“Ask them if they know where our boys are”
I was shocked that the woman, a settler, had the gall to even say such a thing. She jokingly assumed that since I was staying with a Palestinian in the Palestinian side of Hebron that he would know where the boys are being held. A few minutes earlier I saw two boys going on a run, one with a machine gun over his shoulder and his finger on the trigger. I can only guess that they thought it was necessary for their safety when they left the settlement.
“Travelers may experience extra scruitiny at checkpoints and lengthy delays”
More than two weeks ago three teenage boys were kidnapped while hitchhiking in the West Bank near Hebron. [Update: yesterday they were found dead in the West Bank, an unspeakably terrible tragedy] The Israeli Defense Forces (IDF) arrested about 400 Palestinians, some of whom have been arrested before in connection with terrorism, and 5 Palestinians have been killed in protests. A few days after I received an email from the US Department of State warning that “checkpoints into Bethlehem and Jericho may close with little warning based on ongoing security operations” and “even demonstrations intended to be peaceful can turn confrontational and possibly escalate into violence”. Not very encouraging.
When I studied in Israel four years ago I stayed on one side of the security wall, which separates Israel proper from the West Bank. I only saw one side of the story and so in planning my trip back to Israel I knew I wanted to visit Palestine. Unfortunately the kidnappings had raised tensions significantly and I was warned by many friends not to go. I weighed my decision carefully and decided to go anyways, to see for myself what lies beyond the wall.
This is the second time in my trip that I have visited a place that others think is risky, even unsafe (the first was Russia). And it is the second time that I was warmly welcomed into a new culture and left feeling like I learned enough to fill a textbook.
During the Six Day war in 1967, Israel captured the West Bank from Jordan, the Sinai peninsula and Gaza strip from Egypt, and the Golan Heights from Syria. The Sinai was returned to Egypt in 1982 and the Gaza strip has been ruled by Hamas since 2007. The Golan Heights were annexed into Israel, while the West Bank has been occupied by Israel ever since. In the West Bank there are 121 official Israeli settlements where Israelis can live in separate neighborhoods surrounded by walls topped with barbed wire and the IDF patrolling the streets to let the right people in and keep the wrong people out.
Where the streets have no names
I scoped out Hebron on Google maps only to see a blank sketch of streets with no names. In the Israeli side of Hebron the streets are listed and landmarks are labeled. Apparently the lack of street names in the Palestinian side was at the request of Israel for “security reasons”, the justification used for many things in the West Bank.
“The entrance for Israeli citizens is forbidden, dangerous to your lives and is against the Israeli law”
I took a bus from Damascus gate in Jerusalem and switched to a shared taxi in Bethlehem to reach H1, the Palestinian side of Hebron. Next to the road there is a large red sign that says in 3 languages that Israelis are not allowed in this dangerous area. It didn’t make me uneasy to see the ominous welcome sign but it did send a clear message of what the Israeli government thinks about Hebron.
After arriving I walked through the city to the Cave of Patriarchs with my couchsurfing host. I attracted some looks and stares but there was no malice or unwelcome, just surprise and interest. I was the only tourist in that part of town. I didn’t cover my hair like all of the other women but I wore a long skirt and a t-shirt. Some women wore form-fitting jeans while others wore dresses and various types of tunics. Children said Hello, Where are you from, and adults would either ignore me or stare a little. I was a curiosity, a stranger in a strange land. Some days I really look like a tourist so I wasn’t hard to spot.
The Cave is one building with two religions, on one side there is a mosque and the other side houses a synagogue. Ownership of the tombs have been disputed for a long time and this was the final resolution so both Muslims and Jews could worship and pray at the holy site. Abraham’s tomb is right between the mosque and synagogue so each side can see the tomb, separated by bulletproof glass. The glass was added after the massacre in 1994 when an Israeli soldier entered the mosque during the prayer time and killed 29 Palestinian men and boys.
As a foreigner I was able to walk through H1, the Palestinian area, and H2, the Israeli area. There were no streets that were forbidden to me and although other travelers told me that they had been asked for identification repeatedly, I was not stopped at any time. One of the famous streets in Hebron is Shuhada Street, formally a bustling market street that was completely shut down and is now forbidden to Palestinians since the 1994 massacre. That is where I encountered the Israeli woman who asked me about the (then) missing boys.
Bethlehem and the wall
The next day I visited Bethlehem with my host and we explored the Church of the Nativity and took a walk next to the security wall. I had seen the wall before from the bus on my way to Hebron but standing next to it with guard towers every few feet, you feel small and a little trapped. I could leave whenever I wanted so I couldn’t comprehend how it would feel as a Palestinian to need a day pass to enter Israel proper for a mere 18 hours. The graffiti on the wall reminded me of the remains of the Berlin wall, the part in East Berlin that is covered with artwork. I hope someday soon that the security wall comes down and becomes a mere memory of the past like that of Berlin.
These barriers separating Israelis and Palestinians, both physical and social, only perpetuate the stereotypes and fears on both sides. Almost all Israelis and Palestinians that I have met just want to be safe and free, and to pursue their dreams. I met people on both sides who had visited the other side of the wall, and their stories gave me hope. A Palestinian who had hosted Israelis who illegally visited the Palestinian area. An Israeli who in his military duty was posted in Hebron, who wished he could go back to . Normal people who had met other normal people, separated by little more than a tall wall of concrete.
It is hard to say what will happen in the aftermath of the tragic end to the kidnapping, there is a lot in flux in the region. I can only hope that things will continue to stabilize to reduce tensions and allow people to come together.