Perched in the Biblical Judean Hills of the southern West Bank, is Hebron. The city is one of the oldest cities in the world, and one that many people grow up hearing about in schools or church, but may not realize that it still actually exists.
But it does, and remains an important Palestinian city with a vibrant local community. However Hebron is also a political quagmire, a city that Israel would desperately like to annex due to it’s historical Jewish roots. Because of this, the Israeli military has allowed hundreds of illegal Israeli settlers to live in the city, protected by soldiers that frequently kill Palestinians that live here if they resist the occupation or try to completely reclaim their city.
As a result, unfortunately many people decide to bypass Hebron, and choose not to visit. However the city and the locals could benefit greatly from more income, from tourists and activists, as well as for people to come and see the reality of occupation in Hebron.
Below are a few reasons why you should visit Hebron. If they convince you, then getting to the city is easy, From many of the major Palestinian cities, you can get a shared taxi called a service (pronounced ser-veece), direct to Hebron for just a few dollars. Just ask for the “Service ila al-khalil?”. Al-Khalil is the name for Hebron in Arabic. Though many Palestinians, especially youth, actually speak a very decent level of English anyway.
1: To get a greater understanding of Israeli occupation
So I know a list of reasons why someone should visit a place should usually be about fun activities, food, museums and the like – and there’s many great reasons to visit Hebron. However this is the first reason, because frankly it is wrong to go to Hebron and ignore the situation there. And there’s lots to learn.
Walk towards the Old City and look out for the large concrete anti-vehicle blocks. Many will have “open Shuhada street” graffiti across them. And that’s where you’re headed.
Shuhada Street and the area of the Old City around it, is a street where hundreds of Israeli soldiers are based, along with hundreds of illegal Israeli settlers. It used to be a vibrant Palestinian shopping street, until the settlers and soldiers violently moved in.
There is a military checkpoint to get in, as a tourist it should be no problem. Israeli soldiers will check your ID, do a search of your bags and pockets, and may ask a few questions – just mention that you want to see the synagogue. or the Tel Rumeida archeological site. Don’t mention any pro-Palestinian affiliations if you want to get in.
A handful of Palestinians are still allowed into this area, but often undergo humiliating treatment and searches at the hands of the soldiers, and have often been threatened, beaten, and even killed by the settlers and soldiers illegally living here.
Once in you will see this place is now a ghost town, with anti-Palestinian and Arab grafitti coating the walls. if you leave the main street and walk up the hill (you should see a cemetery), you can come across the “Youth Against Settlements” building – a Palestinian group that documents the hardships in Hebron and the abuses carried out by settlers and soldiers. This NGO is happy to see tourists that want to learn about the occupation, and will be willing to share insights into Hebron life around a coffee.
2: Visit the market in the Old City
Right beside Shuhada Street, is the winding ancient Palestinian souq in Hebron. This market is probably the best in Palestine for handmade items. Many of the merchants with their tiny shops filling the nooks and crannies of the Old City, sell Palestinian clothing, pottery, jewelry, food items – you name it, someone has probably made it, and someone is selling it here.
Very few tourists come to Hebron and so you will get some friendly attention from keen sellers. People will offer you coffee, tea, and some may even offer to teach you a little about the occupation by bringing them into your homes or taking you to their rooftop to show you a panorama of the occupation and actually see Israeli soldiers (some of them are situated on rooftops just meters from the locals they are occupying).
Of course you can say no to all of this, but it is also part of the experience of Hebron. If you take a tea or coffee, offer to pay a few shekels (it may be refused anyway) as this isn’t a rich place. If someone takes time to take you into their home, to a rooftop, to teach about Palestine, chances are they may want a tip for doing so. See it as a good opportunity to help someone out, and learn at the same time.
While wondering the market also look up – the top of the market is covered in a net. The reason – well Israeli settlers throw their trash on Palestinian market sellers.
Not only is the market a wonderful place to pick up Palestinian handicrafts, it’s also a very good way to learn about occupation.
3: Go to a football match!
If you want a completely different experience, and one that many visitors to Palestine do not have, then go see Shabab al-Khalil or Ahli al-Khalil play – two of Hebron’s and arguably Palestine’s biggest football club.
If you traveling to Hebron from Bethlehem or Ramallah, keep an eye on your left as you enter the city. That’s because you will pass the football stadium – the Hussein Bin Ali stadium – before you arrive at the city center. It’s a little hidden, but it’s definitely big enough to notice.
Both teams play in the West Bank Premier League and games are often on a Friday afternoon. They are well supported, and tickets are just a few dollars. With a stadium capacity of 12,500, there should be no problem getting a ticket – unless of course it’s the al-Khalil derby between both teams! If you do go to a game, considering both teams are often challenging for first place most seasons, chances are you will be supporting a winning team by the end of the match!
4: Visit Palestine’s first and only Kuffiyah factory
The Kuffiyeh, the long (often black and white) patterned scarf worn by many here, is a symbol of Palestine and Palestinian resistance. Unfortunately many of the kuffiyehs bought in Palestine are not actually made in the country, but there is one factory that creates and produces them.
That factory is in Hebron, and I can tell you from experience the scarves they make are of a much superior quality than any similar ones you can buy. And they are only a few dollars more expensive.
Yasser Hirbawi opened the factory (called Hirbawi Textile Factory) in 1961, and it continues to weave away to this day, making the famous and original Palestinian cotton scarfs.
The factory is incredibly aesthetically pleasing for any budding photographers out there, and is as close as you can get to seeing traditional Palestinian industry up close and personal.
And it’s not just the black and white ones they make. There are keffiyahs here in countless different colors. If you get a taxi to take you to the factory, someone there is very likely to give you a short tour and see the whole process in action. Buy a few as well – this place is always struggling to get by, but does a fantastic job to keep open and employing locals.
See a 500-year-old Hebron tradition in person
Hebron is famous for it’s glass and ceramics, and if you wander around the Old City market you may spot some of the beautiful and ornate ware on display.
But you can also see this centuries old craft in person.
If you visit the Hebron Glass and Ceramics Factory, you can see how Hebron glassmakers work using traditional techniques that go back hundreds of years.
The factory’s workshop welcomes tourists and used to get busloads a day before the breakout of the Intifada (Palestinian uprising). Now they are lucky to see even one tourist a day. The workshop is a hive of activity and craftsmanship, and the products are incredibly beautiful. Without a doubt a visit here is worth an hour or two of your time.