Twilight Zone / Ghost Town

A private outing in Hebron, following the education minister's decision to encourage schoolchildren to visit the Tomb of the Patriarchs

The skies darkened, the wind howled and a hard rain began to fall. Three people walked along a deserted street: two heavily armed soldiers, and between them a young Palestinian, blindfolded, hands bound behind his back. Without a word, they hustled the youth into a military jeep and disappeared up the alley. What had the Palestinian done? How had he transgressed? We will never know. He was seized, and disappeared.

Not far from there, Palestinian workers unloaded food packages from a truck, a gift from the International Red Cross to the thousand or so needy families here. Soon the children of poverty will appear, load the rice-pasta-flour-sugar-oil onto their ramshackle carts and take it home. The Red Cross spokesman in Israel, Ran Goldstein, says that about 78 percent of the neighborhood's residents live below the poverty line. It's a disaster area.

Tomb of the Patriarchs - Miki Kratsman
Miki Kratsman

With walking stick and backpack, we drove to the Tomb of the Patriarchs on a rainy winter day for a private outing, following the education minister's decision to encourage Israeli school children to visit the holy site. Holy, for sure. How do we know? On the bulletin board at the entrance to the holy cave we read: "If your cellular phone's battery goes dead, there is a charitable box of chargers in the yeshiva in Yeshanei Hevron hall." Charitable charges, only in Israel, only in Hebron.

When were you last here? When were your children here? Thanks to Gideon Sa'ar, who just had to correct his leftist image in the Likud Central Committee, they will soon be visiting here. So here's a preview of their next school outing.

Drive through the Valley of Elah, or through the tunnels road to the "Gush [Bloc] intersection." Look right, look left at the sea of settlements all around, cruise along a road, parts of which were once lush Palestinian vineyards - that's something worth telling the pupils - and turn right off Route 60 into Kiryat Arba.

A checkpoint, entry to Jews only, and of course also to the Palestinian workers who are widening the entry road to the community, which was conceived by Yigal Allon, a man of the Labor Party, the left and the peace movement. The place has since been developed by all his successors from Labor and Likud. More than once I was asked here: "Are all the passengers in the car Jews?" That's a question your children would do well to hear, and to reflect on its implications. Be that as it may, we will cross the huge settlement of Kiryat Arba from east to west, pass another checkpoint and turn left down the road.

The picture changes in a twinkling. The well-kept (relatively ) and busy (relatively ) streets now give way to ghost streets. The lower down the slope we drive, the more deserted they are. Hundreds of locked, sealed stores, hundreds of abandoned apartments, blinds shut, windows barred, ancient stone homes that could be Palestinian heritage sites but are now desolate. Welcome to Hebron H2, under Israeli control, the way to the caves of the patriarchs and the matriarchs. The feeling of a vast cemetery strikes the visitor, a cemetery of property that was plundered and rights that were trampled. Welcome to the scene of the crime.

The school children should look out the window. Maybe one of them will pluck up the courage to ask the teacher: Where are the people? Where are the shop owners? Why did they run away? Who frightened them? Where are they now? But the pupils will probably be preoccupied with their own interests, and anyway, no teacher will tell them, for fear their tender souls will be corrupted.

You might want to know, though, that in 2007 the human rights organization B'Tselem counted 1,014 abandoned apartments and 1,829 locked stores in a quarter from which thousands of owners scattered every which way, terrorized by rioting settlers and the endless curfew days - 377 days of full curfew in the three years of the second intifada, 182 of them in succession. One of the pupils might want to know what curfew means. It means being imprisoned at home, day and night. And is it imposed on everyone in the neighborhood? No, dear pupil, only on the Palestinian residents.

Isn't that apartheid? Of course it's not apartheid. Nor is the monstrous phenomenon by which only Jewish cars are allowed into the neighborhood. No Palestinian vehicle has entered this area for years, not even to transport a sick old woman or load a broken refrigerator. Only by foot. By foot? Palestinians are not even allowed to walk on adjacent Shuhada Street, which the Americans spent a lot of money to refurbish. Only Jews, of course.

And how, one of the pupils might ask, how do the people who live on this street get home? They sneak in via the roofs from the back. But don't worry, most of them fled long ago.

Another Border Police checkpoint and we have reached our destination. The Tomb of the Patriarchs is a spectacular Herodian structure with a ragged Israeli flag flapping in the breeze in front. We walk up stone stairs, are checked by metal detectors and enter the holy temple. Just before you enter, grab another look from the high platform at the desolate neighborhood that lies below. You're young, so you don't remember what a bustling place the city center used to be, how lively was the market that is no more.

Soldiers bundled up against the cold stand at every corner, settlers whiz by in their cars and a handful of Palestinians pass the checkpoints quickly, with looks whose meaning is unfathomable, on their way home or out of this hell. Praise be to God, today is not a Jewish holiday or day of assembly, so they are allowed to move about. Try visiting here on Purim or Pesach - curfew. When you grow up and become soldiers, maybe you will serve here. You shall not rest, guardians of Israel, in protecting these settlers.

A worker from the Tribe of Menashe, from the Burmese border area, collects cigarette butts at the entrance. Someone decided that he is a Jew, so he's here. A Gemara lesson is underway in the yeshiva at the entrance to the cave. About a dozen old men listen to a rabbi who is peeling an apple and giving them the Word. "What happens if the letter yod is too long and looks like a vav? That does not invalidate a Torah scroll."

This must be what the information pamphlet published by the Jewish community here, which is handed out at the entrance, means when it says, "Jewish spiritual life is flourishing here." A group of settler children sit on a long row of plastic chairs and recite in chirpy voices a passage from Tractate Megilla, while their rabbi is immersed in a phone conversation on his mobile. They have long sidelocks and big white skullcaps, some of which are inscribed with the "Nachman from Uman" incantation.

On one occasion, when I passed this spot with Yehuda Shaul, a religiously observant Jew from Breaking the Silence, a group which organizes true heritage tours here, the chorus of settler children shouted: "Yehuda Shaul the murderer, we won't let him win!"

Neglect, refuse and schnor: as a group of Polish pilgrims enters, the charity box that will save you from death is whipped out. One of the Poles gives a dollar.

Two Border Policemen stand next to a radiator eating lunch from a tray. "Are they all Christians?" a policeman asks a guide leading a group of Italians. Lucky they didn't understand.

"To all our brethren of the House of Israel who lost a coat, a tallit or other objects in this structure of the Tomb of the Patriarchs: You are invited to leave a text message and detail the type of loss and identifying marks. If we find the lost item, we will get back to the number you left in your message. If not, please consult the book 'A Prayer to Moses,' p. 271. There you will find a tried and tested remedy for finding what you lost. Blessings." Another note on the bulletin board.

"Good morning, I am your guide today." A group of soldiers comes in, Samson's Foxes, in their purple Givati infantry brigade berets. They are now serving in the southern Hebron hills and have come here for a day of "educational additives" as guests of the settlers. Not only Gideon Sa'ar visits, but the IDF too, and their educational additive includes not only a visit to the cave but also to the settlers' homes, where they will undoubtedly be served a particularly sublime pedagogic poem. Why should they get an educational additive from the settlers and not from Breaking the Silence?

The metal detectors beep nonstop at the array of pins on the soldiers' lapels, one of which bears the image of a fox. They are elite soldiers, immaculately turned out; one of them says he is from Kibbutz Hahotrim. They sit in Jacob Hall and listen attentively to the settler-guide: "There are three places that the nations of the world cannot deny belong to the Jewish people: The Temple Mount, Joseph's Tomb and the Tomb of the Patriarchs. They were all bought with money and therefore are ours throughout the generations." Satanically, all three are in the occupied territories, but why get bogged down in trivialities?

Exactly 17 years ago, in nearby Isaac Hall, the Goldstein massacre was perpetrated, but that of course is not included in the educational additive. Instead, the soldiers hear about how Rabbi Shlomo Goren, the army's chief chaplain at the time, ordered his driver to come here immediately after he liberated the Western Wall, and how the rabbi fired a number of shots into the air in the face of local residents who were waving white flags and sheets and were surrendering unconditionally. Any questions? No questions. The Samson's Foxes know everything.

To dispel any doubt, a few of them, all ostensibly secular, hurry to put on tefillin (phylacteries ). As they leave the cave, heading, in the wake of their guide, for the settlers' compound known as Avraham Avinu (the patriarch Abraham ), one of them asks, "You call this operational walking?" "Anyway, it's dangerous to wander in a skulk of foxes," his buddy chuckles as they disappear between the settlers' homes, where I did not dare to join them.

In the meantime, the call of the muezzin is heard, one of the last expressions of the neighborhood's disappearing Palestinian presence. His booming voice, carried by loudspeakers, infiltrates the cave, drowning out for a moment, but just for a moment, the exhortations of the rabbi, the chants of the children and the voice of the guide of the Polish pilgrims. The last time I was here, last summer, I accompanied the winner of the Nobel Prize for Literature in 2010, Mario Vargas Llosa, who said to me, in the face of the ghost city and its savage masters, "This is the other side of Israel and it is very sad that so few Israelis visit here. They don't know. It is so close to Jerusalem and they do not have the slightest idea of what is going on here. It is important to make them aware, it will help very much." His words echoed in my mind like a tolling bell as I watched the soldiers disappear into the Avraham Avinu compound, amid the graffiti of hatred for the Arabs, most of whom no longer live here.