Hebron - microcosm of conflict and distrust

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The first time I visited Hebron it was late at night and tempers were flaring. A group of Jewish settlers had barricaded themselves inside Palestinian shops and were refusing to move.
by PAULA SLIER | Jul 13, 2017

The army was off to one side from where soldiers were watching the scene with guarded indifference. Some were standing stone-faced while others were sitting inside their tanks. A religious Jewish woman in her thirties was rocking an infant on her lap inside one of the stoned shops that had been converted into modest living quarters: a rug covered most of the floor where children, their tzitzit peeping out from under their shirts, were playing with plastic toys; a small kerosene stove stood on a broken table in the corner and a bed seemed to be groaning under piles of crumpled blankets and clothes. There wasn’t a Palestinian around.

Only in the coming months and years did I meet the Palestinian residents of Hebron. And for every heartfelt story a Jewish resident of the city shared with me, there was an equally heartfelt one from the Palestinian side.

Tempers are now running high again after the United Nations cultural agency, Unesco, ruled last week that the Old City of Hebron was a Palestinian world heritage site. In a secret ballot, 12 countries voted in favour, three voted against and six abstained. The ruling also puts Hebron on Unesco’s “in danger” list.

The largest city in the West Bank, Hebron is home to more than 150 000 Palestinians. Around 700 settlers live in its Old City, a place that has special significance for both Jews and Muslims.

It is Judaism’s second holiest site and the tombs of the Patriarchs and their wives (Abraham, Sarah, Isaac, Rebecca, Jacob and Leah) are here. But it is also the third-holiest site to Muslims after Mecca and Medina, as Abraham and his son Ishmael are revered prophets of Islam. 

Every time I tour the burial site, I am struck by Hebrew being spoken around me while at the other far side of the room, one hears Arabic. To enter from the Jewish side, you need to climb a flight of stairs manned by Israeli soldiers; to enter the same tomb from the Palestinian side, you enter through a completely different Israeli checkpoint in the Muslim quarter. You cannot cross from one side to the other.

This resolution was a long time coming. Six years ago, Unesco became the first UN agency to grant Palestinians full membership. While largely symbolic, this and other moves no doubt help Palestinians in their push for statehood.

Hebron is the third Palestinian city to be listed as a World Heritage site after Bethlehem and the farming village of Battir. Seventeen more are in the pipeline.

It points to a growing global recognition of Palestinian heritage and history that in turn deepens the Palestinian claim to self-determination. No surprise then that Palestinians see this Unesco ruling as a victory, while Israelis are slamming it as shameful and offensive.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has questioned how the Jewish connection to the city can be doubted; he's planning to cut $1 million from the membership fees Jerusalem pays the world body.

Israelis are not known for their fondness of the United Nations and its institutions. Ask most Israelis what they think and they’ll say this move was to be expected - the UN is, and always has, been biased against them, they insist.

There’s a popular expression in Israel, “oom-shmoom” - “Oom” meaning “UN” in Hebrew; “shmoom” meaning “zero” - so in other words, the world body is zero or meaningless.

Former Israeli Prime Minister David Ben-Gurion coined the term when questioned over whether or not the UN had established the State of Israel.

He said at the time: “No, no, no. Only the daring of the Jews created the state, and not any oom-shmoom resolution.”

I meet Palestinian, Haj Abu Jousef Aisha, walking slowly and carefully over the ancient cobbled stones aided by his walking stick. His home is the only Arab house remaining in the Tel Rumeida neighbourhood of Hebron’s Old City.

He lives on one side of the street; across him are settlers who he watches closely through four security cameras booming video into his living room. His family is afraid to visit him, he says, because the settlers throw stones and eggs at them. No Palestinian vehicles are allowed to drive down the road in front of his house.

“The Israelis say they closed the road because they are afraid that somebody will drive here with bombs,” he says to me with a wistful smile. “I ask them how am I supposed to get to my home if not by car. They say I can buy a donkey. I told them that people have gone to the moon and you want me to buy a donkey!”

Although the Jewish quarter is on the other side of the street, I have to leave Palestinian Hebron and re-enter from the Jewish side to arrive back in Abu Aishi’s street - just on the other side.

“This site was off limits for Jews and Christians for 700 years,” David Wilder, the spokesperson for the Hebron Jewish community tells me. “Only after we came back can everybody who wants access to this holy site, go and worship here.”

He introduces me to an American-born woman whose father was killed in his home in the city. A nearby museum pays tribute to 67 Jews murdered in 1929 by incensed Arabs. Scores were seriously wounded or maimed. 

I meet two families who share the same wall - in the Palestinian home it’s part of the staircase; in the Jewish home it’s part of the outside garden - and yet, although neighbours, they’ve never met each other, or particularly want to.

The Unesco resolution won’t change the reality of life in Hebron. The city is a microcosm of the conflict and the distrust of two people living in the same land. If Ben-Gurion was alive today, he’d surely be saying “oom-shmoom”. 

Paula Slier is the Middle East Bureau Chief of RT, the founder and CEO of NewshoundMedia and the inaugural winner of the Europcar Woman in Leadership Award of the South African Absa Jewish Achievers.




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