Tuesday, October 11, 2005

Khalil (Hebron)

The next morning we visited the Church of the Nativity, then headed for Khalil. We heard that the Hebron checkpoint was completely closed the day before, but we decided to give it a try and see what happened – luckily we didn’t have any trouble. Khalil is one of the biggest, if the not the biggest city in the West Bank. It reminded me of Qalquilia in that all the women we saw were wearing the hijab and very modestly dressed. The economic situation was obviously not good. We headed straight for the Old City, which is really beautiful. Just full of windy stone alleys and tunnels – truly a hide and seek paradise. As we walked into the old city we passed a building on the right with Israeli soldiers and machine guns on the roof, watching us. To be fair, we stood out a lot since there weren’t many (any) other tourists.

After we passed the soldiers, we came to a fork in the road and you could see that the souq (market) used to be down both streets. Now, the street on the right was closed off and gated -- all the Arabs have left their stores and homes. Why, you might ask? Because of the harassment they received from the settlers and soldiers. Admittedly, the Israeli technique of occupation does not usually involve Israelis and Arabs living in the same city, but in 1967 one Jewish family came to Hebron to celebrate Passover, boarded themselves into the hotel they were staying in (in the center of the city) and refused to leave. Today the settlers control 1/3 of downtown Hebron, with about 500 settlers and 4000 soldiers to protect them (Christian Peacemaker Team figures). There are about 40,000 Palestinians in the remainder of the city.

Back to my story . . . so the road on the right is closed because there are too many settlers living in the buildings above the souq. This is a problem because they throw their trash, feces, and whatever else they can think of onto the Palestinians who work below them. So, that side of the souq was completely emptied. On the left side, the side we entered, there are also problems with settlers, but apparently it isn’t as bad as the other side. The locals have set up fencing above their heads to catch the trash, and in some places they have put boards over the fence which block out any liquid trash that might come their way, but also, unfortunately, blocks out the sunlight.

We walked along the souq, then we came to a checkpoint where they had set up more of the revolving metal cage thingees. I hate these things. They have them at Kalandia as well, and trying to get through them with a backpack is annoying, never mind with a suitcase or a small child. The soldier there didn’t bother to look at our passports, so we continued towards our goal, Haram Brahimi. Once we reached the base of the Muslim entrance to the mosque we went through another checkpoint. This time they searched our bags, we walked through metal detectors, and they looked at our passports. They also asked each of us what religion we are. The guide said that we were all Christians (which was not true) but I went along with it since I have no strong religious affiliation and I wanted to see the inside of the mosque. Then we had to go through another checkpoint before we could actually enter the mosque, which was more of the same.

Once inside, we took off our shoes and the women put on shapeless brown robes with hoods that covered our hair, bodies and hands. Finally we were able to enter the mosque. This place is important because it is believed that Abraham, Sarah, Isaac, Rebecca, Jacob, Leah and Joseph are buried on this sight. It is also important because in 1994 a crazy settler, Dr. Baruch Goldstein entered the mosque during Ramadan and killed 29 Muslims while they were praying – most of them shot in the back. After the massacre a 24 hour curfew was imposed on the Arabs of Khalil, while the settlers were allowed complete freedom of movement. Muslims were not allowed to pray in the mosque for 9 months, and when they returned they found it had been partitioned into two sections: one for Muslims and one for Jews. The mosque is very beautiful, despite the bullet holes in the walls and the Israeli security cameras set up all over the place. BTW the settlers consider the nutcase who opened fire in the mosque to be a martyr and people make pilgrimages to the place he is buried. His wife actually tried to sue the Muslims who disarmed him and killed him after he had killed 29 people and injured close to 200 people.

We visited the Jewish side of the site as well, but in order to get there we had to pass through 2 more checkpoints. Again we were asked if there were any Muslims in the group, and again our guide said no. This time one of the Muslim girls got really upset with him, and almost refused to go into the Jewish side. I don’t blame her. I don’t even consider myself Muslim but I was offended as well. Both by the guide and by the fact that our religion is considered enough of a reason to discriminate against us. She was actually in tears as we approached the first checkpoint to enter the Jewish section, and I was worried that she was going to say something to the soldiers as they searched her bag. She kept her cool, but the internal struggle she was going through was obvious. I offered to wait with her instead of going inside, but she refused.

So we went inside, and saw lots of people praying – exactly the same as what we saw on the Muslim side . . . The irony of this conflict is just ridiculous sometimes. Next we walked through the section of the old city where the settlers lived. It was like a ghost town. Most of the homes are owned by Arabs who left after years of harassment and killings, although many of them refuse to sell their homes. It doesn’t really matter, settlers just move into the ones that they want. Our guide was very nervous (he is a Palestinian Christian) and we moved quickly through this part of the city. At one point we saw a group of Palestinian kids coming home from school. They are escorted to and from school by Christian Peacekeepers to try and protect them from the settlers and the soldiers.

After leaving the Old City we stopped at a restaurant to grab some shawerma and we heard that there had been shooting in the Old City, probably less than 5 minutes after we left. We finished our meal, and the rest of the group headed out to visit the Hebron Glass Factory, but I split off to talk to our guide some more and have my own adventure on the way home, which I talked about in an earlier entry.

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