I was relieved to arrive in Hebron and see Bab-i-Zaweyeh, the commercial area of town, bustling. A sea of people weaving between cars, taxis, donkey carts, fruit stands, each other. Because I was arriving in the early afternoon, I had wondered if my welcome to Hebron might be clashes. Thankfully, yesterday was clash-less.
I made my way through the market maze towards the Old City, which used to be as busy as the area I’d just left, and the Christian Peacemaker Teams (CPT) apartment. Many stores were closed in the Old City. Few people walked through. The quiet was unsettling.
I walked to the shop of my friend in the market, who gave me keys to the apartment. My teammates were on well-deserved and much-needed days off; I arrived to an empty house. It felt strange to be there alone. I unpacked, looked around to see what had changed and what remained the same. The words “Dream, Hope, Work for the day to come…” are still painted on the walls, though the walls are a new color. The office apartment, where I’ll be living this stint, seems less cluttered, more orderly. Sign-up sheets hang on the bulletin board. Written on the chalk board: “They tried to bury us. They didn’t know we were seeds.” It is good to be here.
I went to the roof, which has a good view of the city, and simply looked around. From this view, things look much the same as what I remember, but the view doesn’t tell the story on the ground: the one where the Israeli military has recently declared new areas (where Palestinians live and work) closed military zones and, therefore, off limits; where fear adds restrictions the Israeli military hasn’t yet imposed; where despair grows, trauma festers. Somehow, nonetheless, life goes on.
I visited a friend in the market. He greeted me with a smile and “You remember me!” I’ve drunk tea in his shop many times, shared conversation, lamented and laughed with him. Of course I remember. He affirmed that the Old City has been very quiet, that shopkeepers close early because there is no business, that people are afraid. He recommended I walk around just to see how things are. I decided to take his advice.
I walked through the Old City, sad not to see the falafel man, or the sand art vendor, even missing the Internet café with obnoxious video game noises. It was indeed quiet.
I got to the mosque checkpoint, wondering if I’d be allowed through. My teammates have been prohibited from entering the area. I did not wear a vest marking me as CPT and passed through without a problem. Tourist privilege - feigning that all is ok, that people can move freely, for someone who will come and go quickly is to the Israeli military's advantage. I walked just as easily through two other checkpoints where the Israeli military has denied CPT and other monitoring organizations access. A soldier stopped me at one point and asked where I was from. When I said the U.S., he asked for my passport, which I gave him. “What are you doing?”
“Just walking around,” I replied. He handed my passport back and as I walked away he called to my back, “Welcome to Israel!” I did not respond.
The soldier had been talking to two German tourists and a Palestinian. They caught up to me and we walked and talked for a bit. We tried to walk up Shuhada Street (without our Palestinian friend, who isn’t allowed to walk there), but didn’t get very far before a soldier told us we couldn’t go through. “I’m sorry. You can’t pass.” We were next to the Avraham Avinu settlement where there was a large group of Israeli settler children playing. I love to see children joyfully playing, but that gathering only reminded me of how few safe spaces there are for Palestinian children to play. As we turned back, the soldier wished us a nice day.
I headed back towards the Old City. As I walked back through the mosque area, a soldier yelled “Excuse me!” When I turned to him, he said, “Oh, sorry, never mind.” I walked back through the quiet Old City, back to our quiet apartment, feeling more disturbed than I’d expected to feel on a day without visible violence.
In the evening I had dinner out with my teammate. On my way to the taxi, a girl strode up to me, used her English to ask how I was and what my name is. I told her and we walked together a few more steps. She handed me a piece of her chocolate bar. I thanked her as she turned to go up another street.
Over dinner I heard the stories of Hebron and the team. My body relaxed with the comfort of friendship and good food. We walked home from the restaurant, a lovely walk on a cool breezy night. Back at the apartment, we continued chatting and watched a movie. I forgot for a time that I was in Hebron.
As soon as I tried to sleep, I remembered. I heard cars go by on the road that only settlers can use. Ducked quacked in the bird market below. The soldier on the roof next door called to a boy in the street (the only word I recognized was “boy”). Though I was tired, it took a while to fall asleep, but I did sleep well for a few hours.
Today is a holiday (Palestinian Independence Day, whatever that means), so there aren’t classes. This means, at least for the morning, that we won’t meet tear gas. We shall see what the rest of the day holds.