Today was a cheat. Hebron is a key destination Abraham’s Path, but you are supposed to walk there, and not arrive in a car. However, time was pressing, so our guide Iyad Qumsieh collected us from the el-Beit Guesthouse and drove us down to Hebron, the largest city on the West Bank. Iyad told us that Hebron is a major contributor to the Palestinian economy, and its residents – “Hebronites” – are a major component of Palestinian humour :-)
Hebron is the second holiest city (after Jerusalem) for Jews, and one of the four holy cities of Islam for Muslims. It’s not entirely surprising that it is a flashpoint for tensions between the Palestinians and the Israelis (who have settlements in the heart of the city).
Our first destination was the Ibrahimi Mosque, an impressive building dating back to Herod the Great in the last years BC, but with the usual subsequent layers of Byzantines, Crusaders, Mamluks, etc on top. The Mosque is built over the tombs of the Old Testament couples Abraham and Sarah, Isaac and Rebecca, and Jacob and Leah. The site of the tombs are marked by impressive cenotaphs within the building, with access forbidden to the actual tombs below (conspiracy theories flourish about Israeli attempts to enter the tombs). Salah ah-Din’s minbar in the Mosque is a wonderful example of 12th century Islamic craftsmanship.
The recent history of the Mosque reflects the bloody history of the Israeli / Palestinian conflict. The Mosque itself is now partitioned into Muslim and Jewish areas. Even the street leading to the Mosque is partitioned down the middle – one side for Israelis, one for Palestinians. According to local legend, the solitary Palestinian souvenir seller opposite the Mosque has been offered fabulous sums to sell out to Israelis.
Walking through the Old City, the effects of this conflict on the local economy were only too visible. Instead of the bustling markets we had seen in Jerusalem and Nablus, in Hebron many of the shops had closed down. The reasons were not hard to find. Wherever Israeli settlers were occupying buildings, there was a strong Israeli security presence, and Palestinian properties facing them had been emptied and sealed off. We saw settlements built above the markets, and were told how settlers dropped stones and other missiles onto shoppers. When the shopkeepers put up nets for protection, the settlers simply poured dirty water down. As Iyad explained, shoppers couldn’t be bothered with the hassle and had given up on Hebron.
As we were getting back in the car at the end of our visit to this sad city, I noticed a woman scrambling up a ladder and through a window. Iyad explained the houses faced a settlement, so the Israeli security forces had sealed up all the doors. The only way in and out of the houses was via the ladders.