Walking down a crowded street in Hebron, I get lost trying to find my way to the mosque-synagogue.
Ask for directions and people point this way and that.
Finally, an old man wearing a brown suit and a long Arab head dress stops and leads me along a series of narrow streets in the old town. It reminds me of the splendid old town in Nablus.
He speaks good English.
We chat as we pass vendors selling fruit and vegetables.
He says he is interested in religion and has studied them all. Christianity has a problem he says because there are three Gods, the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit. He’s got a point. Rivers of blood have flowed over that issue. Was Jesus an incarnation of God or was he the son of God? Who was to be worshipped? They were both manifestations of the Holy Spirit; what was that then? The identity of God has always been a problem for Christianity. We discuss this for a while.
Judaism has one god, The Messiah; he issues laws which everyone must obey otherwise they will go to Hell and never find eternal life. He approves of that. But this one god he says is only for Jews. That’s bad. The Jew God is not a God but actually, a fallen angel serving Satan.
Logic says there can be only one god for all people. His objective analysis has led him to the conclusion that the best religion is Islam. Islam has the one true god and it is for everyone.
My logic leads me to a very different conclusion: that there is no God, no after life, no heaven or hell. In other words, I share the conclusions of the 17 century Dutch-Jewish philosopher Baruch Spinoza: that the religious books such as the Bible, the Koran and the Torah, are the products of men, not God.
The only religion, or rather philosophy, which can accommodate a Spinozan is Buddhism.
I ask him: ‘Have you studied Buddhism?’
But he doesn’t want to talk about Buddhism.
He continues talking as if he hasn’t heard me.
The Jew God is Satan, he says. It is not God.
We are treading on ground where I have no desire to go. Been there before. Many times. Don’t’ want to go there again.
He continues talking:
‘We are prisoners in our own country. We can’t do anything, can’t go anywhere. The Jews control everything…’
Heard this many time before too. I signal my agreement in a few words but am reticent to expand on it.
Yes, prisoners. No problem there. I can see that alright.
60% of the West Bank lies within the so-called ‘sector C’ which means that it is under the direct control of the IDF. Within sector C, the Israelis can detain anyone at any time for any reason. From my reading of English language Israeli newspapers, it is my impression that this wide military jurisdiction is used mainly to locate and detain Palestinians who have attacked settlers. This at the very least is spurious definition of ‘national security’, the supposed rationale behind sector C. An essential part of administering sector C is endless security check points. For many Palestinians, it is very difficult to move from one part of the country to the other or in some cases from one part of a city to another, because of checkpoints (and having been through many checkpoints, I know what is involved). To do business or even to get to one’s farm can be a long process. ‘
Yes certainly, no doubt about it.
Beyond that however I can’t shake off the impression that the Palestinians are imprisoned by more than the IDF and the settlers. In every official statement of the Palestinian cause which I have read – ranging from ‘fact books’ issued by academics to broadsheets issued by city councils (including that in Bethlehem) – I have noted firstly, the belief that the Holocaust never happened or at the most was an ‘incident’ in no way comparable to the sufferings of the Palestinians; secondly, that Israel is a racist apartheid state which is like the former white regime in South Africa and following on from this, point three: that Israel has no right to exist.
Despite all the talk of a two-state solution, deep in their hearts, most Palestinians, most Arabs see it as a temporary solution. What they really dream of is the disappearance of Israel. The Jewish settlements are understandably experienced by all Arabs as a humiliation, but beyond the issue of the settlers, they experience Israel itself as a humiliation – more, they see as the work of Satan. You don’t need to look too far to find expressions of undiluted hatred for Jews (the imam El Quadawi e.g., whose rabid anti-Semitic rantings are aired by Al Jazeera). Flagrant anti-Semitism is all too commonplace in the Moslem world. Commonplace is the belief that the Jews are evil conspirators who control the world’s financial system and the American government; who were responsible for the September 11 attack – and just about every other calamity which has befallen Islam in recent times. I’ve experienced this often during journeys in Turkey and Northern Africa, and amongst my Moslem students in The Netherlands when I was working as an English teacher.
‘We are prisoners in our country’ – he is inviting me to join him in a mutual hate session against the Jews. With my long hair and moustache and casual clothes, it’s a fair bet that I am a western sympathiser for the Palestinian cause.
But I’m not.
I’m an independent traveller come to have a look around. And in the course of looking around I’ve lost any real sense of having anything solid to hang on to. I feel involved, engaged; I change my opinions often, by the day, by the hour. I’m not afraid of being wrong because only be being wrong can one learn. Sometimes I’m afraid of being right. I’m constantly debating with myself. I’m wary of taking sides with anyone. I’m finding my way through a war zone, one with ancient antecedents.
I believe in a two- state solution. But what does that mean?
I have little sympathy for the settlers or the Israeli occupation. Yet that does not make me an uncritical supporter of the Palestinians. My opposition to the military occupation and the settlers does not mean that I am anti-Israel. It does not preclude my support for the right of the Israelis to have a homeland and to defend themselves against the likes of Hamas and Hezbollah. It does not mean that I hate the Jews or believe that they control the world.
Two state solution?
If the Israelis pull out of the West Bank and it falls into the hands of Hamas, then Israel will have Hamas on two fronts – south and east. The aim of Hamas is crystal clear: to wipe out the Jews. It means rocket attacks, terror tunnels and billions of dollars’ worth of arms arriving from Qatar.
There is a reason for the occupation. There’s a reason for everything out here. All these reasons leading to the Unreasonable writ large.
I cannot believe that there are people who espouse a simple point of view regarding the Israelis and the Palestinians. Yet so many of them do: journalists, politicians, academics, activists. Whatever point of view one wants to adopt, it needs to start with the recognition that history and politics and religion have together conspired to create a maelstrom of rights and wrongs, of anger, resentment, mistrust and hate.
The only other area of the world I have visited which faintly resembles this is The Balkan.
I enter a long souk, a typical Arab market place. Once again, memories of Nablus.
It’s a poorly lit tunnel, narrow, lined with stalls. At the end of the souk I enter a long wire mesh tunnel and pass through a turnstile. But it’s not a checkpoint and I fail to realise than on leaving it, it might be hard to find it again.
Departing the turnstile, I see it: ‘the oldest continuously used religious structure in the world.’
Temple, mosque, church; ‘The Cave of the Patriarchs’: 2000 years of intolerance and violence.
Yet, like so many religious structures, especially the ancient ones, it is beautiful. The high, yellow brown, crenelated walls. Two mosque towers soaring above them, History staring down at me in all its bitter-sweet glory.
I go to the mosque half of the building first.
At the check point I’m met by bored Israeli conscripts, quite friendly, speaking with strong American accents. They could be US Marines – except for the fact that half of them are women. A small woman, whose Uzi machine gun seems as big as her, asks me whether I’m a Christian and after a short discussion about atheism, she says ‘well have a nice day!’
After visiting the mosque and then the synagogue, I feel underwhelmed. They have more in common besides being located within the same ancient building: both are utterly unremarkable. The best part of the structure is the view from outside.
How is it possible that two such mundane places of worship can be so hotly, so passionately contested?
Only the True Believers can answer that question.
I go in search of the Jewish enclave.
Easier said than done.
I find myself walking down empty streets, passed shuttered up shops and buildings. It seems interesting and I keep walking. It doesn’t take me too long to work out where I am, that is, in the larger scheme of things.
The area of the city around the settlement has been closed off.
It’s a no man’s land.
Originally there was a street here which, in accordance with the Oslo accords, was inhabited by Jews. In 2000 Arafat ordered the street to be attacked with the aim of clearing the Jews out and making Hebron a completely Moslem city. The IDF retaliated and established an enclave which then became a frontier post for settlers: another episode replete with futility and mistrust, of grievance and hate.
On the walls of some of the abandoned shops are posters commemorating the heroic sacrifices of suicide bombers. I have seen many of these in Nablus and Jenin. In another place I see a sign installed by settlers recalling a massacre of Jews in 1927 by the Arabs and demanding justice. There is also a memorial for a couple killed by a suicide bomber who was on his way to blowing up children in a playground.
Wandering through the no man’s land, I feel the unreality of it all: here, in one of the most densely populated areas of the world, whole streets empty and abandoned.
I had no idea beforehand what to expect. I read about the Jewish enclave in the heart of a Moslem city and thought: ‘that’s sounds interesting’. Somehow, I had expected to see other tourists. I had expected in other words, that other people would have also been interested in seeing the Jewish enclave if not for any other reason than just plain curiosity.
But it seems as if I was wrong about that.
There’s no one. I am perfectly alone. Wandering around in a ghost town.
A feeling of paranoia is stirring inside me, stealthily, like a snake in deep dry grass.
Memories of incidents I have recently read about on the net appear before me: a sniper shot dead an Israeli soldier guarding the Hebron settlement. In another incident, a sniper shot a 9-year-old Jewish girl and then posted a proud boast on Facebook.
Look around me.
Beyond the abandoned streets are high apartment buildings. These are inhabited by Palestinians. Easy to see how a sniper with a high-powered rifle could pick off someone down here. This is hard territory. This is where the conflict zone turns deadly. Where words translate into bullets.
If someone got the idea into their heads to shoot me from a distant window, I’d be an easy target. I’m not travelling to put my life on the line.
Departing a silent street lined with shuttered up shops, I see a Moslem cemetery: grave stones planning up to the top of a hill. Burka clad women move between the graves and at the top of the hill there is a small contingent of IDF. Full battle dress. Uzis and rifles at the ready.
I walk up through the gravestones and approach them.
They’re surprised to see me.
Where are you going?
Good question. I’m no longer interested in seeing the enclave. I just want to get out this place. Not keen about being lined up in the telescopic sights of a sniper.
How do I get back to the ‘Cave of the Patriarchs’?
They point me in the right direction – and off I go.
Approach a cluster of modern apartments. This must be where the settlers live.
Inadvertently I’ve come to the very place I was looking for.
See a settler and wave him down. He’s tall and thin and is wearing jeans and T shirt and looks like Rasputin with his aquiline nose and his long beard. Explain that I’m lost and ask for directions back to the mosque/synagogue. He’s quite friendly and directs me to follow a series of narrow corridors between the apartments in the settlement. That seems like a safe option. Hard to shoot someone walking in between buildings.
I make a promising start but then get lost again. There are so many lanes and corridors; I keep walking into dead ends, small courtyards filled with kids’ toys and prams; these people have large families. Somewhere amidst my futile attempts to find my way through the apartment cluster, the words of the old Arab man come back to me: ‘we are prisoners.’
But so are these settlers. In their case, they have chosen to be prisoners.
The settlers believe that they are fulfilling God’s will by settling in the land which thousands of years ago had been a part of Israel (Samaria and Judea). They see the Arabs as interlopers. Their attitude towards them is aggressive. Brutal attacks on Palestinians by the settlers are not uncommon. They have the support of the orthodox Jews who form a powerful political force in Israel. They do not recognise the Israeli state or its laws and institutions but they expect to be defended by the IDF every time they encroach on an area of the West Bank. The only authority they recognise is God. The IDF, meant to defend the nation against external enemies, is used to provide bodyguards for the settlers. Most IDF men and women aren’t at all happy about it. There have been frequent clashes between the IDA and settlers. The great majority of Israeli people regard the settlers as a liability, yet successive Israeli governments, despite international condemnation, have allowed the settlements to continue expanding.
The bottom line is: who in their right mind would want to live in a place like this?
Raise a family here?
In a small colony which must be guarded day and night and even then, is not safe from snipers or other murderous assailants?
Yes, and the deeper issue:
Is it not contradictory to be a member of a race of people who have suffered thousands of years of persecution – and worse – and who themselves harbour discriminatory and bigoted attitudes?
Continue my trip and get lost again.
Emerge on to an empty road, follow it a while and then run into two Israeli soldiers. Ask them how to get to the Arab part of Hebron but they don’t know because they’re not allowed in there.
Eventually find my way back to the ‘Cave of the Patriarchs’ where I am greeted by the sight of a large group of Swedish tourists in an organised group, laughing innocently, not a care in the world. They get in their bus and drive off.
Carefully retracing my steps, I find the mesh tunnel from which I originally came and understand immediately how easy it was to lose it. Normally that tunnel is only used by Arabs from Hebron making their way to the mosque.
For someone unfamiliar with the place it’s the easiest thing in the world to walk straight passed it.
Back in Hebron, the streets are thronging with people. Sunday afternoon seems to be shopping time. Most of the shoppers are women and many of the shops they visit are fashionable boutiques selling shoes, clothes, perfumes, handbags and cosmetics. The sidewalks are so crowded that I have to walk on the street and dodge on-coming cars and motor bikes.
Find my way back to the bus station. Mini bus back to Bethlehem.
Back in Bethlehem, I see Polish tourists emerging from the Church of Nativity crying from the emotions of visitant the birth place of The Lord.
By the time I reach my hotel, the Al Salam, I’m exhausted.
Walk through the door and the manager is nowhere to be seen.
Peer over the counter and see him prostrating himself on the floor.
Call to Prayer.