This was published on the Reuters Great Debate blog.
There’s no pretty way to describe what I saw in Hebron, no tidy conceit to wrap it in.
I visited as a participant in the Palestine Festival of Literature, the brain child of the great British-Egyptian novelist Ahdaf Soueif. I was in the company of many wonderful writers and publishers, among them Python and traveller Michael Palin, best-selling crime novelist Henning Mankel, Pride and Prejudice screenplay writer Deborah Moggach, and prize-winning novelists Claire Messud and MG Vassanji.
Our first stop was Hebron University, where I ran a workshop on ‘the role of writing in changing political realities.’ The students were bright and eager; the only discomforting note was struck by a memorial stone to three killed while walking on campus, by rampaging settlers, in 1986.
After lunch we visited Hebron’s historic centre.
The usual way on the West Bank is for Israeli checkpoints, towers and settlements to encircle Palestinian population concentrations. But here 400 gun-wielding settlers, guarded by 1500 soldiers, also occupy the centre of the Old City.
The delight of any Arab old city is the sensation of freedom it offers; you can disappear under arches, around corners, through dark passageways. But Hebron’s freedom has been robbed by iron gates and concrete blocks. There are military positions and ‘Jews-only’ roads. Such slogans as ‘Gas the Arabs’ are daubed on the green-shuttered shops. 77% of Old City shops are closed by military order. Settlers squatting the upper storeys throw excrement, kitchen rubbish and stones at pedestrians in the souq.
Hebron’s Arabic name is al-Khalil, meaning ‘the friend’, referring specifically to God’s friend Abraham, buried here with his wife Sarah and son Isaac. The tombs are sacred to both Jews and Muslims, and in quieter times were shared, but the struggle between Zionism and the Palestinian natives has changed that. In 1994 Brooklyn-born settler Baruch Goldstein shot dead 29 Palestinians at prayer in the Ibrahimi Mosque, injuring 150 more. Rather than compensate the community for the massacre, Israel imposed a two-week perpetual curfew while it confiscated 65% of the mosque for use as a synagogue. Which means a physical wall now divides this historic building, to add to the other walls shadowing the towns and refugee camps of Palestine.
Outside, Zionist songs blast from a Judaic centre day and night, so nearby residents can neither sleep nor hear the call to prayer. A settler swaggers with a science-fiction sized gun hanging off his shoulder, and his three dogs ranging off the lead (for Middle Easterners the dog is an unclean animal, to be kept away from mosques and churches.) Another settler is filming us, up close. When writer Bridgid Keenan asks him why, he replies, “Because you will go to hell!” But later we were told the real reason, beyond the intimidatory flourish, was to send our faces to be registered as enemies of Israel by American Zionist organisations.
Carmen Callil, founder of Virago books, was wearing a bracelet in the colours of the Palestinian flag. The camera-brandishing settler reported this misdemeanour to a nearby soldier, who pointed his gun at Carmen and ordered her to remove the bracelet immediately. She did so openmouthed. A few metres away an old man tended a surviving shop. When I spoke kindly to him, he embraced me and heaved tears. He wasn’t used to kind speech.
Hebron is beyond grim, beyond Kafkaesque. There’s no good way to describe this vandalised, rotting city. Not much left of the centre, and very nearly nothing left of Palestine, not physically. What remains is a gleam of light: the ingenuity and endurance of the Palestinians.
Click here to see a photo album of my visit to al-Khalil. Please read the captions.
And please learn about the work of the Hebron Rehabilitation Committee.