Monday, December 28, 2015

Epilog: Hebron, a tale of two (or more) cities

Hebron -- it is hard to do the city justice with a camera.
It's been eight years since I last posted in this blog. Our son was 10 then. Four days ago Eric (now 18) and I returned for a brief visit. We're in Jerusalem now and in a few minutes will attend a Bar Mitzvah which some of Eric's friends are also attending. It is a short visit -- Just a week in the country -- with a brief visit to Eilat in the south and some time here.

I've reported on my visit to the Timna Valley in the Construction Marketing Ideas blog. Then I remembered this "old" blog and realized it is more appropriate to report on other Israeli travel notes here.

Yesterday, we visited Hebron on the Dual Narrative Tour -- a rare example of co-ordination to provide both the Israeli and Palestinian perspectives on the complex issues affecting this region.

If there is any story that explains the complexity of the issues here it will be that of Hebron, an unmistakably Palestinian community with (to the Palestinians) an unreasonable, unjust and military-occupied "settler" colony in its midst.

From the Israeli perspective, there is a narrative that explains the historical relationship of the ancient Jewish community through the Cave (Tomb) of the Patriarchs, where Abraham, Sarah, Isaac and Joseph are biblically (and perhaps actually) buried. Of course the site also happens to be a holy shrine for Muslims, who recognize Abraham as well.

We can mix some ancient history with two massacres, one in 1929 and the second in 1994. The 1929 massacre occurred when rioting Arabs attacked and killed either 67 or 69 Jews, and the ancient Jewish population was essentially evicted from the community. In 1994, a radical Jew killed 29 Muslims attending prayers at the Cave of the Patriarchs Mosque. This set off riots and more killings in the area.

More recently, the story has been of random stabbings. Palestinians (it seems of all ages and genders) have been showing up at Israeli military checkpoints brandishing knives, or otherwise appearing out the blue with the sharp objects, with the intent to stab and kill soldiers and settlers. Generally, the Israelis have responded to the threatened knife attacks with their automatic weapons, resulting in a one sided death toll.

This development has made an already tense security situation even more complex and tense, as Israelis impose new metal detectors, checkpoints and restricted travel areas for Palestinians in the H2 areas.

H2? Well, you can mix in H1 and the Temporary International Presence In Hebron (TIPH), along with the Palestinian accords, and you have one of the strangest geopolitical environment in the world.

H1, the bulk of the overall Hebron community, operates under the auspices of the Palestinian Authority. PA runs the civil administration, local police, and Israeli citizens are generally barred from the area. Israeli soldiers visit in night-time raids to nab suspected Palestinian militants (Israeli officials would use the word "terrorists".)

H2, about 20 per cent of the community, includes the old city, the Cave of the Patriarchs area, and a combination of four small settler communities (total population about 600) near the Old City and a larger settlement built on Hebron's outskirts.

With assorted murders, terrorist attacks (and I would use the world terrorist here because the attacks by armed Palestinians often targeted unarmed civilians) and plenty of distrust, the Israelis have walled off and secured "their" areas within Hebron, creating a dual city within the city. The regular bus service from downtown Jerusalem has been modified somewhat -- the buses have bulletproof windows -- and there are special roads for which only Israeli, rather than Palestinian, licenced cars can be used. There is something of a bunker mentality in the Jewish areas, though I wouldn't say people live their lives cowering in fear, and (as the Palestinians have noted) there are plenty of ways Palestinians can skirt the checkpoints and security barriers.

A Palestinian trader in the H2 (Israeli controlled) market area.
As well, there are some ironic juxtapositions. Consider for example the location of the Christian Peacemaker Teams in Hebron. CPT is undeniably pro-Palestinian and anti-settler, and it has located its offices in the old city overlooking the edge/wall that separates the closed settler road.

I asked the anti-Israeli US citizen providing an explanation of the CPT's work how she could freely have this conversation with me in Hebron, if Israel was such an oppressive state. She said she didn't tell her mission when she arrived, saying she was a tourist (not technically a lie, since she isn't paid for her time here).

Outside, later in the day, I looked up at the CPT offices/house from the restricted access street -- and saw a sign proclaiming "Israel Apartheid" -- and I suppose you could see some similarities with the South African environment, with the closed off Israeli/Jewish area segregated from the Palestinian neighbourhoods. But nothing is ever as simple as that stereotype, as if apartheid is defined by racial grounds, there were certainly plenty of Israeli soldiers who were anything but white and we could argue that if there was racism historically it would have been against the Jews who were denied access to the community.(The Palestinian narrative is that this exclusion occurred during the British mandate, and therefore it is the British, not the Palestinians, who should be held responsible.)

The visit to the Cave of The Patriarchs plays out these issues with appropriate complexity. The complex is divided into two sections, one Jewish and the other Muslim. Each religion gains access to the entire complex (meaning the other side is banished) for 10 of its holiest days. There are security checkpoints at both entrances. In this tour, we were able to visit both sides -- a treat not available to local people.

The Jewish narrative is that the Jews were denied access to the holy site (considered the second most holy in the Jewish religion) for eons, certainly during the Ottoman empire and even in the British mandate. Jews and Christians could ascend some stairs outside the building, but were not to go above the seventh step. Then, after 1929 and certainly after Jordanians took sovereignity of the site at Israel's independence in 1948, Jews couldn't go near the building.

This changed in 1967 after Israel won the Six Day War, and in the process occupied the entire West Bank of the Jordan River, including Hebron.

The archeological history of the site remains in some mystery. There was one sneak visit to the underground caves some years ago, but the area hasn't been properly explored or researched and presumably won't be for the foreseeable future, out of respect for Muslim faith values. But as a microcosm of the current Mideast conflict story, it stands as an ancient symbol reflecting modern tensions and co-operation. (The 10 day equal closed access solution to give both religious groups their own time within the site certainly is a creative if somewhat restrictive compromise.)

My Hebron visit leaves many more questions than answers. Peering down from the observatory on the Jewish H2 area, I could see the edge of H1 -- and what seemed to be a vibrant, bustling, and very modern Palestinian city, with gleaming skyscrapers, traffic jams, and lots of what seemed to be unimpeded life. I can see why the Israeli settlers are digging in here -- and also why the Palestinians would very much like them gone. Politically I think a special status international administration may be the solution here, and also in Jerusalem, a structure that could allow both nations to maintain the city as their capital, in a free trade/co-ordinated area. Of course, to establish this sort of structure, there needs to be trust and mutual respect, and that I fear is still in short supply in these parts.