Hebron, located in the West Bank, is the second holiest city of Judaism as well as one of the four holy cities of Islam. Split since 1997 in two sectors, one controlled by the Palestinian Authority and the other one by Israel, Hebron is one of the most troubled areas of the Middle East.
During my visit, I got the chance to visit both sides of the city with a local guide that would tell me their own view of the conflict: a Jewish settler on the Israeli side, and a local Palestinian from the other sector of the city. Find out what it is like to live in the most divided city of the Palestinian-Israeli conflict!
How to visit Hebron
Hebron is easily reached by public transport from Jerusalem's central bus station. Bus 160 goes straight to the Israeli-controlled area of the city and costs only 15.60 shekels each way (approx. €3.7). Check out my post on how to spend 4 days in Jerusalem!
If you want to go to the Palestinian side, you can take bus 21 from the Arab bus station just next to Damascus gate, which will bring you to Bethlehem bus station. From there, it will be necessary to get a collective taxi to Hebron (Al-Khalil in Arabic).
The history and current situation in Hebron are quite complex, and even though it's perfectly safe to visit on your own, I'd say it's essential to visit with a local guide to fully appreciate and understand the city.
If you're looking for a guided tour, the Hebron dual narrative tour by Abraham Tours is by far the best choice. You'll leave Jerusalem with an Israeli guide that will spend all morning with you, visiting the famous Tomb of the Patriarchs and explaining the history of the city from the perspective of a Jewish settler. The rest of the day will be spent on the Palestinian side, where you will learn about the hard situation of the local Palestinians after the city was divided and occupied by Israel. A touching and at the same time shocking experience that I will never forget!
My aim writing this post is not to express my personal political views; this post only intends to be an account of what I experienced during my tour and what I learnt from my guides: their view of the conflict and their personal stories.
Hebron, H2 - The Israeli side
Like in all Abraham tours, we left from the Abraham Hostel in Jerusalem and headed straight to the bus station. Our first guide of the day, Gabriel, was an Israeli citizen that had settled in the city of Hebron. He would take us all morning around the Israeli-controlled area of the city.
Once at the bus station, we boarded the bullet-proof bus that would bring us to Hebron. The extreme security measures were already a sign of what was to come for a visit to the most troubled city in Palestine.
Hebron, known as Al-Khalil in Arabic, is located around 30km south of Jerusalem. It's the biggest city in the West Bank (and the second biggest in the Palestinian Territories after Gaza), with a population of over 215,000 Palestinians and 500 to 800 Jewish settlers.
The religious relevance of the city comes from its association with Abraham: it's here in Hebron where the biblical Patriarchs and Matriarchs are buried. This makes Hebron the second holiest city for Judaism after Jerusalem, as well as one of the four holy cities in Islam.
After the Hebron Agreement of 1997, the city was divided into two different sectors: H1 controlled by the Palestinian Authority (about 80% of the city), and H2 controlled by Israel (about 20% of the city). For the last few decades, more and more Jews are coming to the settlements of Hebron, most of which are considered illegal by the international community.
To the United Nations and the Palestinians, Hebron and the entire West Bank belong to what will be the future State of Palestine that has been occupied by Israel since the end of the Six Day War in 1967.
However, for the Israeli government, these territories are part of the historic Jewish homeland and therefore belong to Israel, claims that aren't supported by virtually any other country. In spite of the international criticism, our guide Gabriel explained how Hebron had always belonged to the Jews, and one of the purposes of this visit with him was to prove so.
Back in the biblical times, this land used to be known as Judea and Samaria. It was here where most of the Jewish history took place and from a settlers point of view, this land belongs to the Jews. While Palestinians may consider this as an illegal occupation, for Israel getting Hebron back meant the liberation of their own historical territories.
As we walked through the streets of Hebron, it felt like being a ghost city. The H2 area is a very residential area, however, it's almost impossible to find someone on the street apart from the military. With a population of 500 Jewish settlers, Hebron has over 700 soldiers to protect them. Approximately 10,000 Palestinians also live in the H2 area.
Our guide explained how after signing the Hebron Accords in 1997, Hebron was divided, leaving Jews with access to 3% of the city. Jews were restricted to only one street, one kilometre long. In September 2000, Arabs launched the ‘Oslo War’, also known as the Second Intifada, a terror war against Hebron’s Jewish residents and visitors. Following numerous attacks and casualties, many stores on the street were closed by military orders for security reasons. Large, thriving commercial and shopping centres, off-limits to Jews, are open in the Arab part of the city.
Our guide brought us to one of the main sites of the city that proved the continuous Jewish presence in the city of Hebron: the Avraham Avinu Synagogue.
Built in 1540, it was the spiritual and religious centre of the Hebron community. In the 1929 riots, the building was burned down and almost all its contents, furniture and holy books were destroyed. After the Jordanians occupied the city in 1948, the Jewish quarter was demolished and the ruined synagogue became a garbage dump and a livestock corral. This state of affairs persisted even after the liberation of Hebron in 1967.
In 1975, Professor Benzion Tavger, a physicist who had emigrated to Israel from the Soviet Union and devoted himself to the reclamation of the Jewish sites in Hebron, began to excavate the location. One year later, the unearthing of the synagogue was authorised, finishing the reconstruction only in 1981.
The ancient and rare Torah scrolls that had been kept there and saved in the 1929 riots were returned at a later time; until then, they had been safeguarded in Jerusalem by refugees of the Sephardi community.
The next point of interest was Beit Hadassah, a building constructed in 1893 by the Jewish community of Hebron as a centre of benevolent activities and a health clinic. The building is essential to understand the history of Hebron and especially the 1929 Hebron massacre.
The massacre took place after some rumours spread that the Jews were planning to take control of the Temple Mount in Jerusalem.
During the 1929 riots, thousands of Arabs marauders assaulted their Jewish neighbours and perpetrated a ghastly massacre in which 67 Jews, including women, babies and the elderly were tortured, raped, burned and butchered. The Hasson, Castel and Gershon families were cruelly murdered.
The interior of the building has a very interesting exhibition about the massacre, including images from those times.
Our guide told us how Hebron had been home to a Jewish community for hundreds of years, but no Jews remained in Hebron after the massacre of 1929.
A short while after the massacre, the Jewish community attempted to organise a return to Hebron. In 1931, 30 families returned to Hebron. Most of them lived in two buildings next to Beit Hadassa.
Best Hadassa served as a community centre. It housed the Talmud Torah, where 30 children studied; the kindergarten, clinic and the restored synagogue. The small community lived in poverty and suffered from the hatred of their Arab neighbours. After dark, they feared to be outside.
The Jewish community of Hebron was finally uprooted in 1936. During the Arab riots, called by the Arabs “The Great Arab Revolution”, the British transferred all of the Jews of Hebron to Jerusalem. Once again, there were no Jews in the city of the Jewish forefathers.
In 1946 the Arabs of Hebron desecrated the Jewish cemetery in the city, burial place of their victims.
In 1979, a group of pioneering women and their children renewed the Jewish presence in Hebron at Beit Hadassah. In 1980, the Government of Israel authorised the establishment of a Jewish community in Hebron following a terror attack resulting in the murder of six Jews at the entrance of the building.
As we kept walking through the deserted streets, Gabriel told us about some of the horrible atrocities that had taken place in Hebron. One of them was the story of Gadi and Dina Levi, a couple murdered by a Palestinian terrorist on May 17th, 2003.
On Shabbat afternoon, Gadi and Dian Levi, a couple expecting the birth of their first child, were on their way to pray at the Cave of the Patriarchs and Matriarchs. Like any other Shabbat, children were playing at the local playground.
A terrorist, wearing an explosive belt, crossed the street on his way to blow up the children. A soldier shouted for him to stop and the terrorist decided to change his target: he jumped on Gadi and Dina and activated the explosive. The couple was murdered by a bomb that was designed to kill dozens of children.
We also learnt about the murder of Shalhevet Pass, a shooting attack in which a Palestinian sniper killed a ten-month-old Israeli infant.
On March 26, 2011, Shalhevet parents were walking with her from a parking lot to their family house. A Palestinian sniper, hidden on the opposite hill, targeted and fired to the baby's head, killing her instantly. When her mother heard the shots and tried to protect the baby, it was already too late.
Some Palestinian newspapers defended that the shooting was a lie and that the mother had killed her own baby.
With the entire group very heavy in mood, Gabriel introduced us to one of the settlers that lives in Hebron but defend a different idea to solve the conflict.
He was an international activist that belonged to a group defending the idea of an alternative peace process; they didn't really believe in a double state solution. He believes in the right of Israel to take control over the entire Holy Land, including the current Palestinian territories. Palestinians should be given certain permissions to stay in the land, but without any voting rights, similar to the system put in place in Japan for foreign residents. Only when they prove to be loyal to the State of Israel and take part in the military service, then they should receive the Israeli citizenship.
When asked why so many Jewish settlers came from all over the world to Hebron in spite of the risk and violence, he had no doubt: some of the most important figures of Judaism are buried in Hebron. Just like Jerusalem and Rome are crucial for Christians or Mecca and Medina to Muslims, Hebron is a key piece of Judaism. For the Jews, getting back Hebron means recovering the cradle of their religion.
Personally, I found his views a bit shocking, but some may say that it can be somewhat understood after hearing about the horrible events that had taken place in the city of Hebron, many of them caused by Palestinians.
Our guide's view was a bit more moderate. He explained how Palestine was the name given by the Romans to what was always called Judea and Samaria. Back then, Israelis were also called Palestinians, and Arabs and Jews lived together for centuries. Arabs weren't nationalists; they just saw themselves as Arabs. After the arrival of European Jewish running away from the Holocaust, the Palestinian identity started to grow.
In spite of today's conflict, the situation used to be quite different. During the riots in 1929, after the Arabs killed 67 Jews, the Jewish security forces came to Hebron and locals were ordered to fight the Arabs. However, most of these Arabs were their own neighbours and friends, so many local Jews refused to fight them and ended up expelling the security forces. Even in 1967, after the Six Day War, many Arabs celebrated on the streets with the Israeli flag, most likely due to the Jordan repression.
Our guide believed that whatever the solution may be to resolve the conflict, it will be necessary to restore this coexistence.
After a small walk uphill, Gabriel brought us to the top of a building with great views of the city.
Our last stop in the Israeli controlled area of Hebron was the imposing Cave of the Patriarchs, one of the most sacred sites of Judaism.
According to the tradition, the main patriarchs and matriarchs of the monotheistic religions are buried here in double tombs: Abraham and Sarah, Isaac and Rebecca; and Jacob and Leah.
Abraham is considered the founder of the three monotheistic religions and patriarch of the Jews through his son Isaac. From his other son, Ismael, descend the Arabs and therefore the Islamic religion, making this shrine a holy place for both Jews and Muslims alike.
The building is divided into two different sections: two-fifths belong to the Jews, and the remaining three-fifths belong to the Muslims. The mosque and the synagogue are separated by a bulletproof glass.
The Cave of the Patriarchs is the oldest shrine in the world: the original building was built by Herod, and it was later transformed into a church. Along the centuries it became a mosque, then another church, and once again a mosque after the Ottoman invasion.
Hebron, H1 - The Palestinian side
The second part of the day took place on the Palestinian side of Hebron. After all the horrible stories that we had heard on the Israeli side, I was curious to hear the other side of the conflict. Our guide brought us to the checkpoint and left us there with the Palestinian guide; as an Israeli citizen, he wasn't allowed to cross into the H1 area of Hebron.
I was quite surprised when I met our guide. Afnan was a young Palestinian woman in his 20s and one of the sweetest persons that I met during my trip. She studied English Language and Literature in Hebron's University and she came with one of her friends from college that also wanted to become a guide.
I was particularly touched when she told me her dream was to study in Spain and learn Spanish there. However, as a Palestinian citizen, getting a permit to travel abroad is virtually impossible unless you go through endless bureaucracy, something that not everybody can afford. That made me realise that something that for me would be as simple as going online and buying a plane ticket is not reachable by everyone just because of where you're born.
We headed straight to the Palestinian side of the Cave of the Patriarchs, known by Muslims as Ibrahimi Mosque, or Mosque of Abraham.
The part used as a Mosque looks considerably bigger on the inside than the synagogue, however, it is actually a bit smaller. The Jewish area also includes the open area and courtyards, making the area controlled by Israel one fifth bigger.
The building contains two cenotaphs dedicated to Rebecca and Isaac, the son of Abraham and his wife, with a mihrab in the middle. The cenotaphs are only a memorial, as the real tombs are located in a cave 16 metres below.
The big platform on the wall, which is currently used for the Friday speech, was gifted by Saladin when he recovered the city of Hebron after expelling the Crusaders and turning the building into a mosque.
The Palestinian side of the conflict is not short in stories and terrible acts that were committed by the Israelis.
On February 25, 1994, an American-Israeli member of a far-right movement opened fire on a larger number of Palestinian worshippers that were praying inside the mosque. In the attack, known as the Ibrahimi Mosque massacre, 29 died and 125 were wounded.
Our guide told us how Israel put in place a curfew of 24 hours after the attack that affected only the Palestinians, even though the killer was actually an Israeli settler. Protests spread across the West Bank after this incident, and hundreds of Palestinians were killed during these demonstrations.
After the massacre, the city of Hebron was filled with checkpoints in pretty much every corner, even in the areas that were within the limits of the Palestinians. According to the Israeli forces, these checkpoints are in place to protect the Palestinians, but funnily enough, checkpoints are only for Palestinians and not Israelis.
Israel also closed Shuhada Street for Palestinians after the massacre. Shuhada is the main road that led to the Tomb of the Patriarchs. Located in the heart of the city, it was a buzzing street filled with shops. After the closure of the street, all the shops were forced to close down and have remained closed up until today.
As the time for lunch was approaching, our guide Afnan brought us to the home of a local Palestinian family that would serve us food.
As we crossed the doorstep, we were welcomed by the entire family, who immediately made us feel at home. They shared their homemade food with us, which was absolutely delicious! I was also quite happy to be contributing to the local economy of a family that didn't have it easy in life.
While on the Israeli side we heard about the historical and religious claims over the Palestinian Territories, as well as some of the inexcusable acts of terrorism perpetrated by Palestinians, the stories on the Palestinian side of Hebron were a bit more personal, as pretty much every family had been affected by the Israeli occupation. Our guide brought us to meet a couple of families so that we could hear their stories firsthand.
When we arrived at the first house, located at the very top of the building, the main door downstairs was wide open. I thought that they were probably expecting us already, but the reason was very different. Once on the roof of their house, one of the sons of the family, helped with the translation of our guide, told us the shocking story of their family.
Their house was located right next to Shuhada Street and the area controlled by Israel. The archway next to the house, which years ago gave direct access to the buzzing street, was completely shut down with blocks of concrete.
When the street was closed to Palestinians in 1994, the Israeli authorities realised that the house of this family was on the way to fully close the street and take control over the entire area. This is when they offered them 5 million dollars and protection for the entire family in the United States in exchange for handing in their house.
In spite of the offer, his father refused to leave the house. This had been their house for generations, and also, giving into the Israelis in exchange for money would've been seen as a horrible act of treason by the rest of the Arab population. After some time, the Israeli authorities offered them again to sell the house, this time with a blank cheque, but the family refused the offer for a second time. Since then, their lives became a horrible nightmare.
The Israeli security forces have raided the house in countless occasions, trying to put pressure on the family so that they give up and leave. In one occasion, the security forces broke into the house and arrested multiple members of the family as they suspected that they were planning to attack Israeli settlers. His mother, who was pregnant at the time, ended up losing his baby after an Israeli soldier kicked her in the stomach.
Only a few years after this event, they were attacked once again by Israeli soldiers. The security forces threw two Molotov cocktails from the watchtower located right opposite to the house. During the attack, two of the babies of the family were killed in their sleep.
Whenever their house is raided, they never receive a reason why. According to the Israeli authorities, this is done for security reasons, and as such, they don't have to disclose any additional information. The young guy told us how their family is just a working family of Hebron and they have never involved in any act of terrorism. Their only crime is being an obstacle for Israel to take over the entire city centre of Hebron.
Due to security reasons imposed by the Israeli soldiers, they are no longer allowed to close the main door of their house. It has to remain wide open at all times, day and night, or otherwise, the consequences can be fatal.
The second family that we visited also had their house right next to a Jewish settlement. From their kitchen window, you could see a playground where multiple Jewish children were playing basketball.
The father of the family also told us about one of the multiple occasions when they were attacked and arrested by the Israelis. Back in 2014, when he was on the roof of his house, he saw how a Jewish settler was trying to climb and access his house to take down a Palestinian flag.
The settler was a visitor, and he didn't realise that he was accessing a house in the Palestinian side of Hebron, which is why this family had a Palestinian flag on their roof and not an Israeli flag. Straightaway, he started recording what was happening.
When the settler got stuck in the barbwire, the father of the family tried to help him get down. The Israeli security forces also intervened, trying to remove the Jewish settler. As it can be seen in the video, the soldier kept saying in Hebrew to the Palestinian man that he had no right to be in there and to go away, even though he was in his own roof and somebody else was trying to break into his house.
Two hours later, the Israeli security forces raided his house with pepper gas, and himself and his brother were arrested.
The legal system in the West Bank is very peculiar and is considered quite unfair by many. If you're Palestinian and are accused by an Israeli of any unlawful act, you'll be guilty and arrested until you can prove your innocence. However, if you're a Palestinian and accuse an Israeli citizen of any unlawful act, the Israeli will be innocent, and therefore not arrested, until you can prove the contrary. During this time, you may also get arrested due to security reasons, even if you haven't done anything wrong.
Palestinians can be arrested for up to 8 hours without any proof, and there are no consequences for Israeli citizens if they falsely accuse you. Due to these unfair laws, many Palestinians are forced to make video recordings, as they are their only proof. Whenever their human rights are not respected, they send these videos to the Palestinian and Israeli authorities, and they will decide whether they can be used as proof during a trial.
The father of the family showed us many of the videos that had been recorded in Hebron, showing the abuse of Israeli soldiers and settlers towards Palestinian citizens: from Israeli soldiers kicking children that were only playing in the streets, to international observers being attacked by the settlers.
On more than one occasion, Israeli soldiers have shot dead a Palestinian for no reason, and have then placed a knife next to their hand to prove that hey were trying to attack them first. Some of these events have been recorded and the videos can be found on YouTube, where soldiers can clearly be seen planting the knife next to the dead body.
Just before we finished our conversation with the father of the family, the Jewish children playing just across the street started throwing stones to the windows of the house. This could be considered a prank by some naughty children, however, it can also become a nightmare when it happens daily. I headed to the kitchen and was able to see with my own eyes how their house was being attacked, and they didn't really care that multiple international tourists were in there at the time.
Our final visit of the day was Hebron market. What used to be a bustling market where locals would buy vegetables, clothes and all kind of items, today is pretty much an empty street.
The entire market is covered by a barrier to stop the Israeli settlers living above the market from throwing rubbish down to the Palestinian shops. In some occasions, they have also thrown dirty water and even bleach to the Palestinians as they shopped.
There are police towers on both sides of the market, however, they haven't done anything to stop this. The situation has been like this since the 80s when Jewish settlements of up to 3 floors were built just behind and above the market. Looking up feels like being in a cage full of dirt.
When we asked our guide what the solution to this conflict could be, she didn't really know, as any solution will be unjust to one of the sides.
When the Israelis arrived and started building settlements, they expelled many Palestinians that had been living there for centuries from their own homes. However, after so many years, recovering these lands would involve expelling the Jews that are now living there.
Many of these Jews, especially children, were born in Hebron, so giving the land back to Palestine will involve forcing them to move from their houses and what now has become their land. Whatever happens in the future, one of the sides will lose their home, which makes a solution harder and harder every time.
We said goodbye to Afnan and headed back to Hebron H2 to meet Gabriel once again. While waiting for our bus back to Jerusalem outside the Cave of the Patriarchs, he asked everyone in the group about our thoughts.
In general, everyone was quite saddened by what we had heard. I didn't really know what to say, all I could think is that all this was very unfair. After hearing both sides of the story, a resolution of the conflict or even a two-state solution seemed even more complicated than before. To find something positive, during my visit both sides had expressed some hope that one day Palestinians and Israelis would be able to live in peace. If they were able to do it years ago, it shouldn't be impossible to do it once again in the future.
I can certainly say that the dual visit to Hebron was probably the saddest and hardest visit of my travels, ever. However, hearing about the conflict first hand is an absolute must to understand the situation in the West Bank.
My time in Israel and the Palestinian Territories were coming to an end. I only had one day left, where I would witness the sunrise in Masada, the Ein Gedi Natural Reserve and swim in the unique Dead Sea. A very tiring but definitely more light-hearted day!