The red X above our heads lighted on as another person passed the full height metal turnstile. The woman with a child in her arms pushed the revolving bars and presented her ID to the soldier. I’m next so I prepare my backpack for the metal detector scan. It is not the first nor the last checkpoint I walk through this day. Hebron is a divided city.
Palestine stirs emotions. No matter what are your political and ideological views, it exists. 5 million people inhabit these lands and live their lives, be it Arab Muslims, Arab Christians or Jews. What is “Palestine” is not always exactly clear, and, especially from a visitor’s point of view, it is not exactly clear when you “enter” Palestine – as if there was no border. But in the same time, a glimpse at a map reveals the multitude of dividing lines: the West Bank and the Gaza Strip, East and West Jerusalem, the countless pockets of Areas A, B and C. Even the former no man’s land of “Latrun salient” is still specified on Google Maps today, as are the encirclements around Mount Scopus and other instances of the 1949 Armistice Agreement Line. That demarkation, known as the Green Line, also acts as the western fringe of the Seam Zone, an area fenced to the east by the Separation Barrier – yet another name, yet another boundary.
Our interpretation of historical facts and understanding of international law is often non-overlapping, but no matter the stance, we all agree that the situation of those who live within all those often non-overlapping lines is unenviable. Yet, life goes on. And it is there to be witnessed.
Hebron is the most sensitive spot on the map of Palestine and Israel. Both its glory and its bane lie in its holiness. After all, this is the location of the Tomb of the Patriarchs, venerated as the resting place of the biblical patriarchs and matriarchs: Abraham, Sarah, Isaac, Rebecca, Jacob and Leah. Their remains were concealed in underground caves over which a tall stone enclosure was erected in Herodian times. The walls are still standing today, but their inside and surroundings were built, rebuilt or overbuilt in different periods as synagogues, churches and mosques.
Since Israel took over its control in 1967, the structure is divided into Muslim and Jewish parts. There are two separate entrances and the faithful of two religions pray in different rooms but both have visual access to the cenotaph of Abraham. If you look and listen behind the cenotaph from the mosque section, you can see the Jews on the other side and vice versa – Arabs are seen from the synagogue.
left column: Jewish part, right column: Muslim part
Next to the staircase leading to the Muslim part is a checkpoint that leads to the Old City of Hebron, the centuries-old maze of narrow alleys, with its bazaars and stone houses.
It is a UNESCO World Heritage Site and basic tourist signage leads you to some specific places. While visiting a small museum displaying a century-old olive press, I was given brochures printed by Palestine’s Ministry of Tourism. The leaflets later gave me some shivers while packing my luggage upon leaving Israel. As most visitors, I was questioned by the airport staff which emptied my bag to examine its contents. The interrogation lasted longer after they flipped through my personal notebook and found Arabic letters written on the margin. Luckily, it was enough to take a pen and write something in Chinese plus demonstrating a Hebrew-learning app on my phone to prove that I’m interested in languages in general, not just in Arabic. They let me go before looking into the Palestinian tourist booklets. In case you ask – yes, I also had Israel-issued brochures about Hebron. Both perspectives are valuable.
Al-Khalil (Arabic name of Hebron) is divided into zones: H1, under the jurisdiction of Palestine, is larger, but the Old City is in the Israeli military-controlled H2. Also part of H2 is the next place I went to – Tel Rumeida (Jabla al-Rahama), an archaeological site with the oldest remains of settlement in the area, estimated to date from the times of the Canaanite civilization, 4,500 years ago. A terrace above it gives a panoramic view over the city. The Israeli students on a trip were the only tourists other than me I saw that day.
I crossed again the once busy shopping street that is now empty and acts as a kind of buffer zone in the sensitive vicinity of the Tomb of the Patriarchs. The next turnstile brought me to H1. There, I took a bus to my next destination, thus ending my visit in the city of Avraham or Ibrahim. A short visit indeed, barely a walk and a series of photographs that hardly even touch the surface of what is beyond the physicality of a checkpoint gate.