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Graffiti Wars in Hebron

July 9, 2011

8 July 2011 – Hebron, West Bank

In Hebron, the conflict comes full circle.

The title “Israeli-Palestinian Conflict” is loose fitting in most scenarios as opinions vary beyond aligning to one side or the other. Supporters and advocates for human rights and equality intertwine the conflict’s two sides. However, there is no grey area in Hebron for the line is clearly drawn.

As the West Bank’s largest city, home to 170,000 people, Hebron is divided into two sections: H1 and H2. Since 1997 H1 has been under the control of the Palestinian Authority whereas H2 remains under Israeli military control and is home to over 500 settlers residing in four settlements in the downtown area.

To the naked eye the two areas do not blend together in any fashion. Even despite H2’s Palestinian population and the Hebrew that can be found along the walls of the old Arab souq, the battle line is clearly delineated between this fragmented holy ground. Palestinians must adhere to checkpoints into and throughout the Israeli controlled section of the city and you will not find settlers walking freely amongst their Palestinian neighbors.

Walking through the city streets on a Friday morning the picture is bleak. The streets are bare of the living as most are adhering to the Islamic holy day of the week. Families can be seen walking to and from the mosque, some stores are open but mostly for cleaning, and cars and taxis are few and far between. It’s an eerie picture, perhaps not fully representative of the city’s normal hours during the week. Then again, the idea of anything in Hebron being normal appears farfetched.

The sentiment in the streets is more than tension, it’s an uneasiness and a feeling of despair. Walking down the stone streets of the souq underneath a metal fence ceiling littered with rocks and garbage you know that actions rooted in anger are repeated on a daily basis. Children’s toys, concrete, plastic and glass bottles are thrown onto the porous barrier by settlers hoping to send a clear message that the Palestinians walking below are not wanted in ‘their’ land.

A friend and I were invited into a man’s home, a 500 year-old stone house that sits alongside the border that divides the H1 and H2 areas. The owner was an interesting man, young and proud, with his family of young children running freely about. On his wall was mounted a large portrait of Saddam Hussein. “He is our hero,” he explained to us.

We were offered tea and a short run down of his family’s history in the home. I asked him how things have changed over time and he answered that things have only gotten worse as the years go by. He told stories of Israeli soldiers coming to his home and hinted toward violence perpetrated by the settler community; however, through his broken English it was unclear what degree of violence had taken place. We were shown a video of Israeli soldiers attacking Palestinians and foreign activists in the streets, but the context was again unclear. He handed us a small metal object, a black cylinder marked with white Hebrew letters, which he said was a sound bomb thrown into his house.

Following our wandering throughout the souq, we crossed through the Israeli threshold into H2, entering an entirely different world from the previous. Prior to our crossover, a Palestinian man heralded us to come closer to him. He asked, “What do you think Obama will do?” It was obvious he has already made up his mind about the subject matter. “I don’t think he will do anything.” From Clinton to Bush, Reagan to Bush Sr., nothing has changed, he said. Although, for some reason, the Kennedy family met his approval.

Past the checkpoint, you would think you were entering a ghost town. The streets of H2 were also void of a soul, with the exception of the watchful eye of Israeli soldiers. Despite this similarity with the Palestinian sector, the view was quite different. A synagogue, newer construction, and colorful artwork proclaiming the Jewish history of Hebron adorned the sides of buildings. You couldn’t walk five meters without a blue spray painted exclamation that advocated a “Free Israel.”

We walked toward the part of the Arab souq in the Israeli zone, its stores welded shut by green metal doors and stars of David painted in white over the remnants of Arabic words. When the noon call to prayer sounded overhead as we walked through the ghostly, shutdown streets, the world felt unnatural. It was like your soul had been sucked out of you and any feeling of hope for peace evaporated into the summer heat. The streets were not only absent of people, they were absent of any signs of progress between the two warring sides.

Unable to enter the Ibrahim Mosque due to Friday prayers, we admired it from afar, watching Israeli soldiers diligently check the young men wishing to enter for prayer. Since we were clearly tourists and put on smiles so as to avoid trouble, we were never bothered by the soldiers. We were stopped and asked questions, but it was clear that we posed little difficulty in comparison to the larger issues at hand.

The graffiti and paintings that lined the settlement streets were nothing short of propaganda, no matter whose side you take in this quarrel. They were meant to send a clear message. As one sign stated, “This Land Was Stolen By Arabs….We Demand Justice!” Blue tourist placards could be found throughout the area describing the Jewish heritage of the city, most of it real, some of it questionable because of its exaggeration.

Walking further into the settlement, the graffiti and street art changed as the area’s Palestinian inhabitants made their message clear adjacent to the Hebrew spray-paint. One of the blue-painted ‘Free Israel’ labels had been transformed to say ‘Free Palestine From Israel.’ Al-horriya (freedom) was scrolled across buildings and the peace dove flying above ‘Palestine’ was painted on the outside wall of what appeared to be a school.

We walked toward the settlement of Tel Rumeida and were permitted entrance after being cleared by another Israeli checkpoint. Up the hill towards the ancient tombs of the Biblical characters Jesse and Ruth was the home of a Palestinian man who refused to leave his home despite the apprehension that surrounded him. A metal cage, covering broken windows shattered by stones and other objects thrown by settlers over time, had sealed off every open portal into the house. In a crude way, the metal fence complemented the barbed wire and concrete walls that surrounded the area.

Despite being unnerving, the day was relatively peaceful, since we only saw hostility once when a young settler boy refused to give us water. However, what we witnessed was only a glimpse of reality, a snapshot of life in constant war. Even the art, a sign of expression and emotion, was at war, with Arabic and Hebrew battling it out for control of the flat surfaces along building walls.

Dismissing this conflict as a constant that is overblown by the media might be the case in some circumstances, when the political bickering becomes futile. But in Hebron, these are real people, battling out their viewpoints with more than words.

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