Before visiting Hebron, I had no idea what to expect - even after living in Ramallah for 2 months. But I was very curious to find out about the Israeli settlement in the heart of the old city, and why the situation necessitated over 1,000 Israeli soldiers to protect around 500 settlers.
Hebron is a 1.5hr drive south of Ramallah without traffic, passing close to Jerusalem, Bethlehem, and a lot of settlements.
From a commercial perspective, Hebron is known for it's ceramics, old glass-blowing factories and fried aubergines. It is also the place of the last Palestinian "Keffiyeh" factory, the cloth made famous by Arafat and an international symbol of Palestinian solidarity. Most Keffiyehs these days are made in China. This was the first stop on our day trip.
The first response upon entering the Kuffieh (Hirbawi family) factory was that it was amazingly noisy! How the people can work in there without noise-cancelling headphones is a mystery to me. One person we spoke to had worked at the factory for over 40 years and could now even sleep with the looms running... and apparently he still hears well, at least well enough to have a conversation with us.
Other things we found out about, are that the looms are from Japan, the thread is imported from India and it takes 30 minutes for the loom to make enough cloth for one Kuffiyeh. I am not a big fan of wearing the traditional Kuffiyeh myself, but luckily they have diversified so there are lots of different colours and designs on offer now, so I can show my solidarity that way. Each scarf cost £4 factory direct and around double that if bought at the markets. And apparently Abbas, Palestine's President, still gifts scarves from this factory to important visitors.
Next stop was the ceramics factory / workshop, with a group of very focussed men engaged in painting traditional patterns onto bowls, tiles, mugs, ashtrays etc. I even got to try my hand at drawing the outline on a lid and really feel sorry for the person that ends up with my wonky design as their wedding memento.
And now "schluss mit Lustig", which in German means "end of funny". Onto the more serious stuff.
We received a very informative tour from a representative of a group called "Youth Against Settlements". Of course it is extremely complicated, but in a nutshell... With the support and protection of the Israeli army, fundamentalist jewish settlers have taken over parts of the old city in Hebron, which they claim were theirs in the early 20th century. The resulting situation involves road blocks, the closure of shops and even an entire street, frequent curfews and constant harrassment of Palestinians by the settlers and Israeli soldiers. It is very sad and disturbing on many levels.
Historically, Jews have lived in Hebron, and the Palestinians claim that they were always part of the community. The settlers and soldiers there today arrived from 1967 onwards, and claim supremacy over the land that was given to them by god.
To divide the settlers from the Palestinians, the Israeli army has closed off a number of roads in the historic Old Town, which has killed many of the businesses in the area and severely restricts movement across the city. I can't add captions to the photos, but if I could, it would be "Who came first - the Jews or the Palestinians?". The photo on the left is what used to be the chicken market!
For shop owners in the parts that have not been closed, a really weird situation results, in which settlers actually live above the souk and regularly harrass the shop owners below - so much so that a protective fence has had to be installed in some areas, to protect those in the souk from the stones and trash that the settlers like throwing onto them. The barrier does not stop everything though... and you can probably imagine what liquid is thrown from the windows. There are over 100 barriers in the old town, including many army watch towers. The photo on the right is a magnification of what you can see from the souk on the left photo.
One reason behind the settlers wanting to be in Hebron is the belief that three prophets and their wives are buried underneath what used to be a mosque, but what is now both a mosque and a synagogue. A settler named Goldstein, massacred over 30 Palestinians during their prayers one morning in 1994, which closed the mosque for a while - when it re-opened it had been divided into a synagogue and a mosque. Ironically, the massacre also meant that the settlers sought more protection from the Israeli army, while at the same time building a statue in Goldstein's honour. We were not able to see this statue however a different political tour operated by former Israeli soldiers, Breaking the Silence, does go to see it in a nearby settlement.
Getting to the mosque is an experience in itself, and you can see from the photos the extent to which the Israelis have entrenched themselves in what was once a bustling city centre, destroying houses to make way for new roads that only they can use.
As mentioned above, Israel has closed off an entire street, Al Shuhada Street, which now only the settlers can use. Here some photos of what this looks like, including a very disturbing picture of a young boy no older than 12 who was so proud of his fake machine gun and to be able to hang out with the soldiers. Hypocritical Israelis frequently tell us that "peace will only come when Palestinians stop teaching their children to hate jews"...
To finish on a more positive note, I bumped into a very lovely artist, Gail Gosschalk who was drawing a picture of the activity around the mosque. She will be showing her work at an exhibition in Jerusalem in September, which I encourage everyone to visit. There may even be some pics from Ramallah on display!