The Hebron most don’t see

There is another side to the city of strife so often depicted in the news – one of bustling shopping malls and hospitable people

Downtown Hebron shopping area in the Palestinian Authority H1 controlled section of the city, February, 2018 (photo credit: BEN BRESKY)
Downtown Hebron shopping area in the Palestinian Authority H1 controlled section of the city, February, 2018
(photo credit: BEN BRESKY)
Hebron, the largest and most prosperous city in the Palestinian Authority, has a population of more than 200,000 and boasts numerous factories and distributorships, accounting for a significant portion of the PA economy.
Curious about how the average Hebronite lives, earlier this year I decided to visit the city, observe life there and write a non-political article.
My travel companion was Gil, a veteran writer who has been to PA cities before and is relatively fluent in Arabic. I have known Gil for a long time and been to his Shabbat table, where one can generally meet a wide variety of guests – from rabbis to those who have never experienced Shabbat before.
How does one get to Hebron? Technically, it is not permitted for Israeli citizens to enter what is known as Area A, which is under jurisdiction of the PA (the Jewish neighborhoods of Hebron fall under Area C, Israeli jurisdiction. There is also Area B, for joint jurisdiction, which mainly covers the roads in between, shared by residents of both areas). Hebron has been divided this way since the mid-1990s; beforehand, Gil explained, one could travel freely to all areas.
The city of Hebron is divided into H1 (PA) and H2 (Israeli). Large red signs warning Israelis not to enter H1 dot the turnoffs along Route 60.
I waited with Gil at the bus depot outside the Old City of Jerusalem next to Damascus Gate and caught a bus to Bethlehem.
From there we caught a sherut (shared taxi) to Hebron, where we were dropped off in a bustling downtown area. (Getting home was easier, as we just hopped a sherut, and for NIS 25 each, drove straight back to the bus depot in Jerusalem.) I kept waiting to be stopped and asked for my ID, as Gil had led me to expect, but that moment never came.
WE GOT there at about 2 p.m. on a Thursday and Hebron was crowded. Tables lined the sidewalks, selling clothing, phones, children’s toys and more; vendors called out the prices of their products, like in the shuk in Jerusalem.
I saw many Disney characters and other kids’ mascots, such as a Tweety Bird towel with Arabic writing and a clothing store called “Tom and Jerry” in the familiar font of the classic cartoon. As we crossed the busy street, one scene stood out that I was sure would make a great picture. A woman dressed in a long black dress with her head and face covered with a veil sat on the steps collecting spare change. Behind her in a large store window hung blankets with characters from Disney’s Frozen. What a contrast between the two – a traditionally dressed street beggar juxtaposed with Anna and Elsa, and in the next window, bed sheets with SpongeBob SquarePants.
I gave her a few coins and motioned with my camera to ask if it was okay to snap her photo, but she shook her head. My award-winning photo would not take place today. I noticed the woman held a document, which I assumed was similar to the approbations beggars in Jerusalem have, attesting that they are legitimate charity cases. It was labeled with the eagle symbol seal of the Palestinian Authority. Maybe she was collecting for a local charity.
The PA eagle and red-black-white-and-green flag were common sights as we passed by the Hebron municipal building and other government institutions.
Gil shook his head and questioned whether I would be able to write an article if I kept shying away from all the money shots.
We entered a large shopping complex called the Hebron Center. The eight-story building contained numerous stores, a glass elevator and resembled any other normal shopping mall. A security guard greeted us in a friendly manner and asked us what country we were from. My plan of fading into the background was failing. I told Gil we were sticking out like a sore thumb.
Most of the women wore head scarves and long dresses. A few older men wore checkered keffiyehs, but most men dressed like men in any Western country. Gil told me Hebron, or Al-Khalil as many Arabic-speakers call it, is a conservative and religious town with no movie theaters, bars or nightlife, in contrast to Ramallah or Bethlehem, which are more cosmopolitan.
All monetary interactions were in Israeli shekels and I noticed a good amount of Israeli products such as ketchup and snack foods. I also noticed a small bumper sticker, half peeled off, calling for the boycott of Israeli products.
While we were driving in, I noted some murals on the wall that looked like they could have been glamorizing terrorists. One looked like Leila Khaled of the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine. Most of these murals were situated near a United Nations compound. One poster looked like it could have been memorizing a shahid – something I saw in Bethlehem. I also saw copies of PA newspapers for sale, which probably don’t have an editorial policy favorable to the US or Israel.
Leaving Hebron, there was a large sign from USAid, the American agency, for a December 2013 project rehabilitating internal Hebron roads. I saw other USAid projects in Bethlehem. Aside from the above, I observed virtually no overt politics. Unlike the security wall in Bethlehem, there was no overt graffiti, Fatah flags, or terrorist posters that I could detect. There were a couple of photos of PA founder and PLO leader Yasser Arafat – the most prominent of which was outside the mall at a coffee stall whose vendor seeming more interested in selling Turkish coffee than ideology. There were far more signs in English for clothes and food than anything political.
We went past a KFC, next to a large cell-phone store and passed a ladies’ clothing store called Pretty Woman, with mannequins in the window wearing stylish headscarves and long dresses reflecting the dress of the local shoppers.
At the food court, I got a kick out of a restaurant called “Che Chicken.” A cartoon chicken wore a beret with a star, similar to that of the famous photo of Marxist revolutionary Che Guevara, with a slogan underneath reading “chicken revolution.” Note to my rabbi: I did not consume anything unkosher there.
AS WE walked into the eatery, a friendly security guard wearing the logo of the Palestinian Authority came up to us. I was uncomfortable, but Gil was busy chatting with people and urging me to do the same. Gil introduced himself as Saeed, which means happy, indeed a reflection of his personality. A teen who spoke English asked us where we were from and before I knew it, we were sitting down with him.
“This is your story, man, and you’re missing it!” Gil exclaimed. “Let’s buy this kid a drink.”
Soon we were getting the inside scoop from an authentic local.
Youssef was born in the United States to Arab parents. His father is from Jerusalem, but went to America as a child. His mother and grandfather are from the Hebron area. His family moved back to Hebron when he was five years old and now he speaks fluent Arabic and English. Youssef’s father holds a senior position at a Jerusalem-based institution, where I assume he works with Israelis on a daily basis and commutes back home. His mother also had a professional career before becoming a homemaker.
Along with the Che Chicken special, one can also order tea with fresh mint leaves or an anise drink that will be carried to you on a tray in the traditional style, or a nargila, in which a tray of hot coals will be carried to your table. Smoking a hookah of flavored tobacco in a fast-food restaurant is not something I see every day.
Youssef and Gil chatted about the World Cup. A high-school student, Youssef works twice a week in the mall. He is atypical in that he holds American citizenship, but his friends don’t seem to treat him any differently, although a number of people have asked him why he didn’t stay back there.
Youssef excuses himself to go to pray the afternoon Muslim prayers and when Gil and I are alone, he says, “Are you uncomfortable?”
“Well, good for you for overcoming your awkwardness and visiting here.” This was not like visiting Bethlehem during tourist season and wandering in Manger Square, just one of the many out-of-towners.
I was adamant about writing an article divorced from the usual conflict regarding this city, but it would be a disservice to the reader not to mention that the recently elected mayor of Hebron was convicted of participating in a terrorist attack in the 1980s that killed six people. He was later released in a prisoner exchange deal and rose in the ranks of the Palestinian Authority. In recent years, Hamas has dominated the Hebron city council and student elections at local universities.
Yet I saw little to no evidence of this in the busy streets. I saw big buildings, universities, hospitals, and what seemed to be a working-class and middle-class society, albeit mixed with lower-class images, such as the beggar woman, some broken sidewalks, a non-working escalator, etc., but essentially no different from other cities. A historic mosque built of antique-looking stones stood across the street from the large modern St. John Eye Hospital that opened in 2015. There seemed to be constant new building.
HEBRON IS one of the oldest continuously inhabited cities in the world. Abraham, the father of the Jewish people, and his wife Sarah lived in this town some 3,500 years ago. As the first acknowledged monotheists, they are holy to the Muslims as well. Ein Sarah Street in Hebron is home to one of the large shopping complexes. The main thoroughfare gets its name from the Ein Sarah spring, or Ma'ayan Sarah, an ancient archeological site that is through to be a mikveh (ritual bath). Byzantine columns can still be seen there.
Although I felt awkward, I also noted the spirit of Abraham and Sarah’s legendary hospitality from these religious Muslim residents. I felt the same way on a previous trip to the Jewish neighborhood of Hebron, where I experienced the small-town warmth of the religious Jewish community. For example, when I ordered pizza at a kosher restaurant, the man behind the counter had to step out for a minute. Where I come from, one doesn’t leave a restaurant unattended. While he was gone, a customer walked behind the counter and helped drop the french fries into the fryer while we were waiting. When the employee returned, he thanked the customer for his assistance and served us our fries. I’m not sure it mattered whether or not they actually knew each other,
The Jewish side of Hebron, which the PA refers to PA as the “Old Town,” is a lot more run down – or as Gil more bluntly puts it, a crap hole. Yet it has a certain rustic old-world charm, similar to Mea She’arim or the Old City of Jerusalem. A bustling Arab shuk known as the Casbah exists parallel to the Jewish neighborhood. Home to the Tomb of the Patriarchs and other historic sites, it is where most of the unhappy news stories one reads about Hebron take place. I tried to inquire about the Arab residents that live in H2 but didn’t seem to be getting anywhere. I did not feel like prying further, after all, I was uncomfortable enough already and my story was intended to be non-political.
After checking with his parents, Youssef, our newfound tour guide, was pleased to take us around town. As we bumped into some of his youthful friends, also wearing backpacks and tennis shoes, he introduced us and we shook hands. In fact, I shook the hands of many people in Hebron, including armed PA security guards.
As we walked, we passed a large outdoor video screen showing commercials. The Hebron Chamber of Commerce stood nearby, as did the UNRWA microfinancing and microenterprise department and the Hebron University Museum.
Gil and Youssef continued discussing sports, noting that the local Hussein Bin Ali Stadium seats 8,000 people. The two professional soccer teams in town are Shabab Al-Khalil and Ahli Al-Khaleel, Youssef being a fan of the first. The teen hopes to one day play as a goalie. When I asked him about the KFC, he informed us there is also an official Domino’s Pizza outlet that offers free delivery. Gil, on the other hand, recommends the restaurant at the Abu Mazen Hotel, which according to Youssef once hosted World Cup players.
We passed a pet shop and Gil suggested it would make a great photo. There were pigeons, which Gil said is a delicacy, in cages, but I was reluctant to snap photos of people’s pigeons without asking. As I feared, the store owner saw us and immediately identified us as non-locals, but he greeted us warmly and Gil, smiling as always, started chatting with him.
“I’m originally from Canada,” Gil stated, “and my friend here is from America.”
The shopkeeper replied, “Ah, Canada. My brother lives in Toronto. He’s an engineer.”
“See, his brother is an engineer in Toronto,” Gil said to me, “Make sure to put that in your article!”
Youssef offered to show us around town and mentioned that in addition to the many stores, there happens to be a historic church in the neighborhood. And that is how two Jews and a Muslim ended up visiting a Russian monastery on a crisp February day.
THE HISTORY of the Abraham’s Oak Holy Trinity Monastery dates back to 1868, when land was purchased by a Russian pilgrim. The highlight of the area is the Oak of Abraham, or the Oak of Mamre. It is known in Hebrew as Eshel Avraham and in Arabic as Ibrahim’s Oak, and according to legend, may date back to the time when Abraham sat by the oaks of Mamre, waiting to greet the three angels. (See Genesis Chapter 18.)
For generations, this tree has been a destination for spiritual seekers, many of whom used to take pieces of the tree as souvenirs or as tokens of good tidings. Today, the tree is propped up by metal beams and surrounded by a fence.
There is another location in Hebron called Mamre, near Glass Junction. Surrounded by Herodian walls, it may have been the original location of the legendary tree. Both sites are in stark contrast to the urban hubbub; Youssef commented that the busy streets are a far cry from the open green spaces, blooming almond trees and large stone church. From the top of the hill, we could see a panorama of the city. Our young friend even lamented about one of the new apartment complexes, which he thought didn’t fit in with the urban landscape.
At the tree, we spoke with Anwar, a local Muslim gentleman who has served as caretaker at the site for 57 years. His brother has worked there even longer and his family has been managing the site for generations. He smiled and shook our hands as he showed us souvenirs such as postcards, homemade olive oil and pieces of wood. It was unclear if the wood came from the actual Oak of Abraham or from the surrounding trees in the field.
At the church, known in Arabic as Al-Maskobiya from the word Moscow, Russian monks with long beards and black robes were busy with a Russian tour group that came by bus. I spoke with the monks in English. They live at the site, as monks and nuns apparently have since the 1800s. Russian tourist women in head scarves crossed themselves as they exited the building.
On our way down the hill, four tourists with cameras were just arriving. As he did with us, Youssef held out his hand, greeted them and asked them where they came from.
“England,” one answered. Another looked Asian. Like us, they seemed to have arrived on a whim. I wondered how many tourists come, because the atmosphere was peaceful and quiet, unlike the cacophony just 10 minutes away. A large mosque was in the process of being built next door and a knock-off IKEA-type furniture store stood on the other side of the street, opposite the large iron gate at the entrance to the church complex.
Speaking of mosques, there were a lot of them. In contrast to our bus ride, which took us through Beit Jala and Bethlehem, where there were many churches servicing Arab Christians, the Russian monks seemed to be the only Christians in town.
This was the first time Youssef had been at the site, and he took a Facebook Live video to show his friends. He thought it was amazing that “the prophet Ibrahim” had traversed this very place. He told us he wanted to make sure we got a ride back to Jerusalem, but first he needed to buy us something special.
I whispered to Gil that we should be the ones getting him a present, but Gil told me to just go with the flow and accept the hospitality. Youssef took us to an Islamic bookstore and as I scanned the copies of the Koran, some with pictures of the Dome of the Rock on the cover, Youssef handed us a bag with our special present. We each received an authentic keffiyeh, the traditional black-and-white scarves worn by men. We thanked him and, as I expected, Gil invited him and his family to Friday night Shabbat dinner.
Although I spent an afternoon in Hebron, I am hesitant to claim I truly understand the city. It could take years to do that. In the multi-faceted world we live in, contrasting realities can exist side-by-side. I enjoyed a mall, I met an outgoing, friendly teenager, walked busy streets and had a bonding experience with an old friend.
Hebron is more than a city of conflict. Although the strife may be real, there is another side to the story and another side to the city, and that positive view is hopefully desirable to people of all backgrounds.
One final note: The day after my trip, Gil informed me that our teenage tour guide’s father contacted him and politely asked him not to use his real name.
Disclaimer: Due to security concerns, Israelis are not permitted to travel freely to this area.