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Hebron – The Most Divided City in the World

January 16, 2018
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This is a hard post to write. and I have to admit I am a little nervous publishing it. It’s about Hebron – one of the most starkly divided cities in the world.

Hebron is essentially “ground zero” for the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and Israel’s controversial settlement movement. So when I had the chance to visit this city, I jumped at the opportunity to learn more about it’s history and see what life is like for the people who live there today.

I’d like to share with you what I know about Hebron and what I saw during my visit. To understand Hebron requires knowledge of it’s history, so I’ll give you a brief overview. But don’t worry, this isn’t your high school history class. This story has so many twists and turns, and so much drama and heartbreak. Please remember while reading this post or commenting to be respectful. We all have different viewpoints and this situation does effect peoples lives.

History: Reasonably Peaceful

Hebron is located about 30km south of Jerusalem and has been inhabited for thousands of years. It is the largest city in the West Bank and the second largest city in the Palestinian Territories. The Palestinian Territories are areas of land located within the state of Israel and consist of the West Bank and Gaza Strip.

Hebron is significant to both Muslims and Jews because it is thought to be the burial place of Abraham and his wife Sarah, their son Isaac (and wife Rebecca) and Isaac’s son Jacob (and wife Leah). Jews regard Abraham as the father of Judaism and Muslims regard him as a prophet. The place where Abraham and his family are buried is called Tomb of the Patriarchs and it is located in the heart of the old city of Hebron. It operates as both a synagogue and a mosque.

Historically, the Muslim population of the city was always much higher than the Jewish population, but they lived together relatively harmoniously. In fact, the name “Hebron” in both Hebrew and Arabic (Hevron and al-Khalil) essentially means “friend”.

But things change.

1929 Hebron Massacre and Riots

After World War I, Palestine (and therefore Hebron) were under British control. At this time, the population of Hebron was about 20,000 Muslims and 800 Jews, and they got along alright.

In late August 1929, disputes flared up between Muslims and Jews in Jerusalem over access to Temple Mount (it’s an extremely holy site to both religions). Tensions rose, leading to protests, demonstrations, and violence in the Old City of Jerusalem. Both Muslims and Jews committed acts of violence against each other and lives were lost in these events in Jerusalem.

Like a horrible game of Telephone, rumours spread to Hebron that Jews were “slaughtering” Muslims in Jerusalem. Angry about this, and fearful they might lose access to Temple Mount in Jerusalem, a mob of Muslims began to gather in Hebron and began attacking the Jewish community in the city.

The attack was gruesome, violent, and personal. People were beaten to death, stabbed, raped, burned and shot. Stones were thrown and fires were set. Homes were ransacked, shops were looted, property was destroyed, and a synagogue was desecrated.

The attack went on for an entire day and at the end of it, 67 Jews had been murdered in Hebron.

In the days that followed, rioting and violence continued in Hebron, claiming the lives of 133 Jews and 110 Muslims. Just over 400 Jews survived the attack in Hebron, and there are accounts of some of them being sheltered in the homes of their Muslim neighbours until the violence quelled.

After the massacre, the British Mandate that was controlling Palestine evacuated the surviving Jews to Jerusalem, where they stayed for several decades.

Settlement Begins

Over the years, many changes occurred: Israel became a state in 1948 and control of Palestine changed hands several times. In 1967, Israel’s military captured the West Bank from Jordan and began occupying Palestinian Territories. Small numbers of Jewish Israelis began to slowly filter back to Hebron and other locations within the Palestinian Territories and established communities/neighbourhoods known as settlements.

The thing to understand is that they didn’t move to these places because of beautiful nature or economic abundance or easy living. They moved to these places primarily out of belief that these locations are sacred to Jewish tradition and part of the land promised to them by God. However, many of these places are also sacred to Muslims and are located within Palestinian Territories.

So this is how the situation gets extremely complicated. Because settlers have a strong belief that their actions are sanctified by religion, while Palestinians have a strong belief in the sovereignty of their lands and their ability to freely enact their religion. So, to Jewish settlers, settlement represents a Messianic mission, while to Muslim Palestinians it represents invasive attacks on their religion and human rights.

Understandably, the situation is deeply personal and highly inflammatory for everyone involved.

Tomb of the Patriarchs Massacre

One day in 1994, during the month of Ramadan, approximately 800 Muslims (including children) had gathered to pray in the Tomb of the Patriarchs. An American-Israeli man carrying an assault rifle positioned himself in front of the only exit to the prayer room and opened fire on the Muslim worshippers.

He killed 29 people inside the mosque and severely maimed and paralyzed hundreds more before the crowd overtook him and beat him to death. Nearly half of the victims who died in the mosque were under the age of 21. Dozens more people were killed in the crush of the stampede to get out of the mosque and in riots in the days following the massacre.

This incident, like the massacre in 1929, was a pivotal moment for Israeli-Palestinian relations. Retaliatory suicide bombings and other attacks were carried out in Israel and around the world.

Dividing the City

Throughout the ‘90s, the international community became increasingly aware of the conflict and wanted to help find a solution for “peace in the Middle East.” I remember these times, and the sensationalistic media coverage. It all sounded very scary and sad.

In 1997, after extensive negotiations and peace talks, it was decided (among many other decisions regarding Israel and Palestine) that Hebron would be split into two sections: H1, which would be controlled by the Palestinian Authority, and H2 under control of Israel (rather, the Israeli army). And this is how it remains.

Living Separately

The population of Hebron today is comprised of 200,000 Muslim Palestinians and about 700 Jewish settlers. The Israeli army continues to occupy Hebron to ensure the safety of the settlers and the ratio of soldiers to settlers is 4:1 (four soldiers for every one settler). There are 18 military checkpoints throughout the old city and neither Palestinians nor settlers are able to move through these with any ease, if at all.

After the 1994 massacre, the Israeli army closed Shahuda Street (which leads to the Tomb of the Patriarchs) to Palestinians. Shahuda Street was a central market street in Hebron and hundreds of Palestinians owned businesses along the street, all of which had to be permanently abandoned.

The Tomb of the Patriarchs continues to operate as both a synagogue and a mosque, but the sides are separated by bulletproof glass and there is a military checkpoint to go through before entering.

Acts of violence, such as stabbings, property damage, verbal abuse, bleach attacks, throwing rocks and Molotov cocktails, sexual assaults, bombings, and murder have been committed by both sides against each other throughout the decades. But please do not let this imagery be your impression of Hebron. It is a very special place. The old city is beautiful, with stone archways and tunnels, and it has a wonderful glass and ceramics factory where you can see expert glassblowers create beautiful art in the midst of emotional turmoil.

Why bother?

All this history might be overwhelming. Maybe it doesn’t sound like there’s a whole lot for tourists to do in Hebron. But I encourage you to visit if you can. To see first-hand what it is like to live in a divided city and to understand better a situation you might have only heard about on the news. And also, to make a difference in people’s lives. It means so much to people to be able to tell their story, and you can really help them by simply listening.

Getting to Hebron is possible on local transport from Jerusalem and Bethlehem, but it can be a bit complicated due to restrictions on movement in and around Hebron. I recommend a day tour offered by Abraham Hostels called the Dual Narrative Tour. This tour allowed me to see both sides of the story because it splits the day in two: one half led by an Israeli guide and the other half led by a Palestinian guide. We visited an army base, a market, and both sides of the Tomb of the Patriarchs. But the best part of the day was when we got to meet with families in both H1 and H2. They welcomed us into their homes and told us their stories and shared with us their thoughts about life in Hebron. It was a wonderful opportunity to learn more (on both sides), and to show love and respect to people living in one of the most complicated situations imaginable.