Inside The West Bank: The Troubled City Of Hebron

Palestinian Men

Dapper Palestinian Men

Hebron, West Bank

Stepping off the gloomy bus into bright midday sun, my eyes slowly adjust to an unfamiliar place. Dark armoured glass shields you from everything, not just bullets.

I walk down a hot & dusty road past empty shops, empty apartments, empty sidewalks. There’s a palpable sense of history here. But I can feel tension too.

A man with an automatic rifle watches me approach.

Visiting The West Bank

I was visiting the West Bank city of Hebron to learn more about the Israeli & Palestinian conflict from the people who live here. The city is a complicated & controversial place — as is the topic.

Let me begin by stating I’m not an expert on this subject.

I’m not a professional journalist. I’m not a historian. I’m not Israeli or Palestinian. All I can do is share my experience from an outsider’s perspective — what I heard and saw while visiting.

For me, traveling to Israel without witnessing what is happening in the West Bank was not an option. This is a key reason why I travel, to learn about the world through personal experience.

Hebron West Bank

West Bank City of Hebron

Palestinian Boy

Palestinian Boy Looks Out From his Home

History Of The Conflict

Before I continue, a brief history as I understand it. The West Bank is the largest of the Palestinian Territories, located in the East of the country. The Gaza Strip is a much smaller territory in the South West.

To the Palestinian people and the United Nations, the West Bank is part of the future/current State of Palestine. However it’s been occupied by the State of Israel since the Six Day War of 1967.

To the Israeli government, the Palestinian Territories are part of Israel, and the historic Jewish homeland.

In its simplest terms, this is the heart of the problem.

Settlements In Hebron

Hebron is considered ground zero for the controversial Israeli settlement movement. A settlement is where Israelis move into Palestinian areas, often illegally, and start building homes or claiming old buildings for themselves.

It’s a flashpoint for violence on both sides, and a unique situation in Hebron because the settlements here are located in the heart of a Palestinian city rather than the countryside.

After the 1993 Oslo Accords, Hebron was divided into 2 different sectors. The Palestinian controlled H1 Zone (80%), and the Israeli controlled H2 Zone (20%). Both sides claim to be victims of an “apartheid” type system, with neither able to move freely through the whole city.

Israeli Police Hebron

Police Truck on Al Shuhada Street

IDF Military Hebron

IDF Military Base

Dual Narrative Tour

While I spent 3 days exploring the city of Hebron, the first was with a fascinating project called the Dual Narrative Tour. It’s a rare collaborative effort between the Israeli owned Abraham Tours and the Palestinian run Visit Hebron-Palestine.

This innovative tour is split between a Palestinian guide and an Israeli guide, each showing us their respective parts of the city. Meeting with locals and hearing stories from both sides. It was an excellent introduction to the area.

We learned what actually goes on from the people who live there.

Hebron Checkpoint

Military Checkpoint Between H1 & H2

Old City Hebron

Hebron Old City

The Palestinian Side (H1)

The man with the automatic rifle smiles as we walk by. He’s a member of the Israeli Defense Forces (IDF) tasked with guarding the entrance of Al Shuhada Street (aka King David Street). The area is also called “Ghost Town”. A kind of no-man’s land between the two sections of the city.

The street was closed in 1994 when an Israeli settler went on a shooting spree killing 29 Palestinian Muslims at the Cave of the Patriarchs mosque. Rioting and more deaths followed, prompting the IDF to create a buffer zone between the two sides.

Palestinians who lived & worked on Al Shuhada Street were forced to relocate, with no time to collect their belongings. Buildings lining the street were sealed shut by the military, leaving them empty and abandoned.

Walking down the empty road, we meet our Palestinian guide Mohammed who takes us through a 2nd military checkpoint marking the entrance to H1 — the Palestinian zone.

Hebron Market

Market in Hebron

Hebron Market Fence

Wire Mesh Above Streets

Hebron Market Stalls

Busy Market Stalls

Hebron Market

Passing through the checkpoint into H1, our initial stop is Hebron’s bustling market. Made up of simple stalls selling vegetables, dresses, underwear, shoes, and other basic goods. A wire mesh hangs over the street above our heads.

The purpose of this curious barrier is to stop Israeli settlers who live in the buildings above from throwing garbage down onto Palestinians as they shop. But it feels like a cage.

When tensions are high, dirty dish water, even bleach has been poured onto Palestinians here. It’s a disturbing occurrence, especially when you take into account that years ago Arabs & Jews lived together in Hebron as peaceful neighbors.

Ironically, the word Hebron means “City of Friendship.”

Palestinian Woman

Hadia Invites Us into Her Home

IDF Raid

Aftermath of IDF Night Raid

Palestinians in West Bank

Hanging Out with Sa’heed & his Brother

Meeting Muslim Families

Mohammed takes us to meet Abed and Hadia, who’s family of 8 lives in an 800 year old building that’s now attached to a settlement. Jewish settlers have been intimidating & attacking them for years.

Hadia explains over tea that she is actually Abed’s 2nd wife, his first was tragically shot to death by a settler outside their home. While pregnant. Her son was blinded by a bleach attack in Hebron’s market.

Outside her home we run into a group of TIPH international observers with a United States Embassy delegation. They are guarded by men in black vests, black sunglasses, and radio earpieces — likely members of the infamous Blackwater private security company.

Next we visit Sa’heed and his family who also live beside settlements.

He shows us where IDF soldiers raided and ransacked their home in the middle of the night, how settlers regularly climb onto their roof to destroy water tanks.

We are all at a loss for words.

Hebron Settlements

Avraham Avinu Settlement

Hebron Synagogue

500 Year Old Torah Scroll

Hebron Jewish Settlers

IDF Soldiers Chat with Israeli Kids

The Israeli Side (H2)

Filled with sadness & anger, we leave Mohammed and walk through the metal revolving door of another IDF checkpoint to meet with our Jewish guide Eliyahu in the Israeli controlled H2 zone.

Time to hear the other side of the story.

Eliyahu takes us to the settlement of Avraham Avinu, one of 5 settlements located around the city surrounded by guard towers, razor wire, and concrete barriers.

Built in 1540, the Abraham Avinu Synagogue was destroyed during the 1929 Hebron Massacre, when 67 Jews were murdered by a mob of Arabs who were reacting to the false rumor by their leader that Jews were attacking Muslims in Jerusalem. It was the British, who controlled Palestine at the time, that forced remaining Jews to leave Hebron for good.

Settlers eventually returned to re-establish themselves in the old Jewish quarter of Hebron after Israel took control of the West Bank in 1967, and the synagogue was rebuilt.

Eliyahu opens a display case showing us a 500 year old Torah scroll that managed to survive the synagogue’s destruction and Jewish massacre.

Hebron Settlers

Settler Kids Playing Marbles

Hebron West Bank

Beit Hadassa Settlement Building

Hebron West Bank

Rabbi Simcha Opens His Home

Meeting Jewish Settlers

Rabbi Simcha is an Israeli settler who moved to Hebron from New York. We sit down in his home to discuss the situation in Hebron, to get another perspective. He explains that to settlers, Hebron is the cradle of Jewish civilization. Home to the tombs of their most important religious figures: Abraham, Isaac and Jacob.

Can you imagine if Christians weren’t allowed in Jerusalem?

If Muslims weren’t allowed in Mecca?

This is why Jews want access to Hebron, why Jewish settlers like him move here from all over the world despite the risks.

When asked about settler violence, Mr. Simcha says that in their community, they “don’t believe in turning the other cheek”. It may not be a nice thing to do, but it’s normal to respond when you’re attacked.

In his view, Arab attacks in Hebron are more frequent and serious. Like when a Palestinian sniper murdered a Jewish baby in 2001, when Rabbi Shapira was killed in 2002, or the many suicide bombings.

Settlers have a policy of building in the location where acts of violence against them happen, to remember & honor the dead. We saw memorial plaques on new buildings throughout the Jewish quarter of Hebron dedicated to people who were killed by terrorists.

I was beginning to understand that the violence, however horrible, is by no means one sided.

Hebron Mosque

Ibrahimi Mosque in Hebron

Hebron West Bank

Tomb of Abraham with Bulletproof Shield

Tomb Of The Patriarchs

The most famous religious site in Hebron, the Cave of the Patriarchs (also known as the Sanctuary of Abraham) is incredibly sacred to both Jews & Muslims. It’s where Abraham (Ibrāhīm) is buried.

Abraham is considered both the father of Judaism (the first Jew) and a pioneer of Islam (a Muslim prophet). He’s important in Christianity too.

The building has been split in half to accommodate both faiths.

In fact it’s the only structure in the world that is both a mosque and a synagogue. The tomb itself can be looked onto from small barred windows on each side, with a bullet-proof shield between them.

We’re forced to go through a series of security checks before entering.

Israeli Military West Bank

Israeli Military Patrol

Hebron Settlement Violence

Settlement Memorial Plaque

Violence In Hebron

There are still attacks in Hebron perpetrated by both sides, mainly by teenagers & young adults. Just down the road is where Israeli teens were tragically kidnapped & killed by members of Hamas, igniting the start of the 2014 Gaza War that only ended a few weeks before I arrived.

The violence here comes and goes in waves.

Stone throwing. Military raids. Acts of vandalism. Thefts. Rioting. Many Palestinian suicide bombers are from Hebron; but Hebron is also the home of the Kach Party, a Jewish terrorist organization.

While sensational headlines keep most tourists away, tourists themselves are generally not a target for this violence.

Hebron Palestinians

Smiling Palestinians in H1

Hebron Israelis

Smiling Israelis in H2

A Learning Experience

Unfortunately most of us get our information from the often biased & incomplete evening news. Including me. I had my own preconceived notions about what was happening in the West Bank, as I’m sure most of you do.

Visiting the divided city of Hebron gave me new insight and empathy for those involved on both sides of the conflict. The situation is definitely not as black & white as it may appear from the outside. Yes, living here can be difficult, but life goes on anyway.

The conflict in Israel can be summed up with a popular phrase here — ”it’s complicated”. So very complicated.

A majority of Israelis and Palestinians desperately want the violence to stop. It seems to be the extremist groups on BOTH sides with too much power that prevents this from happening.

Walking back through the checkpoints on Al Shuhada Street, I reflect on the sad stories I’ve heard. But there were plenty of smiles & new friends too. I look forward to the day when people here can find a peaceful solution. ★

Discussion

I know this is a controversial topic, but please keep your comments civil. Disagreement is fine, but rude/profane remarks will not be tolerated.

More Information

Location: Hebron, West Bank [Map] Company: Hebron Dual Narrative Tour
Cost: 290 NIS ($74 USD)
Useful Notes: While a tour isn’t necessary for visiting Hebron, I highly recommend it if you want to understand what’s going on. I returned later on my own for 2 more days of exploring. To visit by yourself, check out the Hebron WikiTravel Guide.
Recommended Guidebook: Lonely Planet Israel & Palestine
Suggested Reading: The Lemon Tree

READ NEXT: Hiking Israel’s National Trail

Would you ever visit the West Bank?

Disclosure: Some of the links in this post are “affiliate links.” This means if you click on the link and purchase the item, I will receive an affiliate commission. Regardless, I only recommend products or services I use personally and believe will add value to my readers.

Any Questions Or Comments?

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25 Comments

  1. I admire the author’s attempt to learn and experience both sides of the narrative but as is almost always the case with Hebron, some mistakes were made.

    Jews and Arabs have never, ever gotten along in Hebron. Prior to Zionism things were much worse. The 1834 Pogrom, 1799 Pogrom, 1787, and on and on. Since Arabs first invaded in 638 CE/AD they have terrorised local Jews. In the best of times we existed as Dhimmi, a subhuman existence in which we were counted as 1/2 men and our women less than that.

    In 1929 Arabs slaughtered 67 Jews, including several of my family members. My khamula owned 119 properties in Hebron District. Every single one of them were stolen by Arabs after the Ethnic Cleansing that took place 3 days after the 1929 Pogrom. My clan was npt unique. Chasson, Badjao, my mother’s people, the Frankos, all of us were impovershed.

    In the 1948 War Jordan captured Hebron. In 1951 they demolished a fair sized segment of the Jewish Quarter (basically H2 consists of the Jewish Quarter). Taking Jewish grave markers from the cemetery they paved over the area and created al Hisbe,’ the produce market beside Rechov David Melech (King David Street). They then renamed the street “al Suhadah,” an insult to Jews.

    The main synagouge, Avraham Avinu, was turned into a goat sty, with Arab livestock urinating and defecating on our holy ground.

    As for “Settlers,” in 1993 I became the first in my khamula to move back to Hebron District. Me? Whose family has a well verified historical record of living in Hebron since at least the 4th Century CE/AD, when it was still Roman- am called a “Settler” by people such as yourself.

    Again, I am not unique. Jews lived in all parts of the so called “West Bank.”

    As for “Occupation,” in 1920 (Ratification 1922) the League of Nations by unanimous vote legally allocated 100% of all land west of the Jordan River to the Jews. This was predicated upon Jewish indigenity. As states earlier Jordan captured Hebron along with other territory. They called it “West Bank”to propagandise the envisioned amd eventual amnexation of the territory as being Jordanian territory west of the Jordan River.

    Jordan controlled this land for less than 19-years. That less than 19-year presence did npt magically convert the land into anything Arab, much less “Palestinian,” an identity that was non existence until the 1950s (until then local Arabs insisted they were Southern Syrians and demamded unification with Syria proper).

    The UN Charter forbids the UN from modifying any and all decisions by the League of Nations. No other allocation has ever taken place. Aside from all that a nation that has never existed (i.e. “Palestine”) can never be “Occupied,” merely contested.

    On Apartheid…H2 is 18% of Hebron (not 20% as the author claimed). Within that 18% Jews are confined by law to live and work in 1 of 5 tiny sites, either single buildings or else tiny compounds.

    These 5 sites collectively form a mere 3% of H2. Ergo, 3% of a sector that is itself just 18% of the city. The sum result is that Jews can only ever live and work in less than 1/10th of 1% of Hebron. Arabs can live and work anywhere in Hebron so really, who is existing within an Apartheid-type dynamic?

    Also wish to clear up another error: So called “Shuhada Street” is NOT “offlimits to Arabs” and never has been. Arabs must show ID if entering on the street from Sector H1.

    Also, it was not “closed in 1994.” The shoppes on Suhada were closed in 2002 after the 9th terrorist attack against Jews in less than 80 days in H2.

    There were other errors but a last one I want to address, the “cages” one sees over certain streets? They are NOT there because of Jews throwing anything out of windows. Not 1 of the 5 sites that Jews are confined to by law have streetside windows. Security concerns unfortunately do not allow it. All 5 of the Jewish sites are configured for maximum safety. The 3 tiny compounds and 2 stand alone buildings are isolated by walls and setting. Sadly it was Arabs dropping bricks and pieces of concrete that necessitaded those grates above streets.

  2. Great comment NAS, extremist violence-lovers always manage to find snippets in religious writings (in the Bible, the Quran, and likely other religious texts) and distort these bits to justify the unjust or atrocious actions they crave, and then to lead other unthinking people down this path.

    Religion has been used throughout the centuries by those in positions of power for the purposes of controlling the masses, and eventually to dehumanize the people living on lands these same rulers wanted to confiscate for themselves.

    I wonder, however, what people would suggest that an aggrieved populace such as the Palestinians is supposed to do to attempt to remediate its circumstance. I don’t believe there is any political recourse for them… even International law is flaunted by the Israeli settlers, so then what can, or could they do to for redress?

  3. We just got back from a trip to Isreal, visiting Hebron was life changing for me. Hearing and seeing Palestine’s side of the story was so important! This article was so well done, thank you.

  4. Thank you for this piece. I went on this tour 1 month ago and it was very emotional. Lately there has been a lot of violence and many Palestinians have been shot at checkpoints. Both sides have suffered so much and its hard to know what the best way to respond to the injustice is. Thanks for writing about this!!!

  5. Hi, I am wanting to volunteer in Hebron for a month. I am an American citizen and I am starting to get a bit nervous about the security situation. Do you think I will be targeted for being an American and volunteering in benefit of a Palestinian community center?

    Thanks!

    1. In Palestine there is some hatred towards Americans but generally most people are fine with us. In Israel everyone is 100% loving towards Americans.

      I went to both places a few times. My Israel trips were at the top of the list of my trips in how much I enjoyed them (I went on many trips) and the Palestine ones are also pretty high up.

      And no I’m not religious. I just very much love Israel and the region of Israel, Gaza and the West Bank (Palestine)

  6. Long time follower, attempted giver of hitchhiking lifts, first time commenter.

    What a thing this is to have done. Damn. I love that this tour exists at all and it’s awesome that you went on it. I’ve got a question — do you know how this became a tour in the first place? This is some amazing cross-cultural collaboration (Yay for the future, these people are it!); what’s the backstory on how they came to work together to create this thing?

    1. Hi Pam! Great to hear from you!

      So I checked up on it, it seems there was strong demand for quality tours to the West Bank, but the ones that existed had a very clear political agenda being either radical right or radical left.

      Our Israeli guide Eliyahu used to live in Hebron and introduced Gal from Abraham Hostels to Tarek from Visit Hebron to create something different. The kind of tour they would want to go on themselves. That’s the short version anyway.

  7. Thank you for this post! It really brings us a unique perspective on a part of the world where few people go. I find it especialy interesting that you got to meet so many locals and share their perspective on the conflict.

    Excellent writing! And stunning pictures!

  8. Great read Matthew, It’s very hard to understand amount of loose both sides had suffered in Hebron and I really appreciate you took the time and effort to talk and listen to the people that live there.

    I spent 8 months as a soldier in Hebron and have a lot to say about this specific part of the conflict..

    I hope that next time you’ll come to Israel (maybe take on the more hardcore parts of the INL desert) we could seat down and talk about the soldier perspective that needs to protect both sides and the buffer..

    Again, loved the piece.

    1. I would love to know more about the soldiers point of view and the buffering. I am originally from Canada and now live in the UK. I will be volunteering in Hebron soon. I am a bit nervous but know it is something I have to do. Any advice words of encouragment would be appreciated..

  9. I really appreciate hearing your story from both sides, Matt – and as Kirsten said, thanks for including so many images of both Palestinians and Israelis. It’s seemingly so easy to write about one side’s perspective over another, so reading a piece with no agenda is very valuable.

  10. Thank you for writing this post, Matt, and for including so many photos of Palestinians and Israelis. For taking the time to tell both sides, and not only one side.

    This is such a complicated part of the world. Perhaps it is the most complicated of our lifetime?! A place I want to visit but am, in all honesty, scared to visit. As a photographer since I was a child, I long to capture the real stories of a place through photos but I’ve long felt I could never do justice to the reality of the middle east in a way that’s ultimately, as respectful as you’ve managed to do.

    I’ve said it privately for a while but here I will say it publicly: you are one of the best travel bloggers working today. And I am so glad you do the work you do.

    1. Wow, thanks Kirsten. That really means a lot to me. It’s taken a while to write this post, I wanted to try and be as unbiased about it as possible and digest my experience for a few months.

  11. Matt,

    Great article on what is a very controversial subject. I love the concept of the Dual Narrative tour. With any sort of issue like this one should always try to understand both sides (as much as possible being an outsider at least), so the way that tour is set up allows you to get a good base of understanding.

    While you are not a “professional journalist” – whatever that actually entails nowadays – the importance of individuals being able to record first-person accounts is a very valuable benefit of blogging and the web in general. Logging your experiences and perspective without any particular agenda other than letting others see through your words and lens is, what I would argue, the purest form of journalism. One that seems to sadly be in short supply these days.

    Keep up the great work.
    Dale Hampton

    1. Thanks Dale, glad you enjoyed it. I also found the Dual Narrative tour to be an excellent idea. Even with the cooperation, both guides kind of warned us what the other would probably say, that some of it was exaggerated. However I’m glad they get along enough to put this tour together.

  12. Thanks for this great post on a place not often seen in travel blogs. The tour you took sounds really interesting – we’re big fans of the intentional, educational approach to travel because it really has the power to transform us and help us be better global citizens. Keep it up!

  13. Powerful story, Matt! Thanks for taking the time to share it from your perspective and with such detail. Your photos always enhance the experience for me.

    1. Glad you enjoyed it! One of the most unique & educational travel experiences I’ve ever had. Most of the people I met in Hebron were very happy to see tourists too, all the negative attention has hit them hard financially.

      1. A sound unbiased approach to this writes up. I am a British born Pakistani Muslim who would who would love to go to Palestine/Israel due to historical reasons alone but I am afraid as I may be taken for a Palestinian and have guns pointed at me on this tour! Anyway, I understand the bit about Hebron is a holy place for both Muslims and Jewish People for the reasons you mentioned and that they should have access to it but for me the crux of this crisis in my view is that Hebron occupation is against international law (United Nations). So it is like someone coming into your home and starts moving the furniture around and then taking up residence in another room of the house and saying we have the right to defend ourselves. That I can’t agree with but the international community does not tackle this.
        I do believe that a peaceful resolution can be reached if the extreme groups on both sides would allow peace. I can’t imagine any sound minded Jewish or Palestinian persons not wanting peace and the violence to stop. Muslims and Jewish people lived together in harmony before this; it can be achieved again if there is some agreeable compromise and would be happy to see that day, if in my life time.
        As for us Muslims we have to get rid of the crap that I have read in some ‘hadiths’ written (by corrupt people)about Jewish people and this notion that they are a cause to many of our problems. We are our own enemies, why, because we follow un-Qur’anic jackanories. The Quran does not say; kill Jews, stone adulteress, force people to become Muslims, that the prophet Mohammad married children or bomb people, children or that near the end, a precursor, Muslim Mehdi and Jesus descending to kill the Jews. These are all a pack of evil lies that have got to be stop and Muslims in Palestine and rest of the world need to re-educate and not to swallow anti-Semitic brainwashing rubbish by so called secondary sources in hadiths and mullahs in mosques, these should become proper education centres and not just aerobic sessions.