The posters at the hitchhiking shelter announced "By Tisha B'Av we'll be in Homesh," and Tal the tour guide said, "We'll be at the entrance of Kfar Etzion until 4 P.M." It's not clear what was decided about Homesh, but we never made it to the meeting point of the tour. We raced, of course we raced. What else does one do the moment one crosses the Green Line?

We passed a sculpture garden and sabra stands and watchtowers in Arab villages, and fig trees and the Harsina outpost and a bus graveyard and who knows what else. But the guide called to say that they had already left and we should stop and wait next to the hitchhiking shelter somewhere in Gush Etzion; we would recognize them because they had yellow ribbons.

The convoy didn't take long to arrive. We followed four cars flying yellow ribbons. The wind, dry and searing, led us by way of Rafik's Store and an armored mobile dental clinic, to Hebron.

Hebron, Hebron. Since time immemorial a wonderful destination for a day of fun for the whole family, at least in the eyes of the 20 people, who emerged from the cars in the parking lot for the Cave of the Patriarchs. Where should I begin? The Cave of the Patriarchs was right in front of us, but the guide said we would get there only at the end. We would begin with Shalhevet. There is no place more suitable to teach children about the late infant Shalhevet Pas than the eponymous Shalhevet Lookout. We each made our way to the shade in the abandoned wholesale-market square, with Beit Midrash Shalhevet Tehiyat Ha'aretz behind us.

"Welcome to Hebron," Tal said. She was wearing a T-Shirt of the Society for the Protection of Nature in Israel, Kfar Etzion Field School, with a colorful drawing of a hiker with a classic kova tembel kibbutz cap. "When you hike in Hebron there's a problem. There's a story about each and every stone. But our time is limited, so we'll try to take in as much as we can. It may be a little confusing, but let's try."

We all learned about the baby who was killed by an Arab sniper in 2001. The guide pointed to the nearby neighborhood of Abu Sneineh. "Anyone who lives here can easily pull out a weapon and fire on the Jewish community. So they shot Shalhevet, a tiny baby, and the neighborhood was named after her. A year and a half ago they were evacuated because they had no permit. I was here, right after the story with Gush Katif."

Tzofia and Tzofia, two young women from the Kfar Etzion Field School who are doing National Service, wrote down every word uttered by the guide Tal, who became a synonym for Hebron. Tal, 20, is about to finish her own National Service and has already given the same tour nearly 20 times. One of the Tzofias is still learning from her; the other, who is 19 and from Ma'aleh Adumim, guided a tour in Hebron just this morning.

So why did you come? I asked.

"Go for gold!"

Say cheese

Eyal came from Jerusalem with his daughters, Amit, 9, and Maya, 6. The girls, pretty in pink-and-white party dresses, posed for his camera against the backdrop of the deserted and haunted marketplace.

The Avraham Avinu synagogue beckoned. "Why do you need a synagogue when the Cave of the Patriarchs is right here?" Tal asked. "We'll discuss that when we're inside the synagogue." On the way we passed the Nahum Gate, named for a resident killed in a terror attack in 1995. "Let's go into the synagogue, it'll put us into the mood of the 16th century," Tal said, leading us into a domed structure with arched windows. We sat on the benches. While we were still skipping along on the time line between plagues and riots, a pale child with a knitted skullcap dismantled the backrest of the bench. Like the rest of his family, he had frizzy blond curls, a wide face and huge, watery eyes. His father reassembled the backrest.

His mother, wrapped in layers from head to toe, carried his little brother on her back. The baby was about to burst into tears, and she was jiggling herself and him. The two older children sat quietly and listened. Their grandmother, visiting from Hungary and their excuse for coming on the tour, was with them. It's a shame she didn't understand a word. She'll never know that the synagogue was built in the 16th century by a group of Jews who had been expelled from Spain, and that the Jordanians, centuries later, destroyed it, but look, it has been rebuilt and restored. "All in all, a top restoration job," Tal summed up. Eyal pulled out the camera again: "Smile," he called out, and the girls assumed a winning smile. "Great," he said, documenting it.

When we piled out of the synagogue, a new family turned up out of nowhere. Zvi, Atara and their children Shulamit, Yehuda, Tiferet and Ephraim. The two boys wear baseball caps on top of their skullcaps and the fringes of their tallit katan are visible. Although Yehuda has no mustache, Ephraim clearly does and Tiferet is an entity of her own entirely; they are triplets, aged 12 and a half. "I have a headline for you," Zvi said, "Triplets visit Hebron, triplets on the path of the Patriarchs," he said enthusiastically. The family (minus two) was even later than we were but they attempted to make up for lost time. Zvi stuck close to Tal, who led us to "Shuhada Street, also called King David Street."

"King David sounds better," Zvi said ingratiatingly, in a kova tembel and thick glasses. We passed the junction named for "the six young men who gave their lives and were felled by terrorist fire." There was total silence. One could see closed shops, a string of Israeli flags, military camouflage nets, soldiers and more soldiers at positions, and jeeps. Through the heavily barred windows, Palestinian residents peeped out. I imagined hearing a shout erupting from one of the cage-like houses, but not even a vengeful whisper broke the silence.

Pastoral

Five Palestinian children played in a sloping empty lot. They turned to look at the convoy, and the smallest one, about 6 years old, took a step toward us, shaped his little hand into an imaginary rifle and sprayed us with silenced bullets. The group continued on the route as planned, marching upright, until we stopped at a spot in the street and leaned against a building.

Just as Tal was talking about the windows in the buildings surrounding us, we heard a knock from the other side of the door, and then another, a fist banging. Those of us leaning on the door moved aside and an Arab woman in a long, heavy denim dress and a black headpiece emerged. Twenty-six pairs of Jewish eyes turned to her; she stared back briefly, lowered her gaze and hurried down the street. Why is it so quiet here? Many people are at work, Tal said. "If you enter a pastoral community there will be silence there, too. Is there anyone here from a pastoral community?"

"Mazkeret Batya," called out a man who had come with his wife and adolescent daughter. Tal admitted that there were other reasons for the silence. For example, the fact that Palestinian vehicles are not allowed on the street and that any Palestinians with enough money have left. "In almost every place here someone was murdered," Tal added, the words falling on our ears and the empty streets.

At the Kedoshei Tarpat (Martyrs of 1919) junction we began a steep ascent, alongside a massive concrete wall, toward Tel Rumeida. Meanwhile, one of Eyal's daughters had placed her knitted white hat on his head and taken another pretzel and a soft drink out of his backpack. He seemed disturbed. "Had I known it would be like this I wouldn't have come in flip-flops," he said. What brought him here? "My daughter learned about the Cave of the Patriarchs in school so I thought I'd show it to them. I know there are two sides to every story, so suddenly I had the idea of coming and seeing for myself. I'm also always jealous of all those people who go on tours like this." His wife, it turns out, is not one of them. "At the moment she's preoccupied with her 'look,' various cosmetic treatments. Coming here is the last thing she would do."

He himself has no security-related fears. "I'm not nervous about being here, because of my belief that nothing will happen. Fear is not our family's strong suit. And the girls are certainly not afraid. I took them for a tour in Nahlaot [a Jerusalem neighborhood], they're enjoying this more. I was in the navy, so I never experienced 'action' like here."

Pleasant living

A battered, one-eyed cat disgusted everyone. Breathing hard, we reached a collection of trailer homes surrounding a playground. A boy with long sidecurls rode over a teddy bear with his bicycle, children climbed and slid. The children on the tour joined them. "We have arrived in Tel Hebron, or Tel Rumeida," Tal said. "As you felt in your legs," she explained, the neighborhood is high, for security reasons. All around us are ruins, digs. Tal related the story of the 1998 murder of Rabbi Shlomo Raanan by an Arab boy, "and as we know, murder usually leads to renewal." That is why Benjamin Netanyahu authorized the construction of permanent homes to replace the trailer homes on this important archaeological site.

Tal talked about historical developments and the large numbers of human remains that have been found in the soil of biblical Hebron, and revealed that Abraham, the patriarch, was actually a foreign resident who lived three and a half kilometers away. Then she pulled out a Bible and returned to Genesis. There are excellent grapes here, too. "Guys, as someone who has tasted Hebron grapes, I can testify that they are of the finest quality, tastier than Tali grapes [a major brand]."

We abandoned the digs and went down the way we came, stopping at a break in the wall to view the city below. Sounds of life, people going about their everyday business, while we and our forces looked at them from above, as usual, fingers on the trigger. "Guys, that is the city of Hebron. It's relatively advanced," Tal said.

We continued our descent. "I thought there would be a pedestrian mall and lots of shopping, that's why I brought only pretzels," Eyal said. "I didn't think it would be like this." Not a single chickpea or miniature olive-wood camel emerged from the silent emptiness. We entered the ground floor of Beit Hadassah, the site of the Hebron Heritage Center, and sat on the benches in the small, airless hall. This used to be a convalescent home, we learned, and upstairs was a hospital. Today families and yeshiva students who took over the place live upstairs.

Amit and Maya sit in the first row, Eyal in a back row.

"Do you know what a massacre they carried out here?" Eyal asked me, in between text messages. "Right here, Arabs burst in and murdered masses of people on Passover Eve, about 15 children died, I'm not sure, but there was serious fighting here. In a sec I'll ask her for a reminder." Another message on Eyal's cell phone.

"What happened in Beit Hadassah, the murder on Seder night?" Eyal interrupted Tal.

"Wait, let's go to the other rooms and then I'll tell you," she replied.

In the next room the flashback to 1929 was not long in coming. Arabs, riots, dozens of people killed, destruction, smashing, desecration. Efrat, the tall adolescent from Mazkeret Batya, was lying on the floor.

How's Hebron?

"Nice," she answered, her face blank.

What else?

"What else can I say about Hebron?"

"When do we get to the Cave of the Patriarchs?" Amit asked, impatient. "Soon, now we're entering the room of the 1929 riots, it's a shocking room," Tal said. The room is dark, full of pictures of Jews who were murdered, a collage of death that closes in on the viewer from all sides. "Friends, they had no mercy on anyone. You see here entire families that were erased, and there was a baby who was buried beneath the ruins." Tal approaches the wall, with a poem by Uri Zvi Greenberg on it. "This poem is a genuine prophecy," she said, and began to read. "Hebron is good, and living in it is pleasant," the poem begins, quickly descending into the blackest abysses.

"We wanted Rachel's Tomb too, but my wife decided to go on a guided tour in Hebron," said Zvi on the way out. I asked his son Yehuda what he thinks of Hebron. He remained silent. "He thinks what I think," Zvi interrupted, "that we have to settle more Jews so there will be a clear message as to who this place belongs to. But there's what we want and there's what's possible. But there's also patience. If not today then tomorrow - a big, strong Jewish settlement. After all, this is a place that belongs to Jews. It bothers me that there aren't enough families."

So why don't you move here?

"I've already been blessed with [the settlement of] Kedumim."

Frightened and red-faced, Tiferet suddenly jumped up, clinging to her father in terror. A skinny, honey-colored dog with a red bandanna around its neck was lazily strolling about 100 meters behind us, and the girl was in a panic. What kind of a dog is that? "An Arab dog, nobody's dog," Zvi said, protecting his daughter.

The Cave of the Patriarchs calmed down Tiferet. The dog behind her, Rachel and Sarah and Abraham and Isaac in front of her. We stopped in the square. Tal outlined the story of the place, including the massacre by Baruch Goldstein [of 29 Arab worshipers in the mosque in 1994] and the separation between Jews and Arabs at the site since then. In the background, a volley of shots was heard. Tal declared the tour over, but noted that anyone who wanted to leave with the convoy should go to the parking lot within 20 minutes.

Another tour neared its end. "I'm the one who was assigned to Hebron," Tal says, in private. "They decided, 'You'll know Hebron. It will be you.' It's very interesting, I always leave here full of thoughts. It can't be dangerous when you have a soldier every 10 meters. It's a somewhat dead city. It's always somewhat comforting to look at the other side and see that there's life. I personally find it somewhat difficult to see children on the tour here. It's a very complicated place." How is Hebron, I asked little Nuria, from the Hungarian family. "I don't remember," she said.

The girl without the braid

The photographer sent me a text message: "Margalit Har-Shefi is in the cave." I rushed inside, somewhat excited. The Abraham Hall was crowded, suffocating. Har-Shefi, in Mary Janes and a giant shirt with a 1970s print, stood among the masses of praying women. Her face was doughy, her hair was frizzy, half pulled back, and the braid was gone.

The rumor spread. Tiferet had never heard of Yigal Amir's legendary ex- girlfriend. "She's someone who didn't do anything and was accused of murdering Rabin," her older sister Shulamit explained to her. "What, Margalit is inside?" asked Eyal, straightening up. "Wow, how did I miss her? Nu, is she still pretty? How does she look?"

Don't ask.

"What, really? What a shame. I remember her really pretty, with her braid to one side, so pretty."

The mention of the braid had an effect on Eyal. He stopped, apparently recalling the brazen, youthful, lethal braid. "Does she still have the braid?" he asked. "No? What a shame."

Before Hebron bursts another one of his fantasies Eyal decided to head home. Darkness crept up on Hebron. He suggested that we travel in a convoy. We drove behind him, he stepped on the gas and raced forward, we vainly tried to keep up. Eyal tore up Hebron, the yellow ribbon on his car waving in the wind, like Har-Shefi's braid, so pretty. When we missed the turn to Beit Shemesh, all the sunset purples and scarlets had disappeared. Hungry and lost, we passed Gush Etzion, and then Efrata, and then God knows where. There was no choice but to stop and buy sabras. We continued on the unfamiliar road and arrived at Rachel's Tomb. Might as well go for gold! W