HEBRON, PALESTINE – Located 20 miles south of Jerusalem on the West Bank, the city of Hebron is a flashpoint of the Israel-Palestine conflict. Its Cave of the Patriarchs—which also serves as Ibrahimi Mosque—is the second-holiest site in the Jewish faith following the Temple Mount, housing the purported tombs of Abraham, Sarah, Isaac, Rebekah, Jacob, and Leah. Jewish Kabbalistic tradition even says the cave is a portal to the Garden of Eden.
Hebron is also one of the four holiest cities in Islam, and Muslims believe the Prophet Muhammad visited on his night journey from Mecca to Jerusalem. The Cave of the Patriarchs—once a jointly held mosque and synagogue—has been divided since 1994, when Baruch Goldstein killed 29 Muslim worshippers. Before that, during the 1929 Hebron Massacre, 69 Jews were murdered after rumors circulated that they planned to recapture the Temple Mount in Jerusalem. On various Muslim and Jewish holy days, the temple is turned fully into a mosque and a synagogue, respectively.
Just one day after I visited Al Arroub refugee camp 40 minutes from Hebron, a 22-year-old resident, Omar Badawi, was killed by the IDF after residents began throwing rocks and Molotov cocktails at soldiers. Hebron has been battled over for centuries by those who claim it as sacred ground. It is a tense place.
Hebron—al-Khalil in Arabic—has a population of over 215,000 as of the last census, with less than 800 Jewish residents in a protected settler zone in the middle of the city. Nearby Kiryat Arba has over 8,000 residents. Several memorials to murdered settlers dot the streets, as bulldozers and construction crews work and an elderly Jewish man plants flowers along the roadside.
Israeli troops man checkpoints only meters from small Arab shops and markets where residents go about their business. Apart from Gaza, this is as close as you get can to an in-your-face view of the conflict—apartment blocks in the Jewish settlement have Israelis on top and Palestinians on the bottom. One section along the shouk (market) has a layer of mesh above the stalls, as Israeli residents would often throw garbage down at the Arabs. Now the preferred tactic is to fill a bottle with urine, loosen the cap, and let it spend the day leaking out of a window onto the street below. Walking through the streets of Hebron, one sees Orthodox Jews in traditional garb speaking with soldiers cradling machine guns, while Palestinian women walk past with their families to cross the Abu Rish—checkpoint 209—into a Palestinian zone. Children throw stones at soldiers after school in the Arab sections and are deluged with teargas that penetrates deep into the neighborhood.
In the Palestinian area under military control, I meet “Saeed,” who runs an NGO, the Hebron Hope Center, to improve education, health care, and the economy, and brings in tourists to witness the situation on the ground. It advocates an apolitical approach, a mix of tourism, volunteerism, working with local partners in health care, offering sports to young people, and teaching English.
Saeed has been arrested in the past, so he prefers not to use his real name. He says the only solution to the crisis is “non-violent revolution.” He’s 27 and single, with an intense daily schedule. “I am not married yet, because for now I am dedicating my life to my people,” he explains.
Now numbering 132 communities with a population exceeding 450,000, Israeli settlements in the West Bank are on track to expand, with full American approval and the support of around half of Israelis polled. The recent announcement from Secretary of State Mike Pompeo that the United States will no longer regard settlements as illegal under international law, combined with Israeli politicians set on winning votes from the religious right, means Israel’s expansion into the West Bank is likely to pick up pace. There is also possible future annexation on the way, as promised by Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in April and September of this year, prior to Israel’s elections.
“If you keep exploiting them and expanding settlements, then of course the situation will get worse,” Saeed says. “Israel is increasing the level of pressure.”
Palestine’s government broke off relations with the United States two years ago after the U.S. vowed to move its embassy to Jerusalem, which it did in May 2018. The Trump administration also ended American aid to Palestine last summer.
The Hebron Hope Center started in 2015 out of Saeed’s home and has hosted a number of foreign volunteers. English is taught on the first floor, where there are two classrooms and an orientation center. Saeed hopes to keep expanding with funding from tourism—helped along by his mother’s delicious cooking. Speaking to a group of 20 visiting Canadians on an afternoon tour, including a number of Jewish Canadians, Saeed explains that he loves the Jewish people and is only opposed to the military occupation of his country. He becomes emotional talking about attending school as a young boy and constantly having to pass through armed checkpoints.
“You never knew what would happen each day,” he says, his voice shaking. “Maybe you could be hurt or killed. Even when I was home I was not safe. I lost the protection of the family and of the school.”
Checkpoints have become increasingly fortified since the Second Intifada between 2001 to 2003, and were bulked up further in 2016, with additional difficulties imposed on human rights observers. Most of the 23 checkpoints around Hebron were built by Palestinians who needed the work. Occasionally settlers throw stones at Palestinian children crossing the checkpoint to get to school, and Palestinian children sometimes throw stones at soldiers after school, leading to volleys of teargas.
“There’s a real difference between struggling for your rights and fighting for terrorism,” Saeed says to the group of visitors, adding that he condemns the 1929 Hebron massacre unequivocally as well as any use of violence against Israelis. “We are not fighting for terrorism. We are absolutely against the violent solution and we believe peace will come and to recognize also the humanity of the other.”
Saeed recalls being seven years old during the start of the Second Intifida—which lasted from 2001 to 2003—and being mostly confined to an apartment as IDF soldiers and Palestinian militants used the surrounding buildings for defensive cover and fired on each other. A man came late at night to sell them food and necessities at highly inflated prices.
“We are not refugees or homeless or occupiers. We have our own history and we are not like other people who came from other countries to this land and they chose the military option,” Saeed says. “We have a full right to be in this country.”
In the Jewish area near the synagogue, IDF soldiers lounge under a shaded tree and swap jokes while more pour out of an entrance next to a shop selling Judaica. The Cave of Machpela is just past a nearby checkpoint, as is the Avraham Avinu and Hadassah Beit settlements. Michael Lixenberg, 66, staffs a booth that provides information about Hebron and Judaism. He tells me that he and other residents (“you can call us ‘settlers’ if you want to, go ahead”) would like to not have to carry handguns everywhere, but he’s had friends killed by Palestinians throwing rocks at their cars.
Lixenberg places the blame for the ongoing conflict squarely on the Palestinian leadership and cultural and technological backwardness of Arab and Muslim society, though he says he has close friendships with individual Muslims, including an Arab who saved his wife’s life in a dangerous area. The Jews are hated because they succeed, according to Lixenberg, who also remarks that there is a low-level civil war going on around Hebron between warring Arab tribes. He scoffs at the idea that Palestine would have peace and prosperity had Israel not been around first. “They need us and they know it,” he says. “No matter how much hate you hear, that’s the truth.”
I speak to two IDF Special Forces soldiers at a checkpoint in a hilly area near the settlement, who say it is mostly relaxed there. I ask how things would be if there were no soldiers. They say the Jews would be attacked, “maybe not killed, but yes they would be hurt.”
Crossing through the turnstile and then manned booth with Saeed, he must empty his pockets. He takes out several small bottles of perfume.
“You know that glass is forbidden,” the unsmiling IDF soldier informs him behind sunglasses.
“Yes, yes, I know. It is a gift from a friend.”
Saeed is waved through with no expression. Several days later, he’s pushed up against a wall by soldiers and interrogated for half an hour about why he’s bringing so many foreigners past the checkpoint to look around.
Paul Brian is a freelance journalist. He has reported for the BBC, Reuters, and Foreign Policy, and contributed to The Week, The Federalist, and others. You can follow him on Twitter @paulrbrian or visit his website www.paulrbrian.com.