Monday, July 1, 2013

“You can’t get there from here.”

I have visited al-Khalil (Hebron) many time over the years, but this was the first time I traveled there from Jerusalem the, um, “non-Palestinian way.”
Orthodox Settlers waiting at bus stop near Jerusalem
The Central Bus Station is now easily accessible from the Damascus Gate via the new light rail system that seamlessly moves through both Occupied and 1948 Jerusalem neighborhoods.  The trams are operated by the French mega-corporation Veolia, which also runs several bus lines to the Israeli settlements and is the subject of an international boycott campaign. (Veolia, originally the French Compagnie Générale des Eaux  and later Vivendi, was a pioneer in the privatization of water utilities and other public services and operates in 77 countries around the world, including the US, where it runs several privatized municipal water and waste-water systems – and also the Easy Shuttle service from DC-area  airports.)

Egged Bus #160 goes direct to Hebron the via the settlements stretching south from Jerusalem and costs only 9 sheqels (about $2.50).  The comfortable air-conditioned bus is filled with Jewish commuters and shoppers.  There are few tourists and no Palestinians.  In theory anyone can take the bus, including Arab residents of Jerusalem, but in actuality few of them have any business in the Jewish settlements and they would have to walk a considerable distance from the bus terminus in Hebron and pass through a military checkpoint to reach the main commercial area of the city not under settler control.
Gilo Settlement
The bus travels south out of Jerusalem, past the Palestinian neighborhood of Beit Safafa and crosses into the Occupied West bank (with no sign of any border), stopping at the huge settlement of Gilo. 

Then it proceeds along Route 60, tunneling under the Palestinian town of Tantur and passing Bethlehem, hidden behind high walls lining the highway. Signposts indicate the side roads to a succession of Israeli settlements in this part of the West Bank:  Beitar Ilit, Beit Sharon, Efrat. 

Along here the Arabic language names on the road signs are mostly scratched out, painted over or covered by settler stickers. The turnoffs to the Palestinian villages along the way --  El ‘Arub, Beit ‘Ummar, Halul -- are mostly marked by looming guard towers and security gates.
Guard tower outside Palestinian village

Palestinian village of Beit Ummar
Jewish Settlement of Karmiel Tzur
Israeli army base near Hebron/Khalil
After a slight detour for a stop at the settlement of Karmiel Tzur and passing the army base that houses the security forces for  the protection of the settlers in this area,  I got off the bus at Kiryat Arba, the Jewish settlement on the East and Southern edge of Khalil/Hebron.  From here it’s only a short walk down the “Machpela” as the Jews call the Mosque/synagogue of Abraham/Ibrahim.

But first I dropped in at the municipal offices of the town, where I met the soft-spoken “Development Director” of the settlement, Shai Solomon.  He was kind enough to show me the archaeological museum housed in the same building and he also gave me a glossy map of Kiryat Arba and vicinity.  Solomon seemed a little chagrined when I asked him for directions to the grave/monument of Baruch Goldstein, the perpetrator of a1994 massacre of 29 worshipers at the Mosque.  He warned me emphatically not to walk the half-mile from Kiryat Arba down to the Jewish settlement around the Machpela because “there were Arabs there.”

Kiryat Arba street
Grave of Baruch Goldstein; Khalil City beyond
Edge of Kiryat Arba overlooking Hebron/Khalil, "Danger, Arabs!"
So I got a lift from a passing car, driven, it turned out, by a bearded and earlocked young man from Brooklyn.  He said his job was to “keep up the morale of the soldiers” guarding the Jewish settlement within Hebron/Khalil.  It wasn’t clear what that meant, other than encouraging them to repress the local Palestinian population more enthusiastically.

The "Machpela" / Ibrahimi Mosque
The area around the Machepela, once a bustling Palestinian commercial area, was now desolate. Workshops all around were ruined and empty, the storefronts along the main street with their steel shutters welded closed.  The streets around there were absolutely off-limits to Palestinian vehicles and mostly to pedestrians also.  It was a depressing scene.
Street scene near Machpela
Shuttered Arab businesses, "Jewish" Henron

Nor did the 400-850 (estimates vary) Jewish settlers constitute much of a real urban community of their own, with any commercial or community life to speak of.  The principle activity of the half who were Yeshiva students was to pray and study Torah;  the rest were apparently most engaged in occupying a piece of a city sacred to them, having babies and waiting for the day when the Arabs would somehow disappear. 

Beit Hadassah settlement apartments and museum
The rebuilt old Beit Hadassah housed a museum documenting the ancient Jewish presence in Hebron, and offered a lot of glossy but crude propaganda publications all seemingly financed by The Hebron Fund in Brooklyn and various other Jewish-American donors.

The lives of the Palestinian residents stubbornly clinging to their homes among the Jewish settlers of Hebron is not easy. 
Israeli army guard tower over Palestinian house
I met some kids on the street who took me to the home of Hashem ‘Azzeh on the hill of Tell Rumeida.  His neighbors, just above, were a group of extremist Orthodox Jews led by the American-born Baruch Marzel, who frequently attacked his house.  Hisham’s front door, which faced the settlers, was ordered sealed by the Israel authorities, so the only way to his house was a steep, winding and rocky footpath up the hill, and through the properties of his Palestinian neighbors.
Hashem "Azzeh and family - settlers' houses just above and behind

After visiting the Jewish-controlled shrine of Abraham in the Mosque/Synagogue, I asked the soldiers at the security checkpoint in front if it was possible to enter the part of the building housing the Ibrahimi Mosque, whose entrance was just beyond, not 50 feet away.  They said no, “you can’t get there from here.” 
"You can't get there from here."
I would have to return to the Palestinian-administered part of the city, about a kilometer in the opposite direction and then circle back through the old marketplace and past another Israeli security checkpoint – where I have witnessed Palestinians brutally humiliated by the Israeli border police.

I decided to skip this exercise, having seen the Mosque on another visit and anxious to return back to Jerusalem – this time “the Palestinian way.”  Walking back and crossing the Israeli checkpoint into the commercial center of Khalil was like a trip  through the looking glass.  The Arab city was vibrant, noisy and alive compared to the desiccated empty streets around the Machpela.

If you are Palestinian, you can’t travel directly from Khalil to Jerusalem. first you have to take a “servis” van or bus to Bethlehem, then change to another bus or van for the rest of the trip – but on the way you have to stop at an Israeli security checkpoint where  exit the bus and show your papers. If you don’t have Israeli citizenship, Jerusalem ID or special permission you can’t go to Jerusalem at all, even if you grew up within sight of the city.

Traveling while Palestinian, of course, takes much longer, and costs more too.  The combined fare to Bethlehem and then Jerusalem is 14 sheqels, compared to the 9 sheqels paid by Jewish settlers on the direct bus. 

*    *    *    *
Transportation Apartheid” is a phenomenon you meet all over the Occupied West Bank – but within 1948 Israel as well.

When traveling from Jerusalem to see friends in the Israeli-Palestinian town of Qalansuwe (not far from Tulkarem in the West Bank) I discovered that the main Israeli bus company barely services the segregated Arab communities scattered over central and northern Israel. (Most of the Bedouin communities in the Negev are not officially “recognized” by the government and have no public services, water or electricity altogether, and the population is being threatened with forcible removal.)

When I attempted to reach Qalansuwe on a previous occasion I took the bus to nearby Kfar Sava, but couldn’t find public transportation to any of the nearby Palestinian towns.  However, there were buses readily available to the Israeli settlements across the Green Line in the Occupied West Bank. This time I got a little closer with a bus to Netanya, but again there were no options to connect with any public transportation to Qalansuwe or any of the Palestinian towns nearby.

These separate and unequal services – and not just in transportation – have real economic consequence for the Palestinians living as citizens within Israel.  For example, the relative lack of labor-force participation by Arab women is often cited as an illustration of “cultural backwardness” in Palestinian society.  But the real cause of Palestinian women staying at home is more likely connected with the unavailability of state-subsidized childcare services, usually readily accessible in Jewish communities, and the serious inadequacy of public transportation.  Jewish working mothers, of course, are more likely to have their own cars than women in much poorer Arab communities.


  1. Another fascinating look into life on the other side of The Wall. Thanks, Jeff, for bringing this tragic injustice into focus from both perspectives.

  2. Thanks Jeff for this description of the transportation. I have questions when you return..There is a drone hearing at the State House the day you return...Safe travels.

  3. Amazing description of how Palestinian citizens endure humiliation, degradation, and punishment virtually every day at the hands of the IDF, the settlers, and the Israeli government. And, it is truly sickening to know that much of the financing of this brutal oppression emanates from the good ol' USA, that bastion of and defender of universal human rights. Thanks Jeff for your personal testimony which informs and educates people who may be totally unaware of such repression.