Since I had never been to Israel or the West Bank, and did not even know how to negotiate the short journey from Jerusalem to Hebron, I joined a tour led by one of the many groups with an interest in the city. The Hebron Rehabilitation Committee (HRC) had been set up in 1996 after the massacre in the mosque, and with the aim of addressing its consequences: when it began operations, more than a third of the densely packed stone buildings in the Old City were abandoned or neglected, and it was home to no more than five hundred people. The HRC began renovating the frayed buildings and offering subsidized rents, and during the next ten years its population increased ten times over. Reviving its commercial life proved much harder: our guide, Walid, told us that if he had not held his father’s hand when he visited the Old City as a child, he would have got lost in the crowds, but such precautions were hardly necessary any more – Sunday is a normal day of business in Hebron, but most of the stalls that lined the winding course of Al-Harem Street were shut, and the few that had remained open had no customers, apart from us.
The settlers never enter the covered part of the souk without an army escort, but it was not hard to detect the evidence of their presence: there were Israeli flags flying from the rooftops, and the unroofed sections of the souk that abutted the settlements were covered with a veil of chicken wire to catch the stones and bottles thrown from above. The side streets that ran south towards the settlement established on the site of the old wholesale market on the southern edge of the Old City were blocked with rubbish and barbed wire, and the main street that used to run towards it had been cut in half by a barrier built from the immense concrete blocks that form the ‘separation fence’ or ‘apartheid wall’ that runs between Israel and the West Bank. The street must have been abandoned in great haste, for the doors to the shops were standing open, and there were traces of chicken shit and feathers stuck to the pallets stacked on the pavements. The city had been divided into two zones in 1997, but the process of segregation had not been completed, for the area called H2, where the Israeli army retained control, had been torn in half along a jagged line that ran through the middle of the Old City.
When we first emerged in the sunlit square beyond the last line of houses that had once formed the Old City’s outer wall, it felt like we had stepped off a forest trail onto the edge of a treeless plain, but the sense of openness diminished as I looked around. The camouflage netting covering the facade of the building on the east side of the square indicated that it was one of many that had been requisitioned by the army, and the military presence was even more apparent on the western side, where there was another settlement in a large grey building called Beit Romano – a watchtower had been set up on the concrete roof above its yard, and the road that ran past it, and climbed the hill towards Tel Rumeida, was sealed by a heavy metal gate flanked by two more watchtowers.
Six soldiers were coming to the end of their patrol as we went past: ‘There’s another side of the story,’ one of them said in an American accent, when he recognized the affiliation of our group. They went through the gates and locked them behind them. I looked through the gap by the chain and saw them standing in a circle, heads bowed in prayer. The soldier’s assertion did not have the effect that he intended: I have been a journalist for most of my working life and I have always believed that it is my job to listen to what people have to say, regardless of their reputation, and to tell their stories as accurately and honestly as I can. Until that afternoon, I had not doubted that there was ‘another side to the story’, and yet now that I had been confronted with the worst effects of an occupation that smothers the lives of four million people, the idea of engaging with the settlers seemed a shameful compromise, a paring away of the anger that was the only reasonable response to the situation.
I wondered how anyone could justify the damage that had been inflicted on the city, let alone the cost in human life that the settlers’ presence had entailed; and yet my indignation did not blind me to my nature. I am not an activist or a polemical writer. I admired the people who resisted the depredations of the settlers of Hebron, but I could not join them, and I could not write about the city if I was arguing a case. I could not evade the political dimension of the conflict, but it wasn’t what had caught my attention – I wanted to understand the city’s mythic history, and the ways in which it continued to inform its inhabitants’ lives. Above all, I wanted to understand the history of Tel Rumeida.
I only saw it from a distance. At the end of the tour we climbed onto the roof of the HRC’s office in a restored palazzo near the Tomb of the Patriarchs and looked out across the Old City. The buildings were so closely packed together that they seemed to form an unbroken surface, an undulating, dun-brown landscape, like a dried-up riverbed or wadi, riven by the cracks of the streets. Tel Rumeida was 500 metres to the west: its lower slopes were populated by the gravestones of a Muslim cemetery, and its upper slopes were a blur of dark green foliage. As I gazed at the spot where I thought the settlement ought to be, the rattle of gunfire drifted across the rooftops.
Four months later, I went back to Hebron on my own.
Read: Why I wrote 'The City of Abraham'
Edward Platt describes his first visit to Hebron, the largest city in the West Bank and one which would come to fascinate him.