Robin Yassin-Kassab

A Visit to Hebron

with 2 comments

This was published on the Reuters Great Debate blog.

Palestine 210There’s no pretty way to describe what I saw in Hebron, no tidy conceit to wrap it in.

I visited as a participant in the Palestine Festival of Literature, the brain child of the great British-Egyptian novelist Ahdaf Soueif. I was in the company of many wonderful writers and publishers, among them Python and traveller Michael Palin, best-selling crime novelist Henning Mankel, Pride and Prejudice screenplay writer Deborah Moggach, and prize-winning novelists Claire Messud and MG Vassanji.

Our first stop was Hebron University, where I ran a workshop on ‘the role of writing in changing political realities.’ The students were bright and eager; the only discomforting note was struck by a memorial stone to three killed while walking on campus, by rampaging settlers, in 1986.

After lunch we visited Hebron’s historic centre.

The usual way on the West Bank is for Israeli checkpoints, towers and settlements to encircle Palestinian population concentrations. But here 400 gun-wielding settlers, guarded by 1500 soldiers, also occupy the centre of the Old City.

Palestine 208The delight of any Arab old city is the sensation of freedom it offers; you can disappear under arches, around corners, through dark passageways. But Hebron’s freedom has been robbed by iron gates and concrete blocks. There are military positions and ‘Jews-only’ roads. Such slogans as ‘Gas the Arabs’ are daubed on the green-shuttered shops. 77% of Old City shops are closed by military order. Settlers squatting the upper storeys throw excrement, kitchen rubbish and stones at pedestrians in the souq.

Hebron’s Arabic name is al-Khalil, meaning ‘the friend’, referring specifically to God’s friend Abraham, buried here with his wife Sarah and son Isaac. The tombs are sacred to both Jews and Muslims, and in quieter times were shared, but the struggle between Zionism and the Palestinian natives has changed that. In 1994 Brooklyn-born settler Baruch Goldstein shot dead 29 Palestinians at prayer in the Ibrahimi Mosque, injuring 150 more. Rather than compensate the community for the massacre, Israel imposed a two-week perpetual curfew while it confiscated 65% of the mosque for use as a synagogue. Which means a physical wall now divides this historic building, to add to the other walls shadowing the towns and refugee camps of Palestine.

Israeli soldier at the entrance to the Haram al-Ibrahimi

Israeli soldier at the entrance to the Haram al-Ibrahimi

Outside, Zionist songs blast from a Judaic centre day and night, so nearby residents can neither sleep nor hear the call to prayer. A settler swaggers with a science-fiction sized gun hanging off his shoulder, and his three dogs ranging off the lead (for Middle Easterners the dog is an unclean animal, to be kept away from mosques and churches.) Another settler is filming us, up close. When writer Bridgid Keenan asks him why, he replies, “Because you will go to hell!” But later we were told the real reason, beyond the intimidatory flourish, was to send our faces to be registered as enemies of Israel by American Zionist organisations.

Carmen Callil, founder of Virago books, was wearing a bracelet in the colours of the Palestinian flag. The camera-brandishing settler reported this misdemeanour to a nearby soldier, who pointed his gun at Carmen and ordered her to remove the bracelet immediately. She did so openmouthed. A few metres away an old man tended a surviving shop. When I spoke kindly to him, he embraced me and heaved tears. He wasn’t used to kind speech.

Palestine 216Hebron is beyond grim, beyond Kafkaesque. There’s no good way to describe this vandalised, rotting city. Not much left of the centre, and very nearly nothing left of Palestine, not physically. What remains is a gleam of light: the ingenuity and endurance of the Palestinians.



Click here to see a photo album of my visit to al-Khalil. Please read the captions.

And please learn about the work of the Hebron Rehabilitation Committee.

Written by Robin Yassin-Kassab

July 3, 2009 at 12:11 am

2 Responses

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  1. This is horrible. I hope this curse will be removed soon. Whatever mercy the Palestinians would find towards the Hebron settlers when judgement day comes, is not something they deserve.

    Yossi (AKA Rumyal)

    July 3, 2009 at 9:44 am

  2. There’s debate at the Reuters site. Zionist made these comments:

    July 3rd, 2009 9:20 am GMT – Posted by David Wilder

    The author forgets a few facts:
    1. Hebron Arabs today have access to 98% of the entire city. Jews have access to 3% of Hebron.
    2. Close to 100 Jews have been killed in the Hebron region by Arab terrorist, in cold blood.
    3. The above number does not include 67 Jews murdered in Hebron 80 years ago, during the 1929 riots and massacre.
    4. Concerning noise: the Muslim call-to-prayer begins at about 4:00 AM and is repeated five times daily, with other public interludes, until after 11:00PM, waking up sleeping people and preventing them from sleeping, with this noise being broadcast from numerous points in the city.
    5. The Arab stores on the Jewish side of Hebron were closed by the IDF due to numerous shooting attacks and a suicide bomber who killed a couple from nearby Kiryat Arba. All the Arab vendors have opened businesses on the other side of the city, where they do a thriving business. See Danny Rubinstein: The safest place in the territories – http://www.haaretz.com/hasen/spages/8573 08.html

    July 3rd, 2009 10:15 am GMT – Posted by neighbour

    What bias.
    No mention of the massacre of scores of Jewish men, women and children in 1929 and the ethnic cleansing of Jews until they returned in 1967. Some of the homes where Jews live today belonged to Jews then.
    Of course, no Jews were permitted by the Muslims to enter the holy shrine of the Patriarchs until 1967, and even today the largest hall, the Isaac Chamber, is off-limits to Jews so that Moslems may hold their prayers there.
    Most of those 400 settlers are children, and they aren’t gun-wielding.
    Mention is made of the memorial to Arabs killed, but of course no mention of the Jewish toddler Shalhevet Paz shot and killed by a Palestinian sniper as she sat in her pram.
    Be fair.

    July 3rd, 2009 11:51 am GMT – Posted by Elder

    I am curious how Mr. Yassin-Kassab knows that the songs that come from a Judaic center are Zionist songs and not simply Jewish songs?

    And I responded:

    3rd, 2009 12:21 pm GMT – Posted by Robin Yassin-Kassab

    David and Neighbour

    You are quite right about the massacre of Jews in Hebron in 1929. The fact that the massacre happened in the context of the struggle against Zionist plans to turn Palestine into a Jewish state does not change the fact that the massacre was a terrible crime. I should have mentioned it, but didn’t because I was given only 600 words. I stuck to what I saw, to what is happening today. I speak as as somebody who is very aware of Arab sectarianism and its negative effect on Jews, Shia Muslims and other minorities. Sectarianism is one of the things that make Arabs weak, and I and many Arabs revile it. (It so happens that I have a Syrian Jewish aunt). However, the anti-Jewish feeling amongst most Palestinians and other Arabs today is directed not at Jews in general but in the faces of the Jewsish state that has dispossessed the Palestinians.

    Neighbour says the child settlers are not gun-wielding. True, but I have been shown many films (they’re on Youtube) of settler children hitting, kicking and throwing stones at Palestinian men, women and children. When they do this, they are protected by gun-wielding adult settlers and by soldiers. Again, I should have mentioned this, but was stopped by my 600 word limit.

    As for Jews only having access to 3% of Hebron – Israeli Jews are forbidden access to the rest of the city (unless they are soldiers, who move in at will) as a result of Israeli laws. However, I met French and American Jews (pro-Palestinian activists and academics) who live and work in Hebron, Ramallah and other West Bank cities. The apartheid system was brought in by Israel.

    Then there’s the small matter that according to international law, there should be NO Israeli civilians living in occupied territory. The Palestinian leadership (which I’m not a fan of) has in any case said that in the event of a two-state solution, any Jewish settlers who will accept to live under Palestinian sovereignty can stay on the West Bank.

    And, yes, I am biased. I was also biased against apartheid South Africa.; If this was the 1930s, I’d be biased against Nazi Germany, and also aginst the pro-Zionist but anti-Semitic immigration policies of the US and British governments. (which blocked access to fleeing European Jews, forcing them to go to Palestine instead).

    July 3rd, 2009 12:22 pm GMT – Posted by Robin Yassin-Kassab

    Elder – An Israeli citizen, Hebrew-speaking, was with us, and he told me the songs were ‘Zionist.’ I didn’t check myself.


    July 3, 2009 at 11:28 am

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