders. We began to wonder about our upcoming trip to Hebron.
On Christmas Day, we decided to do something less than festive – we visited Yad Vashem, the Holocaust Museum in Jerusalem. I was blown away by the museum for many reasons – the staggering number of artifacts they saved, the detailed information at every exhibit, the personal interviews with Holocaust survivors. It was also incredibly effective at making the case for Israel – after such a tragedy, didn’t the Jewish people deserve a land of their own? The museum exhibits end with a video of the first Israeli president, David Ben-Gurion, declaring the state of Israel in 1948, with a recording of children singing the Israeli national anthem played over it. It’s absolutely compelling, and many of the arguments and emotions swirling around the Yad Vashem buildings run parallel to American beliefs, offering an explanation as to why we’ve supported Israel for so long (that, and the fact that the US has the second-largest Jewish population in the world after Israel).
On December 26th, we set out from Jerusalem to Hebron. We knew it would be difficult to find a direct route, but we managed to find a bus to Bethlehem, then a “servis” (taxi van) to Hebron. We didn’t hit any checkpoints – not by design, but that did make the journey more efficient. We got dropped off near one of the main markets in the city, in the Muslim/Palestinian (hereafter [possibly unfairly] equated) area of town. While wandering the streets in search of our AirBnB, we were frequently greeted with “Hello” and “Where are you from?” and “Welcome to Hebron!” Initially skeptical that someone was trying to sell us something, we soon realized that the greetings were genuine – people in Hebron are truly glad that tourists come to their side of town. Of course, within our first ten minutes of walking, we had this exchange with a local:
Man: “Hello! Welcome! Where you from?”
Us: “Hello! Thank you, California.”
Man: “Oh, Americans… What you think of Trump?”
Us: “[with thumbs down] Very bad, no good.”
Man: “Shit, yeah, fucking Trump.”
Emily: “Fuck Trump!” (Ethan is too polite to yell politically-charged curse words in a foreign country, I guess).
This exchange has been repeated about eight times in the past two days, with various locals. One thing many Californians and Palestinians have in common is a intense dislike of the current American president. (The other thing we have in common is a love of hummus).
We realized after a time that we were lost in Hebron, with unclear directions. While staring at our phones and trying to contact our host, we were approached by a few people offering to help – in one case, we were offered lodging and dinner in a family’s home (Palestinian hospitality knows no bounds). We called our host and handed the phone to one of our saviors so he could speak to her in Arabic – and lo and behold, they already knew each other.
Apparently Zleikha is well-known all over the city. Not only has she lived in Hebron all her life (she’s about sixty), she’s also active in local pro-Palestine organizations and teaches kindergarten at her home. Zleikha has traveled all around the world and speaks excellent English – you can immediately tell that she loves people and experiencing the most out of life. However, her life in Hebron has been getting worse and worse since the early 1970’s – when the Israeli settlers moved in.
To be fair, there had always been a small Jewish population in Hebron. However, a massacre of Jews in Hebron by Arabs in 1929 sent many of the surviving inhabitants to Jerusalem, and the rest left with the creation of the State of Israel in 1948 and the city falling under Jordanian rule. After the Six-Day War in 1967 – during which the West Bank was wrested from Jordanian control – a group of Jews returned to Hebron and decided to re-establish the Jewish community there, relying on nearby soldiers for protection. The settlement near Hebron, Kiryat Arba, was created during this time – since then, thousands of Israelis and even more soldiers have come into the region, claiming buildings and land. Four or five military bases surround the Old City of Hebron itself, each near a settlement, with prominent flags of Israel displayed. One of these bases is directly in the heart of the Old City, since one of the settlements took over a few buildings in the city center. Our AirBnB was overlooking this base, but on the Palestinian side.
While walking through Hebron, Zleikha pointed out the haphazard walls and millions of meters of barbed wire threaded through the streets. Roads had been blocked, concrete slabs erected, doors had even been sealed shut. In order to “keep the peace,” the city now has many dividing lines that make no logistical sense, except for that they keep the Palestinians and the Israelis on either side of the wall. And if you’re on one side of the wall, you probably won’t ever get to see the other. Since this segment of the city is so disfigured, a once-bustling marketplace has been all but shut down – empty storefronts and sealed metal doors show where trade once reigned. Today, the “chicken market” in the Old City has been moved, but abandoned ducks, geese, and chickens still wander the streets. On the building walls near the border walls, graffiti implores the reader to “Fight Ghost Town,” to fight the displacement of Palestinian businesses by Israeli setters. But that’s easier said than done.
Zleikha introduced us to a merchant friend, Jamal, still sitting in front of his shop in the old city surrounded by scarves, blankets, and kefiyyeh. He’s one of the few who’ve remained, and he angrily pointed above the shop at the makeshift wall of chain link that covers the street. “Take pictures,” he asked, “and show people how the Israelis treat us.” The chain link is covered by piles of garbage, which the Israeli settlers in the building above regularly throw out their windows. “They throw dirty water, and eggs too,” Jamal says, showing us one of his hanging scarves that’s been stained with egg. “And the soldiers, they see it, but they do nothing.” Again, looking up, I notice a guard tower just a few meters away, with an Israeli soldier staring out a window onto our street below. “They don’t try to stop them. But if we try to fight back, they arrest us. Take pictures, show people in America what it’s like here.” With tensions rising, the tourist population has plummeted, with international visitors afraid to come to “dangerous Palestine.” Jamal told us he barely sold one or two souvenirs a day, these days.
When we finally got to our AirBnB, I was once again amazed by the view. We stayed in a rooftop apartment in the middle of the city, at its lowest point; on every side of us, old stone buildings trailed up the hills. It was breathtaking, and Zleikha began pointing out landmarks – the Ibrahimi Mosque (where Abraham and Isaac, of Biblical fame, are interred), the markets, the roads to the university and other areas outside the city. But the sad tone returned when she pointed out the growing number of military bases, Israeli settlements, and walls everywhere. Next to her home is a large road that was once available for public use, but has been taken over by the Israelis for a number of years. Palestinians aren’t allowed on it, but tourists and Israelis are. Her old front door, which opened on that street, has been sealed. She’s added chicken wire around her small balcony on that side of the building, to protect herself from passing settlers who throw things, or who have tried to climb the wall to break in.
Most heartbreakingly, across this road is an Islamic cemetery – “I used to walk across the street to visit,” Zleikha said, “but now it takes me forty-five minutes to go all the wall around the road and enter from the other side. My brother died last Friday, and he is buried there [she points at a spot near the road] but it will take me a long time to go and see him.” Zleikha also spoke of her sick mother, and I got the feeling she was wondering how many times she would be making that long trek to honor family members, and how difficult it would be. “We used to bring the bodies [of the deceased Muslim community] through the mosque, then to the cemetery. But now we are blocked.” It seems that caskets aren’t easy to get through checkpoints.
We thanked her for her time, then wandered the Old City ourselves. In trying to get to the Ibrahimi Mosque, we were once again stopped at a checkpoint. The soldiers were on break, or otherwise occupied, and we stood in a line of people waiting to get through the gate. Shouts for the guard did nothing, but finally someone began letting us through one by one. I noticed surprise in the guard’s eyes when he saw Ethan and me – and I was told later that normally, tourists aren’t made to wait like the Palestinians are.
Before heading to the mosque, we attempted to find a cafe on a nearby road, which ended up being another bizarre experience. As we approached, we suddenly saw what looked like a group of maybe 30 Israeli soldiers (dressed like officers) walking down the road. Maybe they were coming back from a meeting at another base? We had no idea. Once they passed, we reached another “checkpoint” – two Israeli soldiers standing next to a simple gate. It was at this point we realized this was the road we had been told Palestinians couldn’t walk on.
We could see the initial confusion in their eyes – we clearly didn’t look like people they usually see across the gate. We held up our passports in anticipation of questions, and asked if we could step on the road to find a cafe. The answer: “Wait…are you Christian or are you Muslim?” I let out a laugh, but quickly realized they weren’t joking. “I’m Jewish…well, half” answered Ethan. Comically, the soldier who spoke better English relayed Ethan’s half-Jewishness to the other in Hebrew (which Ethan could understand). This held them up…for a moment. Then they explained that if he crossed this “soft” checkpoint, they weren’t supposed to let him back over – for his safety. Ethan then blurted out, “Well, what about her? She’s Catholic.” Further hijinks – we weren’t even sure they knew what “Catholic” was. Though they tried to persuade us to not go back the way we came, we waved them off and resigned ourselves to another few hours before food would be available.
Ethan and I joked about how we could have answered their religious questions – his background is a bit more complicated, being that issues of non-matrilineal Jewishness and a hasty childhood baptism figure in. Mine, while more straightforward, doesn’t really have an ending yet: “Well, soldier, I was raised Catholic and practiced for awhile, but ended up falling out of faith and I really only attend church with my family on holidays sometimes, though I guess you can’t really say I’m an atheist or agnostic because that feels so ‘final,’ you know, and I joke that I’m a ‘lapsed Catholic’ and maybe once again I’ll rejoin the Church someday, but you know, with all the conflicts around abortion and women’s rights I can’t really say that I’ll ever be a card-carrying member…” What side of the wall would I be sent to? I believe that religion is a personal journey for every individual, and that the journey doesn’t always fit on a passport, but things are different here.
Just before entering the Ibrahimi Mosque, we were approached by a young boy selling pro-Palestine bracelets. His English was fantastic, and he advised us to visit the mosque quickly because evening prayer services would begin soon (thoughtful words from a ten-year-old). As we walked in, I was asked to wear a cloak over my head and body, required garb for all non-Muslim female visitors. So, looking like a poor man’s Sherlock Holmes, I entered the room containing the tombs of Abraham and Isaac. The vaulted ceilings were beautifully painted, the tombs themselves surrounded by large structures with windows peeking in, and the floors covered in soft carpet for kneeling prayers. Yet this ancient building is also divided in half – a Jewish side and a Muslim side – so that both religions have access to the father of their faith. A Palestinian friend later remarked how angry Abraham would be if he woke up and saw how each faith treated the other (heck, let’s throw the Christians in there too). On the way out of the mosque, I bought two bracelets from the friendly young boy outside and hoped that he didn’t spend his whole day working.
After getting delicious shawarma from a place down the street, we spent the evening in a daze at our AirBnB. Trying to process the tension of the day was hard enough – what on earth must it be like to live here? We wondered aloud what we could do to help as tourists – where should our money be spent, how should we petition our own government, what could we do here on the ground to help the situation in the city? When it comes down to it, though, there’s little the visitors can do, except take pictures and tell people back home the truth about Hebron. Though we did hear of one group of international volunteers working for change – the Christian Peacemakers Team (CPT) – who coincidentally were based in our building.
While admiring the city at night, a man showed up on the roof – from the CPT downstairs. An American from the Midwest, he’d been in Hebron for a few months and planned to stay awhile with the team. Answering our many questions, he told us the group often went out as “observers,” third-party watchers of conflict in the city who recorded injustices and advocated for the Palestinian people. However, any international citizen detained in Hebron could be permanently banned from the region, so they were careful to stay out of direct activism. When we asked why he came to the roof, he told us he heard noises and came up to investigate. “You learn to differentiate between rubber bullets, real bullets, fireworks…”
For our second day in Hebron, we decided to try some social media outreach. Ethan noticed that many of the historic sites in the city couldn’t be found on Google Maps, so if we could go to those places and mark them on the public platform, perhaps that would help tourists in the city who use the application. This was easier said than done, however, because we realized quickly that my cell data wasn’t strong enough to move around the city and find these spots. It turns out that T-Mobile works in Israel, but not Palestine, and my phone worked best when near a settlement. Of course.
Luckily, a friend we met through Couchsurfing messaged us right then and suggested meeting up. We headed to Kingdom of Falafel and said “marhaba” to Mo, a Hebron native and one of the most well-recommended Couchsurfers we had ever seen (it is astounding how many hundreds of people around the world have stayed with him and had the best time of their life). We had a truly fantastic afternoon talking with him at the restaurant, then at a hookah bar up the street. Mo went to university in Hebron and now works at one of the city’s hospitals. We discussed the healthcare system in Palestine vs. the US (unsurprisingly, Palestine’s is better), the best shows currently available on Netflix, and our favorite travel stories. When the conversation inevitably turned to the state of Hebron, Mo expressed the same frustration I’ve heard from so many people on each side of the conflict – “Israelis and Palestinians have so much in common. It’s a shame that they cannot get along.” We talked about the problems with people in Hebron provoking soldiers, littering the streets, and refusing to take responsibility for other problems in which they are a part. We talked about the Israeli soldiers put in place by a conservative and out-of-touch government, people who may feel more compassionately towards the people but are forced to act dispassionately. We talked about ignorant third parties who come in and try to solve the situation for the two groups without taking into account the history. We talked about a lot. There is so much blame, and shame, and guilt, and anger on every side of this conflict – no wonder a single law or protest can erupt into violence so quickly.
After Mo headed back to his job at the hospital, we visited a local attraction – the Hebron Glass and Ceramics Factory. For hundreds of years, beautiful glasswork and ceramics have been produced here in Hebron by the same group of families. Maybe this is overkill, but I was struck by how these delicate objects had survived so many decades of conflict. We loaded up on souvenirs and caught a cab back to the AirBnB.
I’m leaving out so many other stories in these paragraphs – a cab driver who ranted with us about politics, the number of children brightening the streets of Hebron, the size of the cauliflowers sold in the marketplace (HUGE. FUCKING. CAULIFLOWERS. MY GOD). How do you explain the feeling of what it is to be in a city in writing?
If nothing else, this experience already has me itching to return to Hebron in the future. To take more pictures, to talk to more locals, to eat more shawarma. I guess my recommendation to you, dear reader, is to consider a trip to the Holy Land. Israel and Palestine are filled with thousands of years of history, with all kinds of views, biases, and politics. It’s worth it to come and see it for yourself.