Sunburns and Heartaches
(Despite the title of this, the weekend I am about to describe was actually great.)
It’s been in the 80s and 90s for the past week or so, so on Friday, Stacey, Becca and I decided to go to the beach. Since we were only going for the day, we decided to go to Tel Aviv, which is only about 45 minutes away by bus. Once we made it to the beach, we sat down on lounge chairs that were spread all over the beach, only to have a man wearing a fanny pack come up to us and tell us we had to pay to rent the chairs. It was 12 shekels for the entire day, which is about $3.50, so of course we did it. The water had an amazing temperature, so Stacey and I went swimming. (Actually, I shouldn’t judge the temperature of the water since some of you may know that I swim in basically any temperature. I was swimming in the Dead Sea in February and the Sea of Galilee in March.) Then a lifeguard began yelling things in a megaphone, which we didn’t understand. We’re still learning, cut us some slack. Then he kept yelling until we turned and looked at him, looking at us and motioning for us to move over to another area. Still not sure why. Since Shabbat was starting, we took the second to last bus back to Jerusalem at 5:15pm. We all may or may not have ended up with sunburns. Whoops. Someone said the sun is stronger here than in the States. I agree with them. My sunburn is basically gone by now, so no big deal.
Sunset back in Jerusalem
And then on Saturday, I went with a group of friends to the town of Hebron, in the West Bank. (Also known as Palestine, if you desire.) And it is here that I will nicely package up my political biases and tell the story of Hebron from as neutral a stance of possible. (I want you all to be able to form your own opinions based off the people we encountered and the stories they told.) Since it was Saturday, the egged-‘Israeli’, whatever that means- buses weren’t running, but the Palestinians ones were, so we took that to Damascus Gate, and then got on a bus to Bethlehem. We alighted (I learned that word this semester and I love it but it’s not so practical) in Bethlehem on the side of the highway and took a service taxi to the center of Hebron.
On the side of the road
If you want to know more about the situation of buses in Israel, especially East Jerusalem (my home!) here’s some good articles: http://www.aljazeera.com/indepth/features/2013/03/201339123752297254.html and http://972mag.com/west-bank-and-east-jerusalem-buses-are-already-segregated/61041/. The situation of the buses actually provides a great glimpse into the society here and how the Israeli/Palestinian conflict affects many aspects of life.
As we were driving through Hebron, it was pretty obvious that we would be standing out. We were a group of five, speaking English, us three girls didn’t have our heads wrapped-and two of those girls are blonde. My guidebook had said that Hebron, despite being the most heavily populated city in the West Bank, is not a destination for tourists. This actually makes it a great place to see the Palestinian culture as it is-without many things that are in place to cater to tourists. Hebron has been fought over and in 1997 was divided in two parts: H1, roughly 80% of the city, is under the control of the Palestinian Authority and H2, the rest of the city, which is under Israeli control and contains the Jewish settlements. These settlements are created by Jews who believe in Israel’s sovereignty to such an extent that they move into the West Bank, often forcing Palestinians to move out of an area. There are fewer than 1,000 Jewish settlers in Hebron but they have caused a lot of heartbreak and struggle for the Palestinians. (Oops, that sounded biased.) Over the marketplaces are metal caged roofs to prevent the settlers from throwing things on the Palestinians-anything from kitchen trash to dirty diapers to bricks and stones have landed on top of these cages-some things heavy enough and thrown with such force that they bent the cages.
Our friend Koichi knew a man who lived near the Old City market so we went to see if he was home-he wasn’t, but his brother and his family were so we stopped in for a minute so one friend could use the bathroom. The man told us it was rude to enter a Palestinian’s home and not stay for coffee or tea, so we had tea and talked with him for a while. He told us of how living near the settlers has caused him much heartbreak and destroyed his life over the past few years. The man has four sons, one of whom, who is seven years old, was shot by a settler and was temporarily blinded. He is just now slowly regaining his sight, due to many surgeries and much rehabilitation. Of course, the son is now very afraid of even playing outside, for fear the same might happen again. The man’s first wife was shot five times in the head by settlers, and died. I believe he said she was shot on the roof of their home, but I could be wrong. His home is next to a Jewish school for settler children, and he had to board up the windows that directly face the school. He said settlers would throw countless things at the windows and even released snakes through the windows into his home. His then two and a half year old son was sleeping underneath those windows. He said he often gets harassed by settlers when leaving his home and for this reason he doesn’t leave very frequently. He ran a shop that he was forced to close when settlers moved into the area; later, they completely burned the shop.
Palestinian flag on the street where his home is
View from the roof of his home
Both the building to the left and in the rear are Jewish settler buildings
After we left his home, we walked through the Old City market until the end. There, we encountered a security checkpoint of sorts, we had to pass through two gates with those ‘push it and it revolves’ sort of things. (I know there must be an actual word for these things, so if anyone wants to enlighten me I’d be very appreciative.) We wanted to enter the al-Jawiliyaa Mosque, which houses the Tombs of the Patriarchs (Abraham, Sarah, Isaac, Rebecca, Jacob, and Leah). However, we had ever so conveniently shown up at the security check right when afternoon prayer was occurring. So we walked down the road, got asked our religion by an IDF soldier and continued to a shop where Koichi knew the owner. We told the owner we were waiting for prayers to finish, and he invited us in for tea and coffee. I seriously can’t get enough of Middle Eastern hospitality. That man works with a company called Explore West Bank and gave us the presentation that he usually gives his tour groups. He explained in detail the restrictions placed on Palestinians: where they can open shops, where they can walk, where they can drive. There are some roads that have barriers on them-Palestinians walk on one side and Jewish settlers on the other.
When we were in the man’s home earlier, he had a portrait of Saddam Hussein on the wall. We asked this shopkeeper what people thought of Hussein, and he replied that he didn’t think there were any positive or negative feelings, just kind of neutral. Then he said something I think is a quote for the books: “People here don’t think. If they thought, the answer would come.” Whoa. After the shopkeeper finished his presentation, we bought some things from him and walked through Ghost Town. The main road in Hebron-Shuhada Street-has been closed to Palestinians and makes the city like a ghost town. (Remember, there are only about 1000 Jewish settlers.) The street is mainly littered with IDF soldiers every few hundred feet eyeing you suspiciously. I almost felt like we were in some sort of weird movie plot, walking down that road with no civilization except for us, soldiers, and some stray dogs.
Shuhada Street (notice the Israeli flags in the upper left corner)
I’ll just let this speak for itself
Once we realized there was really nothing on this road, we turned back in the direction of the mosque. Afternoon prayers had concluded by then so we were cleared to go in. First, before approaching the small hill atop which the mosque is located, we were stopped by an IDF soldier and asked our religion. He let us continue, and we arrived at the security station before the mosque. The guards let us through with not so much as a bag check, which was quite surprising. (Compared with entering my campus, where my ID is checked, I walk through a metal detector, and my backpack is checked.) We went into the mosque and I was quickly reminded of Nazareth, where I promptly and rather harshly got kicked out of a mosque. The three of us girls were given full-body cloaks to wear while inside that looked like this:
Lovely, right? Apparently there is a Star Wars character that is dressed in something similar, so Steve if you’re reading this your knowledge will come in handy here!
Anyway, that small building behind us is one of the tombs of the patriarchs and matriarchs. Their actual tombs are 17m underground, so what we were seeing are called cenotaphs-memorials for those buried nearby. The mosque and synagogue next door share a building, and are entered from different sides with different levels of security. The mosque has the cenotaphs of Isaac and Rebecca, the synagogue has the cenotaphs of Jacob and Leah, and the cenotaphs of Abraham and Sarah are straddled between the two-so they are visible from both the mosque and synagogue. The synagogue was closed (it was Shabbat) so we saw four of the six cenotaphs. Not too shabby.
This has a name in Arabic that I am not aware of, but this area shows Muslims in what direction to pray. Muslims always pray towards Mecca, in Saudi Arabia, where their holiest mosque is. This area faces Mecca.
Entrance to the area of the cenotaphs
Beautiful ceiling in the mosque
This is where the imam, prayer leader, leads prayer from (I know, my descriptions of things are amazing)
After we left the mosque, we had to use the bathroom. We went into the public bathroom, where we first encountered a room full of faucets along the wall. It took us a minute to realize these were for ablutions (ritual washings that Muslims do before prayer). The next room had the ‘toilets’, really holes in the ground surrounded by porcelain. Certainly interesting. I know that was maybe too much information for some of you, but whatever.
Here’s a video on the issue of Shuhada Street in Hebron. The man who speaks at about 2 minutes in is actually the man whose home we were in at the beginning of our trip. http://972mag.com/watch-hebron-shuhada-street-authorized-entry-only/68568/
We walked back through the market to the place where the service taxis are and took one back to Bethlehem. We spent a couple hours around the market shopping and we visited the Church of the Nativity, but there was some long service going on so we couldn’t really go far inside the church. It feels so weird to say that I spent a Saturday afternoon shopping in Bethlehem. I’ll definitely be going back to see the churches and fields though, it’s so close and pretty cheap. As our bus was heading back to Jerusalem we passed through a checkpoint to exit the West Bank and had to file out of the bus and file past IDF soldiers with our passports open.
So, if you’ve made it to the end of this post, I applaud you. It’s a long one but hopefully you learned something about Hebron and the Israeli/Palestinian conflict, because I certainly did.