Heather Sharp
BBC News
October 16, 2008 - 8:00pm

"It's another world," says Israeli student Gilad Shalom, 29, as he follows a tour guide around the Israeli-controlled part of the divided West Bank town of Hebron.

Craning his neck to see over tall, sniper-proof concrete slabs, he is partly talking about the jumble of Palestinian houses on the other side.

But he is also referring to the town's Jewish settlers, known by reputation as some of the most hardline of the roughly 270,000 Israelis who live in the West Bank, not including East Jerusalem.

Raised in a suburb of secular, trendy Tel Aviv, Mr Shalom is exactly the type of person a new campaign promoting tours to the West Bank is targeting.

Adverts proclaiming "Judea and Samaria [the Jewish name for the West Bank] - the story of every Jew" have recently appeared on billboards, buses and the websites of Israel's left-leaning newspapers.

Some were immediately defaced with left-wing graffiti, reflecting the strong differences among Israelis over the settlements, which are considered illegal under international law - although Israel disputes this.

Those behind the PR campaign - the settler council and its partners - say secular Jews have been put off visiting the West Bank by security fears and a media tendency to focus on a vocal, religious and sometimes violent minority among the settlers.

Bullet-proof bus

Hebron has consistently been a flashpoint. A few hundred Jews live in the middle of 150,000 Palestinians, and the town is also home to the reputed burial site of the Patriarch Abraham - revered by both Jews and Muslims.

Yael, 21, a student, says her left-wing parents were shocked at her plan to visit: "They're so Tel Aviv!"

And Abraham Goldman, 64, said he would only consider visiting for the first time in 30 years on a bullet-proof bus - which the trip organisers provide.

The primarily historical tour begins at an archaeological site said to be close to where Abraham purchased a cave to bury his wife Sarah.

Next is a museum about Jewish settlement in the area, including a room dedicated to 69 Jews massacred by Arabs in 1929.

Finally, there is a chance to pray at the Tomb of the Patriarchs - known to Muslims as Haram al-Ibrihimi - which has a festive buzz, as hundreds of religious Jews visit during the holiday of Sukkot.

Hebron is divided into H1, under Palestinian security control, where some 115,000 Palestinians live, and H2, under Israeli security control.

H2, which includes what was traditionally the Palestinian town centre, is home to the settlers and also some 35,000 Palestinians - the latter face curfews at times of high tension.

The tour explains little of the misery caused by the Israeli restrictions, or the brutal treatment that human rights groups say Palestinians suffer at the hands of some settlers and Israeli troops.

But the virtually deserted main street lined with shuttered Palestinian shops, some spray-painted with Stars of David - and the odd bit of Hebrew language graffiti saying "kill Arabs" - are a clue.

Peace dilemma

The current PR campaign comes amid increasing reports of violence by extremist settlers, as outgoing Prime Minister Ehud Olmert pushes for a peace agreement with the Palestinians.

Although considered a long way off, a potential deal is expected to involve handing control of several settlements deep in the West Bank to Palestinians.

Mr Goldman says that before he visited Hebron, he had thought "we should take all the Jews out and give it to the Arabs".

"But now I'm here I see how connected the Jews here are to this place."

He used to think the heavy troop presence was "such a waste", but he adds: "Now I see they're protecting the people here."

But Mr Shalom, who is wearing a Taybeh T-shirt unaware that it advertises the only Palestinian-brewed beer, is less certain: "There are so many ruined, closed houses, it's like a ghost town. There are more soldiers than civilians. The whole situation is such a waste."

But on the other hand, he says seeing a Jewish presence in the city makes him feel somehow "safer".

Religious gulf

Entering the Tomb of the Patriarchs as hundreds of religious Jews rock back and forth in prayer, too, is a mixed experience for the secular visitors.

Access to the site is controlled by the Israeli military. The complex is divided into two parts, Muslim and Jewish, with separate entrances. Jews can enter the Muslim side for 10 days a year, and vice versa.

But for the most part, the two sides have been sealed off from each other, a legacy of the massacre by a Jewish extremist of 29 Palestinians there in 1994.

One secular tour participant, Tzipi Goldwasser, says visiting makes her feel "Jewish, more connected to my roots".

Mr Shalom reflects that it highlights the gulf between him and religious Jews: "Our lives, understandings, hopes and fears are so different - maybe the only thing we have in common is this definition that we are both Jewish."

And Yael draws "a bit of hope" from the fact that Muslims and Jews pray in the same place, "even if it takes a zillion soldiers to keep it that way".


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