Turkey legs, singing, latkes, and wine were my first introduction into Jewish life in West Jerusalem. I woke up early and groggy the next morning in the 10-person dorm of my hostel near the Damascus Gate of Jerusalem’s Old City.

Sun shining, I made my way towards the bus station, past Hasidic families and pretty Israeli girls. The station appeared around a corner across from bustling fruit stands and tourist traps.

Photo by Tim Bruns
Photo by Tim Bruns

As I climbed onto the “21” bus, I was suddenly back in Jordan. Jordan’s popular Radio Rotana was blasting Omar Abdullah’s latest hit on the radio and hijab-clothed women were seated, waiting for the bus’s departure.

I could tell this was not a bus frequented by the inhabitants of West Jerusalem with whom I had recently been breaking bread. The bus bumped out of the station and eastward past the walls of the Old City, Europe slowly giving way to the Middle East as West Jerusalem became East Jerusalem.

The “21” bus cruised through the Israeli checkpoint that legally and psychologically divides Israel from the West Bank.

It was the beginning of a long-awaited experience.

When the opportunity arose near the end of my semester in Jordan to visit Israel and the West Bank, I jumped at it, hungry for an experience of my own.

I arrived on a Friday in early December of 2012 via the Allenby/King Hussein Bridge crossing from Jordan. Jerusalem was beautiful in the early afternoon. By sunset, a friend had invited me to services at his synagogue and Shabbat dinner.

Upon our arrival in Bethlehem, the taxi drivers, who had been anxiously awaiting our business, picked me out of the crowd of Palestinians.

After a couple of minutes I had explained to one of them, Ashraf, that I wanted him to show me his life in the West Bank. He understood the intention of my travel and took it upon himself to show and tell me as much as he could.

We entered the Aida refugee camp, Ashraf’s home, through the keyhole-shaped entrance in the shadow of the 30-foot-high, barbed-wire-lined, concrete wall that not-so-subtly indicates the border between the State of Israel and the town of Bethlehem which falls along the western border of the West Bank.

On the wall were leftover intifada graffiti and portraits of Palestinian prisoners serving multiple life sentences in Israeli prisons. Their bodies, according to Ashraf, would not be returned to their families for burial for generations after their death.

Concrete watchtowers manned 24 hours a day by the Israeli Defense Force (IDF) loomed over the camp.

Opposite the towers, Arab houses and an elementary school are riddled with bullet holes, reminders of the IDF’s response to the second intifada. In Ashraf’s taxi, we wove through the narrow streets and concrete buildings that make up the Aida refugee camp,

Nearing the end of my tour of Bethlehem, Ashraf asked me if I wanted to head south toward the town of Hebron.

I had been debating whether I wanted to visit Hebron over the days leading up to my trip; violent riots had erupted the day before in response to the IDF shooting of 17-year-old Muhammed Al-Salaymeh on his birthday, after he started a fight at the Cave of the Patriarchs checkpoint.

Ashraf assured me that I would be safe with him and my intense interest in the Jewish settlements in Hebron persuaded me to accept his offer. We headed south past more scattered IDF towers and beautiful, West Bank farmland.

As we passed a refugee camp, Ashraf pointed out the giant gates flanking its entrance that, according to him, were often closed during times of upheaval, locking the inhabitants in and turning the camp into the equivalent of a large prison. We passed a Palestinian grape field with one of the farm’s trees enclosed in a barbed-wire fence, rendering its grape production impossible.

The Hebrew sign on the fence designated the single grape tree as belonging to an Israeli settler. According to Ashraf, this settler had tricked the Palestinian farmer into relinquishing ownership of it and fenced it off. The tree stood as a small indication of the vast importance of land in this conflict.

Thirty minutes after we left Bethlehem we were in Hebron, the saddest place that I have ever been. The tension in Hebron is palpable from the moment you pass the large road sign indicating that you are entering section “A” of the West Bank under the jurisdiction of the Palestinian Authority.

Entrance for Israeli citizens is “forbidden” and “against Israeli law.”

According to Ashraf, this is a precaution taken by the Israeli government to ensure that Israeli citizens don’t flock to Hebron to indulge in cheaper goods, in turn boosting the local economy. The darkening weather seemed to be symbolic, occurring in conjunction with our descent into the heart of Hebron where we ventured to visit the Cave of the Patriarchs and a downtown Israeli settlement.

After parking the car as close to the Cave of the Patriarchs as possible, we walked past a playground full of Palestinian children placed under the foreboding watch of IDF troops lining the rooftops of Arab houses. We turned left into the tunnel that led to the first of three checkpoints before the entrance of the Cave.

We entered the mosque side of the complex that, in 1994, was split in two to create a synagogue in the other half. The Cave of the Patriarchs is a holy site for both Muslims and Jews because it is revered as the resting place of the descendants of Abraham.

The decision to divide the mosque was made by the Israeli government after Israeli-American settler Baruch Goldstein massacred 29 praying Muslims 13 years before.

Afterwards, Ashraf and I stood talking to his friend, the 16-year-old shop owner, about lucrative Israeli settlers who have offered to buy his store from him. His store was the only one still in business on the dirty street, abandoned except for the watchful soldiers who eyed us as we spoke. During our conversation, three settler boys roughly the same age as the shop-keeper strolled down the street laughing and joking, the middle one carrying a submachine gun.

Afterwards, Ashraf and I headed down the street in the same direction as the settlers, towards the Avraham Avino Israeli settlement. We hastened through a checkpoint, making an abrupt left at an invisible barrier, which marked the border that Ashraf could not legally cross.

I observed a Muslim family walking huddled through the empty streets as an armored Israeli police vehicle passed. Israeli flags were draped in the windows of settler houses, providing a bold reminder of their owners.

Nearing the next checkpoint, Ashraf and I heard a commotion. Rounding the corner I witnessed four, heavily armed IDF soldiers encouraging two young Palestinian boys to fight so that the soldiers could capture it on their cell phones. The boys, riled up by the encouragement, were exchanging blows.

One of the boys’ fathers rounded the corner behind us and we followed him up to the group.

“Shame on you,” the man said to his son in Arabic. “Why are you fighting for their entertainment? Why do you let them laugh at you?”

One of the boys had a stream of blood connecting his nose to his chin. We kept our eyes averted from the amused soldiers as we carried on through the checkpoint. As we left Hebron, I realized that the section “A” sign might have another intention; to prevent Israelis citizens from bearing witness to the grayness and sadness that is Hebron. I ran this theory by Ashraf, and he replied with a stern look and a curt “Of course.”

By sunset, I was back in bustling West Jerusalem with clean streets, hip bars, and a sleek light rail carrying excited youth to their nighttime drinking destinations. I had no intention of returning from my trip with a conclusive point of view on the conflict, nor did I.

I returned home from the Middle East later that week with a lot to think about and a very different picture of the region that I had understood so differently before my visit.

 

Editor’s Note: This is Tim Bruns’ first-person, narrative account of his experience in the Middle East. We ran this article in the Life section because it tells a tale and presents questions as opposed to delivering opinion. Any opinions, either perceived or real, in this article are those of Bruns’ and do not reflect the beliefs of The Catalyst.

Tim Bruns

Guest Writer

4 Comments

  1. What is sad is not Hebron. What is sad is that Palestinians in particular and Arabs in general lie and distort the truth on a regular basis.
    I was amused to read that : “According to Ashraf, this is a precaution taken by the Israeli government to ensure that Israeli citizens don’t flock to Hebron to indulge in cheaper goods, in turn boosting the local economy.”
    Wow, not only a lie but such a stupid and ridiculous one.
    No Ashraf, as you well know but probably think that a westerner would better not know is that any Israeli that finds himself or herself in a Palestinian controlled area is likely to meet the terrible fate of the two Israeli soldiers who took a wrong turn a few years ago and were lynched alive, their bodies thrown from the windows of a building in Ramallah, by a crazed, barbaric and savage Palestinian mob.
    Israel warns Israeli citizens from going into Palestinian territories not because it want to protect the Israeli economy but because it wants to save the lives of Israelis, wants to ensure that the Israeli security forces will not have to risk themselves with operations in order to save Israelis who are be kidnapped by Palestinians (as happened in the past), and wants to prevent the deterioration of relations with the Palestinian authority and the international outcry that will arise if Israel kills Palestinian citizens during such an operation.
    Got the Ashraf? While Palestinians in Jerusalem can walk freely in west Jerusalem (and boy do they fill west Jerusalem daily, enjoy the coffee and pastries in Israeli coffee chains, enjoy the parks, light rail, stores, that the Israeli Jews built in west Jerusalem), I a Jew from west Jerusalem, will likely be stabbed to death if I stroll in Arab east Jerusalem and the Palestinians recognize that I’m a Jew.
    The barbaric, savage side in the conflict, and the side who refused any compromise since 1947 is the Arab side not the Jewish one.
    The Palestinians could have their own state in 1947 with Jerusalem under UN control but they, along with 5 Arab state armies chose to open a war against the 600,000 Palestinians Jews living then in British Palestine with the aim of killing them all and having all the land to themselves. But that the truth that Ashraf, nor any other Arab will tell a westerner or even to himself.

  2. ^^^
    Perhaps the taxi driver lied about Section A, but to claim, “The barbaric, savage side in the conflict, and the side who refused any compromise since 1947 is the Arab side not the Jewish one.” is ridiculous because it does not even acknowledge that atrocities have also been committed by the Israelis. People like you who cannot approach this situation reasonably are the problem.

    1. “is ridiculous because it does not even acknowledge that atrocities have also been committed by the Israelis.”
      You’re just brainwashed by Arab propaganda. I fully stand behind what I wrote and you seem to be ignorant of the truth history of the Arab Israeli conflict.
      The truth is that ever since the Zionists started to settle in the ottoman empire (no Arab Palestinian state ever), the Arabs attacked them, stole their properties, but benefited from the advance medicine the Jews brought to the land etc. Jewish doctors opened clinics that served both Jews and Arabs during the Ottoman era and then the British mandate,.
      In 1947 the UN decided the BRITISH (not Arab) Palestine should be divided into 2 states – Arab and Jewish. The Arabs REFUSED as the refused any attempt to solve the conflict because until the 1990s the refused to recognize Israel’s right to exist. Many still don’t today. They want the Jews out of ALL of former BRITISH Palestine. So they, the Arabs of Palestine are entitled to a state but not the Jews.
      And in order to achieve their goal they FOR a hundred of years massacred (heard of the Hadassah massacre where the Arabs ambushed Jewish doctors and nurses on their way to the Hadassah hospital on mount scopus in Jerusalem?), shot, stabbed, blew themselves up, ran over, lynched alive Jews – children, old people, women, men
      whenever they could.
      Israel does not commit atrocities. All Israel’s actions against the Palestinians have always been a response to their barbaric and savage terror.
      Did you know that up until the 1980s the borders between Israel and the west bank were totally open? Palestinians drove in and out Israel freely. No checkpoints, no wall. Many used to work in Israel. The checkpoint, walls etc. only came after the Palestinians started to blew themselves up in Israeli buses,. coffee shops etc. every other day, massacring children, women, old people without mercy, without a shred of civilization. And this animals are revered up until today in the Palestinian society. In Israel murderers are despised not becoming national heroes. The very few Israelis who committed acts of terror like Baruch Goldshtein are despised (except by very few hard line settlers in the west bank).
      The Palestinians love to present themselves as the victims of Nazi Israel but the fact is that they atrocities that they committed are far more and far more savage that the Jews committed. You only need to look at the Palestinian society compared to the Israeli society and see which society is more civilized and humane.
      I come in direct contact with many Arabs in Jerusalem who work as drivers etc. and I’m disgusted with their level of aggression, loudness and barbarism. Arabs will take every opportunity to harass Jewish girls, cheat, still, attack. Many tourists in the old city are bullied by Arab youth, etc.
      I think I know much better than you what’s the Arab Israeli conflict is all about.

  3. Thank you for enlightening me. I never knew that the great state of Palestine had brainwashed me so thoroughly and successfully. I guess I must be ignorant. Now I know that if a Palestinian attacks Israel Israel can do whatever they want in response and it will be just. Your proximity to this conflict has obviously enlightened you and not clouded your judgment with self indulgent nationalistic anger.

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