topics: zatar (food), Palestinian activism, West Bank, administrative detainees, Israeli settlements, HISTORY, Oslo Peace Accords, Israeli/Palestinian conflict; jump to dispatch

BikeAbout Log


Rider Notes: December 13–14, 1997

Breakfast: For breakfast we all shared tea, bread, jam, olive oil, zatar (see the Food of the Day), and a platter of scrambled eggs cooked with potatoes.

Lunch: We scrambled for a quick falafel sandwich grabbed in the Hebron market.

Dinner: Dinner was another feast of grilled chicken, which we supplemented with humus, a carrot salad, cabbage salad, cucumber and tomato salad and a large platter of rice.

Food of the Day: Zatar

Zatar is a mixture of spices and herbs that we have been seeing the last few days. Zatar is made by combining dried powdered ingredients. While we have not yet been able to figure out what the exact ingredients are, consultation with a local expert has determined that marjoram plays an important part, mixed with sesame seeds, salt, and something called "elm-leafed sumac." To eat zatar, first you dip a piece of bread into olive oil and then into the zatar mixture. Zatar is also used as a general spice and can be sprinkled on everything from eggs to cottage cheese to soup. Zatar has already become a welcome part of our daily ritual. It is something all you creative souls out there could try and make. Anyone interested in a rough recipe should contact Anthony.

Word of the Day: Sh'ish'malak? — "What is your name?"

During the last few days, we have been meeting a lot of people and had the opportunity to try an important phrase pulled from our limited repertoire of Arabic. Now, as we meet new friends, one of the first things we can ask is, "Sh'ish'malak?" click to hear an audio clip, or "What is your name?"

Tech Fact of the Day: Administrative detainees

The words "administrative detainee" refer to a person in a legal gray area created by the Israeli government for dealing with Palestinians accused of extremist attacks against Israel. If you are an administrative detainee, it means that the Israeli authorities can hold you in prison for an indeterminate amount of time without bringing charges against you. While, in theory, an administrative detainee should be held only long enough to gather evidence against him or her, it is not uncommon for a detainee to be held for quite a long time before being released, often with charges never having been brought. This period of unjustified incarceration can last days, weeks, months, and occasionally years.

Person of the Day: Hisham Sharabati click to view a photograph

While we have met many people committed to the Palestinian dream of an independent state, Hisham stands out for his devotion to Palestine, youth, and the peace process. Hisham volunteered to guide us through Hebron and made sure that we saw all the sights of the city. He also attempted to explain some of the complicated elements of everyday life in Hebron.

Born only seven days after the June 5, 1967, Israeli occupation of the West Bank (see the Place of the Day), Hisham began working with youth as a youth activist when he was just 14 years old. He has since increased the scope of his youth activism to an international scale by working with youth groups from many different countries.

Hisham also let his interests in photography and journalism bring him into the world of video. Dismayed by how the media portray all Arabs as terrorists, Hisham began pursuing the use of film (the first film he worked on is called "The Sons of Mrs. Alarideh") and the news media (he has worked for the World Television Network as a cameraman, filming the riots that occurred after the 1994 massacre at the Ibrahimi Mosque, when he was shot in the leg by Israeli troops) as tools through which he could accurately portray the Palestinian people and the effect that the Israeli occupation has had on the Palestinians who live in the West Bank.

Hisham also helped to start the Palestinian Youth Union in 1992. The PYU works with Palestinian youth to help them rebuild their communities and start to overcome any negative effects that have grown out of the occupation.

As a result of his activism, Hisham has been arrested six times (twice as an "administrative detainee" — see the Tech Fact of the Day — being held for four months each time) for a total of 16 months of incarceration. He continues to struggle to ensure that the world is aware of the suffering that has been endured by Palestinians during the Israeli occupation and works to eliminate the perception that many have that all Arabs are terrorists.

Place of the Day: West Bank

We have repeatedly learned how the Palestinian territories of the Gaza Strip and the West Bank have been in and out of the news (mostly in) for the last 50 years. The West Bank was originally part of the country of Jordan created when, after World War I, Great Britain created different countries in the area. The territory to the east of the Jordan River and parts of the land on the "west bank" (of the river) became Jordan. During the 1967 Arab-Israeli War, Israel occupied the West Bank, and has retained control of it to this very day.

Around 6,000 square kilometers in area (a much larger space than the Gaza Strip), the atmosphere of the West Bank is very different. The first thing we noticed is that, unlike the Gaza Strip, the West Bank does not really have a defined border. While there are plenty of checkpoints set up to stop traffic along all roads and make certain that only those with proper papers are allowed to continue, otherwise everything feels much more open. The Israeli settlements are also much more pronounced. In the Gaza strip, the settlers control approximately 25% of the land but are gathered in only a few locations with very carefully established frontiers. In the West Bank, the dividing lines between Palestinian land and settlement land are at best confusing and grow more and more complicated on by the day as more Israeli settlements spring up (Israelis now control approximately 52% of the land). As we biked, we could see entire communities of newer buildings enclosed by razor wire–topped fences and guarded by Israeli soldiers.

Group Dispatch, December 13–14

picture of Anthony

The well-known Palestinian city of Hebron in the West Bank (see the Place of the Day) was the destination for Anthony, andrEa, and Corinne as we set out from Ashqelon.

Sadly, this was the day that the BikeAbout team shrunk, yet again, by another member, having said goodbye to Padraic (who had to return to the United States for a friend's wedding) in Gaza City. Four kilometers outside of Ashqelon, the group stopped at a fork in the road and bid fellow rider, Ethan, a fond farewell. Ethan was off to Tel Aviv and, hopefully, a flight back to BikeAbout's New York headquarters so that he could work on raising some badly needed funds for the second half of BikeAbout–the Mediterranean. Anthony, Corinne, and andrEa rode on to Hebron, without their partner in travel, saddened by their loss, yet acutely aware that there would now be even more food for the three of them. Made more gleeful by the latter thought, they quickly put some kilometers between themselves and their omnivorous friend.

We were amazed at how quickly the scenery shifted. The ride was around 60 km (37 mi), but the terrain never seemed to stop changing. While we started at sea level, we quickly realized that we were going to end up much, much higher than that. After leaving Ashqelon, we passed first through farmland click to view a photograph, which quickly gave way to rolling hills click to view a photograph click to view a photograph, and then to some of the meanest hills we had seen since Morocco's Rif Mountains.

Unfortunately, a late start, coupled with a lack of energy and an ever-shorter daylight window, meant that the remaining BikeAbout team was still on the road when night fell. andrEa and Corinne accosted a poor Palestinian man and placed their bikes in his trunk and headed for town, while Anthony rode on for the city limits. With a rising full moon helping to light his way around potholes — but also with speeding dump trunks threatening to careen out of control at every turn — Anthony almost beat Corinne and andrEa to town as an Israeli patrol had stopped the ladies' car and insisted on checking the Palestinian car owner's papers and questioning him for about 30 minutes. By the time the team had reassembled in Hebron, the temperature had dropped considerably, the humidity level had increased, and all the BikeAbouters were in desperate need of warm, dry clothing.

Our first night in Hebron, we met with Hisham Sharabati (see our Person of the Day), a man who had volunteered to see to it that we saw all the sights of Hebron. We also met his friend, Pierre Shantz, who was in Hebron volunteering for a group called the Christian Peacemaker Team (or CPT, an organization devoted to negotiation, protection of human rights, public witness, and nonviolent action). Together, they helped us plan our next day's activities. Once they departed, however, the entire team quickly collapsed into a thankfully warm bed.

The next morning, with Hisham and Pierre leading the way, we set out for our guided tour of Hebron. click to view a photograph

First we stopped in at an exhibition of photos by local resident, Muna Al-Qawasmi, entitled "Scream of Freedom." Through her photography, she has worked to document what life has been like for Palestinians during the occupation of the West Bank. Much of her work centered on the families of those being held in prison (many as "administrative detainees" — see the Tech Fact of the Day). We learned that the men (and women) being held as detainees often use their time to make extremely intricate models and designs for their loved ones on the outside. Some examples of this artwork were also on display and we all marveled at the amount of time that it must have taken to construct the models. click to view a photograph click to view a photograph

The Israeli settlements of Hebron were next on our agenda. It is impossible to talk about Hebron without mentioning the settlements that have helped to define its present-day existence as one of the areas of greatest unrest in the disputed territories of the West Bank. Why? Well, settlements are a major point of contention between Israelis and Palestinians. During our previous day's biking through rural parts of the West Bank, the simmering hostilities that are a part of life in the West Bank were easy to miss, but this was sadly not so in Hebron. One of the first things we noticed about the city (aside from the fact that it is located on a big hill) is the unusually high amount of razor wire, and many more cement barricades, checkpoints and, of course, guns. The guns were not only carried by soldiers, but also by Israeli settlers. It was a little disturbing to see what appeared to be regular citizens walking around carrying automatic rifles. To learn why, we need to examine a little of the history of both Hebron and Israel. Not surprisingly, perhaps, the Bible is the source of much of our information.

The dispute over this area can be traced all the way back to the time of Abraham (or, in Arabic, Ibrahimi). Abraham is a crucial figure in all three of the major religions of the western world — Judaism, Christianity, and Islam — all of which have their origins in this part of the world. So who is Abraham and how does he fit into the three different religions?

Abraham (some biblical scholars believe) existed around the second millennium BC. Originally a native of Mesopotamia (the area between the Tigris and Euphrates rivers in what is now Iraq), Abraham left his home when he received a call from God telling him to travel to a new land that God would show to him. In exchange for obeying this command, God promised to "make of thee a great nation." This promise is called the Covenant (Genesis 17), and was passed from Abraham to his son Isaac, and then, eventually to Isaac's son Jacob. So, Abraham moved to an area called Canaan (the territory now known as Israel).

So, it was in this new land (the land promised to Abraham by God, better known today as the Promised Land) that Abraham purchased the Cave of Machpelah — which he had learned from divine inspiration was the resting place of Adam and Eve (Genesis 23) — as a place to bury first his wife, Sarah, and then, after his death, Abraham himself (buried by his sons Ishmael and Isaac). Later, Isaac was buried in the same cave, followed by his wife, Rebecca, son, Jacob, and Jacob's wife, Leah (Genesis 49:29–32; 50:7–9, 12–14). The Cave of Machpelah is located is present-day Hebron.

For Jews, Abraham's covenant with God (renewed through his son, Isaac, and grandson, Jacob), represented a special relationship with God. Meanwhile, for Muslims, Islamic tradition states that Abraham (or Ibrahimi), together with his son, Ishmael, constructed the Kaaba, or the shrine that stands today in the Great Mosque in Mecca, Saudi Arabia. For Muslims, the Kaaba is the most sacred place on earth. For Christians the view of Abraham is somewhat different. He is considered to be the father of all who believe in God, and that the promises made to Abraham have been fulfilled in Jesus. Thus, because Abraham and members of his immediate family are revered in Judaism, Christianity, and Islam, the place in which he is buried — the Cave of Machpelah — has become sacred to Jews, Christians, and Muslims alike.

During the sweep of Islam through the area, the Muslims built a mosque (today, the Ibrahimi Mosque) over the Cave of Machpelah. For hundreds of years (until the 19th century), Muslims and Jews (and sometimes Christians) co-existed and worshiped at this place in relative peace.

The end of the 19th century saw the revival of Jewish nationalism in the area (beginning in 1878 with the creation of Petah Tikva, the first wholly Jewish colony in what was then called Palestine). The movement was strengthened in the following years by the arrival of large numbers of Jewish refugees from Russia fleeing the pogroms (anti-Jewish killings and riots). Prior to this time, the numbers of Jews in the "Promised Land" was actually very low, due mainly to thousands of years of persecution by the Egyptians, Assyrians, Babylonians, and Romans (see the history of Jersualem), resulting in the Diaspora, or dispersion of Jews around the world. However, by the dawn of the 20th century, the concept of a Jewish state in Palestine was presented as a solution to the seemingly endless persecution of the Jewish people. (This was first suggested, in 1894, by the Austrian journalist Theodor Herzl in this book The Jewish State.)

In 1904, a second wave of Jewish immigrants from Russia and Poland (following yet more pogroms) arrived in Palestine. During this period, the foundation of Palestinian Arab nationalism was being laid as the people actually living in Palestine (known today as Palestinians) began to resist the growing and seemingly random taxation practices of the then-in-power Ottoman Empire (who controlled the area). This sense of Palestinian nationalism was only strengthened by the growing population of Jewish immigrants. It was during this period that a large number of Jews were killed in Hebron and the survivors fled to Jerusalem.

In 1947, the UN created the Partition Resolution, which called for the division of Palestine into separate Palestinian and Jewish territories. This was not well received by anyone and, with the withdrawal of the occupying British forces, matters quickly came to a head. The War of 1948 between Arabs and Jews finished with Israel in control of much of former Palestine. Egypt controlled the Gaza Strip, and Jordan (then called Transjordan) held the West Bank and part of Jerusalem. After the 1967 Six-Day War, Israel seized control of Gaza (and the Sinai) and the West Bank.

Shortly after the occupation of the West Bank, more extreme factions within Israel wanted to reestablish a Jewish presence in the, by then, wholly Arab Hebron. This idea was received with much shock and horror by more moderate Israelis and the government at the time instituted a ban on settlements by Jews in Hebron. The extremists were not to be deterred and, after considerable lobbying, received permission to construct (in 1972) Kiryat Arba, a large settlement one kilometer from Hebron. Then, in 1979, Miriam Levinger, one of the original settlers of Kiryat Arba, illegally occupied, with several other women and their children (including Miriam's own 11 children), the run-down Beit Hadassah of Hebron, the old Hadassah hospital in what had been the Jewish quarter. Their refusal to leave resulted in official permission for Jews to live in Beit Hadassah and paved the way for more Israeli settlements throughout Hebron.

Which brings us back to where we began: that the desire to establish Israeli settlements within Hebron can be traced back to the importance of one person — Abraham. All people seem to feel that the closer that they can get to the final resting place of Abraham, the greater the connection they will have to God.

Needless to say, tensions in the area are high. Since the Israeli settlements were established, Hebron has unfortunately been the site of violence and never-ending controversy. Matters have not been helped by the murder of six yeshiva (Jewish religious) students in 1980 by Arabs, followed by revenge attacks by Jewish terrorists. Recently, in 1994, a Jewish settler stepped through the doors of the Ibrahimi Mosque and killed 29 Muslims as they prayed.

As we started our tour of the city, the settlements were high on our list of things to see. In Hebron today, there are four different settlements: Beit Hadassah, Beit Romano, Avraham Avino, and Tel Romeida. We were amazed to learn how small the settlements really are. In total, there are maybe 400 settlers within the city limits of Hebron (approximately 250 of which are yeshiva students). If we were amazed at how few settlers there actually were, we were even more astonished to learn that there are over 2,000 Israeli soldiers stationed in Hebron to protect them!

The first settlement we visited was the Tel Romeida settlement, which has only five families. Situated on top of a hill overlooking Hebron click to view a photograph, Tel Romeida is at the end of a dead-end street. Once you pass the checkpoint at the bottom of the hill (controlling everyone who enters the area), the contrast with the rest of Hebron is obvious. On our left were five or six trailer-like housing units in which the settlers live click to view a photograph, while on our right were a few houses occupied by a couple of Palestinian families click to view a photograph and a large military base with a commanding view of the entire city.

Stuck in the middle, at the end of the dead-end street, is the home of a Palestinian man named Hanni. Later in the afternoon, we stopped in Hanni's tea shop and asked him what life was like living on a dead-end street with an Israeli military base on one side and a handful of Jewish settlers on the other. Laughing a little, Hanni answered, "Not easy." Jewish extremists have openly declared their intention to drive all Arabs out of Hebron. Often this desire takes the form of harassment. We could not help but notice the mesh fence that had been placed over the windows of the Palestinian neighbors of the settlers. click to view a photograph Hisham explained that without the mesh to protect the windows, rocks, constantly thrown at them, would break them. Other signs of the tension in the area were the pro-Israel graffiti. click to view a photograph

Hanni's property has even become quite valuable as conservative Israeli factions try to buy his family's land (and thus make the entire street settler-owned). "How could I sell?" Hanni responded. "This land has been in my family for generations." As we gazed out over part of Hanni's land containing some 2,000-year-old olive trees (trees that had been looking down on Hebron click to view a photograph since the time of Christ), we could understand his determination.

Later we visited the other settlements. While all are relatively close to one another, they remain separate. click to view a photograph The Israeli soldiers then are faced with the seemingly impossible task of ensuring the safety of the settlers. This is done through an elaborate system of checkpoints and the enforcement of zones. Looking at a map of the West Bank you can get an idea of just how confusing the question of who is in control can be (for an old map that still gives a good idea of the complexity, click here). In the offices of the Christian Peacemaker Team we looked at other maps of the West Bank showing all the different areas. click to view a photograph The settlements were easy to pick out, but we quickly learned that it was much more complicated.

The 1993 Oslo Peace Accords created the limited right of the Palestinians to practice self-rule. In Hebron we got first-hand exposure to this in all its complexity. We learned that throughout the West Bank, there are A, B, and C zones. In A zones (2.7% of land in the West Bank), the Palestinian National Authority controls both civil and security forces. B zones (27% of the land) have the Palestinians controlling civil issues, while the Israeli's control security. C zones (the remaining 70% of the land) are fully under Israeli control, in both civil and security affairs. There are several cities (like Bethlehem, Ramallah, and Nablus) that are A zones, but Hebron, despite being considered part of the A zone, is a special case because of the settlers.

As we walked around town, we would occasionally come across large cement blocks placed on both sides of the road. These were indications, along with an occasional painted line in the road click to view a photograph and a sign on the edge of the road in Hebrew and Arabic click to view a photograph that we were moving from one zone from another.

Later in the day, as we walked through the Hebron market, we saw yet another result of the years of conflict in the area. The market, in many ways, was similar to the souqs we have seen during our voyage (complete with a camel meat butcher), but in Hebron, there was a palpable feeling of tension. Some of the shops were closed, even though it was only early afternoon, and the streets were far from full of the teeming masses of people that we were used to. Looking up, we noticed that the by-now-familiar mesh fencing had been spread over the top of the street, like a canopy. When we asked why, we were told that one side of the market street was part of an Israeli settlement and the residents there would occasionally toss objects down onto the market street. click to view a photograph

While this was shocking, we learned that the actions of the settlers fall into a sort of legal gray area. The Israeli soldiers protect them, but they have no jurisdiction over them. Similarly, in Hebron, the Palestinian Authority's security forces have jurisdiction over Palestinians but they have no power over the settlers. "There is no justice," one Palestinian man commented. "They can do whatever they want and no one is here to stop them."

Latter in the day we stopped outside the Ibrahimi Mosque. Before the 1967 War, the Arabs had forbidden entry to Jews. After the war, administration of the mosque was left to the Arabs, but equal access for Jews was secured. After the 1994 terrorist attack that left 29 Muslims dead, the mosque is now segregated into separate Muslim and Jewish sections. To enter the mosque now you must first walk through several cement barricades and then pass through metal detectors, all the while under the watchful eye of several heavily-armed Israeli guards. Unfortunately we were unable to enter the mosque as the afternoon prayer had just begun.

The effects of the attack at the mosque are still seen and felt throughout the city. The fruit market is still closed click to view a photograph as is all of Al Shoharda Street click to view a photograph (even though their reopening was a specific part of the Oslo Peace Agreement). This prompted one man to comment that even though it was Palestinians who were attacked in the mosque, it was Palestinians who were made to suffer.

As we started to return home, walking through streets and intersections that we had seen on the news in years past filled with troops, stone-throwing youth, and tear gas, Anthony noticed a bright light shining from the direction of the Tel Romeida settlement. Asking Hisham about it, we learned that the resident settlers occasionally shine a searchlight down into the windows of those who live in the city center. Apparently this is just another form of harassment practiced by the settlers to drive the Palestinians out of Hebron. Pondering this and the many other sobering details we had learned about life in Hebron, we retired to Hisham's for the evening to talk about what we had seen and experienced.

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