I meet Shehada at his home early in the morning and we set off with his friend and neighbour, Isa, in the direction of Hebron, the West Bank’s largest city. It should by rights be a half-hour drive: Hebron is less than 45km from Ramallah as the crow flies. But with Jerusalem, and therefore Israel proper, lying smack bang between the two, the only way to get from one to the other without crossing over and back again — which the boys, in any case, are not entitled to do — is to take a wide berth around the city to the east, so that Jericho and even the Dead Sea become briefly visible, before curving back to the west towards Bethlehem. It adds nearly an hour to the total driving time.

To make matters worse, Shehada accidentally mounts the nearest curb the moment we get into the car — he’s been up all night helping his uncle with the tiling — causing the bumper to fall off. Moments later, the radiator starts smoking — and the car’s only been running for a minute and a half. By the time we’re finally back on the road, a good portion of the day has gone. A good deal more goes with it every time we pull over to check on the zip ties that are now holding up the bumper.

As we’re finally approaching Hebron, the car mounts one final, all-out protest, and we’re forced to pull into the nearest mechanic and have him replace the brake pads. It turns out we’ve been driving without the ability to stop since we turned onto the road between Jericho and Hebron nearly 45 minutes ago.

But to the extent that Hebron is an experience like no other — the most striking and terrible manifestation of Israel’s occupation that one is likely to encounter — the halting journey is ultimately worth it. This is a city cleaved in two: one wanders through the Old City’s souk, thinking everything normal if a little subdued, until one emerges into a bright, sun-drenched square, whereupon one is confronted with an Israeli pillbox festooned with the usual English-language graffiti (“Welcome to Palestine!”, “Open Shuhada Street!”) and a high stone wall manned by an IDF soldier.

He sits there, this kid, cradling his assault rifle in his lap, his conscripted legs dangling against the wall in the Palestinian-controlled section of the city known as H1. Behind him lies Israeli-controlled H2, including what was once the city’s main thoroughfare, Shuhada Street, a section of which, between the Avraham Avinu and Beit Hadassah settlement compounds, has been closed to Palestinian vehicles and foot traffic since the first year of the second intifada. The result is a ghostly, near-abandoned strip of prime real estate between the Kiryat Arba settlement in the east and the Jewish cemetery in the west and the collapse of the city centre’s economy.

I steal a glance through a gap in the fence, but can see nothing more than an Israeli flag: no cars, no settlers, nothing. It is not until we venture further into the souk, heading now in the direction of the Cave of the Patriarchs, where all three of the major monotheisms believe Abraham, Isaac and others to be buried, that the settlers’ presence becomes more obvious. The Palestinians have jerry-rigged a chain-link wire canopy a few feet above head height all along the sections of the walkway that open to the sky.

Even where they’ve tried to hide this canopy or pretty it up, with Persian carpets and patterned fabrics, it’s obviously still there: sunlight reveals the interlocking diamonds as a silhouette against the floral motifs. Where they have not tried to hide the wiring, garbage thrown from the windows above — Coke cans, butcher’s paper, used teabags caught hanging and dripping dry — are a reminder that the only part of these buildings in Palestinian territory are the stalls down here in the souk: the apartments above are occupied by settlers.

There are between 500-800 of these in the city, or 86 families’ worth as of 2009, the beneficiaries of Rabbi Moshe Levinger’s 1968 decision to lead a group of religious Zionists, posing as Swiss tourists, to check in at the city’s main hotel for Passover and then refuse to leave when it was over.

“‘Are you all right, sir?’ he asked. ‘Do you know these men?’ Which is when it hits me. He’s asking me if I’m being kidnapped.”

Shehada and Isa want to visit the Islamic side of the Cave, known as the Ibrahimi Mosque, but because it’s Ramadan I am not allowed to join them. As they pass through the IDF metal detectors and disappear up the steps and out of sight, a Palestinian who has noticed me waving them goodbye approaches me with a suggestion: why not go across to H2 and visit the Jewish side of the building?

“You mean I can just cross over?” I ask.

“Yes,” the man says. “There are no restrictions on you.”

I decide to give it a try. I approach the pair of IDF guards who are manning the police barrier at the bottom of the street and ask if they’d like to see my passport. “No,” one of them says, taking a drag on a cigarette. “Just let yourself through.”

Just let myself though? It all seems very lax. It also seems more than a little like racial profiling, even if I’m the happy beneficiary of it. I swing one of the metal barriers out towards me like a barn door and walk through it into Israeli-controlled Hebron.

I experience the same sort of thing in the Jewish part of the tomb that I experience in most places of religious worship — namely, that I’m trespassing on someone else’s property, potentially cheapening their experience of their faith by treating it as little more than a tourist attraction — and am worried that someone’s going to ask me what I’m doing here. What am I going to say? That I’m waiting for my Arab friends to finish up at the mosque next door? That I’m an atheist here to take some photos of old but probably empty sarcophagi? Or should I simply break their ninth commandment and bear false witness?I’m back on the street within a couple of minutes. I take advantage of the fact that it isn’t Ramadan on this side of the barricade and sneak a slice of pizza at a nearby kiosk. Of course, you can’t escape religion in these parts and the pies are all rather boringly kosher: margherita, olive or bust. I don’t bother speaking to the guys at the checkpoint and they don’t bother stopping me when I let myself back into H1.

On the way back through the souk to the car, Isa, who isn’t fasting for Ramadan, tricks me into eating a piece of Turkish delight, causing locals to cluck their tongue at me and snap at him to keep me in line, and Shehada buys a long-handled hatchet from an antique dealer who wishes to sell me a keffiyeh. “It’s such a good-looking axe,” Shehada marvels. “I’m good for keffiyehs,” I say.

An American-Palestinian from Chicago, apparently surprised to see someone so obviously foreign on the streets, approaches and strikes up a short conversation. He is in town to visit family, he says, and is interested to hear my impressions of the city.

“It is unbelievable, isn’t it?” he asks. “This is where the occupation becomes impossible to ignore.”

“Do you think that Israelis in Tel Aviv and Haifa know that this is what it’s like?” I ask. “With the garbage and the abandoned streets and everything?”

“Oh, they know,” he assures me. “They know. Israel puts so much time and energy into protecting the thugs on the other side of that wall. They have to know. They just don’t do anything about it.”

By the time we have shared iftar at Isa’s cousin’s house — his cousin’s wife and daughter, inevitably, act as waitresses to the men — and a can or two of sickly energy drink at a garage pool club run by one of his friends, the waning gibbous moon is high. As we pull out onto the road back to Ramallah, Shehada begins to worry about the checkpoints we still have to cross to get home. The first two turn out to be non-events and we are waved through without even having to brake. But at the third we are brusquely instructed to pull over and to present our passports for inspection.

“Do you speak English?” the Israeli solider asked Shehada. Yes. “Get out of the car and show me what’s in your trunk.”

“They cannot have Jerusalem. We will take it back from them.”

As Shehada escorts the solider to the back of the vehicle, doubtless trying to remember whether he put the hatchet in the boot or on the backseat with me, the other flips through our identity documents. He stops when he gets to mine and radios something in Hebrew back to an unseen third party in an unseen location. He awaits an answer and then approaches the car, leaning down and looking in through the back window towards me.

“Are you supposed to be in this car?” he asks.

Well, this is it, I think to myself. I didn’t tell the guard on the tarmac of Ben Gurion that I was going to be visiting the Occupied Territories and now I’m going to be deported for it.

He leans in further. “Are you all right, sir?” he asks. “Do you know these men?”

Which is when it hits me. He’s asking me if I’m being kidnapped.

“Of course I know them,” I snap back impulsively, and I find that I am deeply offended. Not for myself — although there is a certain idiotic part of me that presumes itself to be unkidnappable and finds itself sorely wounded at the suggestion that it isn’t — but rather for the violin-maker and his mild-mannered friend. Shehada has shown me nothing but kindness and this is his reward: suspicion. But common sense kicks in on time and prevents me from readily expressing my ire: best we get out of here before the soldiers realise their mistake and make the inevitable if equally wrongheaded leap from “kidnap victim” to “activist”.

And then Jerusalem is off and away to our left and the dome that Shehada jumped the wall to visit glistens in the city’s lights. Those of the car cut through the dark and no one says anything for a very long time. My anger and humiliation fade the farther we get away from the checkpoint and I assume that the same is true of the others. But when Shehada finally opens his mouth, it is clear from his tone that the opposite is true.

“They cannot have Jerusalem,” he says. “We will take it back from them.”

I am reminded of David Foster Wallace’s bit about the old fish passing two younger ones in the stream. “Morning, boys. How’s the water?” “What the hell is water?”

“The point of the fish story,” Wallace said of the bit, “is merely that the most obvious, important realities are often the ones that are hardest to see and talk about.” Water, he said, is what is “hidden in plain sight all around us, all the time.”

There’s something about Shehada’s tone when he mentions Jerusalem that warns the listener not to challenge him: not tonight, not after Hebron, not after the checkpoint, not after everything. For him and his friends, this is water.

And it’s never very far from boiling.

Read Matthew Clayfield’s other dispatches from the Middle East:

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