Postcard From Palestine

This post is by a guest poster and good friend of mine, Ben Khanna. It tells the story of his experiences in the West Bank Palestinian city of Hebron last year. Please read on..... NiteGlow

In late November last year I decided I needed a holiday... Palestine is perhaps not the first place for a winter break a lot of people would think of, but for me it was a great opportunity to see such a historically important and volatile area of the world first hand.

I was meeting Davina, a friend of mine currently based in Ramallah, and also Pauline, both of whom work for a French non-governmental organisation (NGO) in Palestine. I spent the next week travelling around different cities, meeting locals and other NGO workers, and hearing all they had to say.

One of the most memorable days was in the West Bank city of Hebron.
I was initially quite surprised by Hebron's appearance - wide streets and a bit of a Western feel. Hebron is the centre of finance for Palestine, my Lonely Planet guide informed me. Davina called her ex-colleague Omar, who came to meet us and then took us to a burger bar inside a proper US-style shopping mall. And there I was thinking no Palestinian dudes liked burgers.

We were then joined by Lubna (who had also worked with Davina and Omar at Relief International) for our stroll to and around the old town. Hebron started to look a lot more like the centre of Ramallah - bustling, busy. "Soon it will look like a ghost town" Lubna remarked. She wasn't wrong.

A minute later we approached an area that looked like it had been flattened to the ground. There were a number of Israeli Defence Force (IDF) soldiers loitering around including some on rooftops surrounded by barbed wire, with heavy duty guns slung around their necks. Pauline took a photo and was immediately rebuked by a soldier. The shop fronts nearby were almost completely deserted other than the very occasional Palestinian store that had somehow escaped expulsion.

Lubna pointed up a flight of steps in between two buildings to our right. This was where the Israeli settler territory now started, easily identified by the messy wall of twisted mesh fencing and the ubiquitous barbed wire. Lubna gave Pauline and me a bit of background/history... There are now around 600 Israeli settlers living in Hebron, with a whopping 2000 IDF soldiers based here to protect the "civilians". When the settlers moved to the old city, residents and shopkeepers were forcibly evicted and the IDF welded shut their homes and shops to stop them returning. Settlers then moved into upper floors of these buildings and any Palestinians seen below were habitually bombarded with the contents of settler waste bins. As an attempt to shelter themselves the Palestinians hung up myriads of sheets and blankets, creating an oddly enclosed and shadowy main street. Davina had told me about this scene before; to see it for myself was a stirring experience.

Fact interlude: it is illegal under international law to move a civilian population into occupied territory. Currently around 430,000 Israeli settlers live within in the West Bank.

Lubna then gave her version of another little story Davina had previously related to me.

When the settlers moved to the old city the main road was closed to Palestinians, but a few families were left on the other side, separated from the old city. Among these was a friend of Omar’s. On Davina’s last visit to Hebron Omar took Davina, Lubna and an American girl named Yasmine to see his friend. They asked the IDF permission, which was granted, but when walking up the main road a Jewish lady ran out of a building and started pushing Lubna because she was wearing a hijab. “You should not be here! You should not be here!” she shouted hysterically at Lubna, before summoning a raft of Jewish school children who surrounded the three unwelcome visitors and began spitting and pelting rocks and stones at them. Lubna was utterly petrified. "I just didn't know what to do" she kept saying to me. A staggering example set by, what transpired to be, a school teacher. Yasmine was 9 months pregnant at the time.

After walking a little way we came to the entrance of the Ibrahimi Mosque - one of the holiest Muslim and Jewish sites outside Jerusalem. This was the site where American-born Jewish settler Baruch Goldstein opened fire on a Muslim prayer session during Ramadan in 1994, killing 29 Palestinians. (In the rioting that followed a further 25 Palestinians were killed plus 5 Israelis. Israeli authorities then imposed a curfew on the 120,000 Palestinians in Hebron, while the settler population were free to roam around. A shrine to Goldstein was built in a Jewish community adjacent to Hebron and not removed until 1999.)

We tried to enter the mosque but were refused entry as it was prayer time. Looking down the street away from the mosque and into Jewish territory Pauline and I noticed a large group of joggers complete with stopwatches, heart rate monitors and Nike trainers. I found it a poignant scene.

Omar had a little more to show us and led us up a steep road behind the mosque and up to a Muslim cemetery. A little further down the road was an IDF roadblock and adjacent a large house that some soldiers appeared to be working on. This was where the violence had broken out less than two weeks earlier, which I’d been following on the BBC website. Omar wanted to take us past the house so we walked up to the roadblock where, as Omar had predicted, we were asked if we were journalists (journalists are usually forbidden from entering any Israeli conflict zone in case something undesirable finds its way to international media). The large ginger haired chief soldier asked for all our IDs; Omar produced his Relief International ID which the soldier didn't particularly like the look of and thus refused to let us pass.

We turned around and headed back the way we came. Or at least we thought it was the way we came, but there seemed to be a massive Israeli roadblock impeding our path down an alley. Omar tried to reason our way through again while Pauline and I surreptitiously took photos. The likelihood was of course that we had chosen a different alley to go down rather than the blockade had sprung up in a few minutes, so when Omar failed to get anywhere he called a taxi to come pick us up.

The evening was spent eating and drinking in Bethlehem, where we were joined by a few more of Davina’s friends. Unsurprisingly there was a lot more interesting conversation; hearing one of Davina’s friends recount how she’d been hounded by the Israeli secret service for ten years in a series of attempts to convince her to become a spy was one part that stood out. Heavy stuff. Anyway, despite the fact it was very quiet for a party night in Palestine (i.e. Thursday) I think we all had a good night.

I left Palestine with a well of pretty strong emotions, though I should imagine there are few that don't. There's so much history and beauty to be seen and it's an absolute tragedy that the conflict continues to remain. However, despite a certain feeling of helplessness, there are many who dedicate themselves to make a difference and do so. A permanent peace though seems a long and complex road away.