Hani Abuhaikal and Walid Halawah are each trying to build a future for Hebron following different paths. Yet each path offers a glimmer of hope in this place that embodies the deep animosity between Palestinians and Israelis who battle over the major city in the southern part of the West Bank.
We call it "the city of conflict," Walid told us -- a sharp difference from Bethlehem's motto of "City of Peace."
This division between the children of Abraham plays out in the shadows of the place honored by both Muslims and Jews as the burial site of Abraham and his wife, Sara, as well as Isaac and Rachel, Jacob and Leah. Even here, at this holy site -- one part mosque, one part synagogue -- Muslims and Jews enter the building over the Cave of the Patriarchs from different sides, at different times, through different security systems. They are kept apart at the tomb of their spiritual ancestor.
This mosque was the site of a massacre that is etched deep in the consciousness of the Muslims here. It was on Feb. 25, 1994, that an Israeli settler, Baruch Goldstein, entered the mosque during dawn prayers and strafed the worshippers with bullets from a submachine gun. He killed 29 of them.
But embedded in Jewish consciousness is another massacre 65 years earlier, when a group of Arabs in Hebron killed 67 Jewish residents and burned synagogues and homes. Other Arabs there provided shelter for the 450 Jews fleeing the violence. A city of conflict indeed.
Our guide through Hebron on Oct. 30 was Michael Hiller, who just finished a three-month tour there with the Ecumenical Accompaniment Programme in Palestine and Israel (EAPPI), a project of the World Council of Churches. EAPPI volunteers from around the world serve as observers at the hot spots in cities like Hebron. He was sent here by the Evangelical Church of Southwest Germany.
He described Hebron to us -- the biggest city in the West Bank, with a population in the city estimated at about 200,000, in the region of somewhere around 650,000. It is the commercial center of the West Bank, tracing its history back nearly 6,000 years, located on the pilgrimage route to Mecca for Muslims, on the trade route between Damascus, Syrian and Cairo, Egypt. It is a predominantly Muslim city, with virtually Palestinian Christians presence here.
But there are six Israeli settlements that have grown up here since 1970, including one in the central vegetable market. Hiller reminded us that under international law, it is illegal for an occupying power to settle land in the occupied region. Yet that is precisely what has happened here as well as at many other places in the West Bank.
We stood with Michael at one of the borders between the two political regions in the city -- H1, which is for Palestinians, and H2, which is called a closed military zone -- the areas where the Israeli settlers live. But even in the H2 zone, Hiller told us, there are 40,000 Palestinians. There are about 500 Israelis there, with about 1,500 Israeli soldiers providing security to them and controlling he comings and goings of the Palestinians.
Here as in so many other places in the West Bank, the Israeli control system of check points forces Palestinians to take circuitous routes to work and to school. One particularly striking example of the impact of this control occurred at an intersection near the Ibrahimi Mosque. This street is within the controlled zone and both Palestinians residents and Israeli settlers use it. The Palestinians must approach the checkpoint on the left side of a concrete barrier that runs along one part of the street. The Israelis and international visitors like us may use the main part of the street. They are then funneled into the separate entrances to the mosque, where Palestinians must go through three security checkpoints. By the time he sets inside, Walid Halawah told us, he feels like "I'm not entering a holy place. I'm entering an Israeli military zone."
At that check point near the mosque, there is an Israeli community center named after Yosef Yitzhak Gutnik, a wealthy Australian who has provided significant financial support for the Israeli settlements in Hebron. Loudspeakers on the roof blast Israeli music all day long, disrupting the call to prayer from the mosque and making life miserable for the three Palestinian merchants at that checkpoint as well as the Palestinians walking to the mosque for prayers.
The Palestinians see all this as a concerted efforts to push them out of central Hebron, to let the Israelis create a large area that connects all of their settlements into a contiguous community. Because of the proximity of Israeli settlers and Palestinian residents along with the military control exerted by the Israeli army, tension is always high here.
The settlers in Hebron, a majority of whom come from the U.S. and Europe, have a reputation for being particularly aggressive. The settlers in the downtown area toss their garbage down on the vegetable market, which is now protected by nets that catch the garbage (see photo above). There are many verbal confrontations.
The once thriving commercial area along Al Shuhada Street is now block after block of closed stores, some with Stars of David painted on the doors signifying the settlers intent to claim them.
Hebron -- a city of conflict in desperate need of the hopeful initiatives of people like Hani Abuhaikal and Walid Halawah.