By Zainab Chaudry
To travel to the Palestinian city of Hebron is to glimpse the grit, resilience and tenacity of the human spirit under extreme duress.
Located about twenty miles south of Jerusalem, it is the largest city in the occupied West Bank and the second largest Palestinian city after Gaza.
It is home to Masjid Ibrahimi – a centuries-old mosque constructed above the tombs of four of the most beloved Prophets in Islam: Ibrahim (Abraham), Ishaq (Isaac), Yaqub (Jacob), and Yusuf (Joseph).
Recognized by Jews as the Cave of the Patriarchs, a growing presence of Zionist settlers in the area has escalated tensions to boiling point. During Ramadan in February 1994, in one of the worst terrorist attacks in the city, an American-Israeli settler named Baruch Goldstein entered the mosque during the morning prayer service and opened fire, murdering 24 worshippers and wounding dozens of others.
In the aftermath of the massacre, the Israeli government seized control of the city, set up multiple checkpoints, and divided the mosque – restricting Muslims to 40 percent of the space, and allocating 60 percent exclusively for Jews.
One survivor of the massacre, Hosni Rajeba described it as the Israeli government “rewarding the murderers.”
He and others still struggle with the psychological trauma – reliving it every time settlers harass them, or when Israeli soldiers unjustly bar entry at whim.
The day we visit Hebron coincides with the 12th of Rabi’ al-Awwal on the Islamic calendar – a day many Muslims observe as Mawlid, the date of birth of the beloved Prophet Muhammad.
Our guide announces that since it’s a special religious occasion, both the “Muslim” and “Jewish” sides of Masjid Ibrahimi will be open to us to visit.
Everyone is excited at the prospect of praying at the mosque constructed at the gravesite of the Prophet known as the “Friend of God” for his devotion to Him.
But entering into Hebron, our enthusiasm diminishes at the sight of a large, ominous sign declaring the entrance illegal for Israeli citizens, and warning visitors it is “dangerous to their lives.”
The messaging scapegoats the oppressed as the oppressor, deliberately disregarding the existential threat Israeli settlers pose to Palestinians.
In some ways, its reminiscent of World War II-era signs in the United States that once read “Japs Keep Moving, This is a White Man’s Neighborhood.”
Although those signs targeted immigrants, they were also used to alienate and marginalize an oppressed minority community.
We drive by Palestinian homes cloaked in netting to shield them from garbage thrown by settlers.
Many doors and windows have been welded shut by Israeli soldiers, so families that have not abandoned their property have to enter and exit through the roof.
Our bus driver pulls in to a parking lot that once used to be crowded with tour buses. On this day, it is vacant.
Boys as young as 3 and 4 nimbly race down the slope and eagerly gather around to sell colorful trinkets, postcards, chewing gum.
Tourists are good for business, but too few and far between. I quickly discover that my willpower and wallet are no match for their vending skills.
After making our purchases, we make our way to Shuhada Road – the sealed-off street that is named after the martyrs murdered in the 1994 massacre.
Even in broad daylight, it is bleak and desolate – resembling a ghost town, except for the handful of Palestinian children defiantly playing in the streets under the hawkish glare of Israeli soldiers nearby.
It wasn’t always this way.
Hebron was once a thriving city, home to many shops and businesses that have long been forced to shut down – effectively choking off the source of income for many families.
Now, the H2 area around the mosque is a closed military zone with Israeli guards stationed every 100 meters.
Zionist forces impose strict curfews, restrict prayers at whim, and randomly body search residents including women.
At the base of the hill leading up to the mosque, soldiers scrutinize our tour group – demanding to see passports, interrogating us on the purpose of our visit.
Curbing my anger at this intrusive, unjustified questioning, I break from the group and move to continue to walk.
A soldier steps forward and blocks my path, his hand resting on the rifle at his side.
He appears to be about 25 years old. His standard-issue military helmet casts shadows over most of his face but does not conceal the steely glint in his eyes.
I’ve often wondered what it would be like to come face-to-face this way with an Israeli soldier. To discern any sign of regret or conscience in their demeanor.
To demand to know why loyalty to state mandates oppressing God’s people, and what part of their faith permits them to lie, harass, steal and commit crimes against humanity.
As our unwavering gazes meet, I feel curious, as one would when meeting a distant relative – or a cousin – for the first time.
I also feel repulsed, as one would when confronting an instigator or bully who preys on the powerless.
I can’t forget that is among the soldiers who routinely fire sound grenades and tear gas canisters to terrorize Palestinian youth struggling for liberation.
He knows I – an American tourist – pose no threat.
And yet, I am absolutely certain that if I do not stop, he would not hesitate to draw the trigger and kill me in an instant.
In my privilege, that imposed restriction on my movement under threat of violence is not something I have experienced often.
But experiencing it even once is enough for the memory to remain with you for a lifetime.
The Prophet Ibrahim was willing to sacrifice his most beloved to show his love and dedication to God. In fact, one of the two major Islamic holidays commemorates this abiding devotion.
In the mere seconds that have passed, I wonder what I will be required to sacrifice to offer prayers in this sanctuary situated at his gravesite, with my dignity intact.
Our tour guide intervenes- speaks with the soldiers, and our group is granted permission to pass. I think of countless others who are never admitted simply because they are Palestinian, and I feel no relief.
The “Muslim” entrance to the mosque sits atop an incline, far less accessible than the “Jewish” entrance. An elderly uncle’s labored breathing upon exertion worries me.
A group of Palestinian boys observes our ascent from a stone wall topped with iron bars flanking the hill.
The word “hope” is scrawled on the wall in large, black letters – a desperately needed beacon that attempts to illuminate a dark and dismal reality.
As we enter the mosque, the fist of anger clutching my gut slowly unclenches at the sight of the cenotaph, or grave marker, of Prophet Ibrahim .
It is richly decorated; its green tapestries embroidered with gold inscriptions.
Words and pictures cannot adequately describe the experience of being in this sacred place. Of the serenity that encompasses the heart.
The opportunity to stand in this space is all the more meaningful for the obstacles and harassment that must be endured to arrive here.
I offer my prayers, mindful of the Israeli cameras perched in every corner – an unwelcome intruder monitoring every movement, capturing every sound.
seated at concealed monitors are reviewing the footage; they surveil our mosques not even barely comprehending the love and devotion that will continuously draw us here.
Despite the religious significance of the day, the Jewish side is not open for us to visit as we’d been told it would be.
We learn that it’s common for the occupying forces to renege on granting full mosque access on Islamic holidays.
One of our group members remarks how he’s “grateful we’re even allowed to enter” at all. His ingratiating comment doesn’t sit well with me.
I feel a mixture of emotions while visiting one of the holiest Islamic sites in the world under these circumstances.
“Gratitude” for “permission” from Israeli soldiers to enter it is not one of them.
As we exit, I’m approached by a Palestinian vendor, Qasim*, who invites me to buy prayer beads. He is about 20 years old, a native of Hebron who speaks almost perfect English.
Before settlers arrived, Qasim and his friends went to school every day.
Those schools are now boarded up too. This helps explain why children are playing in the streets in the late morning hours.
I want to know his story. I ask him if he could go to school, what would he study?
Matter of factly, he replies he wants to be a lawyer. He wants to work for justice because without justice there will never be peace.
I wonder if he’s read Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s quote: “True peace is not merely the absence of tension; it is the presence of justice.”
Wanting to hear his logic, I gesture around us, ask what compels him to stay when he has slim hopes of fulfilling his dream here.
He shrugs. “Education is important. But if I leave, I won’t have a home to return to.” He points up Shuhada Road in the direction of Masjid Ibrahimi. “If we all leave, Muslims will lose our holy mosques.”
His story shakes me as reality hits home. Many of these youth have passed up opportunities for a better life in order to protect our Ummah’s legacy.
The painful irony is that in protecting their homes and these blessed holy sites from centuries past, they have been forced to sacrifice their own futures.
I ask him if he has a message for brothers and sisters in the United States.
He hesitates as if searching for the words. “I invite you to visit us, pray here. This belongs to you too.” Palestine belongs to all of us.
The machine guns and rifles Israeli soldiers carry are far more deadly than the rocks Palestinian children throw in acts of resistance.
But they are not more powerful than the willpower and courage these youth have in their hearts.
One day, humankind will learn you cannot destroy a people’s dreams with guns and grenades.
You cannot end their thirst for freedom and liberation with rockets and bullets.
Qasim’s generation has only known life under occupation. They deserve access to resources and education. They represent our hope for the future.
He didn’t choose to be born into his circumstances. But he deserves the opportunity to change them.
We owe youth like him our gratitude and respect. We are indebted to them for the sacrifices they are making.
Go visit the children of Hebron. Go tell them that the world has not turned its back on them.
We are with them. We will uplift them. We will never stop advocating for their right to self-determination.
Zainab Chaudry sits on the Maryland State Advisory Committee to the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights and is the Director of Maryland Outreach at CAIR. She writes about her trip in her personal capacity.