Spending a Saturday afternoon in Hebron can be very rewarding as a tourist. Not because of the well-known beauty of the city or because of its inspiring and sparkling local community and lively souk; but because on Saturday regular tourists can witness the dramatic conditions under which the Palestinian residents of Hebron are forced to live. Saturday is the day when the weekly Settlers-tour of the historic center of Hebron takes place.
The tour is organised by the settlers of the Avraham Avinu and Beit Romano settlements, led by the chief Rabbi, and it is aimed at tourists from Israel and from abroad, especially Americans who want to get in touch with their Jewish heritage. Settlers are Israeli citizens who, for economic or ideological reasons, choose to live in settlements in the West Bank. In Hebron, settlers have established themselves on a hill in the center of the city; they are civilians, but they are allowed to carry automatic weapons. Approximately 600 Israeli settlers live in Hebron -- among the most violent and conservative in the entire West Bank – constantly protected by more than 3000 soldiers of the IDF (Israeli Defense Force).
The city of Hebron is the location of the second most important holy site for Jews and the fourth most holy site for Muslims. The settlers run tours to show their visitors the locations that are important in their religion, in particular The Tomb of the Patriarchs/Ibrahimi Mosque. According to the Biblical tradition, Adam and Eve came to live here after being chased away from the Garden of Eden and here are supposed to be the tombs of Abraham, Isaac, Jacob and their wives.
In the late '70s the Israeli army began the demolition of houses in the Hebron area, closing the thriving agricultural market in order to build the new settlement of Avraham Avinu. In 1984 the IDF occupied the bus station in the center of the city for "security reasons" and turned it into a military outpost. Between 2000 and 2003 377 days of curfew were imposed in the area.
Shuhada Street, from which the tour starts, is the main street in the center of Hebron, and is one of the most significant examples of the policy of occupation and separation in the West Bank. According to the 1997 protocol that defined the status of Hebron, the city is divided into two parts: H1 under the Palestinian Authority and H2 under Israeli military control. The closure of Shuhada Street and many of its shops is an indirect consequence of the 1994 massacre, when the Israeli settler Baruch Goldstein broke into the Ibrahimi Mosque and killed 29 Palestinians. This event was condemned by the Israeli Government and the extreme right-wing Kach party (to which Goldstein belonged) was banned as a result. In consequence, instead of limiting access to the old city for the settlers, curfews were extended, strict restrictions on movement with 16 checkpoints were put in place and the closure of Palestinian commercial activities near settlement areas was introduced.
The tour starts around half past three in the afternoon every Saturday; settlers and tourists come out from the Beit Romano settlement through the heavily guarded gate facing the main junction in Shuhada Street. Soldiers have already positioned themselves at the four corners of the junction with loaded machine guns and in constant contact with sniper soldiers perched on vantage points in the settlement and in the old city. The area in front of the exit is cleared and nobody is allowed to transit until the “tourists” get out.
The chief Rabbi leads the group under the constant watch of more than 20 soldiers. As they approach the old city the Rabbi starts addressing the small crowd explaining the importance of the city for Jews. His voice resounds in the narrow empty roads as a warning for the Palestinian residents. Nobody in the old city is allowed to witness this surreal event; only a bunch of journalists and international activists follow the “happy brigade” -- but they are kept at a security distance.Thanks to a fortunate series of events or an inexplicable sign of good faith on the part of the chief Rabbi and the soldiers I manage to sneak in amongst the group of tourists and take pictures of the tour.
Soldiers are constantly on alert; they move back and forth checking any possible source of risk. A small squad of soldiers were following us from above, patrolling the area from the flat roofs of the ancient buildings. The tourists seem not to be bothered by the bizarre situation. They are hanging on the words of the Rabbi, who now and then stop to declaim biblical passages and extracts of the Talmud that refer to the specific edifice he’s talking about.
Most of the tourists are from the United States; their accent is clearly recognisable as they express admiration at the Rabbi explanations. I try to ask questions to the youngest ones but what I get in response are emotionless facial expressions followed by uncomfortable murmurings. As we approach the Cave of the Patriarchs I sense that someone is pulling me back by grabbing my backpack. It’s a soldier. He asks me to show an ID and when I mention that I am a journalist his face is suddenly pervaded by an expression of cold disgust. I am asked to move back to a security distance amongst the other journalists and photographers and I cannot do anything to oppose his request.
The tour ends after few minutes, tourists and soldiers disappear behind a massive green iron steel gate, the second entrance to Beit Romano settlement. As the clang of the gate locker fades away all of a sudden the emptied roads are filled with Arab boys and girls riding little rusty bicycles and playing football wearing the shirts of European football teams. Normality seems to have returned to the old city of Hebron, the spectral and tense atmosphere that pervaded the streets during the tour has left the place to the silvery laughs of Hebron’s kids. Until next Saturday of course.