It was seven in the morning in Jerusalem - the first warning signs of that characteristic dry heat that is to come beginning to assert themselves in the still weak sunlight. The city was only beginning to stir.
We managed to stumble on a bakery cafe along our way, where a sleepy young boy served us a croissant. We were in a hurry, because today we were going to Palestine.
It was the middle of August 2014’s Israel-Palestine conflict, and we had been in the Holy Land for around a week. Everyone told us we were insane for not cancelling our trip, but we came anyway. There was a strange thrill to be there then at this decisive moment in history. The best part, perhaps, was that we were spared the throngs of hapless tourists to compete with, as either on principle or because of safety concerns, a lot of holiday makers and tour companies cancelled.
I suppose we couldn’t blame them, as the HAMAS military wing, the al-Qassam Brigades, were firing rockets en masse at Israel. My girlfriend with whom I was travelling feared a ground war, an intervention by another state, or, even that a stray rocket coming from the Gaza Strip was going to hit too close to be comfortable. But to me, to be here and to see this narrative develop filled me with a sense of belonging, not to one side or another, but to the human race. Long ago I had come to the conclusion that the seed of conflict and struggle was alive in each and every one of us, and to be in a place where the nerve was so raw gave me a strange sense of awe.
Our destination was Hebron (or al-Khalil, as the Palestinians call it). It is a city notable for many reasons, but historically, it is the burial site of Abraham, who is the ancestor of both the Jewish and Islamic traditions through his sons, Isaac and Ishmael. It is this city that saw a massacre of Jews in 1929, and another of Muslims in 1994. It had been a city of continuous Jewish settlement in the Holy Land for 4000 years, and today it is hotly contested by Palestinians and Zionists alike, and they both have legitimate claims.
We waited in the common area of a Jerusalem hostel for the arrival of our guide, Eliyahu — a stocky man perhaps in his mid 40s who seemed to tie together the somewhat conflicting styles of casual dress and Jewish traditionality. His long black hair hung down in a payot, while on top of his head sat a yamaka that was sometimes obfuscated by a baseball cap. His short black beard had a touch of gray, and his lively eyes beamed with the possibility of telling his story to another crop of fresh visitors. He spoke with the resounding confidence of a man who has addressed crowds, and as such knew the most important part of speaking was to talk as if everyone is listening, even if they aren’t. He proudly told us in the very beginning that he was the director of Jerusalem Peacemakers, an organization for helping organize people of all faiths to help begin the process of reconciliation — a cause that severely needed spearheading in the rampant runaway vitriol of political rhetoric.
Soon, we boarded the bulletproof intercity bus with our new acquaintance. The thick glass windows were frosted over with dirt so it was easy to turn our attention to the other passangers — a strange mix of civilians of all types and teenage conscripts in uniform heading to their assignments, some with their rifles, some with cellphones. An Israeli woman got on the bus with four small children.
After some time, Eliyahu informed us it was time to alight. We got off the bus in front of a park full of children buzzing around a playground and walked towards what looked like a security checkpoint in front of what could only be the Tomb of the Patriarchs (Ibrahim Mosque to the Palestinians). He told us we were now to go into the Palestinian side of the city.
In spite of myself, I had a funny feeling in my stomach. I did not know what to expect. I had previously traveled to Morocco, but that was my only experience with Arab culture. What was I about to walk into?
Eliyahu took us to a shop nearby, and here, he informed us that he was going to hand us over to Ebad, his Palestinian friend. He was not allowed to go into the Palestinian side, he said, and he left us there with Ebad and a parting reminder that there are two sides to every story. And so we met a boy in his early to mid 20s, with a clean haircut and neat clothes. His smile was immediately disarming, his youthful energy visible in the movement of his hands and the animated way in which he conversed. There was a slight heaviness to his eyes, one that later turned to sadness and a hot frustration when he told us about some of the injustices his people suffered.
And so we went into one of the holiest places on earth — The Tomb of the Patriarchs in Jewish lore, Ibrahim mosque to Ebad.
Since the 1994 massacre this place has been split into two, with neither child of Abraham allowed to enter the other’s side. On February 25th of that year, a Zionist zealot and American-born physician by the name of Baruch Goldstein entered the mosque portion of the building and shot indiscriminately, killing 25 and injuring over a hundred others. The bullet holes, clumsily plastered over, still decorated the mihrab, like the bitter scars of an old man who feels the winter storms in his wound.
The cost of this attack had been terrible to both sides — a segregation of the building. It seems so absurd that Muslim and Jew alike cannot share this place, where their joint narratives meet at its point of divergence. I could not help but wonder if Baruch Goldstien ever envisioned what would happen as a result of his actions. Besides the misery he wrought on the people he killed, wounded and otherwise affected, did he ever think that the result would be the partition?
When we got outside, we proceeded through a security checkpoint. And now, we walked in Palestine, truly. A sign on the gate said “Jerusalem: 30.9km”. It was almost a sick joke, as most of these people would never see the city, or the Dome of the Rock that has become such a symbol to their faith.
The sight ahead of us was of a very conventional medina street, with its stalls, stores and vendors hawking any conceivable ware one could possibly want. People were everywhere, shopping, selling or just walking, and there was a conventionality to the way they carried on with their daily tasks.
But what was unconventional was the wire mesh above their heads across from side to side like a ceiling where rocks, soda cans and other garbage piled up like ominous clouds. Ebad told us that the Zionist settlers would stand on the roofs and throw whatever was at hand at the Palestinians — this was the reason for the mesh.
As we went on, the Palestinian flag was everywhere, spray painted on buildings or waving from a house. It may not have meant anything a mere century ago, but today it was a rallying cry for a people that have found a national identity in their suffering.
One could not help feeling a deep anger at seeing what these people call life. In the house of one local man we were shown videos he recorded on his own camera of when a vacationing Russian Jew climbed up three floors by ladder to take down a Palestinian flag the man had on his roof, with cheering coming from below of several dozen like-minded settlers. He refused, and was harrassed by the shouts of the crowd. On another occasion, he had to install bars on the room his daughter sleeps in because it faces the settler side, and he has had rocks (and worse) thrown through it.
The partition has created a no-man’s land between the two sides, and as a result, it has seen a shutdown of whole streets. The man’s livelihood was his store which he was forced to close down. He now sells scarves from his house.
At the end of the soukh markets was a busy city street, bustling with cars, bikes and people going about their daily lives. It was hard to imagine that the ominous bullet holes in the walls, broken windows and charred remains of fires were real signs of what takes place in this very location at a predictable time each Friday, and since the recent hostilities, almost every day. We reached the end of Palestinian controlled areas, and saw an Israeli security checkpoint, the area around which was riddled with stones, all sharing the characteristic of being about the size of a baseball and perfect for throwing.
We were on Al-Shuhada Street. This street has become somewhat of a rallying cry for the Palestinians here, as it was once a living breathing part of the city, but now it was an empty stretch of road that stood empty and desolate. It was closed down by the Israeli authorities to aid in security around the Jewish settler areas and the Tomb of the Patriarchs in the aftermath of the 1994 massacre. Somehow, Ebad’s family was still allowed to live there, and we came to his white door where someone had spray-painted the Star of David. I watched him as he opened it and as he pretended to ignore the graffiti.
After a delicious lunch cooked by his mother and sisters, we said goodbye to Ebad and left him to his life. The Israelis had a lot to answer for. I was angry, appalled and the insults the Palestinians live with every day hung over my head like a blood red moon. A refreshed and cheerful Eliyahu met us, and we walked back into settler territory. He knew how we felt, knew what we saw. He made no apologies, but began the second side of the story. That was all he could do, and why we were here. I wanted to hear him justify what I had seen, wanted him to explain to me what made this right.
He did nothing of the sort. He did tell us, however, about 1929.
Theodor Hertzl’s tirelessness had brought the idea of Zionism to the forefront of political discussions - ironically, like Moses, Hertzl never got to enter the place he led his people to. But the simple truth was that Jews from all around the world, American and Soviet especially, were moving en masse to British Mandatory Palestine. The indiginous population here was Arab, and some began to view the influx of the Jews as dangerous. The exact circumstances depend on whom one has asked, but the result was that an Arab mob went through the streets and attacked every Jew they could get their hands on, killing 67 and injuring another 60 or so. The exodus of Jews from Hebron followed, but the most painful part for them was that it was their own neighbours that had perpetrated this horrible crime. Never again would they trust so openly, never again would they live side by side with Arabs again.
When they returned, it was with the Israeli Defence Forces behind them, and they wanted back what they had lost.
We walked along the street bordering the Palestinian’s medina and saw it was plastered with murals and signs, explaining how right the Zionists were to return here. We walked to a housing complex where a prominent Jewish Rabbi, Shlomo Ranaan, was murdered in his home in 1993 by Palestinian nationalists. His Palestinian neighbours and friends a few houses away with whom he had broken bread with, hung Palestinian flags in their windows as a show of solidarity with the killers, sending a slap in the face of his family and memory, much like the star of David on Ebad’s door.
We continued to a synagogue where we met esteemed Zionist Noam Arnon, a pillar of the community and spokesman of the Jewish community. A middle-aged man with a face that has faced the sandy winds of hardship with a powerful presence, he stood in front of us and told us the deeply personal narrative of how a physicist like him ended up in Hebron, rebuilding synagogues. He was one of the first Jews to return to Hebron, and found the synagogue destitute, serving as an animal pen to the Palestinian goats. He described the mounds of goat shit in Yahweh’s house, stabbing indignation through the air. I asked him if he believed peace in the Holy Land was possible, and his answer was not optimistic. Who am I to argue?
We walked back to leave on our bus as the beautiful call to prayer sounded distinctly along the deserted no-man’s land streets surrounding the settler areas. We rode back to Jerusalem and said goodbye to Eliyahu, and talked non-stop about what we saw for days.
I had come into this country deeply Pro-Palestinian. I had followed the situation with interest for years, and the things I saw in Hebron did not surprise me. But what I didn’t know was the whole narrative. This issue is so complex, the layers of insult, injury and death so deep that the title of “Pro-Palestinian” no longer applies to me. I just want it all to stop. It would take someone of extraordinary character and integrity to fix this, and I do not believe Benjamin Netanyahu and Mahmoud Abbas could find enough between them, even if they managed to come down from their posturing rhetorical dance.
The simple truth is in a perfect world, Jew, Arab, Christian and God only knows what else would live together in harmony, but this is not the reality we live in. We are human, and as humans, we are blind, stupid and prone to violence, hatred and long memories. And so the story goes on.
Some would say this is why religion is evil. I disagree, religion is not evil. Religion is simply one thing that can separate one man from another like anything else, be it nation, skin colour, gender, sexual preferences, language or the size and shape of his skull. Ironic, then that a founding principle of every faith in this world is some variant of treat others as you want to be treated. Who cares if a person follows in the footsteps of Isaac, Mohammed, Jesus Christ or Guatama Buddha if they miss the very point and spit in the face of whatever God it is they chose?