Getting into Israel was surprisingly easy, as was the bordercrossing to the West Bank. Norwegian passports seem to make a strong currency here, and with no mention of our plans to go to the occupied territories, the border police seemed to have little interest in us. In a café in Bethlehem, I am soon to be reminded that I’m among the privileged.
Kristel, a woman in her thirties, has invited us for a real Palestinian breakfast. Born in the Netherlands, she now lives in East Jerusalem, pregnant with her first child together with Israeli Palestinian Tariq. Every day they drive from Jerusalem to the West Bank, to run Singer Café, a European style café where they serve ‘anything but Arabic coffee’. The table is set with small plates, jars and baskets full of delicious breads, cheeses, jams and pâtés of local produce. Breakfast in Palestine is indeed not for the continental smallmouth, and is the perfect occasion to get to know one another.
‘It was a nightmare to get our marriage approved’, Kristel tells us while pouring hot water over the tealeaves. ‘Tariq is born in Israel. However, his Israeli ID card states that his nationality is “Arab”, not “Israeli” as you would have thought. We had to explain quite a lot about the laws here in order for our marriage to be formally accepted.’
The Israeli categorization of citizens into ethnic groups is one of the reasons why many critics have made parallels to the South African apartheid regime. In fact, Tariq’s ID doesn’t even state that he’s an Israeli ‘citizen’, but rather a ‘permanent resident’. The difference may seem subtle, but in reality it means that if Tariq and Kristel choose to move to the West Bank to get closer to their job, they can never go back to Jerusalem. Neither can their unborn daughter.
There’s many things to talk about and so much to learn, but with half of our breakfast feast still on the table, we are called out in the street by our taxi driver. He’ll be taking us to Hebron, the largest city in the West Bank, and also one of the ugliest sites of the occupation.
On our way to Hebron we pass by olive groves, farmlands and small villages. The landscape is breathtakingly beautiful, with dry, deep valleys and rolling green hills under a clear blue sky. What completely engulfs my attention however, is the numerous and fearful watchtowers seemingly keeping an eye on every inch of the land from within their barbed-wire-and-concrete compounds. Every five minutes we pass by an Israeli settlement, all thoroughly fenced-in and with a weirdly homogeneous look to the houses when compared to the more disorganised Palestinian villages scattered throughout the land. To distinguish them is easy: every Palestinian house sports a black water tank on top of it, saving water from the pipes which open only once every second week. The Israeli houses need no tank, as they have constant access to water.
Hebron is a city of 250 000 people and one of the oldest in the whole World. Home to the tomb of Abraham, it is a holy city to both Christianity, Judaism and Islam. Abraham’s tomb lies at the heart of Hebron, and at the heart of the conflict here. The tomb has historically served as a place of worship for all three religions, but also staged numerous bloody conflicts. Following the infamous Goldstein massacre in 1994, when the fanatical Jewish settler Baruch Goldstein killed 29 Muslim worshippers during prayer, the building has been divided in two: one side is a Mosque, the other a Synagogue. Between them is wooden wall so thin that one can easily hear footsteps and people talking on the other side.
I’m amazed that a divide between two cultures can be so thin, so symbolic, and yet so heavily guarded by fences, barbed wire and machine guns at each entrance. But the threadlike borders of Abraham’s tomb is nothing compared to the intricate division of the city itself. As we walk towards the city centre, our guide Ala navigates with startling precision to avoid streets and corners where Arabs have been banished. Without him, we would easily walk ourselves into trouble.
Around 500 settlers live in Hebron, driven by a desire to live as close to the holy place as possible. Protected by 1200 soldiers, the Israelis of Hebron enjoy a secure road connection to Jerusalem and safe passage from the settlements to the synagogue at Abraham’s tomb. To ensure this, the Israeli Defense Forces have closed down entire streets, deported whole neighbourhoods, erected road blockages, fences, control posts and watchtowers throughout the whole city. Since year 2000, 1829 Palestinian shops in this area have closed down due to military orders. The result: an urban desert, sterilized from Palestinian life; A barren wasteland at what used to be the beating heart of a city.
‘Look up’ says Ala, pointing towards the narrow street ahead of us. Here the settlers have colonised the upper floor of the buildings, and regularly attack Palestinians below by throwing things out of the windows. Palestinian shopkeepers have spanned out netting above them for protection. ‘The settlers will every now and then throw rubbish, rotten fruits and even urine down on normal passers-by. The netting helps, but not always.’ He lets his arm fall. ‘A few weeks ago, they threw a sofa’.
Climbing up onto the roof of an abandoned Palestinian house, we encounter two small children playing with chalks on the rooftop. ‘Shekel, shekel!’ they shout at me, begging for money when they realise I’m a tourist. They must be used to tourists up here, I reason, because the view is amazing.
Hebron lies underneath us, a beautiful city with stone houses filling every metre of the available space. It looks like a horizontal game of Tetris, draped in the light colours of the afternoon sun. A tiny four-step staircase separates us from yet another roof belonging to one of the Jewish settlements. ‘Two Palestinian kids were shot after passing that line’, Ala tells us. A few hundred metres away, we can see an Israeli soldier patrolling the rooftops with an machine gun over his shoulder. And he can see us. Once again, I am reminded of the many invisible borders of this land.
One of many watchtowers around Bethlehem. I get a little uneasy from the feeling of constantly being watched.
From the road you can get very close to some of the Israeli settlements. This is one of 19 settlements literally encircling Bethlehem on the West Bank.
«This is Palestine». Street art from downtown Hebron.
A barrier in front of the old shopping street, now a ‘sterilized’ area under military control. A Palestinian merchant and his son are closing down their street shop for the day.
Downtown Hebron: Shopkeepers have erected netting in the ceiling to protect bypassers from falling rubbish from the settlements above.
From the rooftop in Hebron. Ala shows us where two Palestinian kids were shot for passing the invisible border to the Jewish settlements.
Two kids playing with chalk on the rooftop in Hebron. All the Palestinian houses have a water tank on top to save the water delivered every second week. Upper right: An Israeli watchtower, making sure the children don’t come to close to the Jewish settlements.