Bethlehem– Bethlehem provided our first glimpse into the West Bank. To get there from Israel, we took a bus which boarded near the Damascus Gate, which is the gate people use to enter the Muslim quarter of the Old City of Jerusalem. This bus station was specifically for buses headed to the West Bank. Its route went through the largely Israeli-Arab populated East Jerusalem before crossing into the West Bank and Bethlehem. To my surprise, there was no chaos or buildings on fire as one might see on TV when reporting from the West Bank occurs. There was almost nothing going on as the city was calm and much like any other small, non-metropolitan city we had been to on our trip. As we’ve said in previous posts, we know the media has a tendency to over-exaggerate but to me the city’s normalcy and peacefulness was still surprising. This was relieving and excited me even more about traveling through the cities of the West Bank.
We really enjoyed our hostel in Bethlehem which was owned by a very sweet Palestinian-Christian family. This was great as we gained an interesting perspective from a group which makes up only about 3% of the total population in the West Bank. The whole family spoke English well which allowed for great conversations, and one of the sons, Daniel, showed us around the city and took us to the “security fence.” We were shocked to find that this security fence was not a fence at all but a 30 feet tall concrete wall. To the Palestinians in Bethlehem, it has come to be known as a “separation wall,” completely isolating them from the outside world. The wall stretches for roughly 15 miles, or just under 3% of the 430 mile long security barrier built by Israel along the border of the country and the West Bank. This barrier, and the barrier built along the border of the Gaza Strip, were built to reduce Israel’s exposure to attacks and statistics have shown that since the construction of both barriers, the total number and frequency of attacks has fallen sharply. Israel’s argument for the 30 feet tall concrete wall portion is that it prevents snipers from shooting at cars, as they have done in the past, along the Trans-Israel Highway, one of the country’s main roads. (source) We won’t argue over whether the barrier is right or wrong, but it is sad knowing that the innocent civilians in these areas are surrounded by an enormous wall representing both their physical and symbolic separation.
We also visited the YMCA of Bethlehem which operates much the same as the other YMCAs throughout the world, providing services such as education, after-school care, arts and handicrafts training for those with disabilities, and facilities for physical fitness. We spoke to the manager of the YMCA who also leads what’s known as the Joint Advocacy Initiative (JAI), an organization whose mission is to work “For Peace with Justice in Palestine, based on Humanitarian and Christian Values, by mobilizing the world movements of YMCA and YWCA, churches, church-based organizations, UN agencies, and other relevant organizations to influence decision-makers and prompt actions that contribute to end Israeli occupation and all its violations of International Law.” For more information on the YMCA and the JAI, you can visit their website. They also lead a campaign called “Keep Hope Alive” to re-plant 50,000 olive trees in the West Bank which helps local farmers and symbolizes the ongoing work towards peace. You can even help sponsor a tree for $20.
We made a few visits to historical “tourist” sites while in the city including the Church of the Nativity, said to have been built on the location where Jesus Christ was born. While we were there a few Christian tour groups arrived singing Christmas carols and taking photos of this very special site in Christianity which made our trip there quite enjoyable. We also headed to Herodium, a hilltop fortress located almost 2,500 feet above sea level. Herodium is the location of the fortress and palace of Herod the Great, who ruled Judea from roughly 38 BCE to 4 BCE. Anyone visiting Israel will most likely learn about Herod the Great, as he was the king who commissioned the re-building of the Second Temple in Jerusalem, the remains of which is the Western Wall, one of the holiest pilgrimage sites in the Jewish religion. Besides the interesting fortress and palace ruins, we were also treated to amazing views. In one direction we could see all the way to the Dead Sea and in the another we could see out into the vast Judean desert.
Hebron– Our two days in Hebron were probably the most educational and eye-opening of our time spent in the West Bank. Thanks to Hannah’s efforts, we managed to arrange a meeting and tour of the city with Walid, the leader of the Hebron Restoration Organization. He showed us around the old city pointing out many of the difficulties of daily life under Israeli occupation and invited us to attend a panel presentation that day on Hebron’s restoration in which he was one of the panelists. Walid’s main efforts are focused on restoring the old city of Hebron and developing the new city. Part of the process of restoring the city includes educating the local population on ways they can participate in the effort by working towards improving the conditions of the city as well as maintaining the areas that have already been improved. Walid hopes that with education and the spread of awareness to outsiders, using the internet and offering tours such as the one he gave us, he can help restore the old city and develop the new city of Hebron into a prosperous area within the West Bank. Walid is also doing his best to convince Palestinians who fled the city and/or who may fear living in Hebron due to its past unstable conditions, that it is a safe place to live and to return to.
Hebron has been home to numerous clashes between Palestinians and Israeli forces over the years. It is considered to be one of the most volatile cities in the territory with the biggest record of human rights abuse. It is also home to three Israeli settlements, one of the main points of contention in the ongoing conflict. Israeli settlements are Israeli communities established within the Palestinian territories, deemed illegal by much of the international community, and in direct defiance of the Oslo Accords. From what we learned from Walid, these three settlements were established in different locations within Hebron, one in the south of the city, one in the north, and one in the middle. In order to establish and connect these settlements, Israel barricaded many streets within the city and established checkpoints at any points where Israelis, not Palestinians, are still able to cross from Hebron into the settlements. Walid told us that since the settlements, barricades, and checkpoints are so inconveniently located, it has made traveling around the city for Palestinians quite difficult. In some parts of the city, where a Palestinian was once able to get from one point to the next in a 5 minute walk, it now takes a 20 minute drive and queuing in lines at checkpoints to get to that same point.
Walid took us to one of the checkpoints which Palestinians are not allowed to cross and we witnessed for ourselves the soldiers stopping them but letting us through to walk around the settlement. Once in the settlement, we witnessed Jewish settlers walking the streets, the men with machine guns slung over their shoulders, and we wondered how these people felt to live in place that is still technically and legally not theirs. Walid informed us that over the years these three settlements have continued to expand. He believes that it is a strategic move by Israel to slowly expand the settlements until they join one another. At that point, nearly all of the Palestinians will have been forced out and the city of Hebron will belong to Israel. From reading, we learned that this is not an isolated situation, and that there are several settlements throughout the West Bank where the exact same events are taking place.
The one tourist location we went to while in the city was a combined mosque/synagogue, which is built on what is said to be the tomb of Abraham in Judaism, or Ibrahim in Islam. Both consider him to be the father of their religions so this is one of the holiest sites in the country. It was sad that even to enter this building we had to go through a security check. Even sadder was that it felt once again that the Palestinians were being punished even though the heightened security at this site was caused by a shooting rampage of a Jewish extremist who killed several Muslims while they were praying at the mosque. The buildings and people are kept completely separate with half of the tomb of Abraham/Ibrahim on the side of the synagogue and half on the side of the mosque.
We also learned about the abuse, both verbal and physical, that the Palestinians within Hebron are still subjected to. Since one of the settlements is located almost directly in the center of the city, these settlers and some Palestinians are neighbors. These neighbors don’t get along so well and we learned that Israeli settlers have been known to heckle the Palestinians from above and throw objects down at them such as rocks and bricks, sometimes leading to injuries. As a result, makeshift fences were built to block objects thrown down from above from hitting people walking the streets. We could see the buildup of items on the fences above our heads as we walked down the narrow, old streets.
Our last great experience in Hebron was our one night stay with a Palestinian family in the city. Walid arranged this stay and although none of the family spoke English, it was still a valuable experience. They showed us the fences which separated them from their Israeli neighbors, some of whom had thrown objects down at them in the past. They were quite poor but extremely hospitable, as they fed us dinner and even served pomegranate for dessert. They had four small children who were fascinated by Hannah’s camera and loved to see themselves in pictures as they reviewed them on the digital screen. The family was Muslim, and one of the children, a girl, dressed Hannah in the traditional Muslim garb as Hannah french-braided her hair and let her wear around her sunglasses and camera. The kids showed us their English homework and the mother showed us her small collection of embroidered pouches which she makes and sells. Overall, it was a great time and one of the most special experiences of the entire trip.