Wednesday: Mosques, Tombs, Fortresses, and Settlements
This morning, we loaded all 34 of us plus our guide, Naim, and driver, Muhammad, onto our bus and drove the 15 km south of Bethlehem to Hebron and the Tomb of the Patriarchs. We first visited the al-Ibrahimi Mosque, which sits atop the cave that Abraham bought for Sarah's burial (Genesis 23). Subsequently, Abraham was laid to rest there, as were Isaac, Rebekah, Jacob, and Leah. (Rachel was buried in Bethlehem, where she died.) After the women in our group covered their heads, we all removed our shoes and were led into the mosque, where we met Sheikh Hatim, a civil judge and leader of the Hebron Muslim community. The sheikh spoke of his great desire for peace, our common ancestry going back to the prophets, and his own respect for all faiths. During his talk, an Israeli soldier entered the mosque accompanied by someone carrying a microphone. The soldier did not remove his boots, an act of disrespect that occurs frequently, according to our guide for the day, Whalid.
Inside this part of the mosque are the tombs of Isaac, Rebekah, and Abraham. Sarah, Jacob and Leah are on the side of the building housing the synagogue. We were greeted there by an Israeli settler who first explained the reasons for the Israeli settlements, their history, and current situation of the six settlements in Hebron. Inside the synagogue, we saw the tombs and learned the story of their discovery in the Caves of Machpelah, reputedly containing the bones of patriarchs found only 29 years ago. While the bones have not been carbon-dated, a pottery jar also found there dates to the time of David in 1,000 BCE. These are the tombs of the ancestors of the Jews, and our guide from the settlements was insistent on the legitimate Jewish claim to residence in Hebron even though it is Palestinian territory.
We next walked through the old Hebron marketplace with stalls of exotic goods and merchandise that might be found in any open-air bazaar in the world. This central area of Hebron is heavily contested, with Israeli settlements built on top of some of the shops. The settlers claim that having the shops below them is a security risk, so the businesses are shut down by government order. We saw many shop doors that had been welded shut, as well as netting strung across the market alleyway to protect pedestrians and shopkeepers from stones and debris thrown from above by the settlers. The threat posed to the Palestinian merchants was palpable, and 100-plus roads and entrances to the market and around Hebron have been blocked to prevent access to Israeli settlements. This has devastated business for merchants and causes Palestinians to make long detours to get from one place to another when, before the settlements, some trips might have taken only a few minutes.
Whenever I have read about Israeli settlements going up in Palestinian territory, I always imagined tents or squatter’s quarters or temporary huts, but these are well-constructed houses that are protected by Israeli security on land the settlers in Hebron claim was taken from them in a 1929 Massacre. The settlements have expanded into central Hebron and have “jumped” the market alleyway in an apparent effort to bisect one side of Hebron from the other. This would serve to further isolate and restrict Palestinian movements, exacerbating the current poverty rate of 77%. The settlers are quite aggressive toward Palestinian residents of Hebron as we learned from our guide as well as three volunteers for Ecumenical Accompaniment Programme in Palestine and Israel (EAPPI), a program of the World Council of Churches (WCC) that provides witnesses for Palestinians as they pass through checkpoints and for children as they make their way to school. The stories we heard from these young people, who are not able to intervene but only witness and document, were quite compelling as third-party corroboration of much that we had heard from our Palestinian guides. They volunteer for 3-month terms and provide reports to the WCC as well as the United Nations.
Our day ended at the colossal Herodion, the burial place of Herod the Great and a fortress and home for Herod built between 23-20 BCE. We trudged up a steady incline to the peak of the Herodian from which we could look down into the fortress as well as enjoy breathtaking views of the surrounding countryside: Hebron and Beersheba to the south, the Dead Sea to the east, Bethlehem to the west, and Jerusalem to the north. It is toward Jerusalem that we will journey tomorrow.
Elaine Ellis Thomas