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Travel: Hebron, Palestine, is intense mix of cultures

Rick Steves: Hebron is the commercial capital of the West Bank; a montage of commotion, startling sights and vivid memories of its people's Bedouin heritage.
BY Rick Steves, For The Oklahoman Published: February 16, 2014
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Walking through the Hebron market, I dodged the head of a camel dangling from a chain. I love traveling through Palestine. It's filled with vivid memories and startling moments.

I had no idea the people of Hebron had a taste for camel. But I was told that people here appreciate a nice fresh camel steak because of their Bedouin heritage. And the butcher shops seem to follow that Bedouin tradition: They butcher whatever they have to sell, and it hangs on their front porch until it's all gone.

Today, with about 250,000 people, Hebron is the largest Palestinian city and the commercial capital of the West Bank. It's a commotion of ramshackle commerce as its population generates about 30 percent of the West Bank's economy. Just about an hour's drive from Jerusalem, it's a rewarding place to visit.

Hebron is an ancient city with archaeological finds going back some 5,000 years. And for thousands of years it's been a city of great religious importance. In the hierarchy of holy cities, Hebron makes the top four for Jews as well as Muslims.

While the old town thrives with commerce, there is a palpable unease that makes just being here stressful. That's because Hebron is the site of the Tomb of Abraham — the great prophet and the epic father of both the Arab and Jewish people. Hebron is holy for Jews, Muslims and Christians. And that's why sharing it peaceably is a challenge.

Hebron feels like a thoroughly Arab town, except for a small community of a few hundred determined Zionist Jews who live mostly on the high ground in the town center. While it's not an easy place to live, they're driven by their faith, believing it's important not to abandon the burial site of their patriarch. And they're protected by a couple thousand Israeli troops posted here for their security.

Sightseeing here was joyful and sad at the same time. The Arab market was a festival of commerce, but checkpoints, security fences and industrial-strength turnstiles are a way of life here. Walking down Hebron's boarded-up “ghost street” was not enjoyable. Meeting Jewish settlers, so vastly outnumbered, I felt a sense of embattlement on their part. A no man's land (with pro-Israel political art decorating shuttered buildings) divides the two communities. Being here with our TV crew was tense.

The tomb of Abraham sits on a holy spot under a Crusader church. Its foundation wall — which dates back at least 2,000 years — is made of “Herod Stones,” quarried and cut during King Herod's reign. Each stone — like the Western Wall so beloved by Jews back in Jerusalem — has a distinctive and decorative carved border.

A tomb divided

Today, the building — called the Tomb of the Patriarchs because it houses Sarah, Isaac and Jacob as well as Abraham — is divided to serve both Jewish and Muslim worshippers.

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