A panel of walls on either side of the road shielded our 28 tonne bulletproof bus as it rumbled down Highway 60 towards Hebron. “Those are anti-sniper walls. They were built in the 2000s during the 2nd Intifada to shield from Palestinian snipers, ” explained Eliyahu McLean, our orthodox Jewish guide, who had been born and raised in Hawaii and California and then had moved to Israel and now lived by the Gaza border.
The husband and I were on a unique tour that offered the chance to hear both the Israeli and Palestinian narratives of Hebron – the largest city in the West Bank. Eliyahu, our guide for the Jewish part of the tour had met us that morning in Jerusalem.
Hebron occupies a central position in the religious history of Judaism, Christianity and Islam because of its association with Abraham. It is ranked the second-holiest city after Jerusalem by Judaism. Muslims, who know it as Al Khalil, regard it as one of the four holy cities. Both Israel and Palestine lay claim to this ancient land.
In 1997, to establish peace between warring nations, Benjamin Netanyahu and Yasser Arafat reached an agreement on Hebron. The city was divided into 2 – H1 controlled by Palestine; and H2 controlled by Israel. As these boundaries were drawn, many Palestinians found that they were now in H2. The ones who could afford to, took flight and moved out. The rest remained. Today, H2 is home to 30,000 Palestinians and about 700 Israelis.
Temple of the Patriarch
The most revered structure in Hebron and a lightning rod for conflicts, is the Cave of the Patriarchs or the Cave of Machpelah or the Ibrahimi Mosque. “Abraham is called Ibrahim Al Khilal in the Quran” , said Eliyahu, as we sat under an olive tree gazing at the temple in the distance.
According to the Bible, Abraham purchased the Machpelah Cave as a burial ground for his wife Sarah. This is the first commercial transaction mentioned in the Bible and the oldest instance of Jewish land holding in Israel. The Bible says Abraham and Sara, Issac and Rebecca, Jacob and Leah are buried here . According to the Torah, Abraham bought this land because he believed that Adam and Eve were buried here and that this was the entrance to the Garden of Eden.
History has seen this site being reclaimed by each religion multiple times through the centuries.
- Between 31–4 BCE, the Jewish king Herod built a large, rectangular enclosure over the cave to commemorate the site for his subjects
- Under the Byzantine Christian era, this became a pilgrimage site for Christians
- Between 600 – 650 AD, the site was under the control of Arab Muslims and became a mosque
- In 1100 AD, the Crusaders captured the structure and converted it into a Church
- In 1188 AD, Saladin conquered the area and converted the structure into a mosque
- During the subsequent Mamluk and Ottoman era, the structure was renovated and restored multiple times. Jews were no longer allowed entry into the temple
- In 1917, after the first World War, the Ottoman empire was broken up and the British occupied Hebron. Non – Muslims were still not allowed into the temple
- In the 1948 Arab – Israeli war, Jordan took control of Hebron
- In 1967, after the Six Day War, Israeli reclaimed Hebron. After 700 years, Jews were finally allowed entry again into the temple
- In 1994, a US born, Israeli settler entered the temple during Ramadan and opened fire at Muslim worshipers killing 29 and injuring hundreds. Fearing large scale violence and riots, the Israeli army clamped down on the town with curfews. Subsequently, the temple was sectioned into 2 – one for the Muslims and the other for the Jews.
Today, hostilities remain and the temple is divided into a mosque and a synagogue. Jews cannot enter the mosque. Muslims cannot enter the synagogue. Both religions do not intermingle as they enter the site through separate entrances. Armed soldiers stand outside and check IDs.
Eliyahu introduced us to our Palestinian guide, Mohammed Mohtaseb, who had spent all his life in H2 – the Israeli controlled side of Hebron. He beckoned for us to follow him through a security checkpoint and into the Ibrahimi Mosque.
Jasmine, our translator and guide in the mosque, offered me a hijab and then took us into the holy site. She pointed out the cenotaphs for the grave of Abraham, the beautiful architecture on the ceilings and the various structures that had been added over the centuries. She finally pointed out a large, flower shaped stone through which we could see lamps flickering. Behind this lay the entrance to the original cave where the Patriarchs and Matriarchs are believed to be buried.
It was time for daily prayers and as the worshipers started congregating, she quickly ushered us out.
At lunchtime, Mohammed invited us into his house where his wife had prepared a delicious meal of Maqluba – chicken and fried vegetables cooked in a bed of rice. As we dug into our steaming plates of rice, he painted a vivid picture of the stark life in H2.
In H2, Palestinians and Israelis coexist uneasily with sporadic acts of violence disrupting the thin veneer of peace. Though they live on the same land, their lives are governed by different rules. Palestinians are governed by military rule while Israelis by a civilian one. Palestinian movement is severely restricted by military checkpoints secured with heavy artillery at every major intersection. To reach school, children routinely make their way past these checkpoints and grow up acclimatized to violence and random acts of aggression.
After lunch, Mohammed led us to a souq where Palestinian merchants sold their wares of scarves, pottery, spices and ceramics. As we sipped piping hot cups of coffee, they told us of how Al Shuhada street – a bustling marketplace – had been shutdown and families had fled. Israeli settlers were being offered financial incentives to settle down in Hebron, a land they had no ties to. The situation is so complicated that in certain sections, settlers occupy buildings over the souq. There now runs a wire net covering the roof of the souq, separating the settlers from the merchants beneath.
Mohammed introduced us to a group of human rights activists who documented atrocities against the Palestinians by the Israeli settlers and the IDF
Finally, we entered H1 – the Palestine controlled side of Hebron and were met by a site that would have been unremarkable had it been in any other part of the world. This side of town had a bustling marketplace and honking cars. Life went on as normal and looked very different from that in H2, just a few meters away. With all of the stories of war and violence, my mind had never grasped that there could exist a normal, functioning city in Palestine.
Later that evening, we met with a Jewish settler at the Beit Hadassah. Why did she want to encroach on Palestinian land that she had no claims on?, I wanted to ask her. Cippy told us of how her family had lived in Hebron for years and probably centuries until 1929, when riots fomented by the then Mufti of Jerusalem, Hajj Amin al-Husseini, caused Jews to flee the city. About 69 Jews were killed by Arab Muslims in the city. The ones who survived had been saved by their Arab neighbors. Cippy’s grandmother was one of them. As Jewish families fled, their houses were ransacked and pillaged.
In 1967, after the Six Day War, Israel occupied Hebron and captured the West Bank from Jordan. Over the next few years, Jewish settlers started coming back to put down roots in the city from which they had fled decades ago. Cippy and her husband now live in Hebron but their life is not easy. Three years ago ,her dad, a rabbi, had been killed by a Palestinian. I asked her, “Would she ever consider leaving the city to someplace more peaceful?”
“Where would I go? This is home. This has been home to me for years and to my family for centuries.”
At dusk, we made our way back to the Cave of the Patriarchs. This time we entered the synagogue. The husband was handed a kippah before Eliyahu led us in. As I marveled at the architecture, I noticed a window in front of which a few Jews prayed in silence. As I peered into the window, I realized that I had seen this before. This was the cenotaph of Abraham’s grave that I had seen earlier in the afternoon with Jasmine. I noticed the window that opened in from the Muslim side. A thick shield of clear, bulletproof glass stood in between.
Here are 2 religions worshiping the same God – the God of Abraham – but mired in violent conflict over centuries. Even as they prayed to the same Being, thick bulletproof glass stood in between to prevent their hatred from killing each other.
Exodus 3: 15 God also said to Moses, “Say this to the people of Israel: ‘The Lord, the God of your fathers, the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob, has sent me to you.’ This is my name forever, and thus I am to be remembered throughout all generations.
Surah Al-Baqarah 2: 133 Or were you witnesses when death approached Jacob, when he said to his sons, “What will you worship after me?” They said, “We will worship your God and the God of your fathers, Abraham and Ishmael and Isaac – one God. And we are Muslims [in submission] to Him.”
Matthew 22:32 I am the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob’? He is not the God of the dead but of the living.”