October 18, 2019 •
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Postcards from Jerusalem: Part 3—Hebron Part 1: All Aboard
by Cantor Jessica F. Epstein

The sign on the wall at the hostel read, “Abraham, the first backpacker.” I could tell this wasn’t going to be your average trip.

It was early in the morning in Jerusalem when I took a Gett (very handy taxi-hailing app, all travelers must have) https://gett.com/il/ to the Abraham Hostel https://abrahamhostels.com/ up Jaffa Street near Machane Yehudah. Inside, large groups of very young people got ready to spend the day as camp counselors somewhere. The place was colorful and lively. There were American and European teens in matching shirts all going to teach sports all day in 90 degree sunshine. Have fun, kids. There was a whiteboard on the wall with all the activities at the hostel (yoga, happy hour) and vending machines as well as coffee machines for those staying there. In my wide straw hat, large Kate Spade sunglasses, and modest dress with a long skirt and long sleeves, I stood out like a sore thumb.

“You’re here for the tour?”

I found Abraham Tours https://abrahamtours.com/ online through Yelp before I left for Israel when I was searching for a tour of Hebron. No one recommended it to me, I just rolled the dice. I’m glad I did.  Hebron was one city I had never been to in my previous visits to Israel and one which I thought I should take time to explore but not just from one perspective. I wanted something that would show me both sides of a very difficult and intractable situation. It’s easy to find a tour sponsored by various settler groups. It’s also not hard to find a tour with a group like Breaking the Silence, who actively oppose a Jewish/Israeli presence there. I didn’t want propaganda, I wanted to make up my own mind. So here I was at 8 AM with my crocs, water, hat, and phone.

Slowly the other members of the tour came into the hostel, the men with hats and women with longer skirts and shirts as had been recommended. A mix of ages and nationalities, about twenty people total. In strode a heavy-set man with a big straw sombrero, bushy salt and pepper beard, long curly peyos and tzitzit flying. Eliyahu was to be our guide in and out of Hebron and was going to take us around the Jewish sections of the city, called H-2.

The tour is called the “Dual Narrative” tour https://abrahamtours.com/tours/hebron-tour/ because we would begin with a Palestinian guide who would take us through the PLA-controlled areas (H-1) and even host us in his home for lunch. We would see the situation as it affected him and his family before seeing and hearing from Israelis who also lived there. For me, this seemed more than reasonable. Facts on the ground are better than anything you can get through media, and walking the streets of both sides of the conflict could only bring a deeper perspective.

The first challenge was getting to Hebron. No giant, plush tour bus arrived to whisk us away. First we all had to get tickets to the light rail–imagine Eliyahu frantically feeding money into the machine with seconds to spare before the train came–and then at the Central Bus Station take the Egged #381 to the center of Hebron itself. Why tickets couldn’t have been purchased in advance I don’t know, but we all had to load up onto the bus, commandeer the back seats, and explain to the driver that Eliyahu was bringing the tickets shortly. Luckily, this is Israel and people just go with the flow. Between the rail and the bus station and staying with the group as Eliyahu ran up the escalators, just getting to the bus was an adventure. The bus was full of soldiers going back on duty and a few women heading back into the West Bank. We took an armored bus, bought likely back in 2016 after numerous attacks on settlers. Each Egged armored bus cost $1.5M dollars.

The armored bus was developed in Israel based on a Volvo chassis with a double rear axis in order to support the weight of armor. The outer shell, roof and floor were built according to military specifications and are protected by steel, while the windows are made of bullet-resistant glass. The protection can block 7.62 mm caliber armor-piercing bullets, grenades and explosive charges. A special defensive system for the wheels and tires allow the bus to continue traveling away from the point of attack. Two emergency doors are easily opened, allowing for a quick getaway from the bus under attack. https://www.ynetnews.com/articles/0,7340,L-4771961,00.html

“You see that little hammer and a sign that says ‘Break glass in an emergency’?” Eliyahu asked as we sped out through the city. “It’s just for show. Won’t work.”
We reached an intersection at the edge of the city. The driver paused and looked both ways.

“You want to go to the West Bank?” asked Eliyahu. “We make a right turn and we’re there.”

The bus turned right, and I entered the West Bank for the first time in my life.

To be continued….

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