Openly gay UK visitor finds city of Hebron full of surprises
Written by Lay of the Land UK correspondent
For the purposes of this article, I have kept some of the names of Jewish and Palestinian leaders that work for co-existence in Hebron private. I have done so for their safety, fearing threats of violence and/or imprisonment from the Palestinian Authority (PA) with possible extra-judicial killings from local extremist religious groups.
I had not planned to visit Hebron. Hardly surprising as it’s a city that I, living in the UK, never paid much attention to, considering it far removed both geographically and cerebrally. Even when I did think of Hebron, what came to mind were images of a remote turbulent city with troubled communities – Palestinians beset by internal violence and Jews governed by strict religious laws.
While I have been in contact with Israeli-Jews and Palestinians from Hebron on social media and personally found the city of very little personal interest, it was by a twist of fate that I would visit it. I had been contacted by an Israeli ‘social media friend’, who lived close to Hebron and works in the city insisting that I visit.
After months of ‘pestering’, I finally agreed while on a holiday on Israel. Although I was anxious about visiting a strictly religious Jewish community as an openly gay man, I was surprised to find the community very accepting of LGBT+ people.
My ‘social media friend’ and contact, Shlomo, picked me up from Tel Aviv. Abandoning my customary caution, I hopped into a car with essentially a stranger and began my visit to a city once described as one of the most dangerous and conflict-ridden cities in the world. The two-hour drive felt like an eternity. We passed through two easy security points, which where nothing more than a single guard with a toll style security. Checkpoints are often derided and dismissed by anti-Israel protagonists but are critical in providing security.
THE LONG SHADOW OF WAR
The city of Hebron is one of the most historically and religiously important cities to Jews and one of the most important cities, politically, for the PA. It is also a frequent flashpoint in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
The first thing that struck me about Shlomo as he gave me a private tour, was that he and his community just wanted to be heard. Giving me a private tour starting at the Cave of the Patriarchs and then moving on to the other local historical sites, I got to ask him as many question as I wanted.
We visited the gravesite of Baruch Goldstein, the infamous Israeli terrorist and mass-murder, where he immediately warned me that the local Israeli authorities closely monitor the site and any public support for Goldstein would be met by an arrest.
I had no desire to stay and while Shlomo reassured me there were no security concerns, he cautioned me to avoid drawing any attention to myself.
Touring Jewish Hebron, I was able to get a close-up of Palestinian Hebron. An old broken-down chicken wire fence – replete with wide gaps – was the only significant separation between the Palestinian and Jewish Hebron – a rather tenuous ‘barrier’ I thought, considering the tensions I was under the impression, fractured the city.
As I walked through the old quarter of Jewish Hebron, memorials for Jews murdered were common at every corner. They represented a sad reminder of the steep price in lives to choose to live in the second holiest site for Jews after Jerusalem. As I walked around, I saw bullet holes in old walls and doors with l potholes in the ground which I suspected were once caused by explosives.
Shlomo introduced me to a local Jewish community leader and elder called Y, who with the kindness of his wife, invited me to stay at their house for regular vegan meals. Y and his wife were a jolly and inspiring couple with enthralling stories.
They shared their past in the former Soviet Union being members of the underground and engaging in resistance activities to support persecuted Jews. Other stories from Y, included secretly hosting in Hebron leading LGBT+ Iranian dissidents as well as welcoming Hollywood celebrities.
SILENT PALISTINIAN COEXISTANCE
With Y as our guide, we handed out sweets to the IDF and were joined by two young, religious women. As we walked through the city’s broken pathways, handing out the sweets to the IDF soldiers, I saw many soldiers speaking and some playing football with Palestinian children. I quickly discovered that Y, was well-liked and known around to hand out sweets to the Palestinian children.
Y was extremely proud to show me Palestinian businesses popular with the city’s Jewish residents, notable dentists, pet shops, clothing stores and auto repair shops.
We came upon a cluster of small, very ordinary Palestinian stalls, one of which was owned by a friend of Y – his close contact within Palestinian Hebron.
His friend broke into a wide warm smile when he saw Y but it quickly disappeared when he spotted me. Feeling uncomfortable or suspicious by my appearance, I left the two of them alone to speak as I explored the stalls. I found beautiful, handcrafted items and was fascinated by the daily co-existence so contrary to the image I had imagined from the international media.
Creating their own security network, Y revealed that he and his friend would secretly pass information to each other about which Jewish or Palestinian children were committing violence against each other in their communities, bypassing the local authorities. They believe that these local Jewish and Palestinian children are best served by being punished by local community leaders rather than subject them to Israeli or Palestinian justice. In this way, it is a far better way to maintain social calm between the two communities.
Y would later tell me on our tour that he believed that 60% of Hebron was supportive of Hamas because of their alleged anti-corruption agenda. Many are frustrated with the corruption and lack of services from the Palestinian Authority.
The further we travelled around in the areas we were legally allowed to, we passed Palestinian housing estates that were burnt-out – not from clashes with Israelis – but the result of clan-based violence between the Al-Jabari and Awiwi Clans.
ECHOES AMONG THE CHILDREN
Y openly regaled me with stories of battles that exploded across Hebron on street corners involving sniper, tank, and gun fire – where he was occasionally caught in the middle. Walking around Hebron, I was surrounded by Jewish and Palestinian children going about their daily lives, born after the horrors of the Second Intifada.
It is clear that neither Jews nor Palestinians will be leaving one of the most previously divided and war-torn cities of the conflict. I can only hope that the children that I saw will be able to grow up without the horrors of the past.
It was so reassuring to see children happily playing around, appearing unscarred by street battles that once raged across the city.
I shall carry with me forever the moment I saw a group of young Jewish children skating and rollerblading down a long street, which had once been the site of a fierce firefight. Where once war characterised this street, the vista that embraced me was of Palestinian children playing football and chatting with IDF soldiers.
What next for Hebron?
It is hard to say what its future will be. I once thought of Hebron of as a remote, impoverished, dull and deary and overly religious city – but I was wrong.
I felt honoured to be so warmly welcomed by everyone I met and to have been so unexpectedly accepted by the religious Jewish community as gay, was for me, a pleasant surprise!
Having thoroughly enjoyed my visit, I hope to one day revisit and again connect with Hebron’s Jews and Palestinians that are making history and forging a destiny together.
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