Gideon Levy Despite Everything, Hebron Is Still Palestinian

During a recent visit, the Jewish quarter seemed tranquil, while the Palestinian quarter was a surreal ghost town.

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The Pachao family was out Saturday for a Sabbath walk. Sarah and Yosef pushed the baby carriage, and the little ones, Ahuva, Gershon, Hananel and Noah, crowded into the carriage or walked behind it. Why did you come to live here, I asked? "Because of the good air." The Pachaos, who are members of the Bnei Menashe, immigrated from India, near the Myanmar border, 10 years ago.

They were returning from Sabbath prayers at the Cave of the Patriarchs in Hebron, along with thousands of other Jews, who walked through the car-free street. This week's portion was "Life of Sarah." The Pachaos' Asian appearance was not the only outstanding thing along the road connecting Kiryat Arba with Hebron, and its "House of Contention."

A stranger coming to Hebron Saturday would be confused. Border Policemen speaking Amharic with settlers; their Druze friends chattering in Arabic; police, soldiers and settlers praying together in the Abraham hall; American and French Jews armed with machine guns; a sea of tents on the grass in front of the tomb structure. Above all, the surreal look of an abandoned Palestinian quarter, emptied of its inhabitants, a ghost town.

Through the protective wire fence erected to block settlers' stones, occasionally the face of a terrified old woman, a frightened child or an embittered man would appear, shut up in their cage. It is not difficult to imagine what they felt Saturday on "Life of Sarah" Sabbath, which tells how Abraham purchased the cave for 400 pieces of silver.

The ridiculous visored cap I wore, which covered half my face to prevent the settlers from identifying me, failed in its duty. It is not good to be Gideon Levy on "Life of Sarah" Sabbath in Hebron. "Take your garbage and get out of here now," thugs threatened here and there. But generally the Jewish quarter was very tranquil, and a "holiday atmosphere" prevailed, as they say. Only toward evening did menacing knots of young boys in their Sabbath white shirts begin to gather.

I entered the "House of Contention" - a huge, unfinished Palestinian apartment building. Saturday it was like an open house, a model home. There were three new washing machines and two solar heaters. For a model apartment, it was rather shabby. A paper sign on the wooden door read, "The Levinger Family." Tents on the roof. Clutter and plastic tablecloths on shared dining tables. Groups of guests on the roof of the house, to see the wonder of dispossession.

They came here from all over the country. Even one of our colleagues from the Haaretz management left his wife at home to go. "I fantasize about this every year, and this year I came," he said, his eyes gleaming. He paid for his dinner before Sabbath began, and ate shnitzel and salads in the abandoned Arab wholesale market.

Then, as I stood on Tel Rumeida, a huge noise drowned out everything: the muezzins of Hebron calling to afternoon prayers, a reminder that Hebron is forever, but it is still Palestinian, despite everything.