These are my hurried notes from the end of a long day, 14th February 2005, after witnessing some horrible things.
Walk through the old city of Jerusalem, from Jaffa Gate to Damascus Gate, and you walk from the first world to the third world. Only on the other side of the old city can you find a bus that will take you into the West Bank.
We take a car from Jerusalem to Hebron, to the south. The geography of the region is surprisingly small. In ten minutes we are outside the city, and passing Bethlehem. Not long after and the outskirts of Hebron appear on the horizon.
We meet G, a Norwegian, and D from Italy. Both work for an international NGO in the city. The peace process is like an ailing phoenix, which rises from ashes and then decends into flames on a regular basis. Back in 1994, a Jewish settler massacred 29 people in the Ibrahim Mosque in the centre of Hebron. The NGO’s mandate is to act as observers and report on the interactions – and conflicts – between the Israelis and the Palestinians here. They operate by trust alone. They are unarmed and can only provide an independent account of the events that transpire here. They hope that their presence has a calming effect on the settlers and Palestinians alike.
We descend into the centre of town. Modern, squat skyscrapers hold apartments and shops selling the light industrial goods that are made around the city. Textiles, shoes, jewelry. Taxis and minibuses clog the streets. We see old men in grey blazers and the old traditional Khafir scarves in red or black, a mirror of their dead leader Arafat, now a poster-boy who adorns the walls of the city, alongside his colleague and successor Abu Mazen. Other election posters are half visible too.
Into the old city. Past a road-block first of all, followed by a checkpoint with a nonchalant and bored IDF sentry lurking alongside it. We take a turning down an alley, and in the half-light we can see more old men outside their stalls – fleeces, food, metal work, and a barbers. G and D say “Salam Aleikum” and so do we. Soon I become confident and say it to everyone who passes, and they respond with a smile and a squint.
Halfway down the alley, we look up to see a Israeli settlement that has been built over the old town. A wire mesh has been stretched over the of the alley to catch the rubbish that falls from the settlement into the souq below.
At the other end of the alley, the souq, we encounter another sentry post. Inside I see the soldier playing a game on his mobile phone. We have arrived at the Ibrahami Mosque, the scene of the massacre a few years ago. While G says that they will wait outside because they are wearing a uniform, we are free to wander into the holy place. Although, we cannot wander straight inside. We must first have our bags searched, and pass through a metal detector. Confronted by the IDF solider who is manning the checkpoint, I am struck first of all by the fact that she is a She… and then by the fact that she is a spotty, plump eighteen year old. Our assertion that we are without religion seems to annoy her, but nevertheless she and her two cohorts (lanky boys, also acne-riddled, also with guns slung over their chests) do their duty and check our bags.
Inside the mosque, all is quiet. Three men with the traditional headdresses sit and read, while a couple of young boys lounge against a pillar. At the back of the chamber we can see the tomb of Abraham, enclosed behind bars. Across the crypt though, we can see some young Jewish men, also standing behind bars, praying at the tomb. After the massacre the tomb was enclosed and split in two, so that the two communities would be able to pray separately at the same place. When we go outside again, we see the Jewish entrace to the same building.
In the plaza in front of the temple I can see more IDF solidiers. A pretty girl stands admonishing her friends lightheartedly. If it were not for their green fatigues, I mght think they were just about to go and hang out in the mall together.
We amble up to higher ground to get a good look at the city from above. We can see the white buildings that coat the hillside like molluscs and barnacles on an upturned fishing boat. A few men are rebuilding a wall that has been bulldozed for some reason. G says that these building are many hundreds of years old.
As we talk about the architecture, the lunchtime silence is shattered by an ambulance that speeds down the road behind us. At the same moment, D’s radio tactlessly blurts out the reason why the ambulance was there. The IDF have just shot dead a twelve year old boy, down at the checkpoints near the Ibrahami Mosque. It is difficult to imagine what possible threat he could have posed that required such lethal force. Down in the city we know a mother will be soon be crying. We know one young man will never send a Valentine card, or feel the rush of his first soft kiss. And we know that another boy or a girl with a gun has become a killer. An eighteen year old has killed a twelve year old. This will not make the morning papers.
Wary of what may happen next, we avoid the mosque and take a back route down into the souq again. There seem to be so many children on the street, teenage girls in groups of three or four, gossiping about the strangers walking through their town. I consider saying Salam Aliekum to them, but now it seems inappropriate. Do they know what has just happened less than two hundred yards away?
If they were unaware of any incident, a grenade goes off, and the explosion echoes around the city. As we descend and retreat to the new town, a voice begins to rant over the mosque speakers. Emerging from the same dark alley at the old town boundary, I see that the IDF sentry has become more alert. No longer playing on his mobile phone, he is leaning against his concrete barricade, and his rifle is aimed directly at us. From this angle it is hard to make out the shape of the gun. I can just see a hole at the top of the barrel. There is nothing to do but ignore the soldier, and find the car that we came in. The local residents seem to ignore him too – an old man steers his donkey and cart past us and the gun, into the souq and towards the Ibrahmi mosque.
Once again, I see for myself the capacity of people on this planet to dehumanise one another. Another glimpse into the eyes of the only devil I believe in.
I don’t feel sick. I feel nothing. G and D take their leave of us, and go to collect information for their report of the incident they could not predict, and did not prevent. We on the otherhand, go back to the new town. We get a cup of sweet Arabic coffee, then buy a couple of beautiful woven shawls in red and green. Pure lambswool, you know.
We were wrong, it was not a twelve year old boy. It was Sabri Fayez Al Rjoub, aged 15.