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September 7, 2012

Hebron, West Bank

If Bethlehem served as an introductory course to the West Bank and the Palestinian perspective, Hebron would qualify as one’s final thesis.

One of the most contentious settlements in the Israel-Palestine conflict, the Olive Tree Initiative spent most of the day walking through the city and meeting with residents on both sides of the occupation.

With the Tomb of the Patriarchs located in the city’s vicinity, Hebron’s divisions lie on both political and religious grounds. As the tomb is a holy site for Muslims, Jews and Christians, in whose hands should the control of the site fall?

The first speaker of the day greeted us at the Hebron Heritage Museum.

David Wilder, spokesman for the Jewish Community of Hebron, answered questions at the Hebron Heritage Museum. Credit: Claudia Cheffs

David Wilder, a self-proclaimed Zionist and spokesman for the Jewish Community of Hebron first gave the group a tour of the museum, highlighting the presence of a Jewish population throughout Hebron’s history, emphasizing the 1929 massacre of the city’s Jewish residents as an early example of tense relations between the city’s faith groups.

Wilder said the massacre incited initial tensions between Jews and Arabs but that prior to the tragedy both groups had coexisted peacefully.

Wilder expressed his concerns about civilian security as well as the protection of nearby religious sites. Toting a pistol on his hip, Wilder explained the personal stake of living in a settlement as unstable as Hebron – bullet holes are still embedded in the walls of his house from anti-Israel violence.

Following a question and answer session, Wilder took the Olive Tree group to visit the Jewish side of the Tomb of the Patriarchs.

Interfaith relations worsened following the Goldstein shooting in the late 1990’s, during which a Jewish man opened fire on worshippers in the site’s mosque.

Walid Abu-Alhalaweh of the Hebron Rehabilitation Committee spoke of challenges in rebuilding the population in Hebron, which has decreased due to civilian violence and restrictions put in place by the Israeli military. Credit: Claudia Cheffs

After meeting with Wilder, the group met with Walid S. Abu-Alhalaweh from the Hebron Rehabilitation Committee.

The mission of the committee is to restore buildings and homes in the community, which has seen mass depopulation following Israeli occupation and imposition of curfews and checkpoints. Through these projects, the committee hopes to return normalcy and autonomy to the city’s Palestinian residents after the Israeli military had erected more than one hundred barricades and passage closures in the old town.

Abu-Alhalaweh described the city as a ghost town, which he said is a direct result of the heavily concentrated military presence in the area. For example, under current policies, because of the Jewish Israeli population in the city parts of old town are now closed and the populations are separated by military personnel. Market streets – formerly areas popular among residents – are left empty and the storefronts closed.

Abu-Alhalaweh described the city as military base instead of a holy place.

After his presentation the group went on a walking tour through the town to observe first-hand where closures had been set in place and the barriers that had been installed to restrict commercial and personal access to the city.

Both Wilder and Abu-Alhalaweh said they were open to speaking with the opposing community, but cited reticence on the part of the other side for the absence of communication.

Credit: Claudia Cheffs

The day ended in Jerusalem where the group walked to the Kotel (The Wailing Wall) in the Old City. Following a quick tour of the holy sites students were split up into groups to celebrate the Jewish tradition of Shabbat with various families in the city.

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