Hebron: An Average Day in the Graveyard of Innocence

Article excerpt

Editor's Note: Charles Foster is a freelance writer with experience in a number of theatres of war including South Lebanon, Bosnia and the West Bank. In December 2000 he went back to Hebron, one of the most volatile towns in the West Bank.

IT is difficult to get to Hebron these days. I started outside Jerusalem's Damascus Gate, and asked the drivers of the communal taxis for Bethlehem, which is the first stop. Even doing that made me a curiosity. The road was officially closed: there had been fighting by Rachel's Tomb, and there were official and unofficial road blocks. So we meandered across country; along dirt tracks; through olive groves; up and down improbable hills. And although there was not really much traffic going between Jerusalem and Bethlehem, progress was so slow that we were soon part of a long, bored convoy of road block evaders, watched by bored Palestinian police (fat, dressed in green, with guns) and bored Israeli soldiers (lean, dressed in green, with guns).

Then we spilt out onto the metalled road in Bethlehem, and I wandered past the ranks of closed shops. The place was desolate and destitute. There were no rich pilgrims from tour buses to buy olive wood camels and holy water. Down in the valley, at Beit Sahour, a child pretended to drive a wrecked car. On 9 November 2000, missiles fired from an Israeli helicopter at that car had decapitated Hussein Abayat, one of Arafat's henchmen. The Palestinians have a great talent for hagiography. Abayat is a martyr: the car is a shrine. His double-dealings were intrigues with the cleverness of heaven. His corruption was a front behind which he could work all the more devastingly for the freedom of Palestine.

One place gave me hummus and a bottle of water. Over the counter was the inevitable picture of a boy slinging a stone at an Israeli tank. 'It is beautiful, isn't it?', said the owner, pointing at the picture. I nodded, because that is what you do. He went on about David and Goliath, thinking that irony was his own discovery.

I asked the owner about getting to Hebron. It was impossible, his mother said. The road was closed. And anyway it was very dangerous: I would be killed. No, said the son, I could get through, but it would take a long time. And yes, it would be dangerous. Perhaps if I did not behave like a Jew, he said, I might be safe. I did not ask him what he meant, because you do not do that.

I found a taxi that would take me. Lots of places just off the road south had been shot up. Shops and houses were pock-marked. There were stones and rubber bullets and tear gas canisters and a trampled doll in the street. The problem with the route south was not the Israelis: they were pretty uninterested in civilian movement around the West Bank south of Bethlehem. But the road was blocked by great mounds of rock and earth moved there by Palestinians to make life difficult for Israeli soldiers and settlers. Of course ninety nine per cent of the traffic along these roads is Palestinian. Palestinian feet are holed like colanders with Palestinian bullets. We looped off the road and went again across country. There was no bit of our route which could not have been followed through cheap binoculars from one or other of the settlements. The settlements are inescapable: great hilltop fortresses of white stone and concrete filled with well-armed American idealists with thick skins and black or knitted kippot, whose table talk is of Abraham and Auschwitz.

They, and the increasingly militant Islamic Palestinians, are the constituency of Hebron. In Hebron is the Cave of Macpelah, which contains the tombs of the Patriarchs. It was in the Cave of Macpelah on 25 February 1994 that Dr. Baruch Goldstein opened fire on Arabs at prayer time, killing around 30 people.

They had been right in Bethlehem. It was not easy to get to Hebron. It did take along time and a lot of rubber to get there. It was besieged by its own people. …