In holiday stakes West Bank is right there with, say, North Korea, Somalia and Baghdad. It simply doesn't even come to mind when planning a holiday, right? Then again, in the light of recent months' events, neither does Israel...
If, however, you should find yourself in Israel, it would be shame not to use the opportunity to see how the other half lives (quite literally, too). It's only 20 odd kilometres away, yet those two are worlds apart.
This time, too, I had very mixed feelings. But, having worked and lived in West Bank I have friends on that side of the border and conflict too, and it wouldn't have felt fair not to go. Make no mistake, though, easy it isn't.
It's rather confusing, too. As you cross the border, not only does the language spoken around you change, but so do the locations people use in their English. All of a sudden I do not come from Jerusalem, I come from Al Quds. I no longer arrive at Hebron, I arrive at Al Khalil. People's views on the conflict change, as do the circumstances in which they try to go on with their lives.
For me personally things get even more schizophrenic as even my name changes. In Israel I use my second name which is something I'd never say out loud over here.
So, off to Hebron it was. Getting there is easy - there's a direct servis that departs in from of the Damascus Gate. Servis is the Palestinian equivalent of Israeli sherut (or Tunisian louage), an shared minibus intercity taxi service that is usually quicker than the bus. The car departs once its full and until then the drivers shout out their destination at the station in order to attract customers.
"Al Khalil, Al Khalil!" the shout echoed in the air. As I spotted the right car I nodded. That was enough to shut them all up. "Al Khalil?" they inquired, in disbelief. "Na'am", I replied. Yes.
If that's the reaction you get even from the Palestinians, you know there's a chance you should have reconsidered your itinerary. Perhaps Canary Island all inclusives really aren't all that bad a choice?
Hebron has, if possible, even worse reputation in Israel than before. Most of the Palestinian assailants in last months' attacks have been from Hebron.
It's been 5 years since my last time here and things have certainly not changed for better.
The international community along with UN have ruled that Israel is illegally occupying West Bank and violating every Geneva Convention in the process. This, of course, is something Israel doesn't admit.
The clashes that started in October have at least so far not been classified as the Third Intifada, but based on recent statistics more than 20 Israelis have been killed (along with an American student and a Palestinian bystander). In the same time more than 150 Palestinians have been killed. Palestinian Red Crescent estimates at least further 1600 have been injured.
Military presence was heavy already before , but it's really been amped up. Road blocks in and around Hebron (of which there are dozens of) have been given a lick of paint and now sport Israeli flags. Road signs, that usually display names in both Hebrew and Arabic, have (depending on the location) had the other language painted over.
Hebron is the largest city in West Bank, but it's not a place where people come in search of top restaurants, wineries or cultural pursuits. There are no beaches, shopping havens or anything else to keep a tourist entertained. What brings people here is political activism.
Words I heard from an Israeli activist in a training before moving here speak volumes. Upon learning I was to be stationed in Hebron she just shook her head and said "welcome to Hell".
Before King David captured Jerusalem and relocated his capital there, this was where he ruled from. In Old Testament the city was known as Kiryat Arba. This is also the city where David's son Absalom (whose grave we visited over here) started his revolt and declared himself the new king.
Hebron was one of the last cities to fall under the Muslim rulers in 7th century. Jewish inhabitation in the region continued though, sometimes meagre, sometimes practically non-existent. In 16th century there were 8-10 families, towards the end of the Ottoman Empire the number was up to about 100 families.
1929 a rumour started to go around that the Jews were plotting to seize the Temple Mount. Enraged by this the local leaders urged people to attack the Jewish population. The result was 67 Jews killed, almost 100 wounded. The 435 Jews that survived only did so because of being hidden by their Arab neighbours.
On the eve of Arab revolt of 1936, British government decided to move all the Jews out of Hebron as an pre-emptive security measure. One man remained, but in 1947 he, too, left and the Jewish population in Hebron had come to an end.
Every now and then you still catch a glimpse of how beautiful Hebron must have been in its heyday.
But she isn't much of a sight for sore any more.
Road blocks, barb wire fencing, checkpoints, rooftops littered with Israeli Army's watch towers - all speak of the tensions people here live with.
Hebron differs from the rest of the West Bank especially in one specific respect. Oslo Accords divided West Bank into three administrative categories: area A (under Palestinian civil and security control), area B (Palestinian civil administration and Israeli security control) and area C (completely under Israeli control).
In the subsequent Hebron Protocol the city was divided into 2 sectors: H1 and H2. The former is governed by Palestinian Authority, the latter is under Israeli rule. The border runs through the city, which means that whereas elsewhere in the West Bank the settlers live in settlements completely separate from the rest of the population, here they live among the Palestinian population.
Palestinian population of Hebron is estimated to be roughly 215 000 and the number of settlers 500-800. Back when I lived here the size of the settler population was estimated to be around 500, protected by a 2000-strong army.
Most of the narrow alleyways of the old city are shielded by a net, put there to catch most of the junk settlers throw down. They fail to catch any liquids, though. Luckily I have ever been doused in just water.
The settlers in Hebron are, in their fierce ideological fervor, the most notorious ones in the West Bank. Here and there you still see graffitis bearing the symbol of Kach, a party long since banned.
Kach was a party founded by rabbi Meir Kahane which, even in the twisted scheme of Israeli politics, was radically right wing. Part of its agenda was banning any relations between Jews and non-Jews and revoking citizenship from all the non-Jews. In 1984 elections the party won a seat in Knesset, the Israeli parliament, but by the next election they were no longer allowed to run, courtesy of a new law banning "incitement to racism".
Humanitarian situation here is dire. Unemployment rate is the highest in the whole of West Bank. The number of people living in poverty among the worst in West Bank and Gaza. Large portion of the men have been in prison at some point of their lives. Even children get sent to prison and human rights organizations' report on the treatment they face there make for unsettling reading.
Situation in Old City is by far the most critical. The most recent statistics I could find were from 8 years ago and even back then the unemployment rate was 80%, while a whopping 75% of the people in Old City lived under the poverty line.
In a bitter twist the ever expanding settlements are among the few places that provide employment. Some see no choice than to seek employment in Israel. Work permits are notoriousy difficult to come by, though, so many have to resort to crossing the border legally and working without papers.
This sign on the wall of the Old City puts things into perspective. Jerusalem truly is only 30 kilometres away but could just as well be on another planet.
In order to get to Israel, you need a permit. Permits are next to impossible to obtain. And in case you or your family member's been in prison, forget about it. In case you're a manand fall into certain age bracket, forget about it.
The #1 reason for all this craziness and people's unfaltering desire to stay here is this. Machpela Cave, or Ibrahimi Mosque. World's oldest sacred place continuously in use and the final resting place of the Old Testament's Patriarchs.
This is the grave of Abraham, Isac and Jacob and their wives. An Herod-era building used to be located here, which in the Byzantine time saw the coming of a basilica, on top of which a mosque was built in 7th century, which in turn was converted into a church during the Crusades, which then was turned back into a mosque at the end of 12th century.
Its biggest claim to fame lies, however, in the tragic events of 1994, when Baruch Goldstein (take a wild stab at guessing which party he supported...), resident of the nearby Kiryat Arba settlement walked into the mosque in the middle of the Friday prayer, opened fire and killed 29 worshippers, wounding dozens of others.
The consequences were catastrophic. Tends more were killed in the riots that ensued. In the end the building was divided in 2. 40% constitutes a mosque and 60% was given to the synagogue. In addition to this each religion has annually 10 days, when the building is only open to them.
Palestinians are still paying a heavy price for the events. In 1994 a series of curfews were imposed. Shuhada street, previously a bustling Palestinian market street, was closed from the Palestinians and the doors to their shops were welded shut.
In the aftermath of the events of recent months, the army has now declared it (too) a closed military zone and even foreigners aren't allowed to enter.
Since then army has, citing those inimitable security reasons, closed down even more Palestinians shops, only adding to the downwards spiral of the local economy.
Old City is full of human tragedies, each more depressing than the next. Kids, running after you on the street try to keep a little business going by escorting tourists to the rooftops, the view from which doesn't make one sigh in delight. As you make your way up onto the roof through the steep stone stairs, you catch a view of people's homes and the incredibly dire conditions people here live in.
Hebron has traditionally been a significant centre of trade. Here and there you still see some of that bustling bazaar.
There just aren't any customers. Not that this has been much of a tourist destination for a long time, but recent months have scared off even the last ones. Vendor after vendor shakes their head and gestures powerlessly. "There are nobody here".
Many of the people I came to know have given up. More and more doors never open again.
Since medieval time Hebron has been famous for her handicrafts. Another traditional industry is glass: first records of that date back to 9th century.
In addition to handicrafts and glass, Hebron is also famous for their pottery.
Hebron is also home to the last keffiyeh factory in Palestinian territories, manufacturing the only genuine Palestinian scarves.
For a long time they, too, struggled to survive, trying to stand up to scarves made in China for fraction of their price, but oddly enough the recent months have turned out to be their saving grace. "Oh, they're doing alright", one of the vendors confided. "Very well indeed".
Next we're going to have a closer look at the Palestinian handicrafts and some serious girl power: I'm going to introduce you to two of my Palestinian mamas!
ANYONE FOR SECONDS?