Springtime in Hebron

The festive atmosphere on the way to the Tomb of the Patriarchs contrasts with the desolate, caged-in existence of local Palestinians.

On the armored bus of the Society for the Development of the Southern Hebron Hills Ltd. - one of the vehicles taking Israeli pilgrims to and from a parking lot - a passenger was overheard saying: "They have to be done away with while they're still in the hospital, when they're born. Straight to the grinders. They can be used to pave roads: grind them into gravel and top them with asphalt."

Laughter swept the packed bus. Encouraged by the response, the man continued: "Everything they earn, those Arabushim, should go to cover medicines, Inshallah, ya-rabi. We let them eat and we let them drink, and they want everything. Let them eat grass and then see how they behave. Let them eat our grass. That's what has to be done. Make them stop working. And then, when we kick out all the Arabushim we won't need an army or police."

Alex Levac

The bus took us from the Tomb of the Patriarchs through the abandoned part of Hebron to the "business park" of Kiryat Arba, the adjacent settlement. No one voiced objections to the man's remarks.

Shuttle No. 8 had left the parking lot for the Tomb of the Patriarchs in the late morning. All the passengers, traveling in large family units, were Orthodox or ultra-Orthodox. There were two armed soldiers at the front of the bus, and hundreds of armed soldiers and police at every corner of every lane and on every rooftop en route. There were no other secular-looking people there.

"We've got collaborators here, collaborators," someone growled at us. Hundreds of cars and dozens of buses were in the parking lot, bearing the logos of Happiness Tours and the Hebron Hills, Southern Hebron Hills and Benjamin District development companies.

This is the Jewish hajj during Israel's so-called festival of spring. The Kiryat Arba business park is empty, except for the Ari Beyehuda Grocery Store and the Palestinians building another school for religious Jewish girls. The House of Contention has been sealed and the three-story Machpelah house is surrounded by police fences, two Israeli flags still hanging from its windows. The commander of the Hebron Brigade tells us things are quiet.

"There is no Palestinian nation," an elderly man speaking American English tells two fair-haired European backpackers. The route to the tomb is now a sort of fair. "Once-a-year opportunity, three tapes for NIS 100" of "original Jewish culture and song." There are also "books by the holy man Meir Kahane at sale prices." You can get a glass of "kitniyot-free" (without rice, legumes and other not-kosher-for-Passover ingredients ) lemonade or shaved ice.

Two tape peddlers quarrel over a booth. A tour of the Jewish neighborhoods leaves in 10 minutes, and until then the crowd is being asked to donate to the settlement. You can also sign a petition supporting the Machpela house, whose Jewish residents were evicted by the army earlier this month. A lone Palestinian is trying to sell a darbuka for NIS 10, but there are no takers.



"I am Nirit and I will be your guide on a tour of the Jewish settlement," says a woman dressed in a long jeans skirt and sandals. She goes into the biblical story of Abraham, who bought a tomb here more than 2,000 years ago. The bible's mention of the Tomb of the Patriarchs clearly is irrefutable proof of modern real-estate ownership. A dull echo emanates from empty Palestinian homes. Here is the Shalhevet Tehiyat Ha'aretz school, funded by American philanthropist Irving Moskowitz and his wife.

"These structures were built on land bought by the Jewish community in the year 5567 [1806-1807] and was stolen by the Arabs. We demand justice, return our plundered property," says a sign at the entrance to the former produce market. Now, dozens of white plastic tables and chairs stand next to shuttered stores, alongside a sign: "Hebron hospitality. Main course and two side dishes, only NIS 30. Fabulous. Under the supervision of Rabbi Dov Lior, may he live a long life. Come en masse!"

The tea booth in Policeman's Square, where I drank a great many cups of tea served by an elderly Palestinian, overlooks a deserted square that used to be bustling with people and cars. All that is left is a stool, lying at the entrance to the tea kiosk. A Palestinian boy peeks out from a home window, barred to protect from settlers' stones, and then disappears.

Inside the armored guard post is a soldier's backpack with a painting of a skull. "No photos, this is military equipment," the policeman warns, and immediately summons reinforcements. "Fourteen, calling in, photographers here taking pictures, over."

We buy a glass of lemonade from Carmit and Ronen Almaliach from the settlement of Aderet. "Hamburgers, kebabs, beans, chicken breast," the settler-peddler next to them calls out, and two Bnei Menashe children (whose community immigrated from the India-Burma border ) offer children a ride on a donkey, which is munching on leftover French fries from another settler booth. A group of army officers is there on a heritage tour. I consider buying a souvenir T-shirt that reads "Every place on which your foot shall step I give to you," or "Eretz Israel, continuing proudly."



Zeliha al-Mukhthasb lives on Shuhada Street. There are only five Palestinian families left on the street. Palestinians cannot walk or drive there: The only way to get to their homes is via rooftops and the paths behind the houses. A kindergarten teacher and human-rights activist, Zeliha wants to visit her brother but has been stopped by the police. After an exchange of words with them, we accompany her home, treking through the lanes and alleys to a house whose front entrance only we, the Jews, may access.

Zeliha opens a narrow gate and we hurry through. Now we are in the dark recesses of the Jewish settlement. Lower Hebron, the Bani Dar neighborhood. Hebrew graffiti mars the first lane we enter: "Rats Alley." The homes here were renovated by the Saudi government, but the lanes are empty. The market is also empty; the only shop still open in the poultry market is selling caged doves. Nothing remains of the meat market.

All the lanes of this casbah are covered with densely latticed metal to protect people from stones and garbage from above. Almost every entrance and exit is blocked. An elderly iron worker sits idly in one small hut. The market here was once no less spectacular than those in Jerusalem's Old City and in Acre. Now it's almost utterly desolate.

Finally we reach Zeliha's home, in an ancient stone building. She lives here with her elderly mother. Her father is buried in the cemetery across the way, but she cannot cross the road to get there. To reach the cemetery she takes a winding, half-hour route, even though she can see the grave from her window. We go out onto the small balcony, which is also covered with metal like a cage - it, too, needs protection from stones.

Below, a swarm of people make their way between Avraham Avinu and Beit Hadassah, the settlers' domains - women, men, old and young accompanied by countless military vehicles. Only a few people bother to look up at our caged, stone-strewn balcony, at the home where people still dare to live.

When we leave, Zeliha does something she hasn't done for years: She opens the front door. Lock after lock, the door creaks and groans from disuse, letting us walk straight into the street. We are Jews and we are permitted to be here.