The, ‘Ghost Town’ of Palestine – Hebron
I had heard the city Hebron mentioned a lot in the news over the years, so I knew a lot happened there, but I didn’t know what exactly. I didn’t know what to expect on going there but I can honestly say, it has to be the most devastating places I have ever been in my life. Surprisingly so as it is home of the fourth holiest site in Islam – the Ibrahimi mosque (Cave of the Patriarchs) is also very sacred in Judaism.
Hebron is the largest city in the West Bank, with a population of 200,000 Palestinians and under 1000 Jews, it has a special protocol not governed like the rest of the West Bank I visited which is divided up into authority areas A, B and C.
To fully appreciate it’s current state we need to be aware of an incident which occurred here. In 1994 an Israeli settler in Hebron opened fire on worshipers during prayer at the mosque killing 29 Palestinians and injuring many others. As a result of this, the area has been turned into a militarized zone to protect the 7 Jewish families living in the area from Palestinian threat – yes the irony. Instead of helping those who were affected by the tragedy Israeli authorities took two thirds of the Mosque and set Hebron as a military zone putting the Palestinians under very heavy oppression, which I witnessed myself.
I thought it was somewhat ironic, the tomb of the prophets who underwent persecution is now in a area persecuting it’s people. I ask myself what is prayer without application, have we learnt nothing? Yet on the other hand it is suffering which causes the spirit to grow, but this suffering was immense.
Being in Hebron, I almost felt guilty for taking out my SLR camera which probably cost more money than most people there have but then I felt that I needed to take some photos to share what I was seeing with the world. I had never seen Hebron presented like this in the media. A resident came out and started talking to me with tears in his eyes, he told me to take photos and to show the world what was really happening, that Israel did not want them to be there and were trying to force them out but they were not going anywhere, it was their home and they were going to stay, ‘we will never leave’. I could not believe what I was seeing, that this was actually real and allowed to happen and even supported by international governments despite violating international laws? This was the militarization of civilian villages many conspiracy theorists talk about, but this was 100% real, I was standing in the middle of it.
We are greeted by our guide, who has clearly been victim to a violent attack, over half of his face has been scarred by a skin graft and half of his hair is missing, I wanted to know his story but at the same time I didn’t dare to ask. He tells us, ‘Today I don’t want you to see Hebron, I want you to feel it’. When people tell you things like this it seems like words but when we entered, various emotions hit me very hard. I’m constantly being told I am a strong person and I do tend to put my emotions to one side when I need to focus, but what I felt in Hebron I could not control and I was not prepared for it. Many years of watching violent movies and music I thought I had been desensitized to the cruelest human infliction but when I saw things here it was real and it affected me a great deal. Usually whenever I’ve gone on a tour, I’ve been told stories of painful histories where many people have been murdered, but this time what I was being told was actually happening in real time, in fact any one of us could be shot in this moment or see someone else shot in the name of, ‘security’ and there would be nothing we could do about it. I was in an area under great injustice and the world is allowing it to happen, this really dumbfounded me, I felt helpless. I had a lump in my throat, but I wanted to be strong for the people. I knew me being here was giving them hope they liked to see international ‘tourists’, as it made them feel the world had not abandoned them entirely.
Upon entering we are subjected to crossing a military checkpoint guarded by Israeli soldiers. We have to go though barrier gates in single file as the soldiers watch from a box and press a button for us to enter. It is very intimidating, but being in a group of mixed internationals we are given some leeway, if we were Palestinian we would have had our passports thoroughly checked and possibly even denied access which happens on a daily basis if the soldiers are bored (I saw some getting a hard time, simply because of their appearance, and I could relate). There is a very strong military presence here, I see several tank like vehicles and groups of soldiers, hanging around almost looking bored. All of them are carrying M16 rifles which are semi automatic weapons made in the USA which outclass the traditional AK-47 guns. What strikes me about the soldiers is how young they are, they seem to be teenagers maybe 18 or 19, many of whom have come from outside of Israel to join the military (I met soldiers from India and Ethiopia, they are granted a good salary and life in Israel in return for blind obedience to state orders). The atmosphere is very tense, everyone is on edge, you could be shot or arrested in seconds for any reason, and this does happen, even in situations of unfortunate misunderstandings.
We went through a military office checkpoint into the mosque, a friend and I went to perform our wudu (ritual ablution before praying), the sudden contrast of the broken toilets and flooded floors to the state of the art military checkpoint we had just entered, this made absolutely no sense to me, why money was invested into ‘protecting’ a holy site but not for the holy site’s actual maintenance (not on the Muslim side anyway, the Jews have a different entrance, which I imagine to look very different). As we were given the mosque tour, I noticed I could only see tourists and hardly any Muslims inside actually praying, I later found out that mass majority of them are not allowed to enter. Even some of the survivors of the 1994 massacre also being denied entry, even the mosque staff are given a hard time on entering despite having special ID cards which is supposed to prevent any harassment. I found this really sad, the purpose of a mosque is so Muslims can pray in congregation and this gives them hope and a sense of community, here I was at this very holy site and it was being denied, as if all bits of hope were trying to be diminished.
My friend and I left the group to go and pray. Mosques should be peaceful institutions of prayer but I could not help but feel this was one haunted by its violent past, my imagination ran wild thinking of what it must have been like to be stood here during the day of the shooting. The tour continued and we re-joined the group, I hadn’t realized the tour guide and seen us and came to shake my hand, ‘I saw you praying, please pray for us’. There was a very deep sincerity in his voice. This moved me, because again it showed how much the Palestinians were grateful for our support, hope and prayers. It’s also very unusual for a Muslim man to approach woman to shake her hand esp in a mosque, and I really respected that he did that. This struggle goes way beyond common social taboos. Palestine was not like some of the other countries I have been too where there is a high Muslim majority, they are progressive in how they treat woman.
We left the mosque and entered the streets of Hebron. I saw two very young children playing with a toy truck in a rubbish dump, among dilapidated buildings, this really made me sad, I thought of the young children in my own family, no child should have to live like this, I dred to think what was even in the rubbish.
Violence has become such a normal part of everyday life in Palestine, I saw many toys and key rings in the form of weapons, guns, fighter jets and bombs. This should not be normal, but these children see it on a daily basis.
As we walk down the street it is a complete ghost town. This used to be a bustling city with many tourists now all you can see is closed shops. The military has shut them all down, even if they were open there would be very little business due to the fear of people visiting this area being harassed by the military, a joke is made that we should be fine as a group of internationals today as we have some, ‘blondes in our group’. Now all I see is graffiti, ‘fight ghost town. It’s very clear to me the Palestinian people are not poor by nature, they are having their livelihoods taken from them and driven into absolute poverty.
There are many children around, if I had entered this area without any knowledge of what was going on I would automatically have assumed the military was there to protect the them, but in contrary they are here to defend themselves from the children, who Israel have declared, ‘dangerous’ think about that for a moment. This actually made me feel really sick as those any children born as Palestinians were less than children, even less than human, and seen as inferior beings, this really struck me hard, they are not even old enough to know what is going on around them, yet they are ‘guilty’. I can’t even imagine what it would be like to be born into this environment as a child. The day before had met a teenage girl who had gone to study in the USA, she told me she didn’t know what it was like to be, ‘free’ she had lived in Palestine her whole life under occupation, she thought it was, ‘normal’. This is not normal, and Hebron in particular is an open air prison. A 9pm curfew is inflicted on the residence of Hebron if they are caught on the ‘wrong’ side of the checkpoint they are not allowed to cross and return to their homes, and will most probably be arrested for being out past curfew.
Being the most ‘Palestinian / Arab’ looking of the group I am swamped by very young children trying to sell me Palestine souvenirs to make a little bit of money, they immediately ask me if I am Muslim in Arabic and appeal to this by saying it would be Sadaqah (what Muslims call a charity donation). I gave away all of my money in three different currencies, I felt it was needed here much more here than in my pocket. One of the children gave me a black bracelet with ‘Palestine’ written on it, but quickly took it back and gave me a red one instead, I guess he though it would suit a woman more and actually I’m wearing it now as I write this thinking of that child.
These children are absolutely beautiful but not a single child is smiling, they have clearly been traumatized by their reality. I was told the children did not used to beg for money, but things have changed in past few years and there is more desperation now. It saddened me deeply as I know not many people visit this area at all.
Another child begins to walk with me and I give him some money, I really want the world to see so I ask him if we can take a photo together, in doing so I can see he is vulnerable, I don’t want to take advantage but I feel the world needs to see this. We are over shadowed by what was once their school that has now been occupied and turned into a military fortress, complete with barbed wires and flags of Israel, as I look up a sniper is looking back down at us with a rifle, it’s a horrible feeling. I tell the child to never give up hope and be strong, I’m not sure if he understood me but he did look into my eyes and I may have imagined he gave me close to a slight smile. I don’t even know if he has family or even both parents.
As we walk through the few shops which remain open, we are their only customers, I wonder how they make enough money to survive but I think perhaps the habit of going to work is a clear signal they will not give up, it gives them hope. After all they have every right to be there, this is their land. I see a man praying in his tiny shop, the floor is just big enough to place his prayer mat, I liked this image it was one of strong faith. As we walked through the streets, I could see nets had been put up on the streets between the shops, why? Israeli settlers live over looking these shops and throw their rubbish onto the Palestinians below, what a disgusting thought one human would throw their waste on another, but it happens here to such an extend a ‘solution’ had to be put in place.
We came to the checkpoint at Shuhadah street, this is an openly segregated area only Jews and non-Palestinians are allowed to pass through. Our tour guide was Palestinian therefore the military would not allow him to pass, but the rest of the group could go as we had foreign passports. As a stand of solidarity with our guide and the Palestinian people we all refused to pass the checkpoint and were wished, ‘a good day’ by the soldiers with a sense of pride that they had such authority over us. They soon became very irritated at us taking photos of them at the checkpoint. It seems Israel is very proud of having such power of injustice but as soon as you try to document it they become angry because places like Hebron are a bubble of injustice the outside world has yet to need completely see clearly.
As we turn around to take the long way around what would have been a couple of minutes walk if we had been let through the checkpoint, we saw an Israeli settler see us and gather a huge group of settlers fresh out of the synagogue to proudly intercept us on the street. They stop and make comments about the Palestinians not belonging in Hebron, then smile as they marched on past us through the checkpoint we had been denied access to. What disturbed me the most about seeing this was the last person in their group who was very young, just a boy, carried an assault rifle as if to ‘protect’ the group. Israeli settlers are legally allowed to carry weapons and shoot Palestinians, whereas Palestinians can be sentenced for up to 10 years for throwing stones, even at walls. As I attempted to take a photograph of this unbelievable scene which took me a couple of seconds to process in my mind, the boy turned to me and said, ‘no photos on Shabat’ as his gun swayed by his shoulder. This baffled me, photos are not allowed yet carrying weapons is? Most of the weapons I saw carried by Israelis were semi-automatic and were ready to use at very close range, which would only mean vast amounts of damage, there is no doubt, they are shooting to kill in the name of defense when there is no real threat from Palestinians.
We went to a family home for lunch and even though I had lost my appetite the hospitality was overwhelming, as we sat in this house eating the most delicious rice dishes, I felt as though I was in the home of my aunt and uncle, it reminded me of my childhood, the furniture, the rugs all like my uncle used to have. It hit me I could easily have been born in Hebron and been living the nightmare that these people are going through everyday. I can not sit back and do nothing, if anything I will share my experiences. Lunch was quiet, we went up to the roof and again it reminded me of the rooftops of Pakistan. However one side in Palestine we saw the Ibrahimini mosque against a military backdrop and the other side we saw some soldiers harassing youths.
Maybe an hour after we had left Hebron, a 14 year old Palestinian girl was arrested for trying to stab an Israeli solider, I dred to think how long she will be put in prison for. In an area of such a high level of military control I really cannot believe a little girl would actually do this, I’m quite a fearless person at times and I would never dream of doing anything out of line in this environment, it is one in which you can not win whatever you try to do.
That night I did not sleep at all, many things passed through my mind, firstly that what is really going on here is not being shown in the media but also if it was this easy to militarize this town it could happen anywhere in the world and it’s civilians would be defenseless. I have a lot of love and respect for the Palestinians of Hebron who face this battle of the most brutal occupation on a daily basis in their own homes.