In some parts of the West Bank, it is can be difficult to grasp the effects of Israeli occupation. In Ramallah, for example, city services run efficiently, children play in the streets and the downtown sidewalks are choked with shoppers every day but Friday, the Muslim day of rest. Hebron is different. Very different.
I had visited Hebron twice in 2001 and 2002 during my time as a correspondent in Jerusalem. But, I never visited the Old City. On Sunday, I visited Hebron with eight other students in the Birzeit Palestine and Arabic Studies Program – two Americans, two Germans, a Peruvian, a Brazilian, a Canadian and a Brit.
Hebron is situated about 30 miles to the south of Jerusalem. It was first settled by Canaanites about 3000 BC, making it, along with Jericho, one of the oldest cities in the world. According to Islamic tradition, it is where Adam and Eve lived after being driven from the Garden of Eden. It is also the burial site of four biblical couples, including Abraham, the father of the three great monotheistic religions, Judaism, Christianity and Islam, and his wife, Sarah. These burial tombs make it a holy city to all three religions. In Arabic, Hebron is called “Ibrahim al-Khalil al-Rahman,” which means, “Abraham, the Friend of the Merciful.” “The Merciful” is one of the 99 names of God in the Quran.
Today, Hebron has a population of 150,000 Palestinians, making it the largest city in the West Bank after East Jerusalem. It is also home to 500 Jewish settlers, who are protected by 4,000 Israeli troops. Israel controls 20 percent of the city, where the settlers, considered among the most ultra-nationalist and militant of the more than 300,000 Jewish settlers in the West Bank, live amid roughly 40,000 Palestinians. Many Palestinians in this part of the city have been driven away; most of the settlers live on the upper floors of former Palestinian homes. The settlers so frequently throw rocks and garbage from their upper windows upon the city’s market in the Old City that Palestinians erected a metal screen over the market to protect shoppers. During our visit, we saw the rocks, along with all sorts of household trash resting on the screen, as well as Israeli flags flying from the upper windows of the homes. Most Palestinian shops have closed in the area controlled by the Israelis. We saw some settlers carrying automatic weapons which were larger than the standard issue M-16 rifles the Israeli soldiers carry.
In 1994, an American-born physician and Jewish settler named Baruch Goldstein opened fire on Muslim worshippers as they were prostrated in prayer in the Haram al-Ibrahim, or Tomb of the Patriarchs, killing 29 men and boys and wounding nearly 200. As a result, the Israeli government divided the sanctuary into two sections, one for Muslims and one for Jews. Jews have access to the tomb of Abraham and Muslims do not. As Christians – in truth three of us were Muslim, but lied to the Israeli soldiers – we were able to visit both sides. It is a massive structure, whose outer walls were constructed by Herod, and includes several minarets, domes, mosques and a synagogue. During out visit, there were about 30 Muslims preparing for the noon prayer and about equally as many Jews praying and studying the Torah on the other side. They could see each other, if they wanted to, through two windows covered by heavy metal grills.