Daniel is an avid reader of my blog from the Netherlands who visited Israel/Palestine recently and came back with a lot of stories worth sharing. His stories stem from a perspective different from what the media portray of that part of the world. His trip has changed his opinion regarding the struggle between Israel and Palestine. This will be a series of posts where he tells you what went through on his trips. The political conclusions, if present, reflect Daniel’s opinion and may not necessarily reflect my own.
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I had always planned on visiting Hebron, which was always in the news due to the extreme tensions between its Arab inhabitants and Jewish settlers. The Palestinians of Hebron are considered more conservative than the Palestinians in say Ramallah, and the Jewish settlers are much more radical than other settlers. Hebron has a history of ethnic violence which has caused deliberate civilian deaths on both sides, and the violence is much older than the state of Israel. Due to its political complexity and history, I had to see this place for myself.
I started my journey to Hebron at the Beersheba central bus station. As I stood in line for the bus to Hebron I was the only white European gentile, all others were distinguishably religious Jews, some of them spoke American English. At first I was simply denied transport. “You cannot go to Hebron, only people who live there”, by which he meant the settlers. I was disappointed, yet definitely not in the mood to give up.
By coincidence, I got to talk with other tourists who planned on seeing Hebron, and who had been there before. “Never say you are going to Hebron, tell the bus driver you are going to ‘Kiryat Arba’ (a Jewish settlement just outside Hebron)”, one of them said. Twenty minutes later I was on my way to Kiryat Arba. Despite the fact I was now in an area so hotly disputed, the trip through the Westbank felt strangely normal, like any other bus ride.
We arrived in Kiryat Arba, in the middle of what is supposed to become an independent Palestinian state at some point in our future. For a place notorious for its militant settlers and violence, it could not have been more dull. The supermarket was boring, the streets were boring, and the people seemed boring besides the inhospitable looks some of them gave us. Without any trouble we simply left the settlement through the gate. Only after we left the gate, everything started to get surreal.
Less than a five minutes walk from Kiryat Arba, the first Arab houses of Hebron appear. We looked like tourists and the locals seemed friendly. They had no reason to be. Most houses used to have shops on the first floor, these were all closed by Israel for “security reasons”. The Arabs were allowed to live here but commercial activities were strictly discouraged. I quickly found out this is the shortest way to get to the “Cave of the Patriarchs/Ibrahimi Mosque” which is of high importance to Jews and Muslims alike. It is also the place where the Jewish terrorist Baruch Goldstein from Kiryat Arba killed 29 Muslims and wounded many others while they were praying. Far-right Israeli activists claimed it was a “preemptive strike” to stop Palestinian terrorists. Their extremist movement was banned shortly after this mass murder. Similarly, Palestinians have also fatally attacked Jews praying on several occasions.
We saw a large Jewish party was going on just 100 meters away from the Cave of the Patriarchs, the most bizarre and provocative place to hold a party, only meters away from the nearest Arab houses. We passed a large group of soldiers on a grass field who appeared to be on some sort of trip. “Go to Tel Aviv”, one of the female soldiers shouted in English, “this place is nothing”.
Before we entered the Cave of the Patriarchs the soldiers asked for our religious background and nationalities. They took my Swiss knife, but they didn’t seem to care “we’ll give it back when you are done here”. He did give it back, with a smile on his face. Not being Jewish or Muslim has its benefits in this place: both want our sympathy.
Only fifty meters away there was another checkpoint. Beyond this point there’s Palestinian Authority control. The soldier asked the same question “Chrisitian?/Jewish?/Muslim?”, again it’s best not be part of one of the warring factions.
Immediately after the checkpoint the Arab market of Hebron starts. The place is crowded and full of touristic items I had absolutely no interest in buying. After the narrow market ended, we reached downtown Hebron. A man had been following us ever since we came in from the Israeli side. A few times he inquired about our nationality and our religion. He stood next to me and pointed at a street – “Israiil” he said – indeed, right next to downtown Hebron there seemed to be a closed off street. Another man asked me if I was Jewish. The fact that people were inquiring about my religion did not make me more happy at all. Downtown Hebron doesn’t look too happy either, it is mostly crowded and poor, its people dress conservatively which made me wonder about the strength of Hamas in this city. The only men I met with guns were guys from the Palestinian security forces, who were more willing to share a picture with me, after I told them I was Dutch – not Jewish. The best part of Hebron is that it’s outrageously cheap, a pita with falafel is only 66 cents (US$), those greedy Zionists easily charge you six times as much!
I had enough of downtown Hebron. The place breathed the frustration of the Palestinian territories, and I was uncomfortable with people asking about my religion. In order to leave this place you have to pass another Israeli checkpoint to get to a new neighborhood. This neighborhood has Arabs living in it, but because of its proximities to a few Jewish houses, all shops were closed (“security reasons”), and people will have to pass through the checkpoint to go shopping. The same Palestinian was still following us. We “got rid” of him some time later. I do not say this as a joke, but to explain what happened next. Right in the middle of Hebron there are a few Jewish homes close to the Tomb of Yishai and Ruth, guarded by equally many soldiers. Needless to say this place was off limits to Arabs, so much for our friend. I noticed an armored civilian car next to a home, who would decide to live somewhere if you have to drive your kid to school like this? The alleyway to the Tomb of Ruth and Yishai is fenced off by steel walls and leads to an open space guarded by a single soldier. He took us up to his guard tower and asked for a smoke. Nobody had cigarettes. Instead he showed us his gun. On top of his guard tower I made one observation: in every direction there were only large Arab neighborhoods.
As we continued our walk through the Jewish-only area of Hebron, one of the tourists I joined showed me one of the most bizarre places. We looked down upon the market of Hebron we visited thirty minutes ago, on top of the market the Israeli military placed a fence. I had not even noticed when we were walking there. The fence is meant to prevent Jewish settlers from throwing stones and other items on the Arabs doing their shopping. I decided I had enough of this place, as holy as Hebron may be, I had seen nothing holy that day. I went my own way to find the fastest way out of Hebron.
Close to the bus stop two soldiers were on guard. I decided to chat with them until the bus showed up. A Norwegian peace monitor car passed by, they are meant to keep the peace between Israel and the Palestinians. “You see those guys?”, the soldiers asked me, “every time we respond to Arab violence within seconds they are there to document it. I never saw them when the Arabs do shit”. “Yeah shit,” the other soldier said “this whole place is just bullshit, it’s just either boring or hell you know?”. The soldiers I met in Hebron either spoke badly of Arabs or spoke badly of the fact they (Israel) were in Hebron. They all came across as frustrated.
My bus arrived and I said goodbye to the soldiers. Twenty minutes walking from downtown Hebron, I entered a regular Israeli bus in the middle of the Palestinian territories. Later that evening I arrived in Haifa to meet a friend. A beautiful Arab girl served “the best Palestinian Arak” with water and ice cubes. She asked us where we went in Israel (and yes, she said Israel). I told her I actually went to the Palestinian territories. “Where?”, she asked.
“Ramallah”, I said. “Ah, very nice”. End of conversation, I truly had had enough of Hebron. I didn’t want to discuss it anymore.
During my visits in Palestine/Israel, I met many friendly people with whom I shared great conversations. I certainly have certain sympathies for Israel’s people despite disagreeing with many of its government’s actions.
Yet the behavior of the settlers of Hebron contradict all those reasons to “like” Israel. My visit to Hebron required me to rethink my political stances, but more so it inevitably required a serious conversation on human ethics. Israel’s reputation is naturally damaged because of the way it deals with the conflict. The Israeli government has to prove it will take serious steps to remove itself from where the conflict is happening, if not its poor international standing will simply perpetuate. While I believe the Palestinians have their fair share in deliberately perpetuating this conflict as well, nothing justifies the status quo in Hebron.
The brother of the murderer of Yitzchak Rabin was freed from prison some time ago. He had served 16 and a half years and never showed signs of regret or remorse for helping his brother kill the peace process. Ten seconds after his release he showed the victory sign, was embraced by friends and quickly scuttled to a Westbank settlement, where a gathering will be held in his honor. Outside of the prison, Leftist Israelis were protesting his release. And a former leader of the security service said his brother should have been executed a long ago.
It kind of shows the mentality of the settlers I encountered around Hebron, because it is a massive stronghold for his fanbase.
A few weeks prior to his release, I met with the representative of the Palestinian Authority in the Netherlands (we don’t recognize Palestine so we don’t have a full embassy), who used to be close to Yasser Arafat. He warned me that this man would become an idol for extremists upon release. While I disregarded most of what he had to say as pure Fatah narrative propaganda, I’m afraid he was right and I was wrong.