Living at what can only be called a conflict zone (Hebron itself being divided to two sectors: H1, controlled by thme Palestinian Authority, and H2, roughly 20% of the city, administered by Israel), I can honestly say that during all my travels – both within and outside Europe – I have never felt as safe as I do here.
Sure, there are some challenges to a female Western blond traveller, who, unlike roughly 99% of the local female population, does not wear a hijab; and I would be lying if I’d say I draw no attention to myself when I roam the streets of Hebron alone. However the attention is pleasant and in my opinion, also non-invasive; it is not atypical to be greeted with “welcome, welcome” and a friendly smile, as I pass by some street vendors.
Some others, more proficient in English, may stop me on the street to ask where I am from and what am I doing here. After my answer, the same friendly smile: “welcome, welcome”.
Children at the windows of their homes or on the streets licking ice-cream cones, smiling shyly and waving enthousiastically: “hello, hello, marhaba!” Some others following me, trying to strike a conversation in Arabic (where, alas, so far, my response has been limited to “ma b3raf 3rabi” – I don’t know Arabic).
Yesterday, when wandering the narrow paths of the local souq and bazaars with actually no other purpose than to just absorb its unique sphere, I spotted a young man looking at me and as he did so, a broad smile brightened up his face. He started making his way towards me in the crowd, keeping his eye contact as he approached with great determination.
“Hello! I have seen you before!”
Granted, it’s not hard to remember me here for the reasons stated above; but as it happens I also remembered him from my previous visit.
“You have time? You come to my roof to see beautiful Hebron, beautiful view! I will make tea!”
This may well be the quintessential stereotype of a situation a lone female traveller may encounter in a strange culture; getting an invitation from a stranger (male) to follow him somewhere away from the crowds; even preferrably to a dark, quiet alley. And of course, in this case the lone female traveller should politetly decline and quickly remove herself from the situation, preferrably to a herd of tourists to act as her shield.
Three minutes (and what seemed to be a hundred stone steps and one dark alley) later I was, naturally, sitting on a mattress on his rooftop, drinking some sugar flavoured with a hint of tea (they do like things sweet around here).
To my left I spotted an (empty) Israeli rooftop guard post covered with a camouflage net; to my right some water tanks with man-made punctures in them (according to hear-say, the work of the settlers trying to chase the Palestinians away). I had landed in the epicentre of the H1/H2 border between the Palestinians and the settlers.
I don’t want to sugar-coat this; and can’t emphasise this enough: this is a conflict zone, where shootings and stabbings are almost considered a daily routine.*) If you enter the H2 area, you may see even the non-military settlers carrying some serious guns (a really bad joke about the mantra that everyone recites when leaving home – keys, wallet, phone – is apparently in the settlements more like keys, wallet, phone, gun).
You will pass a checkpoint guarded by Israeli military forces and they will most likely demand to see your passport and entry permit/visa.
And yet, seeing all this and experiencing some of it first hand, I have yet failed to feel threatened at any situation.
“Welcome, welcome. Marhaba.”
*) This happened last week, only a few kilometers from where I live.