HEBRON: Saif still remembers seeing the gunman moving along the narrows steps towards one of the most magnificent houses of prayer in the world, known as the Ibrahimi Mosque by Muslims, and the Cave of the Patriarchs by Jews. He has worked here, in Hebron, as a gate guard for these holy sites for thirty years.
The configuration of the religious buildings has changed dramatically in that time. What was once a pleasant prayer hall shared between Muslims and Jews is now a starkly split mosque and synagogue; the entrances are separate.
While Muslims welcome everyone, the synagogue is open to everyone but Muslims, regardless of which country they are from. This stands in stark contrast to the general perception of Islam as an exclusionary faith, and Judaism as a tolerant one. It is discomforting, but the underlying dynamics are worth serious discussion.
The architectural changes that led to the mosque and the synagogue being divided instead of a shared prayer hall were essentially put in motion on the day that Saif's brother died. That was in February 1994, when a far-right Israeli terrorist – the gunman spotted by Saif – and founding member of the Jewish Defence League, entered the mosque during dawn prayers, threw a grenade, and began shooting Muslim worshippers with his army-issue rifle. His name was Baruch Goldstein, an American settler who arrived in Israel with gun culture machismo, the untameable spirit of a religious rather than political Zionist, and the moral compass of a magnet in spasm.
At the time, Goldstein was already under investigation by the Israeli security services for being a potential terrorist. He had dropped acid on the prayer mats of the mosque before and had called for the ethnic cleansing of Arabs in an article in the New York Times.
Ever since the Hebron Massacre – Goldstein killed 29 Muslims before he was overpowered and beaten to death – Saif has been caring for his brother's widow and their three children, along with his own wife and children, as well as his mother and father-in-law. He earns $200 per month. He has no teeth at all on his upper jaw because he can't afford the dentist's bills; he uses everything he earns to keep his family fed and sheltered.
This is Hebron, in 2017. The conventional wisdom is that such a terrorist attack would have been committed by a Muslim, and the Jews would have been the victims. The conventional wisdom is wrong. It was a Jewish terrorist who did the shooting, and it was Muslims who were killed.
On this visit we are a mixed group heading into the sacred area. The criteria for entry into the great mosque is only that you remove your shoes and, if you are a woman, to cover your hair respectfully. This is nothing unusual here; just thirteen miles away is the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem, where most Christian women do the same. Everyone on the way into the Ibrahimi Mosque is smiling and helpful.
Accessing the synagogue is another matter. Here, full religious discrimination is on show. It is discomforting to see it exhibited by young Israeli Jews, whose forebears know more than most about the evils that small-minded prejudices once wrought on an entire people.
After Goldstein's attack, instead of clamping down on the Jewish settlers – as one would have expected in a democratic state – the Israeli government provided them with extra protection, and closed off much of Hebron to Palestinians. The government also began flying Israeli flags along the top of the entire building, even the mosque section.
Youthful Israeli soldiers, serving their time with the Israel Defence Forces, snap at us at every checkpoint. They don't seem bothered whether we are journalists or tourists. It is our faith they want to know.
"What religion are you? You Christian? Oi! You! You Muslim? Are you Muslim?" The country we come from is irrelevant; in Hebron, the only game in town is catching Muslims and preventing them from entering the building. This might make more sense if it had been Jews attacked in their synagogue by a Muslim in 1994, but it was exactly the opposite.
The tombs inside the Ibrahimi Mosque aren't the only holy sites where Israeli Jews prevent Muslims from entering. The tomb of Prophet Joseph – Yusuf to use his Muslim name – is also surrounded by sullen Israeli guards; the only people they turn away are Muslims.
There is nothing that forbids Jews from welcoming Muslims into this most holy of synagogues. Muslims are welcome in most synagogues around the world. Israel, the world's only (self-declared) Jewish state, is the exception. Its government has opted to implement a policy of rigorous and deeply disturbing religious discrimination, a policy which is largely hidden from a disinterested Western public, which understandably (given the Holocaust/Shoah) can't compute the concept of Jews being the persecutors.
In a heart-breaking moment, two members of our group are forced to lie about their faith simply to get inside. As we pass through more circles of Israeli security, they are forced to lie again. "Hey, hey, hey," the kid soldiers, with barely a hair on their chins between them, shout at a covered female colleague, "you sure you aren't a Muslim?"
"No, she's an Orthodox Christian," we lie again. It works.
At a nearby checkpoint only last year, a young Muslim women was shot in the head because she refused to take her veil off until a female Israeli guard could be found.
The visit is a deeply unsettling process. That is not to blame the many devout and charming Jews we found inside this great synagogue, and those who live across Israel and across the diaspora. As ever, Palestinians on the whole remain clear about the difference between Jews and the Israeli government and its agencies.
The settlers in Hebron itself are a different matter, however; for them, Goldstein remains a hero. "There are no innocent Arabs," one told the Independent at the time. "These deaths were necessary and it is necessary to kill a lot more." According to his friend, "All of them [the Arabs] have done evil. Their so-called mosque is the burial place of our forefathers. There they sing 'Death to the Jews' – is that what you call innocent people?" Unsurprisingly, in the mosque we found no chanting of "death to Jews." It was remarkably empty in fact, a sign of how scared local Muslims are to pray even at one of the great shrines of their faith.
Hebron is a city ruined by settlers – funded from abroad (mainly the United States), heavily armed and driven by a peculiar brand of religious rather than political Zionism. They are religious fundamentalists. Women are barely allowed to interact with men. If they were Muslims we might call them jihadis.
The city they have created, with the sponsorship of the Israeli government, is ghastly quiet. Clashes are happening on a roundabout not far away, with rubber bullets fired from the Israeli side, and rocks and the occasional Molotov cocktail thrown by Palestinian teenagers. Other than that, the old city is empty. The Israeli soldiers who have taken positions on the tower blocks above seem to be of age, unlike the national service kids who are assigned to the synagogue-mosque complex. Perhaps because they can see the press pack nearby, they fire their rubber bullets low along the ground.
Meanwhile the kid soldiers by the mosque and synagogue are so inept that even working the security gates is beyond them. They stab buttons for a couple of long minutes while we queue patiently to leave their synagogue. They are uncertain how to open the enormous metal bars. It becomes harder and harder to believe that they are there to keep us safe rather than simply to turn back Muslims. Luckily there isn't a terrorist attack going on.
It is a sick reminder of the past; part of the reason that Baruch Goldstein was able to pull off his deadly attack was because four of the expected IDF guards failed to turn up for work that morning.
If Muslims were in control of all of Palestine and had their police or army turn away Jews or Christians from the Mount of Olives, another shared site of enormous religious significance, the world would be in uproar. Why, then, are the Israelis allowed to be so discriminatory? It is clear from the religious discrimination we faced at the tombs of Abraham and his family, that the Zionist state has much to do to convince the world that it is the best guardian of these holy sites or, indeed, the rest of the holy land.
The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.