As young American Jews, we had come to Israel as ambassadors of the Birthright mission: “to diminish the growing division between Israel and Jewish communities around the world.” We had come in search of understanding, and an opportunity to view Israel in its entirety. They told us not to go, that the West Bank was not safe for us. But to visit Israel and avoid the Palestinian Territories on hearsay would have made us guilty of the very indifference that the Birthright program seeks to overcome.
We boarded a bus for Hebron, a city that has epitomized the kind of extremist violence that tears at the fabric of peace between Israel and Palestine. Home to the Cave of the Patriarchs, a site of equal religious significance to Islam and Judaism, Hebron’s history appears one of constant struggle. The Israelis point to a 1929 “massacre” that saw them ejected from their own homes. The Palestinians point to a 1967 “invasion” that saw them barricaded behind their own city walls. It is a city that gives real meaning to the buzzwords that define this conflict. But in Hebron, it is the Jews who seek the “right of return” and the Palestinians the “right to exist.”
We arrived at a barricaded checkpoint sandwiched within one of the many winding roads of the old city. The Israeli guard who stood opposite us behind bulletproof glass immediately demanded our passports and asked if we were Jewish. “American,” was all we told him. We had heard that soldiers sometimes restrict access to Palestinian areas from Jews regardless of origin. “For safety,” they would say. Given Hebron’s volatile history, the concern is not entirely misplaced, and it is one that we subscribed to as well. In our own naïve assumptions, we believed that one step beyond the security barrier lay open revolt. We expected violence and unrest, uproar and insecurity.
What we found instead was something far more mundane. A vacant alley of shuttered storefronts descended into a Ramadan bazaar in the heart of the old city. A group of schoolgirls skipped in front of us, headscarves wrapped tightly around their olive faces. A white-bearded man in a taqiyah folded scarves while peddling dresses to a group of middle-aged women. Two mustached young men haggled over the price of a bag of dates.
As we made our way through the streets of the bazaar, a young man named Mohammed approached us and began to point out the less obvious features of the market—the camouflage look-out towers perched atop mud-brick buildings, the gun posts, the barricaded alleyways and the barbed wire fencing that seemed to encircle everything. He walked us down one empty street after another. “These all used to be shops,” he told us, “now the Israelis do not allow us to be here. We are only allowed on these streets during Ramadan.” One such street had mesh fencing overhead cradling household refuse and other debris that had been tossed from the Israeli apartment block overlooking the market behind high walls. At each dead end he muttered the word “checkpoint,” his voice carrying the crude irony that a checkpoint in this part of the world was an impenetrable wall.
None of this seemed to faze them though. Everyone meandered through the market in preparation for the nightly break fast, despite the heavy weight of reality literally bearing down upon them from overhead. There was no evidence that the long arc of history was bending towards a 1776, 1917, 1989 or a similarly impassioned plea for self-determination. Their fight appeared astonishingly humble and human-scaled, as if each individuals’ daily routine was its own act of quiet defiance. But the sense of disillusionment was palatable. In their eyes we could glean a resignation to the reality of complete division and conflict. It was a familiar impression, one that we had felt on the Israeli side of Hebron.
We watched as a busload of French Jewish tourists marched down to the local yeshiva sitting just opposite an impenetrable “checkpoint,” waving flags and chanting about “le magique d’Hebron.” Inside the synagogue, they prayed as Jews do anywhere else in the world, either blissfully unaware or knowingly ignoring the cauldron of discontent that lay within earshot. This potential for violence, a group of Israeli soldiers standing outside the yeshiva told us, was the “tax” they pay for making a home in Israel. In violence as tax the true intractability of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict becomes clear. Like those of us in the United States whose entire political conscious was formed in the decade since 9/11, there is a generation of Israelis and Palestinians who have known in each other only conflict—and accept this as the norm.
Herein lies the fundamental problem with any proposed peace process: both sides believe in their right to live where they were born, and view violence as an acceptable cost for staying there. As the United Nations goes to vote on Palestinian statehood today, we would do well to keep this reality in mind. No amount of consensus on mutually agreed land swaps, defensible borders, rights to exist or rights to return will make Hebron a less volatile city in the absence of a more fundamental reconciliation between these two very divided peoples.
In Hebron, there are no silver bullets to peace. So long as the Israelis and Palestinians of this city remain guilty of indifference and fail to seek understanding beyond their walls, Hebron’s future, like its past, will remain mired in constant struggle.