The Tomb of the Patriarchs.
The city of Hebron in the occupied West Bank is a pretty bizarre place at the best of times. But the recent Passover festival held by Jewish settlers living on the Palestinian land was easily among the most surreal things I've seen in a region that seems to thrive on weird shit.
The collective psychosis in Hebron stems from a centuries-old ownership dispute over the Tomb of the Patriarchs, known as the Ibrahimi Mosque to Muslims and the Cave of Machpela to Jews. The tomb is the supposed burial place of Abraham/Avraham/Ibrahim, the founding father of Islam, Judaism and, therefore, Christianity. I don't subscribe to any of those, but – despite the fact the founder of three of the world's largest religions surely has enough love to go around – I guess it's understandable to fight over access to your spiritual father's grave.
Hebron's current state of madness, however, has less to do with religious craziness and more to do with ethnic segregation. Hebron is the only place in the West Bank where Israeli settlers live directly inside a Palestinian city. To deal with the minor awkwardness that presents, it's been divided into two sectors – one controlled by the Israeli military, the other by the Palestinian Authority (PA).
The proportions of settlers, Palestinians and Israeli soldiers in the Israeli-controlled old city are totally unbelievable, in the sense that I probably wouldn't believe it if I hadn't seen it for myself. There are around 500 Israeli settlers and 30,000 Palestinians, with 2,000 Israeli soldiers milling about to keep them in line.
The Tomb of the Patriarchs itself is also divided into a Muslim half and a Jewish half, because, as you might expect, there are those who refuse to play nice. In 1994, an American settler named Baruch Goldstein decided to play spectacularly un-nice and is now immortalised on Murderpedia for his massacre of 29 Palestinians in the Muslim side of the tomb. That, plus the Second Intifada, set the stage for the head-spinning cluster-fuck that is today's Hebron.
The Israeli military, in a bid to protect settlers from Palestinian reprisal for the massacre, forced thousands of Palestinians from their homes and shut down more than three-quarters of Palestinian businesses in the old city. They also did a bunch of stuff seemingly designed to make sure everybody uses the word "apartheid" when talking about the city, like building a giant wall down the middle of a main street and forcing Palestinians to use the unpaved side of the road – even officially referring to it as the "separation policy".
The settlers, of course, see this as a necessity if Israel is to survive. As settler leader David Wilder explains, "If we do not live and populate these areas, they will be overrun by our enemy, whose goal is to conquer the entire State of Israel." All of the Palestinians I've spoken to in Hebron happen to have more modest goals, like, say, getting their children to school without having rocks thrown at them by settlers.
A friend of mine who writes for a pro-Palestine propaganda outlet invited me to come with her to see what was going on for the settlers' Passover festival in the old city. As we arrived by public taxi-van in the Palestinian-controlled area of the city, everything was quiet. We made our way down to the Israeli-controlled old city, passing through a checkpoint manned by a couple of bored-looking teenage soldiers. Common graffiti around Hebron screams, "Free Ghost Town," an appropriate name for the eerily empty old city with its soldered-shut storefronts and vacant houses.
The streets were lined with dozens of tour buses, as people had bussed in from all over Israel to celebrate Passover with the ghost of their religion's founder. We stopped to chat with a guy from one of the several international organisations based in Hebron to "observe" the situation – or, as it works in practice, do absolutely nothing while settler violence gets continually worse and progressively more intense clashes break out between Palestinian youth and Israeli soldiers.
He warned us we would never get in to the Passover celebration as the entire area was closed to everyone except practicing Jews. I took this warning as a challenge and made a bee-line for the Tomb of the Patriarchs.
Israeli Jews praying at the Cave of the Patriarchs.
As we approached the shut-down area (which included the entire Muslim side of the tomb, closed to Palestinians for two full days due to Passover), a soldier came running out from a little hut next to a checkpoint.
"Whoa, whoa, whoa, where are you going?"
"The Passover celebration's this way, right?" I responded, giving him my best sincere, innocent smile.
"Ah, yes. Welcome!" he responded, smiling back with his best "OK, I've decided you're probably Jewish" grin.
"Well done," my friend whispered as we walked on, careful not to look back at the checkpoint. As far as I could tell, we were the only journalists who made it in to the Passover celebration.
The scene inside the checkpoints shocked me almost as much as the separation policy did the first time I was in Hebron. Except for all the costumes pertaining to various sects of Judaism, it was exactly like any small-town fete. They were selling candy floss and there was a bouncy castle for the kids. There seemed to be some kind of raffle going on (although I can't be sure of that because the MC was speaking in Hebrew) and people picnicked on the immaculately-manicured lawns outside the tomb's Jewish side.
While the scene was relatively picturesque, it certainly featured a higher amount of machine guns than any other fete I've been to. But even the M4-toting soldiers seemed to be happy and relaxed, enjoying the sunshine and respite from their normal duty of breaking into Palestinian homes.
As I passed through another checkpoint to get into the Tomb of the Patriarchs/Cave of Machpela, I was pulled out of line by the only outwardly irate soldier in the whole place, who had decided I looked sketchy for some reason. He asked if I was Jewish and I told him that I'm Christian, which is a lie, but I couldn't bring myself to pretend to be Jewish. I'm happy to let people assume I'm Jewish – it tends to smooth things over with the Israelis – but for some reason I instinctively draw a moral line when it comes to actively lying about it.
The soldier then started to aggressively question me about where I keep my gun. This is a common theme for me in interactions with Israeli security personnel, who always seem to think I've somehow managed to hide a full-sized machine gun on my person. After establishing I wasn't armed, the guy begrudgingly let me pass. I'd never been in the Jewish side of the tomb before, despite having visited the Muslim side enough times to know the location of every bullet hole left from the massacre by heart.
It was a good day to visit, too, as the tomb was packed to the brim with a multinational crowd of Passover celebrants dressed in an impressive variety of outlandish religious regalia. Inside, I was struck by the difference between the run down Muslim half and the pristine Jewish side of the tomb, with its spacious, meticulously clean courtyard.
Unable to understand what was going on in the Hebrew religious service, I made my way back outside with my friend and we decided to see what was happening in the Palestinian side of the old city.
What we found was a slow-burning fight between Israeli border police and a mob of about 150 Palestinian stone-throwers. The crowd wasn't pissed off at the Passover celebration per se, but rather at the fact that the settlers had organised tours of the Palestinian area, and every half hour or so a group of 50 settlers and tourists were escorted by Israeli soldiers into the heart of Palestinian Hebron.
This is explicitly against the rules agreed to by Israel itself under the Oslo Accords, which bar Israeli soldiers (not to mention Israeli citizens) from entering areas under Palestinian Authority rule. It's also an invasion of sovereign territory considering that Palestine is now recognised as a state.
The border police had borrowed two tour buses to block off the street the settler tours were walking along. The tour bus drivers, waiting in their buses, looked bored and were dozing off as stones bounced off their windows. The soldiers pushed the demonstrators back to about two blocks away and kept them at bay with periodic barrages of rubber bullets.
I stood a few metres away from the soldiers as they shot at the crowd, and hung out with a motley crew of international activists and international observers. The observers looked terrified, and I overheard one woman repeatedly begging her colleagues to let her go back to the office. It occurred to me that if you're in Hebron to "observe", you might want to stick around to observe the border police shooting at people. But I'm not an observer, so I suppose it's not my call to make.
One of the international activists, apparently completely ignorant of what's going on in Palestine, asked me if clashes were common and if anyone was ever hurt. "Every day," I told him, wondering how he'd managed to miss the constant barrage of gunfire a few metres away.
The Israeli tour buses taking tourists around Palestinian Hebron.
In an apparent bid to compete in the Olympics of oddity that is Hebron, the activist asked if I would film him dancing. Too stunned by the request to refuse, I took his video camera and recorded him spinning in a circle and waving his arms while Israeli border police shot rubber bullets at Palestinians in the background. A Palestinian guy started screaming at him for his idiocy while he was dancing around, which I felt was a pretty appropriate response.
A woman on the settler tour flashed the peace sign at me with a huge grin on her face, and my propagandist friend and I decided to see where the settlers were going, so walked down a parallel side street until we found a place where we could watch the tour going by. I walked down a little alley, poked my head out and was greeted by a group of Israeli soldiers who immediately trained their guns on me, something I'm still not that accustomed to, despite the fact it happens roughly once a week.
We decided to head home after that, figuring that nothing much else was going to happen – an intuition that turned out to be correct.
It was only on the way out of town that it started to really sink in just how bizarre the whole scene had been. The strangest thing was how normal everyone seemed to think it was. The settlers obviously felt this was appropriate behaviour, and the tourists from other parts of Israel (presumably slightly less extremist than the settlers actually living in Hebron) were just enjoying the sunshine as if people weren't being shot at 500 metres away. They probably didn't even notice a couple of their tour buses being borrowed for military use while they were eating candy floss.
But even the Palestinians were going about their day like nothing was wrong. Right around the corner from the clashes, visible from where the bus-barricades were parked, life in Hebron went on like any other day. Dozens of taxis crowded the streets and people kept selling socks – just another day in Apartheid City.
And I always thought Passover was supposed to be about eating Matzah.
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