While ‘ghost town’ is the most consistent epithet found amid all that is said and written about Hebron, it is not an entirely accurate depiction. Certainly, it is disorientating to arrive at the city’s centre and find the streets almost deserted, the shops shuttered, the air stagnant. Much like walking around the grounds of a school at the weekend, the emptiness and quiet are disconcerting rather than relaxing. Just as a school must have pupils and teachers, a city must have people, commerce, movement – in short, life. The absence of the very thing the place was designed for renders it haunted. Yet the desertion is not absolute, or uniform. The people are there, but concealed, barricaded, shifted, locked in and locked out. The silence and stillness are pregnant, not dead. And as for the vast numbers that have left the city – their ghosts have been bottled.
It is near-impossible to deliver an adequate potted history of Hebron. One of the four ‘holy cities’ of Judaism, it is home to the Cave of the Patriarchs/Ibrahimi Mosque (wherein the bodies of Judaism’s founding fathers and mothers are said to lie, and which is also holy to Muslims due to the presence of Abraham’s tomb), and the site of consistent blood-letting over the right to claim the area as Arab or Jewish. It represents a microcosm of the broader Palestine-Israel question, and any attempt at resolution is undermined by the same foundational quandary faced by those struggling with the peace process: as long as there is no agreement as to which point of Hebron’s history to start from, there will be no hope of concluding the open conflict. One will hear of certain twentieth-century events time and again – the 1929 killing of dozens of Jews by Arab rioters; the British Mandate’s transfer of almost the entirety of Hebron’s Jewish inhabitants out of the city, for fears that their safety could not be guaranteed during the Arab riots of 1936; Israel’s occupation of Hebron from 1967 onwards; the sporadic arrival of settler families in the 1960s and ’70s, leading to Israel’s formal approval of Hebron as a site for Jewish population; the 1994 murder of 29 Arabs at prayer in the Cave of the Patriarchs by the right-wing extremist Baruch Goldstein (now a hero to settlers, and whose actions lit the slow fuse of segregation in the city); and the 1997 partition of the city into an Israeli-controlled area and a Palestinian Authority-controlled area, respectively labelled as the aseptic ‘H2’ and ‘H1’, following the Oslo Accords. (I was unable to visit Hebron’s crammed H1 locale, as Israeli citizens are forbidden to enter by the government.) In practical terms, this saw Hebron’s Arab populace become subject to increasing curfews, restriction of movement and use of excessive force by the Israel Defence Forces, and violence, harassment and intimidation by Jewish settlers.
As the violence of the Second Intifada swept through Hebron, the killing of its Jewish inhabitants by Palestinians participating in the uprising led to further entrenchment of military control orders over the city and recriminatory IDF attacks which left many Palestinians dead. The demand for the ‘sterilisation’ of Hebron’s Arab centre, ostensibly to protect the settlers, has extinguished its once-active market and left a significant number of H2’s dwindling Palestinian population unable to leave their houses through their own front doors. Those that remain in the H2 area have also been forced to protect their windows with mesh and wires, against stones, eggs and other missiles that settlers pelt at them, with little-to-no protection from the Israeli police or IDF. The human rights violations inherent in the maintenance of such a regime have been starkly described by former IDF soldiers who witnessed and participated in such events during their army service in the city. Violence against journalists has also been observed, and tours organised by human rights or left-wing organisations are frequently heckled and subjected to settler stone-throwing (both of which I can confirm first-hand).
These events and situations are stitched together by two parallel threads. As with the rest of Israel and the occupied Palestinian territories, Hebron sits between the historical ties and millennial yearning of Jews, and the very real and lived-out connection of Arabs to the land. The city’s frequent mentions in the Jewish holy texts, including the anointing of David as King of Judah, are cited as justification for the occupation of the city – by everyone from David Ben-Gurion, Israel’s first prime minister, to current prime minister, Binyamin Netanyahu, and the broader right-wing national-religious camp (although these convictions are not exclusively held by the religious, nor are they restricted to Hebron). Today, in 2014, Hebron continues to have its reality shaped by biblical diktats.
I have been to Hebron three times – twice with Breaking the Silence and once independently – and this is what I saw.
Shuhada Street, upon where most visitors’ first steps in Hebron fall, embodies the concept of apartheid with surgical precision. The road is physically separated into a side for Israelis and a far-narrower side for Palestinians, with the discrepancy in width due to only Israeli vehicles being permitted on Shuhada Street. Progressing down into the old city centre, the signs of a dislocated populace accumulate. The shuttered shops and crumbling facades strike first, but it is the snatched glimpses, acquired on closer examination, that give a truer (and more tangible) picture of disappearances: a gap in a wall, a hole in a metal shutter, a window in a fortified gate. Cowering in the gloom behind stale entrances are chests of drawers with their guts spilling out; bathroom sinks with their necks broken; doorways collapsed in a heap. Contorted staircases brace over piles of shattered glass while rent ceilings expose messes of useless wiring and infrastructure. Sun-bleached signs for vanished businesses watch over proliferating expanses of rubbish. The repetition of these scenes, of the evidence of a city that has had its heart scooped out, cloaks Hebron in a sickly, muggy atmosphere; consequently, each time I go, I am reminded of a long-ago visit to Vukovar, a Croatian town that was flattened during the Serbo-Croat war and remains snared between ruin and renewal. Hebron appears as a warzone and, as with Vukovar, walking through it feels at once transgressive, voyeuristic, stifling.
At once contrasting with and complementing the decay, signs of the gradual unpicking of Hebron – via the filtering of its history and the appropriation of its future – bubble to the surface through its street art. Trickling along roads, down walls and through buildings, expressions of messianic fervour and settler ideology abound throughout, punctuating the underlying ethos of the city’s Jewish inhabitants. A wall inside a deserted housing unit features a rudimentary depiction of tablets calling for the settlement of the West Bank – referred to by the biblical ‘Judea and Samaria’ – and which name-checks the Halamish settlement, whose inhabitants have taken over the spring of Nabi Saleh, a nearby Palestinian village. A store’s sealed-off doors bear the mark of Meir Kahane, a fascist ideologue whose political party Kach (of which Baruch Goldstein was a supporter), and its offshoot Kahane Chai (“Kahane Lives”) are both banned in Israel and considered terrorist organisations by the US and the EU (Kahane was assassinated in 1990 in New York by an Egyptian immigrant with terrorist connections). A plain, innocuous-seeming notice posted on an old bus stop turns out to be a quasi-messianic call-to-arms in support of Mitzpe Avichai, an illegal outpost near Hebron that the Israeli government has demolished on numerous occasions. Time and again, Hebrew graffiti lays claim to Hebron as ‘the city of our ancestors’, as if there were not three Abrahamic faiths, but one alone. Bright military emblems – rendered by the pro-Israel outfit Artists 4 Israel – appear here and there, including on a wall surrounding the city’s main army barracks. Further on, past the barracks, are fully-fleshed scenes from Hebron’s Jewish history which decry the perceived desecration of their way of life (not without cause in the case of 1929) and eulogising the city’s central place in Judaism. Looming behind them are water towers, complete with Israeli flag decals and the customary ‘city of our ancestors’ trademark. Close by, a guide to ‘Hebronis’ decorates the doors of a chicken coop, rendering the various characters seen in Hebron as chickens (and relying on offensive stereotypes of Palestinians in the process). Most threateningly of all, ‘tag mechir’ (price tag), the trademark slogan for attacks by settlers against Palestinians (and occasionally reprisals against the IDF if they are deemed to have harmed settler interests) has been scrawled next to stone steps leading up to an Arab neighbourhood. The meaning of the ‘price tag’ label – that you will pay the price for opposing Jewish settlers, who usually retaliate via arson, destruction/theft of crop trees and other acts of vandalism – may have found its purest, most comprehensive expression in Hebron: its Palestinian inhabitants have been so thoroughly dispossessed and shoved to the fringes that there is little left for settlers to destroy.
In keeping with its outpourings of messianic zeal, Hebron is also pockmarked with references to the coming of the Third Temple. A cursory knowledge of Jerusalem’s layout and history (and by extension that of Judaism and Islam) is enough to understand how extreme and provocative this idea is; nonetheless, one of the city’s largest murals is a vibrant voicing of the desire for the Third Temple’s imminent construction, also created by Artists 4 Israel. More cryptically, a nearby wall has been stamped with a cave art-style animal, accompanied by the Hebrew word ‘parah’ – a reference to the red heifer (‘parah adumah’) whose biblical role in ritual purification has made it one of the symbols of the Third Temple movement. To position these images in an ongoing political context, a unilateral bill to discuss Israeli sovereignty of the Temple Mount/Al-Aqsa compound, which is currently overseen by the Islamic waqf, was introduced in the Knesset at the end of February 2014. The bill is sponsored by Member of the Knesset Moshe Feiglin, a member of the ruling Likud party and endorser of the ‘Kahane was right’ maxim, which is frequently seen around the streets of Jerusalem (and has recently appeared in Tel Aviv).
One solitary pocket of sanity, somewhat removed from the gridlocked tension below, sits above Hebron’s centre. Situated atop Tel Rumeida, past Abraham’s Spring, and amid olive trees and livestock and shepherds, the Youth Against Settlements volunteer centre appears as Hebron’s noble sanctuary, though it is not free from arbitrary incursions by the military. There is graffiti here, too, as combative and political as that in the city centre, but which presents instead the consequences of the settlers’ hold over Hebron. References to Palestine, Shuhada Street and the occupation dot the outside walls of the building, while tucked in next to a patch of earth is a defiant-but-poignant response to the price tag attacks: “They can pull out our trees but we will always plant more.”
A footnote must be added to these observations. In spite of the abundant evidence of all that has been wrenched away, and remarkably for a city which is on the frontlines of the segregation experiment, the signs of abutment between Jewish and Muslim history and culture in Hebron remain widespread. Separation barriers feature stencils reading ‘Free Israel’ and ‘Free Palestine’ spray-painted next to, or even on top of, one another. Graffiti Stars of David (alongside the notorious ‘death to Arabs’ slogans) appear on the boarded-up shop fronts that were once the livelihood of Hebron’s Palestinian inhabitants, their Arabic-inscribed plaques still hanging above the welded doors. Mezuzot are fixed to gates that still bear old Arabic street signs. A painted scene of bucolic idyll, in which a young man in a kippah and tzitzit plays a pipe while watching his flock, squats under the raised arm of a minaret. At the appointed hours, a cascade of muezzins’ calls tumble into streets that are empty save for scattered IDF soldiers and the odd tourist. Inside the Cave of the Patriarchs/Ibrahimi Mosque, an ark and its eternal light upstage glazed tiles with ornate Arabic writing. It seems, in a paradox redolent of Maurice Merleau-Ponty’s work on memory and forgetting, that the very act of trying to prise these entities apart has served only to stitch them closer together.
One need not question what drives Hebron’s would-be masters. The guiding lights are few, fierce and transparent: faith, mythology, fanaticism. Why else subject oneself (and one’s dependants) to an approximation of reality so unwholesome and dysfunctional? In the push to reap ancient legends, moderation is capitulation and the truth is crippled. A cult of martyrdom is also at work here: gates, houses, and military posts all memorialise those who have perished in conflicts and terrorist attacks. Angry, red-lettered signs demand the ‘return’ of the city to Jews. It at times appears to be more of a shrine and a museum than a habitat; as with the accidental, leftover clues from its Arab population, Hebron’s Jewish residents have cultivated a presence of loss in their environment, and the wake of the departed has settled over the city like dust. And ceaselessly, systematically, furiously watching over it all, alternating between brute presence and concealment, between zealous enforcement against Palestinians and brotherly apathy towards settler aggression, is the Israeli military: the ‘most moral army in the world’, and the unblinking eye at the centre of the city’s panopticon.
This is Hebron, the city of lesions whose name comes from the Semitic root for ‘alliance’. Dissonance prevails for now, although attempts to staunch the imposition of a singular Jewish identity on the place are faltering, and any sense of normality has been swept away by a tidal wave of settler ideology realised as military operations. Yet for all its creeping, queasy intensity, the muffled atmosphere of the city makes it feel as if the explosion happened elsewhere, and Hebron’s inhabitants are simply riding out the shockwaves. One senses that it is a satellite of a fanatical dogma whose locus is in Jerusalem. This, surely, provides the overriding concern: that the mentality is metastasising.