If you look to the west of al Khalil/Hebron’s old city, across the once-bustling Shuhada Street (where Palestinians can no longer walk) and above the Muslim cemetery with its marble headstones inscribed in Arabic, there is a grove of ancient olive trees. They are planted on terraces, formed by old stone walls, that look out over the winding, narrow streets and pale, tightly packed buildings of the city. They face east, like the cemetery’s headstones, welcoming the morning sun that illuminates the gnarled trunks of the trees and pierces through their muted green leaves.
This place was my refuge during my time in al Khalil/Hebron. Sitting under a tree, with its twisted, primeval roots beneath me and a new day’s sun on my face, I would feel momentarily at ease. At that time of morning, there are no yells from the men selling produce or honks from impatient drivers, just the faint rush of cars on still-empty streets. A dog barks, roosters call and respond, the street lights switch off in unison.
From here, amid the twitter of birdsong, one could feel this is a place of peace, but it would be a feat of living in the moment or a supreme exercise in amnesia. A masterclass in forgetting. You would have to forget the glare of white security lights behind you where Israeli soldiers overtook a building once used to teach Palestinian youth about their culture; forget the checkpoint, with its one hundred eyes and steel face you had to pass through to get here; forget the remote-operated machine gun, newly mounted at its gates, that can fire rubber-tipped bullets or live ammunition; forget the turning iron bars you had to push through once you were beckoned forward by soldiers dressed for combat and barely out of high school; forget placing the creased photocopy of your passport up against the bulletproof glass so they could record the number, see who you are and where you are from.
Beyond this morning, you must also forget what you have witnessed in your short time here: primary school children being detained and searched on their way to school, settler children spitting at their Palestinian counterparts, Israeli soldiers firing tear gas at Palestinian boys who throw rocks out of boredom, frustration and anger towards a system that has forced them to keep their head bowed in submission since they were born. You must forget the hundreds of Palestinian businesses whose doors were welded shut after the city was segregated in 1997 and the hundreds more that were closed by their owners because they were no longer viable. When the coronary arteries of a city, the streets that once thrived with both Jewish and Arab activity, are blocked with cement walls and impassable gates, its heartbeat weakens, the pulse of life becoming harder and harder to detect as time goes on.
If you can forget about the apartheid state this occupation has created and the over 200 Palestinians, including 50 children, killed by Israeli soldiers in 2022 alone; if you can forget all this and a thousand things more, then maybe, just maybe, you might be fooled into thinking this olive grove, with its ancient, sentient, silent witnesses, is a place of peace.
In another time, I imagine it was. In another time, I imagine it could be once more.