In the process of re-immersing myself in photography this year, I’ve been reminded that images on their own often don’t mean a whole lot. To a certain extent, an image without context can only be appreciated on an aesthetic level. A sequence of images can certainly tell a story but without any guidance from their author, the viewer is very much left to come to their own conclusions. What we need is contextual information, sequence, captions, conclusion, etc. In other words, a narrative.
It was my initial intention to publish this story on the photography oriented social media site, 500px. It’s actually quite a novel concept for a website; beautiful online galleries combined with social media functionality. They have a very cool “Story” feature where you can sequence your images and include captions in a layout similar to a news site. After doing a little testing and exploring examples there, this seemed like the perfect venue for the story I wanted to tell. And after spending hours preparing and formatting it, upon hitting “Publish” my 500px account was banned within minutes. I have a pretty good idea why. It took 48 hours for them to even get back to me and they claim is was a mistake and due to a technicality and "not because of content." At any rate it's dissapointing and clearly not the right venue for this project. I was a little hesitant to do this here but am doing it anyways.
I’m not a journalist and even less an activist. I’m just a very curious individual with a passion for history, politics, and photography. In late January 2013 I had the opportunity to visit the West Bank city of Hebron, an ancient place with an extremely complex and troubling past, present, and future. Because of the difficult situation there, it’s my intention to reserve judgment and emotion and present the images I gathered there as objectively as possible.
Some very important context. From Wikipedia (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Hebron) –
Hebron is a Palestinian city located in the southern West Bank, 30 km (19 mi) south of Jerusalem. Nestled in the Judean Mountains, it lies 930 meters (3,050 ft) above sea level. It is the largest city in the West Bank, and the second largest in the Palestinian territories after Gaza, and home to approximately 250,000 Palestinians, and between 500 and 850 Jewish settlers concentrated in Otniel settlement and around the old quarter. The city is divided into two sectors: H1, controlled by the Palestinian Authority and H2, roughly 20% of the city, administered by Israel. The settlers are governed by their own municipal body, the Committee of the Jewish Community of Hebron. The city is most notable for containing the traditional burial site of the biblical Patriarchs and Matriarchs and is therefore considered the second-holiest city in Judaism after Jerusalem. The city is also venerated by Muslims for its association with Abraham and was traditionally viewed as one of the "four holy cities of Islam."
At the epicenter of the city’s problems is the aforementioned Cave of the Patriarchs, the historical burial place of Abraham, one of the central figures of the origin of both Jewish and Islamic faiths.
From Wikipedia (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Cave_of_the_Patriarchs) –
The Cave of the Patriarchs or the Cave of Machpelah, is known by Muslims as the Sanctuary of Abraham or Ibrahimi Mosque. Situated beneath a Saladin era mosque converted from a large rectangular Herodian era structure, the series of subterranean chambers is located in the heart of Hebron (Al-Khalil)'s old city in the Hebron Hills. According to tradition that has been associated with both the Book of Genesis and the Quran, the cave and adjoining field were purchased by Abraham, and Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Sarah, Rebecca, and Leah, considered the Patriarchs and Matriarchs of the Jewish people, are all believed to be buried there. The only matriarch missing is Rachel, who is believed to be buried near Bethlehem where she died in childbirth. The Arabic name of the complex reflects the prominence given to Abraham, revered by Muslims as a Quranic prophet and patriarch through Ishmael. Outside biblical and Quranic sources there are a number of legends and traditions associated with the cave.
Some history. From Wikipedia (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Cave_of_the_Patriarchs) –
After the Israeli victory in 1967 in which Israel gained control of Hebron, the first Jew who entered the Cave of Machpelah for about 700 years, was the Chief Rabbi of the Israel Defense Forces, Major-General Rabbi Shlomo Goren. "About 700 years ago, the Muslim Mamelukes conquered Hebron, declared the structure a mosque and forbade entry to Jews, who were not allowed past the seventh step on a staircase outside the building." Following the 1929 Hebron massacre, this restricted access was even more restricted by British Mandate authorities. After Israeli Statehood in 1948 and occupation of the West Bank and East Jerusalem by Jordan no Jews were allowed anywhere in the Judaean Mountains. Following the Israeli occupation of Hebron in the Six Day War, the area came back under Jewish authority for the first time in 2,000 years and the 700-year-long restriction limiting Jews to the seventh step outside was lifted. Jews immediately began re-settling in the city after the Six Day War, fixing their expulsion following the 1929 Hebron massacre. The first subsequent Jewish wedding ceremony took place on 7 August 1968.
In 1968, a special arrangement was made to accommodate Jewish services on the Jewish New Year and Day of Atonement. This led to a hand-grenade being thrown on the stairway leading to the tomb on October 9 in which 47 Israelis were injured, 8 seriously. On November 4, a large explosion went off near the gate to the compound and 6 people, Jews and Arabs, were wounded. On Yom Kippur eve, October 3, 1976, an Arab mob destroyed several Torah scrolls and prayer books at the tomb. In May 1980, an attack on Jewish worshippers returning from prayers at the tomb left 6 dead and 17 wounded.
Tensions would later increase as the Israeli government signed the Oslo Accords in September 1993, which gave limited autonomy to the PLO in the West Bank city of Jericho and the Gaza Strip. The city of Hebron and the rest of the major Palestinian population centers in the West Bank were not included in the initial agreement. A shooting spree committed by Baruch Goldstein an Israeli-American settler in February 1994, left 29 Palestinian Muslims dead and scores injured. The resulting riots resulted in a further 35 deaths.
The increased sensitivity of the site meant that in 1996 the Wye River Accords, part of the Arab-Israeli peace process, included a temporary status agreement for the site restricting access for both Jews and Muslims. As part of this agreement, the waqf controls 81% of the building. This includes the whole of the southeastern section, which lies above the only known entrance to the caves and possibly over the entirety of the caves themselves. In consequence, Jews are not permitted to visit the Cenotaphs of Isaac or Rebecca, which lie entirely within the southeastern section, except for 10 days a year which hold special significance in Judaism. One of these days is the Shabbat Chayei Sarah, when the Torah portion concerning the deaths of Abraham and Sarah and the purchase by Abraham of the land in which the caves are situated, is read.
The Israeli authorities do not allow Jewish religious authorities the right to maintain the site and only allow the waqf to do so. Tourists are permitted to enter the site. Security at the site has increased since the Intifada; the Israel Defense Forces surround the site with soldiers and control access to the shrines.
On February 21, 2010, Israel announced that it would include the site in a national heritage site protection and rehabilitation plan. The announcement sparked protests from the UN, Arab governments and the United States. A subsequent UNESCO vote in October aimed to affirm that the "al-Haram al-Ibrahimi/Tomb of the Patriarchs in al-Khalil/Hebron" was "an integral part of the occupied Palestinian Territories."
While visiting Jerusalem, I met a man who lives in Jewish Hebron, formally known as H2, and runs an outreach program in which visitors are brought into the Israeli settlement areas and then later turned over to an Arab guide who takes them into H1, Palestinian Hebron. H1 and H2 are divided from one another by a depopulated urban buffer zone, a “no man’s land” encompassing nearly 10% of the total area of the city. No one moves freely between H1 and H2. The only points of access are Israeli Defense Force (IDF) checkpoints and civilian access to the buffer zone beyond transit areas is completely restricted.
For me, experiencing how both communities live and cope in a completely segregated city was eye opening to say the least. Endlessly escalating tensions have resulted in countless tragedies and suffering for both communities. To protect the privacy of my guides and their families, no names will be given and no images of them used.
Maps of the areas in question -
Hebron is about 25 miles southwest of Jerusalem
Hebron is the largest city in the West Bank
H1, H2, and Israeli settlement areas in the Hebron Hills to the east.
Images presented in chronological order - my visit to Hebron in January 2013.
En route from Jerusalem via blast resistant, armored bus.
Along the way, through scuffed bullet proof windows, glimpses of Palestinian villages and rugged biblical landscapes.
Upon entering the city from the north, the area’s “special security needs" are readily apparent.
The focal point of Hebron is the Cave of the Patriarchs, buried deep beneath a structure built during the reign of King Herod. It has been at times a temple, a church, or a mosque depending on who laid claim to it during its 2000 year history. The cave itself is now inaccessible.
First checkpoint. Beyond is the site.
This is the Ibrahim Mosque which sits on top of the Cave of the Patriarchs.
So that both religious groups maintain access, the structure is divided into Jewish and Muslim sections.
During the Ottoman era, Jews were forbidden from going beyond the 7th step leading up to the tomb so today this staircase is of great historical and cultural significance to them. I was told by the settlers living in Hebron that it is a daily reminder of what has been regained by their community and something that can never be lost again.
Upon entering H2, first we were taken to the Jewish section of the structure which has now mostly become a place for religious study.
The majority of the structure has been the Ibrahimi Mosque since the 12th century. Access to the mosque from H2 is restricted so you literally have to exit the building and go through a IDF checkpoint in order to re-enter the mosque.
These watchtowers are all over Hebron, this one is on the way to the checkpoint to re-enter the Ibrahimi Mosque. Each watchtower contains soldiers and a marksman.
En Route to the Ibrahimi Mosque. Soldiers are omni-present nearby any checkpoint, barrier, or in proximity to the buffer areas between H1 and H2. At this point the group changed hands from our Jewish guide to a Palestinian one in order to access the Ibrahimi Mosque and H1.
Pilgrims gathering outside the mosque.
Entering the mosque.
From windows inside the Ibrahimi Mosque you can see Jews worshipping in their adjacent but completely inaccessible space.
On the day of my visit, there were Israeli soldiers inside the mosque and I never found out why. This is apparently quite common.
Mosque attendants putting down carpets for the soldier's boots.
Back on the street, another checkpoint .
Beyond this checkpoint is H1 proper which is under the control of the Palestinian Authority.
On the other side of this fence covering the street is H2, Jewish Hebron. Fences have been erected over all the transit areas through the buffer to protect people on either side from garbage and projectiles.
Inside H1 - a busy, densely populated Arab city buzzing with commerce and activity.
The first thing our Palestinian guide did was take us up to roof level to survey the area. IDF watchtowers are all over the rooftops.
A few of the residents of the building we're standing on.
At street level, one can see into the depopulated buffer zone from multiple points. These used to be thriving market streets and private homes and are now completely abandoned.
Along the way, passersby go about their business in the shadow of separation barriers and dead ends.
En route to one of the main market areas in H1, a vendor uses the separation barrier as a place to hang his wares.
One of the many market areas of H1.
One of the checkpoints back into H2. Here we part ways with our Palestinian guide and are rejoined by our Jewish one who will take us into his part of the city.
The first place we were brought to was the Israeli settlement areas in the rugged Hebron Hills just east of the city. The existence of these settlements is one of the mostly hotly contested political issues in the entire middle east.
The city of Hebron as seen from the settlements.
H2 isn't nearly as populous as H1. It's a orthodox religious community and its people are far more shy than their neighbors on the other side of the buffer. In general, photography is discouraged in their neighborhoods.
New housing in H2 whose construction was halted on government order.
Separation barriers in H2. On the other side is the depopulated buffer zone.
On the way out of town, there are many placards and signs written in both Hebrew and English that recount the city's troubles from the H2 perspective.
Both groups living here very much want to tell their story and make their case. I heard firsthand accounts of violence and atrocities on either side of the barrier that I'll never forget. One should not jump to any conclusions regarding Hebron.
Because of the area's complex history, deep religious significance of the Patriarchs site, and worsening political climate across the entire middle east; the situation in Hebron does not seem to be improving. It’s the strength, tenacity, and resilience readily apparent in the hundreds of thousands of people living there that should lend hope to an otherwise grim situation.