Adventures in Hebron and Nablus

I refer to Palestine as that region otherwise known as the West Bank and Gaza and at least nominally under Palestinian political control. I refer separately to Israel as that region on the other side of the 1948 Armistice Line, the pre-1967 borders. I am fully aware that in the complex and convoluted geopolitics of this region this definition is unsatisfactory, inaccurate and highly controversial. However as a preliminary default position it will have to do.

I made three separate trips into this region in 2010 being based for extended periods in Hebron and Nablus and also travelling extensively including into the Gaza strip. I write semi-incognito as I plan to continue travelling into the region in the near future and do not want to prejudice my chances to be able to continue to do so. However I have so much ground to cover that I am giving this to you in two instalments covering in this chapter, Hebron and Nablus and a later instalment covering Gaza.

The first thing that strikes you is why this pocket handkerchief sized slice of land should have been and still remains so hugely influential on human life, politics, history and international security. That the three great religious myth systems of the world should have a basis in this region is one obvious reason. The more I see of the impact of so-called religions on the world the less am I inclined to dignify these mythologies with the credibility they crave and demand, and the more I agree with the likes of Christopher Hitchens; religion, particularly in the Middle East does poison everything.

The tortuous history of the establishment of the State of Israel in 1948, the aftermath of the Great Crime of the Holocaust and the founding of a safe haven for one persecuted people at the expense of another people who themselves became persecuted in turn, is one of the great challenges and tragedies of our age and has been a core problem in the history of humanity for the last 63 years.

Travel around this country, though, and you are struck with the absolute smallness of distance in Palestine. Is this really the same country referred to in Biblical epics where the Hebraic peoples moved around in desert fastnesses, where great battles were fought, where cities rose and fell? I mean, it’s all so tiny. If you are used to the great distances of Africa or Asia, Palestine comes as a shock. You have reached your destination before you realised you had left your starting point. Take the drive down from Jerusalem to Hebron. Almost as soon as the walls of the Old City have fallen behind you, you are passing by Bethlehem. ‘Wait a minute’, you think ‘what about the hagiographic images of donkey rides across deserts to reach the ancient city and the cold search for a room at the Inn?’ Bethlehem seems more like a Jerusalem suburb than a separate destination. Getting through Israeli security checkpoints (more on that later) does slow down journey times, but it’s hardly the Great Trek. About 30 minutes drive down a 4 lane highway and there you are in Hebron, hotbed of Palestinian radicalism, the centre of the fear factor for Israelis.

I spent seven weeks living in Hebron and three weeks in Nablus and in a long and varied career in many of the hot spots of the world, I have rarely felt so relaxed and unthreatened as I have in Hebron and Nablus, both attractive and fascinating cities with a long and colourful history.

My main concern in Hebron was where I could get hold of a beer, being one of the more conservative cities in Palestine. It was bone dry, and only by mounting rescue missions to Bethlehem and Jericho was I able to restock my fridge with suitable refreshment, the light and tasty Palestinian Taybeh beer, albeit a beer with some quality control issues; it broke my heart to have to tip an undrinkable bottle or two down the sink. In Nablus I had to make excursions to the Samaritan settlement of Kiryat Luza on top of Mount Gerizim, where booze was available in the shops; if you could make it past the Israeli checkpoints separating the village from Nablus city.

Figure 1: Modern Hebron city

In Hebron the main issue for the Palestinians is the absolute stinking behaviour of the Israeli settlers both in the old city and in the adjacent (illegal) settlement of Kiryat Arbah. These are the worst of the Zionist fundies and express their contempt for their Palestinian neighbours by actually tipping their garbage down on their heads. In the old souk the Palestinians are forced to protect their streets with a covering of chicken wire to stop the garbage from the Israeli flats above landing on their heads. Anyone following the news and the US sponsored Peace talks knows that the Israeli settlements are the big sticking point in achieving any sort of peace.

Figure 2: The Old City Hebron

I was able to wander at will in the old souk of Hebron and into the Israeli quarters, a luxury not available to the Palestinians. Passing through the Israeli Defence Force checkpoint in the old souk that allowed entrance to the Machpelah Caves, otherwise known to the Palestinians as Al Haram al Ibrahimi and to the rest of us as the tomb of the Biblical Prophets, Abraham, Isaac, Jacob and their wives, I was warned in a hushed tone by the Israeli soldier to ‘be careful of the Palestinians, they’re all thieves’. I fumed quietly ‘cheeky bugger’ but thought better of voicing this openly. I never felt threatened in seven weeks in Hebron and realised this was part of the defence mechanism the Israelis use to stigmatise the Palestinians. If they couldn’t think of them all as thieves or terrorists they might start thinking of them as human beings with the same hopes, dreams, worries and expectations as themselves and even start treating them humanly instead of as sub-humans.

I lived in uptown Hebron close to the football stadium where the local team, Hebron Al Shabaab (Hebron Youth) played every weekend. It brought home to me again the relative normality of it all. They loved football here and especially loved Spanish football, Real Madrid and Barcelona having fanatical followings in Palestine. I was in Nablus when Spain won the World Cup. I thought the outpouring of celebrations nationally was a new ‘intifada’ so loud and long did they celebrate. The truth is all the Palestinians want, like all people is a normal life in their own country, but for the moment this remains a frustrated dream.

My work took me into the Hebron hills in the region south of Hebron known as Musaffer Yatta. This was more uncertain territory, being officially under Israeli military control despite being within the West Bank. Mostly populated by Bedouin shepherds Arab settlements are forbidden here and any attempt at construction is quickly ripped down by Israeli military patrols. Not so of course the new Israeli settlements on the hilltops, replete with water and greenery using the aquifers under Arab land to fill their pools and water their gardens, while the ancient water catchments used by the Bedu are frequently demolished by the Israelis to deter use of these lands and drive them away to their new Bantustans.

We were stopped time after time by Israeli patrols, demanding my passport while I stared up the barrel of a machine gun mounted on the front of a Humvee controlled by some spotty nervous teenager in uniform. Apache and Blackhawk choppers buzzed us in the desert, just in case we were AQ making a prohibited foray into the holy land of Judea. I visited Bedouin living in caves in the hillsides within sight of the Israeli settlements (mind you these cave dwellers did have solar power with satellite TV in their caves!) They’re not allowed to build houses or any shelters taller than knee height so caves are the next best bet. The juxtaposition of 21st Century villages on the hilltops overlooking cave dwellers is just one of many absurdities of Palestine.

Figure 3: Bedouin encampment in the foreground and the illegal Israeli settlement of Karmel in the background

Nablus too is another Palestinian city made notorious by Israeli mythology as a hotbed of terrorism and militancy. While it is true most of the Palestinians are pretty angry and hence militant…who the hell wouldn’t be under the circumstances….again what hits you on the surface is the normality of everyday people going about their everyday life. Only when travelling south to Ramallah and Jerusalem and east to the Jordan valley, do you see the restrictive nature of that normality; the endless checkpoints, the suspicion, the change in control of the countryside every few kilometres as you move in and out of Palestinian and Israeli control. Some roads are under Palestinian control while the verges are Israeli; it’s a confusing and surreal land in so many ways.

Figure 4: Nablus city from Mt Gerizim

Figure 5: Souk in Nablus old city

This pocket sized country is beautiful though in a rugged kind of way. The central spine is mostly hills and mountains merging south into the Negev desert and east into some of the lowest land on the planet in the Jordan valley. It’s also becoming incredibly overcrowded with all available half decent land becoming built up, either by Palestinian villages or Israeli settlements. The whole demographic issue is another political hot potato as the Palestinians try to fill their land up to achieve demographic superiority over the Israelis and strengthen their political position. The Israelis in turn pour in their settlers to fill up the land and use the argument of rule by conquest as the basis to justify their continued and perhaps permanent presence in Palestinian lands.

I entered Palestine a bit naive and not really understanding the context. I left feeling a bit confused, rather angry, but also certain that here was a story that is too infrequently told in the west. We get fed the Israeli narrative all too frequently and it gets (intentionally) mixed up in the rhetoric of the War on Terror to justify repression and injustice. There is a tale of two sides here and one that it is essential to understand if we are to at all comprehend some of the complexities and hazards of this dangerous modern world.

Author – “Wild In Africa”

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