Israel Part 4: The West Bank

On New Year’s Eve, we had our second guided tour of the trip – a Green Olive tour to Bethlehem in the West Bank. I am admittedly shamefully lacking in political and geographical knowledge, but I didn’t realize until I started researching the trip that Bethlehem is in the West Bank, under Palestinian control since the Oslo peace accords in 1995. It has had Palestinian residents for much, much longer, but the control of the area has been passed around between Palestinian authorities, Israel, Jordan, and others during the many wars in the region. Today, Bethlehem lies within the Separation Wall that Israel has erected as a “security barrier” between Israeli territories and the Palestinian-controlled territories. Both the history and the present situation are incredibly complicated for intertwined religious and political reasons, and I can’t even begin to explain my feelings on them in a blog format. It’s something I’d be happy to discuss in person with anyone who’s interested, but in the blog I’m going to keep it as fact-based as possible.

We did a tour (rather than going it alone) for two primary reasons. First – our rental car company would not allow us to drive our car into Palestinian territory. While driving in areas like Route 90 are acceptable, as those areas are still Israeli-controlled, actually entering the Palestinian Zones A, B and C are not allowed by the rental car company for insurance purposes. While researching, we found that many people did it anyway without problems – but as I’m a risk-averse person, I decided against it. And secondly, I found the Green Olive tour company based on both our Lonely Planet book’s recommendations and TripAdvisor, both of which wholeheartedly endorsed the fact-based, all-encompassing tour that not only took you to the primary site of religious interest, the Church of the Nativity, but showed you more of the West Bank and gave you the Palestinian history and perspective. As Americans, our media portrays Israel in a positive light and Palestine in an extremely negative light, in a very one-sided manner, and we wanted to see and hear the other perspective.

We met the other members of our tour group at the Jerusalem YMCA (which, luckily for us, was next door to our hotel). Our driver then took us to the Israeli side of the Separation Wall at the edge of Bethlehem, about 15 minutes away. There, we met our Palestinian guide, Yamen, for the tour, and our first driver returned to Jerusalem, because Israeli citizens are forbidden to enter the walls (unless they are members of the defense forces). As a Palestinian, Yamen would normally not be allowed to exit the wall and meet us on the other side. However, after several years of trying, he has finally received a permit from the Israeli government that allows him to cross the wall for the purposes of conducting these tours.

To enter Palestinian territory, you go through a checkpoint, but the Palestinian guards don’t check passports or belongings, as the Palestinian authority allows anyone to enter. (While Israelis are forbidden to enter, it is the Israeli government that has made that rule – not the Palestinian government.)

Just inside the Separation Wall in Palestinian territory
Just inside the Separation Wall in Palestinian territory

On the other side of the wall are dozens of taxis, waiting to take people from the wall to other areas within the territory. Tourists wanting to visit Palestine on their own would need to take two taxis – one from their hotel in Jerusalem to the outside of the wall, and one from the inside of the wall to their destination. Since the weather was nice, we walked along the wall as Yamen told us about the history of the separation wall, the settlements, and life as a Palestinian.

Here you can see the wall stretching off into the distance.
Here you can see the wall stretching off into the distance.

The concrete portion of the wall is about 70 kilometers, but the total wall encompassing the West Bank is around 700 kilometers. The rest of the wall is made up of different kinds of fencing, much of it electrified with barbed wire on top. The land just beyond the wall (on the side without the cars in the above photos) is actually Palestinian land, based on the several peace accords and treaties that have been brokered in the region. However, the Israeli government built the wall inside Palestinian territory, seized the land and has begun building settlements on it for Jewish people wanting to move to Israel. This seizure of land and the erection of the Separation Wall (according not just to our guide, but according to the UN, the Oslo peace accords in 1995, and everything I’ve researched since our trip) is illegal, and has been condemned by the United Nations and the International Court of Justice. Yet it continues to this day. As we walked and drove through the region, we saw settlements being erected in numerous places, all within the Palestinian borders on our maps, all illegally seized by Israel. Much of the land was agricultural, and the farmers are now forbidden to farm on their own land, reducing the resources available to the Palestinians.

The Separation Wall has graffiti on the Palestinian side, with messages of love and hope for change.
The Separation Wall has graffiti on the Palestinian side, with messages of love and hope for change.

Graffiti is forbidden on the Israeli side of the wall (as is approaching the wall in general) but on the Palestinian side, graffiti is encouraged. We were even handed cans of spray paint if we had messages we wanted to write. Sadly, inspiration didn’t strike us, so we merely photographed our favorite messages on the wall and continued on our tour.

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One of the guard towers along the wall
One of the guard towers along the wall
Richie stands in front of the wall to show how tall it is.
Richie stands in front of the wall to show how tall it is.

At one part of the wall, Yamen pointed to a house that was only a few meters from the wall. The house was built first; the wall came after, but because of the height of the house relative to the height of the wall, the residents of the house are not allowed to open or look out the windows on the top floor, and if they need to access their roof, they have to request permission to do so from the Israelis.

As we travelled through the city, Yamen also mentioned that the famous graffiti artist Banksy had a few pieces on the wall and on other areas in the city.

Banksy graffiti
Banksy graffiti
Banksy graffiti, called "The Flower Thrower"
Banksy graffiti, called “The Flower Thrower”

After our tour of the wall, we headed to Aida Refugee Camp.

Our guide Yamen explains about the camp.
Our guide Yamen explains about the camp.

This and other camps were established after the 1948 Arab-Israeli War to accommodate Palestinian refugees who lost their homes. The conditions within the camp were unsettling. Those who can, work and save their money to buy a place to live in Bethlehem outside of the camp. Those who cannot afford to do so have stayed in the refugee camp, in decrepit buildings with an increasing population and limited water supplies and living space. The camp was originally built for about 800 inhabitants, if I remember correctly – it now has over 5,000. Most of the adults living in the camps used to work in Israel. With the separation wall and restricted access to the city, they are no longer allowed to work there, and work opportunities are extremely limited in the Palestinian territories. Unemployment in the refugee camp is over 40%.

Still, everywhere we went, we were met with smiles and waves from the children playing in the streets. Their toys were simple ones – marbles, jacks, a ball. At one point, near the separation wall that abuts the camp, we literally tripped over tear gas canisters. One of the other tourists asked Yamen about it, and he said that Israeli defense force soldiers throw tear gas at the children playing by the wall on a regular basis. The children will get bored and throw rocks at the wall. The Israeli guards outside the wall deem this a threat (I’m not sure why, as the wall is over 8 meters tall – there’s no chance a rock that a child throws could hurt them), so they open the gate and throw in tear gas. One of the little kids playing nearby, hearing Yamen talking to us, came up and handed Yamen the contents of his pockets – rubber bullets that were shot at him in the previous day’s events. After the tear gas had dispersed, the Israeli soldiers entered the camp and shot the children with rubber bullets. Yamen dropped one of the bullets on my hand from a height of about 1 foot – and it was heavy. We examined the bullet and saw that it’s not a pure rubber bullet, but metal coated with rubber. I cannot imagine the pain of being shot with it at close range.

A burnt guard tower just outside the Aida camp.
A burnt guard tower just outside the Aida camp – just across from this tower is where we encountered the tear gas and rubber bullets.

Someone asked if the tear gas has long-lasting damage or if the children have to go to hospitals for treatment afterwards. Yamen responded that the first couple of times you’re hit with the gas, you usually have to go to the clinic for treatment, but after a few months your lungs are used to it and it’s not a problem. We all just stood there, silently, thinking about the fact that these 8 and 10 year old children now have “immunity” to tear gas because it’s used on them so regularly.

Within the camp, there were a few bright spots of hope. One was a culture and theater center called Al Rowwad, where refugees come for theater and dance, as well as learning trades such as sewing, film and photography, and computer skills. You can read about their mission here. The theme of their center is beautiful, non-violent resistance – through art, through beauty, through the skills they learn, they are doing something to change their future and to change the perception that the international community has about Palestinians. Amira, one of the coordinators at the center, told us heartbreaking stories about the children in the camp, but she also told and showed us beautiful stories of them working together to overcome their struggles in their daily lives.

After we left the camp, we headed to the Church of the Nativity. We walked down a beautiful street, once full of shops, now closed and shuttered. Yamen explained that the street had been renovated with the idea that tourists who came to see the church would want to do some shopping in the city nearby, and dozens of shops opened once the area was revived. For a few years, this proceeded as planned, and the shops did well. But then the conflict between Israelis and Palestinians escalated, and tourists stopped coming to the city altogether. Now, he says, tourists have returned, but for the most part they are dropped off by a bus directly in front of the church, they spend time in the church, and they immediately leave again. The shops never reopened.

The Church of the Nativity
The Church of the Nativity

Yamen arranged for us to have a traditional lunch, called “upside-down” because it’s chicken, layered with potatoes, rice, and cauliflower, cooked in a giant pot for hours and dumped (upside-down!) onto a giant metal plate in the middle of the table, served with yogurt, cucumber, and tomatoes. Afterwards, we headed to the church with a different guide, a Palestinian Christian who is basically an expert on the church. Entering the church requires a little maneuvering! The doorway was once much taller and wider (you can see the original archway) but during the time of the Crusaders, the entry was narrowed so it would be difficult for attackers to enter.

Watch your head!
Watch your head!

The church is the oldest church in the world, built in the 4th century by Constantine and Helena over the birthplace of Jesus. The original church was destroyed in the 6th century and rebuilt, but the original mosaic floor lies beneath the current floor, viewable by a trapdoor. It wasn’t rediscovered until 1934!

Realllly old mosaics.
Realllly old mosaics.

The church itself is in the process of being restored after years of debates – the church is held jointly by the Roman Catholic, Greek Orthodox, and Armenian Apostolic faiths, and apparently getting them to agree on anything, even the renovation of their beloved church, is quite an ordeal. So, at the moment, the church isn’t anything particularly special to look at, with most of the once-beautiful features destroyed by earthquakes and by rainwater that flows in from the damaged roof. After being recognized as a World Heritage Site in 2012, (it’s actually the only World Heritage Site in the Palestinian territory, which according to Wikipedia had to happen under a secret vote, against the wishes of both the US and Israel) renovations are finally underway.

There’s a silver star placed in the church at one spot believed to be where the manger from Jesus’s birth once sat. However, there’s also a two-hour line to look at it, and the star was placed there as a symbolic gesture more than anything else. While we usually have a mental picture of Jesus’s birth in a barn, it wouldn’t have looked like our modern-day image of barn. It would have been a cave, and the caves lie beneath the church. Our guide took us to the caves, pointing out where Hieronymus translated the Bible from Hebrew to Latin in the late 4th and early 5th century AD, which was believed to be next to the cave where Jesus was born.

A statue of Hieronymus outside the caves where he translated the Bible
A statue of Hieronymus outside the caves where he translated the Bible

After the tour of the church, Yamen rejoined us and took us to his favorite drive-through coffee place.

Literally drive-through.
Literally drive-through.

Yep, it’s two guys on the side of the road, serving delicious coffee (and I don’t normally like coffee!) This isn’t a place with a lot of choices – you can have coffee or sage tea, with sugar or without. And wow, bedouin coffee is STRONG. I had a few sips before giving my cup to Richie and I got quite the caffeine jolt.

We continued driving along the desert, with Yamen pointing out a few of his favorite views of the scenery and letting us stop for some photos.

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Our last stop of the tour was the Mar Saba monastery, a Greek Orthodox monastery that overlooks the Kidron Valley. As it’s still a functioning monastery, we couldn’t go in, but the view couldn’t be better. In the distance you can see caves in the cliffs that people have turned into homes.

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As we wrapped up the tour, we headed back to the border and switched buses to one that would take us back to Jerusalem. For us, as tourists, we once again bypassed the extreme border control, but we did stop to take a picture at one of the signs  at the road that led back to Bethlehem.

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I wish everyone could take this tour and meet the welcoming and friendly people in Bethlehem and the surrounding area. I know that as a Palestinian, our guide has his own biases, and he didn’t hesitate to give his opinion of the situation. But he also told us plenty of facts, which I researched when we returned home and found to be true. All I can say after our visit is that I believe that the separation wall, the settlements, and the general treatment of the Palestinians will never lead to peace in the region. On the contrary, I believe that the life that the Palestinians in the region have been forced to live – with extreme restrictions on movement, without adequate water supplies, without opportunities for work and without hope for the future, is creating exactly the kind of frustration and resentment that leads to violence. Do I have any answers for this? No, I really don’t. I know it’s not a simple situation, and I know that there is frankly a lot that I don’t know. But I’d like to learn more.

Coming up tomorrow on the blog: our last day in Jerusalem and a quick stop in Tel Aviv before heading home!

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