From Haifa to Hebron

Queuing to pass through the stringent security of Jerusalem’s central bus station, it is important to keep your end destination in mind so as not to lose all hope and give up.
By British standards, people in Israel are rude.

The transition from the orderly queues and lack of eye contact usually found on public transport in the UK to the forthrightness of the Middle East is a difficult one, and one which takes some getting used to.  Call it refreshing, call it repulsive – Israelis will push past unsuspecting and helpless tourist prey like myself, walk over young children and trample senior citizens if they think it will buy them an extra half a minute.  The concept of personal space goes out the window.  I quickly learnt that in this situation, the only answer is to give as good as you get and to have no mercy on anyone who stands in your path.  Bags on belt, coins on side, body through scanner – the young man on the other side checks my backpack.  His body language is apathetic and his eyes are full of ennui as he pretends to check its contents.

The next stage of the journey consists of dodging the throngs of passengers inside the station, darting in all different directions.  Some stand idly admiring the piles of ‘kippot’ being sold on impromptu stalls, others sit and socialise in generic chain cafés drinking overpriced coffee.  They are good places to rest and people-watch.  Orthodox Jewish families pass by clad in black clothing.  The fathers don black ‘huckel’ hats and the mothers, in long skirts and with covered hair, push prams crammed with multiple children.

Add to the recipe posses of young IDF recruits in transit to and from base, sporting khaki uniforms.  Most of them are carrying bags larger than their torsos, their attention flitting between looking where they are going and texting on their smartphones, which seem as important to them as the huge machine guns casually flung over their shoulders.  Sights such as these, combined with the forever-repeating and clashing playlists of chart hits which emanate from the different shops of the bus station give the place a uniquely bizarre atmosphere.  After buying my ticket, I boarded Egged bus no. 960 to Haifa.

Before visiting the city itself, I had arranged to visit a nearby kibbutz.  The first Israeli ‘halutzim’ – the pioneers – had envisioned the kibbutzim as utopian communities, founded on a combination of socialist and Zionist ideals and were traditionally based on agriculture.  However, in recent decades emphasis has shifted from agriculture to areas such as industry and high-tech enterprise, with many being privatised.

This particular kibbutz, called ‘Eshbal’, is located just east of Haifa and overlooks the Israeli-Arab city of Sakhnin.  It is unique on the kibbutz scene, part of it being a boarding school for Ethiopian youths who need a ‘second chance’ in Israeli society, which often ostracises them.  I get off the bus at a designated junction where Alon Dror, Eshbal’s director, is waiting for me in his car.  As we snake through the hills, the landscape is stunning.

“Coexistence is possible”

Alon’s office in Kibbutz Eshbal is small, strip-lit and there is a year planner shabbily blue-tacked to the wall, reminiscent of a school staff room.  With time against us, we set straight to talking.  “Our main mission here is to educate equality based on human rights”, he says.  “Our role is supposed to be philanthropic, while remaining a kind of ‘exchange’ – without any kind of condescension or arrogance in approaching Arabs.  We hope this means that they will realise coexistence is possible and then mutual respect will be achieved”.

He seems to have recited these words on more than one occasion.  He goes on to tell of the multiple schemes and projects which Eshbal engages in, and it becomes clear that he isn’t merely paying lip-service.  There are Arabic lessons for adult Jews every week.  They work with local Arab teachers and youth leaders to run exchanges for both Arab and Jewish youth – together.  “We do this because there is no mixed [Arab-Jewish] education here in Israel.  True, most people want it that way and are happy with the system as it is, but it also means the two groups never meet.  These separate systems, combined with religious difference and the obvious discrimination which is present brings with it a lot of racism and fear”.  I ask him whether he thinks the exchange projects are successful in their aims.  “They’re not going to solve the conflict” he said, “but I can tell you that after these mixed projects, Arabs definitely see themselves more as part of a community.  They arrive here and meet the Jewish youth.  At first there is naturally a huge amount of mistrust … and often a language barrier as not all Arabs speak good Hebrew and very few Jews speak any Arabic at all.  But after they begin totalk, they see that the ‘others’ are human just as they are and … it goes from there.”

Alon’s rhetoric is definitely inspiring.  I wonder to myself why there aren’t more places like this.  He continues, “as for national identity, our goal is to teach Jews not to neglect their Jewish culture but to revive it, and exactly the same goes for the Arabs.  The biggest reason for Arab extremism is the Israeli government – it suppresses Arab culture.  So we want to nurture these two unique identities, as well as promote our one, common identity.”

“Taught to fear each other”

I ask him what he believes are the main reasons for the huge mistrust between the two populations.  “Unfortunately, all the parties in the Knesset currently, both the Jewish onesand the Arab ones, are nationalist” he said, somehow managing to frown with his whole face.  “They go from extreme to extreme.”  He brings up the Israeli government’s controversial proposals in 2009 to require all new citizens of Israel to pledge allegiance to a ‘Jewish and democratic state’.  “It was obviously a bad law, but was completely blown up by the media as it doesn’t really affect anyone non-Jewish – it was a provocation.  But what we saw were extreme responses from the Arab side, and further to this came extreme Jewish responses.  It’s a vicious circle.

The two ‘nations’ – the Arabs and the Jews – meet on the news and in the newspapers.  They stand apart from one another at the gas station when hitchhiking… they are taught to fear each other.  What we aim to do is ‘vaccinate’ society against the political game and focus on what Arabs and Jews have in common.”  Alon seemed to like this analogy.  He spoke of ‘vaccination’ again on more than two occasions, after which we ran out of time.

On the bus to Haifa, I replayed our conversation in my head – in particular his words on society’s ‘fear’.  It became clear in my mind that the media was not the only platform by which Israelis are taught to fear.  I thought back to the hellish bus station – the adolescent gun-wielding school leavers in uniform are also part of this agenda.  And it’s not just in bus stations where you come across them.  They march around in the Old City of Jerusalem, the sound of the hard soles of their boots hitting the cobbled paving attracts the attention of everyone they pass.  They flock around shopping malls and guard train stations.  Young Israelis buy IDF memorabilia and wear it as any Brit would wear Jack Wills.  Even small children can be seen flying F16-shaped kites on the beach in Tel Aviv, a ‘bubble’ city where life usually carries on as normal during military conflicts.  It’s probably impossible to go a day without seeing anything army-related in this country.  Little wonder then, that people are so scared.

I wondered how Haifa would fair compared to the things I’d read and heard about it.  Most sources give the indication that it is a surprisingly tolerant city in a country where segregation and racism are sadly a daily norm.  Lonely Planet describes its population as a ‘famously tolerant, intercultural mix’ and tells of its ‘Christmukkah’ festival – a combination of Christmas, Muslim Eid-ul-Fitr and Jewish Hanukkah.  Haifa’s University is the only in the country with an enforced 50/50 Arab-Jewish student ratio.

Indeed, returning back at the city’s main bus station I was struck by the presence of the many Arab customers using bus companies which I assumed had almost exclusively Jewish patronage.  I boarded a local bus to take us to where I was staying.  Standing in the packed vehicle, we were surrounded by an array of languages.  Hefty Jewish construction workers sat next to scantily-clad and heavily made-up Russian women.  They chatted and laughed, the Arab women in hijabs next to them not battering an eyelid.  It appears the travel books weren’t lying – this really is normal for Haifa.


Beautiful Haifa

The next morning I went to investigate the city properly.  Relatively similar to Tel Aviv in that it is relatively removed from the focus of political struggle, Haifa’s proximity to the Galilee’s high Arab population makes it an obvious place for local Israeli-Arab citizens to relocate to.  It is easy to sense this, as here Arabic is heard in the street much more than in other Israeli cities.  It isn’t hard to picture veiled women in Jerusalem out shopping, timidly walking by IDF soldiers stationed on street corners, careful not to cause any trouble, quick to return home.

“The bilingual city”

In Haifa it is a different story: Arabs of all ages proudly and happily walk through the streets, not confined to ‘their’ neighbourhoods or constantly thinking where they ‘should’ be.  Outside the city hall, there are only Arab teenagers to be seen, enjoying the last days of the summer holiday.  At least from the outside, you get the sense that they also feel this is their city.  One interesting thing about Haifa is that its residents are not really confined to different neighbourhoods according to their ethnic background.

Anton Shammas, the Israeli-Arab writer, dubbed Haifa ‘the bilingual city’.  Yet as time went on I couldn’t help but feel it should be called the ‘trilingual city’, because of the high Russian representation in shop signs and adverts.  This is apparently due to the large amount of Russian Christians who come to Israel, following (usually distantly) Jewish relatives in search of a better lifestyle.  Their weak or altogether absent Jewish identity means they have little will to learn Hebrew and so signage in their mother tongue is catered to them.

Tired from the heat and humidity, I stop for a drink in an Arab-run café on the chic Allenby Avenue.  Looking around, I see mainly Arab customers wearing expensive suits and designer labels.  On the table next to me there is a group of blonde, very western-looking women, one of them has a tattoo or two – they are speaking Arabic.  From here I went further up Mount Carmel to the renowned Bahá’í Gardens.

Haifa's stunning Bahá'í Gardens

The stunning Bahá’í Gardens

The Bahá’í faith was founded by a man called ‘Bahá’u’lláh’ (lit. ‘glory of God’) in 19th-century Persia and emphasises the spiritual unity of all humankind.  In this faith, religious history is seen to have unfolded through a series of divine messengers, each of whom established a religion that was suited to the needs of the time and the capacity of the people. These messengers have included Abraham, the Buddha, Jesus, Muhammad and most recently the ‘Báb’ and Bahá’u’lláh himself.  The faith’s presence in Haifa came as a result of multiple banishments of Bahá’u’lláh from Persia and Ottoman Baghdad, after which he came to the area surrounding Acre, where he stayed till his death in 1892.  And so it was decided that the international headquarters of the Bahá’í faith would be established in nearby Haifa – certainly an apt decision for such a pluralistic religion.

Later, I visited the well-known Masada Street.  Despite taking its name from a Jewish historical site near the Dead Sea, the street is in fact a haven of Arab and Russian cafés and shisha bars.  Somewhat tucked away between tall apartment buildings and sheltered by leafy trees, the establishments lining its pavements easily go unnoticed in the daytime.  After nightfall however, they change form completely and bathe themselves in countless fairy lights and play loud Arabic music, which makes the place feel more like Cairo or Beirut than a sleepy city in northern Israel.  After a little deliberation I settled for a small shisha café.

“We are not allowed to have an identity”

Just inside the door is a picture showing two interlocking hands – one black, one white; the word ‘Coexistence’ written underneath in capital letters.  The owner of the café sees me taking a photo of it, and we get talking.  Hamdi is an Arab Christian whose family has always been in Haifa.  I ask him if he feels happy to be Israeli.

“Well” he said, “the problem is we are not allowed to have an identity in this country.  Sure, I am happy enough living in Haifa, running this café… just because at the end of the day we all just want to live our own lives in peace and make money, you know?”  He seems keen to talk.  “But neither I nor my family can, or are allowed to feel like we belong here.  I would even serve in the army if it meant I could have this … but we would still be second class citizens here.  Someday I want to take my children away and move to Canada” he said, his eyes widening with excitement.  “At least there, they can be part of society.”  Despite Hamdi’s dejection, I ended my trip to Haifa in a positive mood.  As predicted, Haifa had shattered many of my own ideas about the conflict.  Now I had to see how Hebron compared.

Cosmopolitan Masada Street

Cosmopolitan Masada Street at night

On the Hebron-Jerusalem bus I get talking to Abdallah, an Arab youth who feels the need to warn me about the situation there.  “Hebron is not at all like Ramallah or Bethlehem.  The situation there is different, there are many problems between Jews and Arabs.  It is a very harsh conflict”.

Upon arrival it is clear that Hebron, both the second-holiest city in Judaism and one of the ‘four holy cities’ of Islam, is in deep trouble.  Before I have the chance to see anything there are clashes erupting around the centre of the town.  The furry of activity makes it impossible to know what is going on and I am quickly pointed in the direction of the old city.  Although quieter here, the conflict is no less seething.

“I have strong hatred for the Jews”

Towering above the narrow market streets is an ugly, fortress-like structure, enclosed in barbed-wire fencing.  Peering down from a raised platform are two orthodox Jews and a heavily-armed IDF soldier.  It seems that I am the only one looking up, the only one in the whole street who finds this sight unusual.  Arab traders haul their carts full of produce and mothers pass by with their children completely unfazed, obviously aware of exactly what lurks in eyeshot above us.  Going further into the souq, the traders I pass are friendly and interested in where I am from.  Up for grabs on their stalls are antique coins dating from the British Mandate which are inscribed with ‘Palestine Pound’ in English, Arabic and Hebrew.


Suspended above the narrow lanes is a series of wire and fabric nets, the need for them quickly becoming apparent.  Caught in the nets is a large amount of rubbish; empty packaging, plastic bottles and even rocks, hanging precariously and blocking much-needed sunlight from the tiny streets.  Israeli settlers who live in the houses above the souq show their distaste towards Palestinian presence in Hebron by throwing these objects down in a violent and aggressive attempt to crush the Arab morale.


Flying high above, attached to the exterior walls of the houses, are countless Israeli flags.  The message here is clear: the settlers not only do not wish for coexistence in any shape or form, rather they want Hebron’s Arab population to leave altogether.  This feels like real apartheid.

I talk to Ishaq, one of the shop owners, and ask him how the people of Hebron react to the aggression of the settlers.  “There is no point in saying anything”, he says.  “After all, there is nothing to say!  There is no point in doing anything to the Jews.  After 15 years in prison I know that it is better to keep our heads down and walk against the walls.”  His head lowers and he appears deep in thought.  “When I see checkpoints many things run through my mind.  I am not happy that we have to live with this daily.  It not fair because this is a holy place for Muslims.  I have strong hatred for the Jews.”

“Free Israel”

Many of the 30,000 Palestinian residents of the Israeli-controlled area (dubbed ‘H2’) have left due to extended curfews, movement-restricting checkpoints, the closure of Palestinian commercial activities near settler areas and relentless settler harassment.  Evidence of the halting of Palestinian trade can be witnessed on Shuhada’ (Martyrs) Street, a former principle thoroughfare and shopping area.  It was closed to Palestinian traffic following Baruch Goldstein’s 1994 massacre of 29 Palestinians who were praying in the Ibrahimi Mosque.  Today it remains eerily similar to how it must have looked fifteen years ago.


The shutters on shopfronts are all firmly locked, but the signs above shopfronts all remain, albeit covered in a thick layer of dust.  Traffic signs are still in place, but no cars have passed them in years.  Israeli guard towers dominate the modest skyline, looking down onto the lifeless streets.  There is a definite post-apocalyptic atmosphere which is almost frightening.  A few graffiti tags are dotted around, one rallies the Jews to ‘keep smiling’ while another demands ‘Free Israel’.  Sounds can be heard coming from the Jewish settlement not far from here.

The scenes on this street evoke the sinister images of WWII and the ghettos of eastern Europe.  This ghetto however, seems entirely self-imposed.


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