Hebron and the Ibrahimi Mosque
from Pictures of Palestine
I visited Hebron, invited by Naima, whom I had met at the All Nations Café. A warm-hearted Muslim matriarch in her late forties, she was a peacemaker who had organised sport and social events to bring together Muslims and Jews in Hebron. She had been relieved of her job because the Israeli peace centre where she was employed kept recycling its Palestinian employees so that none could become too influential. She believed politics was prioritised over her qualities as an employee.
Hers was a lovely family, aged 11 to 27 – three males and one female, with two further sons living in Germany. Their father had abandoned them, leaving them without support, and I was impressed with the way they worked together and supported each other – an operational family solidarity many Westerners would long for.
We talked about life and the situation in Israel, in Iraq and the wider world – with translations by Yaqub, the eldest son. He was promising emigration material, with brains, computer programming skills and good English. Then we had lunch. At first vexed over my vegetarian diet, they cooked up something suitable, enjoying the challenge, and after sitting out the afternoon heat we went down to the centre of Hebron.
Here I should raise an incidental issue: Saddam Hussein. Whatever his sins, he supported Palestinians generously during his time. Yaqub had studied computer science in Baghdad, expenses-paid by Saddam’s regime – it was one of the few open-door opportunities available to a young Palestinian at the time. When the Americans invaded Iraq in 2003, Yaqub went into hiding, losing his university qualification papers in the process. He subsequently got out. But he was left with a good impression of Saddam Hussein, one of the few politicians who unequivocally and practically supported Palestinians through their darkest years. This is remembered favourably by Palestinians, despite the global unpopularity of this dictator.
In Western eyes, Yasser Arafat had scored an own-goal when, at the time of the Gulf War in 1991, he voiced support for Saddam. But he did so, rightly or wrongly, out of a Palestinian’s sense of honour. This dilemma would have been resolved otherwise if others, such as Western or other Arab countries, had supported the Palestinians in the 1970s and 1980s. But they didn’t. Yaqub knew that Saddam was no angel, but he wasn’t impressed with what had happened in Iraq after his fall in 2003 either.
Hebron is Palestine’s equivalent to Londonderry, Naples or Chicago – a shady, edgy and spicy place. From the rooftop of their house Yaqub pointed out a neighbour’s house where they stole Israeli cars and had them dismembered within minutes, so that when Israeli troops raided them soon after, there was no sign of the cars. The guys there were arrested and carted off regularly. Yaqub also mentioned family and clan feuding in Hebron, which apparently can go on for decades. It’s a hot’n’heavy place in some respects, but it has character.
Hebron is an ancient city, Palestine’s third largest after Jerusalem and Gaza City, with a population around 200,000. On arrival at the town centre, Naima explained that this had been its centre for the last twenty years only. The old centre, the souk, was now semi-abandoned as a result of Israeli settlers’ actions.
Being situated at one of the conflict’s frontlines, there’s more ill feeling toward Israelis in Hebron than in other Palestinian cities and I sensed this in the streets. Hebron is not quite as congenial as Bethlehem, yet I never felt in danger and, as a foreign observer, I was made welcome. People here feel left out and forgotten, so they appreciate visits by internationals. They also protect something important to Muslims worldwide – the Ibrahimi Mosque.
It was to the Ibrahimi Mosque that we headed. Naima felt it was important to take me and I was honoured to be taken. First we walked down into the benighted souk. It’s quaint, with narrow streets and small shops on either side. The shops at the top end near the city centre are still active but lower down it gets quiet, with a sadly abandoned look, and the tragedy of Hebron becomes blatantly visible. I was shown buildings from which Israelis had shot into the crowds in the 1990s and during the second intifada.
Many of the old shops in the souk are closed, some with metal door fronts welded shut by Israeli settlers so that shopkeepers could not re-open. Some shops were deliberately kept open by Palestinians to maintain a presence regardless of their viability. The settlers occupy properties as soon as they can assert that they are unused – which somehow entitles them to take them over or seal them up, even if the owner is away only for a few days.
But Hebronites are firm about keeping the Old City going, despite everything. The souk had become dangerous for Palestinians, who were fired at or had rocks, sewage and garbage thrown at them and the deserted souk was depressing for locals to see, so they often stayed out. Yet the shopkeepers maintained a presence here not just for sentimental and political reasons, but also because access to the Ibrahimi Mosque would be lost if they lost the Old City. To get to the mosque one had to go through the narrow streets of the souk.
Why all the fuss about the mosque? Well, here were the tombs of Abraham and Isaac, two great patriarchs of both the Jewish and the Muslim faiths. Abraham, or Ibrahim, is by tradition the genetic ancestor of both Arabs and Jews and the one who first spoke of the One God. By rights this should unite them, but instead it’s a matter of contention.
The tradition goes that the marriage of Abraham and his wife Sarah (or Sarai) was barren so he had a son, Ishmael, by a servant girl, Hagar – a standard practice around 1800 BCE, since servants were then counted as being part of the family, and monogamous fidelity was not then the rule. Later, miraculously, and at a strangely old age, Sarah bore a son by Abraham – this was Isaac, who then went on to father the Hebrew people. Hagar and Ishmael were cast out into the desert because Sarai had a fit of jealousy, since Ishmael was the eldest son and thus presumably Abraham’s inheritor or a threat to Isaac's status. This was the mythic beginning of a long saga of strife between Arabs and Israelites, coming to an intense symbolic focus today at the Ibrahimi Mosque. Sarai is there too, buried in the mosque, as well as Isaac and his wife Rebekah.
We shambled through the Old City, occasionally accosted by shopkeepers intent on earning shekels. I bought a few things but wasn’t awash with money. As soon as I reached into my pocket a flood of other shopkeepers would zoom in, smelling a rich Westerner. Such fraught hassling is uncommon in Palestine and it is easily seen off if you know the right hand-signals and remonstrate expressively enough. They were clearly desperate for business.
The good news was that the European Union had invested in improving the souk, paying for electricity and rents, subsidising shops to keep them open. The EU regards the Israeli occupation of Hebron to be incendiary and illegal, a breach of the 1993 Oslo agreements. By all means, Jews should have access to the Tomb of Abraham and, if they wish to live in Hebron, that shouldn’t be a problem if done in peace and good-neighbourliness and by buying properties legitimately and respectfully.
But this isn’t Israeli settlers’ strong point. Hebronite Palestinians were nervous not just because their country had been forcibly occupied in 1967 but also because the settlers, who arrived soon after and were backed by troops, acted threateningly, seizing property and getting rid of Palestinians through harassment. Rabbi Levinger was their ideological leader – an uncompromising, provocative type. They didn’t acquire property by negotiation – they took it because they felt entitled to it and sought control. Many were Americans, some of whom come to Israel spoiling for a fight.
Peaceful residence in Hebron is insufficient for some religious Jews. They seized one-fifth of Hebron, put up checkpoints and a hundred urban roadblocks, sectioning off part of the city. They built new, segregated access roads to the Jewish Quarter plus a big settlement outside the city at Kiryat Arba. To protect them the IDF moved in, taking control of the whole city in 2002, despite post-Oslo agreements in 1997 to divide control into Israeli (H2) and Palestinian (H1) sectors.
The whole thing had exploded in 1994 with settler Baruch Goldstein’s massacre of 29 Palestinians at the Ibrahimi Mosque. It should be said that the Palestinians have responded at times with violence to provocations like this, but usually in response to incitement. The outcome is that 200,000 Palestinians live in area H1 (about 80% of the city) and 500 Israeli settlers live in H2 (about 20%) – though the 7,000 settlers in Kiryat Arba and other settlements outside the city somewhat swell the numbers using H2.
It’s very sad in the Old City. The Israelis had seized the higher places, including the upper floors of Palestinian shops and houses. They threw rubbish and bricks on Palestinians below, and I was introduced to a shopkeeper whose head had been cracked open in such an incident. He showed me the dual medical certificates, one Palestinian, from the first hospital he went to, and one Israeli, after an international uproar had forced the Israelis to conduct an enquiry. The Israeli documentation cited the man’s injuries to be from a cause other than the violence and they asserted that the man had been assaulted by a Palestinian. Well, of course. That’s hasbarah, assertion of information contrary to what’s really going on, in order to bring reality into question and confuse the issue, so that everyone gives up.
Naima introduced me to some characters in the street. She had grown up and gone to school here. She showed me the wire protections paid for by the EU, installed over the narrow streets to protect people below from settlers’ garbage and projectiles. She pointed out more welded-up shopfronts.
At one point we met two Danes in blue uniforms, one a policeman on a year’s sabbatical, and the other an Arabic-speaking aid worker. They were from TIPH, the Temporary International Presence in Hebron, which kept a presence in the streets to restrain Israeli settlers and soldiers and Palestinian responses to them. A noble job they did, keeping the Old City open and quiet. TIPH was funded and staffed by Norway, Italy, Switzerland, Turkey, Denmark and Sweden, though its continued presence relied on an agreement renewed every six months between the PA and the Israeli government.
Their booklet, measuredly neutral and diplomatic in its wording, at one point states, “Permanent watchtowers were constructed [by the IDF] in area H1 [the Palestinian sector] in 2005. Since then the Israeli army operates over the entire area in violation of the 1997 agreements”. That’s as far as they go in their comments. To be permitted to stay here and monitor developments, international organisations have to watch their step, and their staffs occasionally take some hits too.
As we moved on, Naima showed me some of the tragic mess of the area – almost empty Palestinian streets with wire protections overhead, covered with rubbish, with settlers’ abodes above them and blatantly-placed Israeli flags hanging over the street. I stood there shedding tears. How can people do this kind of thing? How can they live with themselves? Is this really the best way to get what they want?
Gradually we neared the Ibrahimi Mosque, but first, we had to pass through the checkpoints. Not one, but three, each with a turnstile and a narrow metal-fenced single-file passage, so that passers-through could be singled out and inspected by the soldiers at the far end. Then it’s emptying pockets, inspection of bags, questions. Are you a journalist? Where are you from? Why do you have so many keys (from the school), what’s this and what’s that? Naima kept them sweet and I played my courteous Englishman act. The rather stern officer at checkpoint two was twenty years younger than me, and I made sure he knew it, letting him know through calm body-language and steady x-ray eyes that I wouldn’t permit him entirely to control our interaction.
The first checkpoint took us into the Jewish Quarter, the second to the outer part of the mosque and the third was at the very entrance to the mosque. The soldiers were okay, even guardedly friendly – there’s little point giving these guys a hard time since they’re just frontline subordinates, and there’s little point causing oneself trouble either. Most of them were just bored, doing quite pointless duties.
Then into the mosque. Naima told them I was a Muslim, bless her, so off came our shoes and we went into a large, arched, carpeted hall, then across it to the tombs of Isaac and his wife. Their remains are presumably 3,800 or so years old. Next we went to Abraham’s tomb – our side for Muslims, the other side for Jews. Naima and her daughter made prayers and I sat quietly in meditation. No one else was there.
It was a powerful atmosphere here, intensely still. I felt drawn deeply within myself into a markedly altered, spiritually-electrified state, a kind of potentised quietness. While Naima and her daughter made their prayers at the shrine, in meditation I contemplated my friends, parents and family, sending them a prayerful meteor of light from this place. I gave thanks for the privilege of being here, knowing that this was a memorable, special moment – it was a twenty-minute experience that would indelibly etch itself on my psyche.
Standing later before the tomb, I found myself saying unpremeditatedly, “Well, I came back to see you, and I said I would do so”, to Ibrahim the Patriarch, there in his tomb. I thought about that afterward and wondered what it actually meant. It was a statement from the soul. I had to sit down for a few minutes, quivering with the power of the place. The atmosphere was deep, charged and profound and I was thunderstruck, speechless, moved.
I understand why people fight over this place – it’s not just superstition or overblown religiosity. This is a cherished, intensely holy site which inspires awe. You can feel the Power of the Presence here. But wouldn’t it be better to agree to share this place in peace, instead of polluting this Presence with rivalry, massacres and checkpoints? Has religion truly won here or has its antithesis – fearful, nervous aggression – prevailed?
Eventually we emerged from the mosque, sitting down between two of the checkpoints. A female Israeli soldier, machine gun hanging nonchalantly from her shoulder, hollered to a male soldier up the hill, also with machine gun, who looked like her boyfriend. They were having a laugh and Naima, who speaks Hebrew, chuckled at their joke. She genuinely treats Israelis as real humans, with no scorn or disdain. I was impressed with her neutrality and wit amongst these wildly paradoxical, rather painful scenes. But then she has to live with it on a daily basis and I guess the situation here presents a stark choice: you can eat your heart out over it or accept it as it is and make the best of the situation as it stands.
Half-way back through the souk, we sat on one of the arty EU-financed stone benches in a square, under the watchful eye of some armed IDF soldiers atop the buildings. Naima told me how much she missed her lover in Iraq, asking me whether I missed my loved ones in England.
I took her hand and said, “We both have a long wait ahead, Naima, to see our loved ones again, but your wait is longer than mine”.
“You think I will ever live with him, Balden?”.
“I pray that you will, for you deserve it. You’re a good woman.”
Her eyes were tearful. “We all must have some kind of pain, Balden”. I looked into her eyes. A tear was making its way down my face too. Poor woman, like so many of her people, she cannot do much about her situation, but she channels it into peacemaking and raising a fine family. The acute experiential contrasts of a place like this, both tough and touching, bring out a breadth of feeling which, in the safe, switched-down emotional environment of my own country, is sorely lacking.
Six months later, I heard that Naima and her man had met up at last in Turkey, and were married. Then they went to Germany to meet her sons, returning to their respective countries to wait for the next time they could meet. Later on, they found a place to meet in Amman.
By the time we got back up to the centre of town, I was rather exhausted. I watched an officious PA policeman haranguing a bread trader for having an illegal stall.
“But that stall has been there all day, Naima.”
“The policeman, he’s just bossy. His wife probably nagged him this morning.”
Today, with Naima’s help, I’d fulfilled some sort of inner pact with my soul, on some deep level of being where the rational mind doesn’t reach. She understood little of my soul-journey and my way of seeing things, but she was sensitive enough to be able to facilitate something deep in the energy-patterning of my life. Something had happened today – a connecting-up of hidden linkages, of something that can be sensed but not fully known. My tryst with Palestine, with its past and its future, was in some way sealed on this day. It felt as if there would be no going back.
Tomorrow, back to Bethlehem. A journey from Abraham’s tomb to the birthplace of Jesus and King David – a further journey of the soul that cost eight shekels in a service taxi.
© Text and pictures copyright Palden Jenkins 2011. This is an extract from the book Pictures of Palestine by Palden Jenkins. You may print it out in single copies for your own non-commercial use or forward it by e-mail as long as the piece is unaltered and properly attributed to the author. The book's website is at www.palden.co.uk/pop