03/02/2013 (Diary entry)
Early Sunday morning wake-up to catch a service taxi into the troubled city of Hebron. The journey is a good two hours, our driver flying over the winding hills listening to a child reciting verses from the Qur’an very loudly. On arrival we headed in the direction of the Old City. The journey from the service station through the modern shopping mall gave an odd impression of the place. I had heard so much about its turbulence, I was almost expecting to see more evidence of protest and struggle from the moment we arrived.
We were soon spotted to be foreigners by an eager teenage boy who offered to show us the five Israeli settlements within the city centre. We politely declined, we were told to be very careful in Hebron as the occupation has unfortunately presented an instance for a strange kind of tourism (I am all for supporting local Palestinian businesses however, especially when they sell such beautiful items. I bought a pair of trousers from a market stall for 10 shekels, which is less than £2! Unfortunately this was a one-off, most prices hover just below those in the UK).
We wandered through the souqs, being greeted and welcomed and asked ‘where are you from?’ by every other trader. The souqs themselves are small, bright, individual shops & stalls selling everything from fluorescent pink vegetables to traditional kaffiyeh scarves to mouth-watering baklava. Above our heads a wire mesh covered the entire top section of the market. In places the sky is covered with tarpaulin, in others, the mesh is on view. It is littered with rubbish. We were told that it is dropped by the settlers that live above – the mesh was installed recently to protect the people underneath. In one instance a massive concrete slab hung precariously above us, half way through the wire and directly above our heads. If it fell it could kill someone.
At the end of one intersection we met a man who invited us into his home to meet his family. Shadi had four daughters from two wives, all under four years of age. One of his wives (!) gave us all a sugary Palestinian tea, we played with the babies and then talked about living right next door to a large settlement. He showed us onto his roof terrace, pointing to the numerous settlements which encroached around three sides of his building, and the armed Israeli soldier on the roof of the fourth. He showed us the piles of rubbish lining empty streets – where the ghosts of once bustling markets roam, inaccessible to the Palestinians now. He pointed to the Israeli school, formerly Arabic, taken over by the settlers and proudly displaying the Jewish menorah. He told us that he keeps his daughters inside for fear of them being harmed, and showed us the three bullet holes in his water tank.
We each bought a kaffiyeh from him and he pointed us in the direction of falafel sandwiches, Hebron style. What distinguishes Hebron falafel from the average sandwich is the beautiful fried aubergine they put inside it. And the chips, veg and hot chilli sauce, superrrr yum. From here we found a tunnel hosting further souqs, the first of which was the famous Women’s Handmade Craft stall. Our team leader had told us to look out for Leila, the lady in charge who is well known to locals, aid workers and internationals alike. We met her straight away, she gave us more tea, and we perused her beautiful shop leaving arms-laden with pretty rings, more kaffiyehs, hand-stitched bookmarks, earrings and Hamsa ‘evil eye’ necklaces.
Leila also introduced us to a young boy, Issan, who works with her in the shops. He ended up as our tour guide for the rest of the day. He took us to the Ibrahimi Mosque/Tomb of the Patriarchs, seconded only to the Dome of the Rock in religious significance, and the reason for the existence of the five micro-settlements in the area. The site has two entrances, one for the mosque and one for the synagogue, guarded by two checkpoints. To reach the Jewish side we first had to cross a checkpoint into the settler area, leaving Issan behind. He told us that sometimes he could cross the barrier to accompany tourists into the isolated Palestinian shops on the other side, but today he was refused. He told us that no Muslims are legally allowed to cross the barrier into the Jewish side, regardless of their nationality. He stood behind a barrier with the soldiers, telling us to take our time as he’d be there when we returned. It was quite surreal; the barrier was not fixed, the soldier simply moved it to let us in and out. But it marked the edge of a boundary, an invisible line which foreigners can walk across when a local boy cannot.
We had reached Shuhada Street, the ghost town; a former Palestinian grocery market closed since 2000 and now home to military patrol vehicles, scribbled propaganda and ever-closed shutters. Shuhada, or ‘Martyr’ street, saw violent clashes between settlers and Palestine locals at the beginning of the turn of the century, and now acts as a kind of buffer zone between the two fractions. Walking through it we saw no one but soldiers, military officials and a solitary Jewish runner. Issan had told us that there are approximately 400 settlers in Hebron, with over 2000 armed soldiers permanently installed to ensure their continued security. There is certainly evidence of their existence along Shuhada Street.