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Notes on the Geography of The West Bank: Hebron

Half an hour's drive south from Jerusalem, Hebron has a historic core that has the potential to be a World Heritage site.

These pictures and captions date from the 1990s, between the first and second intifadas. The Old City, already under stress, has since then been almost abandoned, an unusual outcome for a city that in fact was added to the World Heritage List.

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The West Bank: Hebron picture 1

Here is the haram or sanctuary, Hebron's Eiffel Tower, Big Ben, and White House. It stands over caves reputed to hold Abraham and Sarah, Jacob and Leah, and Isaac and Rebecca. The purchase of these caves is described in Genesis 23, where a bargaining session takes place in a style repeated thousands of times daily in the Muslim world today.

The walls of the sanctuary are built of immense blocks from Herod's time (nobody in the Holy Land since Herod's time has worked with such blocks). Access is subject to complex rules imposed in 1992, when a settler from the nearby Israeli settlement of Kiryat Arba opened fire on Muslim worshippers at Friday prayers.

The West Bank: Hebron picture 2

The Old City grew up around the haram and stretches primarily to its west. The main path through it is called in Arabic qusseba, or windpipe, a term whose Arabic name has been corrupted in English as Casbah and taken to mean Old City. Hebronites refer to this neighborhood as the Qantara,, or arches; for them, Qusseba refers only to the main street. The camera here is at Ein el Askar, the policeman's spring, which is at the western end of the windpipe. Canvas has been stretched overhead to make a shady roof; below, cheap plastic goods are offered along with traditional ones.

The West Bank: Hebron picture 3

Much of the market or suq is architecturally rough, especially at points like this one, where Jewish settlements overhang Palestinian shops. Their owners try to carry on as usual.

The West Bank: Hebron picture 4

It's a quiet day in the suq. Prices are all in shekels, though much West Bank business, especially property sales, is conducted in Jordanian dinars. On Friday morning, the market will be jammed, almost impassible. Even so, people who knew Hebron before 1992 say that the market is a shadow of its former self, crippled by the closure imposed at that time.

The West Bank: Hebron picture 5

Most of the fruit and vegetable merchants abandoned the street after 1992 and moved farther west, to a traffic circle where access was easier. A few hung on, including this cheerful seller of elephantine radishes.

The West Bank: Hebron picture 6

Most people on the West Bank wear western clothes, made locally or in Jordan (or China), but there are exceptions. Here, midway toward the haram, a tailor cuts and sews sheepskins into jackets, vests, and cloaks. The prices are low, but the finishing is too rough for export. There are many other such trades practiced nearby: power lathes, for example, shave shafts of brass into heavy pestles for grinding spices.

The West Bank: Hebron picture 7

There are meat markets, too. Yes, it's camel.

The West Bank: Hebron picture 8

At a crossroads in the market, a vendor dilutes tamarind syrup with water and ice. The drink is sold by the glass. He lives very close, in a small house atop the ruin of his former house, destroyed by Israeli security forces. In his living room there is a painstakingly reconstructed model of Jerusalem's Aqsa Mosque. The workmanship seems a bit rough until one realizes that the model is made from the shiny inner wrappers of thousands of candy bars. It was given to him, he says, on a visit to an Israeli prison, where it had been made by Palestinian prisoners.

The West Bank: Hebron picture 9

Deep along the qussebah, there's an opening in the massed buildings. A pedestrian hardly recognizes it, because the shops continue to form a solid wall. From above, however, the opening is very clear. Its origin isn't. Some say that it's leftover from the bombardment the city suffered in the 1830s, when the Egyptians briefly seized control of Palestine. In any event, it provides a glimpse of the buildings that sheath the axis of the qussebah. The domed roofs and arched windows are characteristic of the city and indeed account for the colloquial name, Qantara, "arches." The strikingly clean land in the clearing is the result of rehabilitation works; a year before this picture was taken, the same land was a garbage dump.

The West Bank: Hebron picture 10

Big houses, massive masonry, arches, and green plants are characteristic of the old city.

The West Bank: Hebron picture 11

Until the mid-1990s, much of the old city was in a state of advancing ruin, like the broken domes that here rise over bedding put out to air.

The West Bank: Hebron picture 12

Some of the ruins are the results of raids by Israeli security forces. Here, however, an old olive press, once driven around a circular track by a donkey, has been defeated by modern technology. Once abandoned, any space quickly becomes a trash heap. Chances are that this press was operating as late as 1970; one middle-aged man in the neighborhood said that he remembered the donkey going around in endless circles.

The West Bank: Hebron picture 13

There aren't many horses left in Hebron, but here's one, stabled close to the qusseba and, judging from the gnawed planks, hungry and/or bored. One of the biggest problems of the old city is that it's almost as hostile to automobiles as it is to horses. Unable to drive to their houses, people of means move to villas in newer areas of the city.

The West Bank: Hebron picture 14

The people who stay behind are poor. One of their perpetual problems is water, for which they rely on water held in cisterns. This large building, with half a dozen apartments for members of an extended family, was empty except for this one man. Access was through a single door in the wall of a blind tunnel branching off the qusseba. He said that an Israeli had come to him with a blank check, his to fill out as he liked, if he would sell him the property. Drawing a rubber bucket of water from his cistern, he did not add that it would have been worth his life for him to have accepted that offer.

The West Bank: Hebron picture 15

When cisterns run dry, the alternative is to buy water delivered in canisters like these, filled from cisterns kept as commercial propositions. This one was near the eastern end of the qusseba, below an Israeli apartment development. The neighborhood was too tense for shops to stay open. Overhead, cyclone fencing had been stretched by Israeli security forces to keep rocks and other projectiles from flying one way or the other.

The West Bank: Hebron picture 16

When a street in Hebron is closed by the Israeli security forces, residents are in effect forced from their houses. The cement-filled barrels are not an insuperable obstacle, but it's risky to climb them and pass into the street beyond. Such closures can last for years.

The West Bank: Hebron picture 17

Security patrols are a fact of daily life.

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