Welcome to Berlin 2.0. No, this is not the next hipster hotspot. This place is not the new cool, its nightlife doesn’t rival that of the German capital, nor is it a great weekend getaway destination. Actually, this city only has one similarity with good old Berlin: it has a wall.
Welcome to Hebron, Palestine.
Located on the West Bank, Hebron has been at the frontline of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict for the past decades. You might wonder why anyone would want to go to a war-torn place, but a trip to Palestine’s biggest city is a unique experience that provides visitors with a close-up view of the Middle Eastern conflict. In fact, I would go as far as to say that any trip to Israel and/or Palestine is not complete without visiting Hebron. And as long as you keep an eye on the news, avoid Fridays (when demonstrations often take place) and go into town with a local guide, visiting Hebron is perfectly safe.
I won’t go into the details here of why the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is concentrated around Hebron (basically it’s an important place of worship for both Jews and Muslims), but ever since the creation of the state of Israel in 1947, the Israelis have been trying to get hold of the city. With (financial) support from mainly US Jewish families, many of whom believe this has historically been Jewish land and hope to contribute to the creation of one big Jewish state, Israel has been establishing settlements inside and around the city. Over the past decades, more than 200 gated Jewish settlements have been created on Palestinian land in the West Bank, and in the case of Hebron they have even been established inside the Old City. This has led to extreme anger and bitterness among Palestinians, for whom this ‘land grabbing’ constitutes a major injustice.
After lots of fighting and violence from both sides, the 2 parties came to a peace agreement in 1993. And this is where it gets complicated. Even after 11 days in the region I still can’t get my head around the complexity of the current situation, but I’ll have a go at explaining it:
Since 1993, the West Bank has been split up into 3 areas. Area A (18%) is under full Palestinian control; Area B (22%) is under shared Israeli and Palestinian control; and Area C (60%) is under complete Israeli control – this includes major roads, access to cities and towns as well as water supply. Although Hebron is situated in Area A, the city itself has been divided into 2 sectors: Palestinian controlled H1, and Israeli controlled H2. H2, in turn, is subdivided into parts that are accessible only to Jewish settlers and parts that are accessible only to Palestinians, with entrance and exit being closely monitored by the Israeli army. This has led to enclaves within enclaves within enclaves…
Are you still following it? I am not, really…
Today, central Hebron feels like a ghost town. Some streets have been partially or even completely closed off for Palestinians, killing local businesses (if they haven’t already been forced to shut down by the Israeli army for security reasons). The most infamous example is the once thriving Al Shuhada high street, which now serves as a buffer zone between Jewish areas. Other streets are accessible to Palestinians only by foot, while Jewish settlers are allowed to drive. This has led to the absurd creation of roads with a wall or fence in the middle: one side where Jewish settlers can drive, and another side where Palestinians can walk.
Everywhere you go in central Hebron you stumble upon walls and fences, which often run right through buildings. Even the main religious site – a temple where Abraham is said to be buried – has been cut in half: part remains a mosque for Palestinians, part is now a synagogue for Israelis. Israeli checkpoints, which you can only pass when showing your ID, control access from one part of the city to another.
Walking around this divided city, I felt that the whole situation just seemed to resemble pre-1989 Berlin. The only difference being that the Berlin wall was created by a home government (the DDR) to keep people inside and the West Bank wall has been created by an external government (Israel) to keep people outside. To make matters even worse, the wall is not just limited to Hebron. Israel has so far built over 700 kilometres of concrete wall, encircling almost all of the West Bank and restricting the free movement of both Palestinians and Israelis.
In the meantime, the people of Hebron try to live their lives. On a daily basis, Palestinian women cross checkpoints to do their grocery shopping and Jewish kids play behind fences as if it’s the most normal thing in the world. And that’s probably the saddest thing of all: the wall has become such a natural part of life that the people here don’t know better.
Visiting Hebron has made me realise that the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is even more complex than I imagined. A naturally optimistic person, I left the city with a sense of hopelessness. Too much has happened here for there to be peace again any time soon…
Having said that, visiting Hebron is an eye-opening experience that has to be on your list when going to Israel and Palestine. A guided tour is the best way to discover the city and get to know more about the conflict, although the stories you will hear are inevitably coloured – it’s simply impossible to get a completely objective account of the situation.
One day in Hebron won’t be enough to fully understand the conflict, but it provides an insight into daily life in a divided city, and indeed a divided region.