On my final day working in the West Bank, I made the fateful decision to buy some of Hebron’s famed ceramics. One of my colleagues insisted there was none better in the Middle East and I needed gifts for family and friends. It was a choice I had plenty of time to regret while I was being questioned in a security room at Tel Aviv airport about where I’d been and what I’d done during my stay. Ceramics wrapped in a Palestinian newspaper was a schoolboy error.
Hebron is home to the Ibrahimi Mosque, the Cave of the Patriarchs to Israelis, and illustrates many of the intractable problems between the two communities. It’s sacred to Jews and Muslims. After the 1967 Six Day War, Jews were permitted to pray here for the first time in 2,000 years. Since then, it’s been the scene of numerous violent attacks upon Jewish and Muslim worshipers. Most notoriously the 1994 murder of 29 Palestinians by Israeli settler Baruch Goldstein.
The massacre sparked mass protests, more deaths and two suicide bombings carried out by Palestinians in Israel. Tensions in Hebron often run high between the few hundred Israeli settlers living in the Old Town, and the overbearing military presence needed to protect them, and the 215,000-strong Palestinian population who call Hebron home. I had four hours in the security room to contemplate this history as all my possessions were x-rayed.
There is a fanatical attachment to religious sites like this across the West Bank, and the grievances built up over many violent incidents make a reconciliation and a Palestinian State less likely. Outside the busy streets of Hebron, a lot of Palestine looked like brown wasteland and bare concrete buildings. There are fertile areas but it’s a hard land in more ways than one. A haze in the distance that looked like air pollution was vapour from the Dead Sea.
Visiting small communities with a mobile medical clinic for mothers and children we found ourselves in larger villages like Yatta and Carmel, but more often than not we’d drive through tiny places that were little more than a scattering of poor looking buildings. The occasional battered car would trundle past, its passengers giving us quizzical looks. Life here often seemed impoverished, and at times like there was no life at all.
This region highlights one of the major conflicts between Palestinians and Israelis: settlements. Areas claimed by Palestinians are effectively under the control of Israel and there is a string of Israeli settlements, considered illegal under international law, running across the hilltops and protected by the Israeli military. You can spot them easily on satellite images. In a uniformly brown landscape, well irrigated areas of bright green are a give away.
It was at the Bedouin settlement of Umm al-Kheir that the absurdity of all this struck me. Here was a community of Bedouin living in near-poverty in makeshift homes, no running water and no electricity, next to the Israeli settlement of Carmel – a place that looks like an American suburb has fallen from the sky into the desert. Identikit homes surrounded by greenery and razor wire. It’s utterly surreal.
Despite the overwhelming hospitality and the warmth of the people I met, not to mention the never ending meals and snacks that were part of every visit to every Palestinian home, I finished most days feeling profoundly dispirited. It’s almost impossible to see a way out of the deadlock, and things have only gotten worse in the last few years. A fact that I’m reminded of every time I use one of my ceramic bowls.