The thought of going to the West Bank had been on my mind for weeks while I was traveling through Europe.
Now, I was arriving in Israel and emailing some online friends for advice on going to Hebron to see the "Palestinian side".
After some tips I found on various web searches, I got hooked up with a young Palestinian man named Abed. He was in his third year at University majoring in English. He would be my guide as I made my way into Hebron, Palestinian side.
I am anxious and not without a little anxiety as I wait for the bus. I had been told not to say I was with any kind of humanitarian group as the IDF was said to harass volunteer humanitarian workers. I am unsure of whether or not this is true but I am heeding all advice I have received. I am awaiting Abed near the crossing into Palestine, here a shop keeper seems happy to see foreign visitors and he begins to hand out warm cups of sweet tea as I wait for Abed.
There is a relatively strong military presence.
Soldiers carrying assault rifles and armored vehicles are everywhere. After about ten of fifteen minutes Abed approaches and apologizes for his tardiness and explains he was briefly held up at an IDF (Israeli Defense Force) checkpoint. As he accompanies me to the checkpoint to enter into Palestine, I am a little baffled by the crossing.
IDF soldiers armed with assault rifles are asking questions and I proceed to go through an airport like check, questions, bag check and metal detectors.
This, to go into Palestine. Although it seems odd to me, I am told this is standard and I make it through the checkpoint without a problem with Abed answering the questions for me.
After this we begin to walk to the old city where narrow alleys line with small shop are selling there wares.
At first sight I noticed something odd.
Above this narrow alley is a chain link fence strung horizontally across above our heads. I ask Abed about this and he explains that they have been forced to string fencing above them because the Israeli settlers living in the buildings above routinely throw either garbage or rocks down at the Palestinians and they need to shelter themselves. Sure enough, as we walk further down the alley I see debris, stones and other objects laying atop the chain link fence just a few feet above our heads.
As we approach a small museum dedicated to Palestinian artifacts, a street vendor is following us persistently trying to sell me a bracelet, he is relentless and I cave and purchase one for about $5 U.S. but this only works for a minute or so before he starts up again with his pitch trying to sell me a second one. As Abed and I make are way into the small museum the curator begins speaking in Arabic and Abed acts as my translator as he explains the various artifacts ranging from pottery to sculpture , most damaged or broken from years of conflict.
We are then taken into what was once a Turkish bath house and now used to display maps of the ever changing borders of Hebron. The curator seems very eager to speak of history and Abed is doing his best to keep up with translations. From here Abed leads me back into the old city along the shops where a baker has just put out a rack of rolls for sale. I purchase one still warm from the oven and take a bite as Abed gives a brief history lesson.
I feel something touch my leg and look down to see a little girl no older than three, looking up at me with innocent brown eyes. I smile and and soon realize her innocent brown eyes also reveal hunger. I hand her the roll I had taken one bite of and give it to her. She does not say a word or smile, but takes a bite of the roll and her face shows a thank you as her vacant eyes look up at mine. I do not know if I am feeling happiness or sadness after this encounter and I look back to the baker to buy another roll for her but she is gone from my side.
We take a short stroll to a the home of a friend of Abed's and pass by what looks like an abandon neighborhood. There is trash everywhere and hundreds of closed shops. A closer look at the doors reveals locks and pieces of steel welded across the doors so they cannot be opened. Abed explains that this area was an active market not many years ago and the IDF has forcibly closed all the shops in the area for "security reasons".
Graffiti is rampant with tags of "Ghost Town" and "End Apartheid" seen everywhere in this deserted part of Hebron.
As we come upon Abed's friends home and climb up the stairs to the roof top I am greeted by a beautiful few of some of the hilltops of Hebron. After I am done marveling at the sight while Muslim prayers are broadcast over loudspeakers I am brung back to reality.
I turn around and behind me no more than 20 meters is an IDF tower manned with young soldiers carrying AR-15 style weapons, stationed here to protect the settlers. I am told that is all they do. Any crime committed against a Palestinian is ignored. I am hesitant about taking pictures or videos being so closely watched.
Abed's friends home was recently a victim of arson when a settler threw a Molotov cocktail into the home which in turn caused the death of his ten year old brother. Char marks are still evident on the door frame as his younger brother poses for a picture for me in the doorway. I am told no charges were ever brought against the settler, in fact the only people the Palestinians have to turn to to report crime is the Israeli police whom I am told, care little about crimes against Palestinians.
As we look down into the city streets , I am shown certain areas where (for security reason) Palestinians are not allowed to go. Sometimes a simple walk to a market five minutes away has now turned into a thirty minute walk because of the limited access Palestinians are given. It is a strange place, where you see settlers have built homes abutting the Palestinians and it seems , between the forced shop closings, violence against Palestinians and encroaching settlers that the Palestinians are being forced out.
After we venture through another IDF checkpoint we come upon an area that would remind you more of what Palestinian life could be. This is a zone, less controlled by the IDF and shows a life more "normal". The market is bustling with shoppers purchasing life's everyday needs. Women and men going about their daily lives, although the strain of conflict is evident, people smile and are seemingly happy to have outsiders visiting there hometown.
I imagine the West Bank is not a heavy tourist destination by any means, so the sincerity of the Palestinians is welcome.
We eventually make our way to Abeds families home.
A modest and neatly kept house sparsely decorated. It is here I meet his mother and two sisters who are quick to offer me a chair and make me feel at home. I am treated to a meal of half chickens, rice and carrots. The chicken is cooked so perfectly you can take the meat off with a spoon. I am told here, that the IDF can enter their home at anytime and for no reason to conduct security checks. The random checks apparently happen about once every month or so.
A neighbor comes in for a visit and explains the last time his home was security checked by the IDF large dogs were brought in frighting the children so much they urinated themselves. I ask Abed how he would describe everyday life in Palestine. "An open air prison" he says and that is exactly what it is. We are sitting in the courtyard within his home as the skies open up and rain begins to fall through the chain link fence and tarp above our heads.
After his sister serves me another cup of warm tea with a smile, I feel like I am visiting family. Their cat is nestling at my feet and this is as warm a welcome I have received into a strangers home. Abeds mother has made sure I ate plenty and his sisters have kept my tea topped off. I ask Abed what his plans for the future hold and I am told he would like to stay here and maybe teach English but the uncertainty in his voice and given the present circumstance of his hometown environment, planning for the future is not always in his hands.
As we concluded our tour and head back towards the IDF checkpoints I can't help but feel a sense of hopelessness as I look at all the boarded up shops which used to be a gold exchange that now look like a wasteland. But Abed has convinced me there is optimism for peace and although there are great feelings of powerlessness against the IDF there are also some hard feelings against some radicals whom have also made it more difficult for peace.
As I said my thanks to Abed I felt more educated about the issues at hand today in The West Bank. I couldn't begin to wholly understand how things got to where they are today with so many people telling different sides of the story. Though no matter what side of the story you believe, innocent people are suffering under occupied rule.
I did witness the poor treatment of innocent Palestinians with my own eyes.
Suffering that most of the world today has turned a blind eye to.