PAULA MEHMEL: Shoot the Rapids — The Holy Land, Day 8, Hebron

In February 1994, I wrote a letter to the editor of The Fargo Forum.

I wrote it on a Saturday morning. The day before two events occurred. In one, Nancy Kerrigan and Tonya Harding faced off in the Ladies Short Program of the 1994 Winter Olympics.

In the other, 29 Muslims, including women and children who had come to pray early in the morning at the beginning of Ramadan, were mowed down by an American-born Zionist Jew who subsequently was beaten to death by those in attendance at the Mosque because the Israeli  military did nothing to respond when it happened.

Guess which one covered three-quarters of the front page of the paper and which one was relegated to the bottom of Page 3?

That, as you may guess, was the topic of my letter. How we get so caught up in pop culture and scandal that we miss what really matters.

Today, I visited a site that has been haunting my heart for over 20 years.

The story of Hebron is a classic tale that has both sides calling for justice.

In 1929, there were 700 Jews and 20,000 Palestinians living peacefully in Hebron. However, a group of Muslim extremists entered Hebron and massacred 67 Jews. Hundreds more were protected by their Palestinian neighbors, but in the end, all of the Jews were asked to leave because Britain could no longer protect them.

Following the Six Day War in 1967, even though it was still determined to be Palestinian territory, settlers returned to Hebron. They first came and stayed at a hotel, claiming to be tourists. But they didn’t leave. And so eventually, it was declared legal for them to be there — taking territory that was not theirs in the center of the city.

Today Hebron is a bustling city, with almost 300,000 people in the city and 1 million in the metro area. Thirty percent of all of the West Bank Palestinians live there, and it is the sight of the most successful business ventures  in Palestine. Eighty percent of the residents are Palestinians and 20 percent are Jewish.

But it also remains one of the most volatile spots in all of Israel and Palestine, where tensions run high and the threat of violence seems omnipresent.

When we got off of our bus, we walked through the area of Hebron that is controlled by Palestine, known as H1. As we walked there, we saw vibrant markets and lively people, with good produce, plenty of wares and energy and all the excitement of any city market I have visited the world over.

But as soon as we crossed over into H2, which is controlled by the Israeli Army, everything changed. The streets were quiet, the shops were closed, and the people were sparse.

When we finally entered a market where there a few shops, it was apparent we were an oddity. I asked Tariq, our guide, and he said that Americans and most tourists enter through the Israeli-controlled area. Never through this route. People don’t see this side of Palestine.

As we walked through the area we saw why. Overhead, there was a mesh material  that was covered with garbage and rocks that was used to protect Palestinians from the attacks of settlers. We were told, however, that the mesh didn’t hold back the hot oil and urine that rained down from the settlements above.

Once we went through more security, we were able to enter the Mosque where the massacre occurred. After the massacre, the mosque was shut down by the Israelis. When it was opened six months later, the shared space had been split in two by walls.

So the Tombs of the Patriarchs and Matriarchs, the place that housed Abraham, Sarah, Isaac, Rebekah, Jacob and Leah’s tomb literally had a partition in the middle. Where previously people had been able to pray and worship together, there were divisions.

In order to reach this area to pray, Muslims have to go through a checkpoint. We were being led by a guide from the World Council of Churches who was there as a human-rights advocate to witness the checkpoint and make sure that Muslims have access to worship freely.

She told us that last week she saw a man go through the checkpoint to worship. He was stopped. He was asked to lift up his shirt and his pant leg in front of a female soldier. He was asked for his ID, and it was taken from him. He was told to wait. And wait. And wait. After over one hour, he was finally cleared. The only trouble was, worship was over.

The Israelis took his ID, handcuffed him and left him to wait. They asked him no questions. They just humiliated him and then let him go. That is the indignity that the Palestinians face, in their own territory, as an occupied people. So anger builds.

One of the spiritually amazing points of the trip was seeing Abraham’s tomb — and looking down into the cave where he is buried, deep below the current site where the tomb lies. This is a historical location that is not questioned. This is where he was buried. And you could look down and see the candles that are relit every day in his tomb, keeping the light burning.

Women had to wear robes to enter the synagogue.
Women had to wear robes to enter the synagogue.

We were then able to enter the synagogue. In the aftermath of the 1994 massacre, the two areas are only opened to each other 10 days a year. For the Jewish High Holy Days, no Muslims can enter, and during the Holy Days of the Muslim years, no Jews can enter.

The goal seems to be to keep the two groups separate, filled with fear and  loathing for each other, no area for mutual understanding.

We did have one wonderful moment of triumph. Our tour guide had told us, even though he is an approved tour guide (a stringent process) and a citizen of Israel, he may not be able to enter the synagogue to guide us because he is Muslim.

Our Muslim guide takes a selfie in front of the synagogue.

As we entered, they asked him if there were any Muslims in his group, to which he honestly answered, “no.”  None of us are Muslims. So he saw the synagogue for the first time. The picture I have of him taking a selfie in front of the synagogue will be a cherish photo of the trip. This is what should be the norm, not the exception.

When I wrote that letter to the editor back in 1994, I was right. It was a game-changer. Prior to that, there had been some hope for the Oslo Accord, that peace was a possibility. But that man who shot and killed 29 people in February accomplished his goal. He further divided the people, so that the prospect of peace became less and less possible.

The mosque and the synagogue share different sides of Abraham’s tomb. Abraham was the father of both the Islamic faith through his son Ishmael and the Jewish and Christian faith through Isaac, but the divide between the two remains, thousands of years later.

They are reminiscent of children in the back seat of the car who can’t get along in the small space and keep hitting each other. … One strikes out and then the other, crying, “He started it. No, he did. He hit me first.” And so the battle continues.

Hebron means friend,  but they are far from being that here, and the walls between them are real.

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