It’s a short, twenty minute walk from Beit Jala to Bethlehem. If you let it, the twenty minutes can turn into an hour and twenty. In Beit Jala, everybody says hello and waves. Adults stop you and want to know where you’re from. Some of the children want you to take their photo. They ask, “Hello what’s your name where are you from?” in one breath as if it’s all one word.
Unfortunately, the residents of Beit Jala see most tourists only through the darkened windows of tour busses as they venture into Bethlehem for a few short hours, before returning to the “security” of Israel proper. There aren’t many who stay overnight here, and those who do tend to be international aid/humanitarian workers. So it’s good to have thirty people without busy schedules take an interest in their community.
The walk from Beit Jala takes you past restaurants, bars, and hotels. It is a modern town, young Palestinians driving through, music blaring. It gets very busy at night, and the sidewalks are packed with cars. Drivers park wherever there is room, so for most of the walk, you find yourself squeezing through cars or walking on the road. I said it before: the most dangerous thing I’ve encountered in the West Bank is the drivers.
Eventually, the road, which becomes Pope Paul VI Street as soon as you enter Bethlehem, takes you into the markets of the old city, just west of Manger Square and the Church of the Nativity. The city’s Muslims are preparing for Ramadan, Islam’s holy month, and the markets are full of people.
“Ramadan lights” (sort of Christmas lights but in the shape or crescents and stars) are hung up and are being sold. Ducks and chickens wait impatiently in their cages for their fate to be handed down. Legs of lamb and beef hang in store windows. Shoppers zigzag from store to store. Local children, hired by the shoppers, follow them with shopping carts full of their purchases.
Bushels of eggplants, cucumbers, radishes, watermelons, tomatoes, and some produce I do not recognize line the market with vendors shouting their prices. Women advertise bunches of grapeleaves, mint, sage, and other spices by waving them around in the air. Housewares, clothing, and religious goods are for sale. It’s like stepping into a two thousand year old mall, except for the mobile phone kiosks and Spongebob toys… It’s loud and chaotic, very different from Beit Jala, despite their proximity.
But in a few days, this place will be empty, at least during the day. For a month, devout Muslims will not eat or drink and will participate in few activities, if any, from sunrise to sunset. Everyone is stocking up now.
Bethlehem and the surrounding area is home to Christians and Muslims, who have coexisted according to a set of unwritten protocol. These rules have kept relative peace between the two groups for over a thousand years. From the roof of the school, we can see Church spires and Muslim minarets scattered throughout the landscape. At night, the minarets glow green, the color of Islam, while the crosses shine red. The only way to tell the difference between the two groups, without knowing their names, is by what they wear.
The day that I arrived in Jerusalem from Amman, UNESCO declared Bethlehem a World Heritage Site. This move was, of course, opposed by the US and Israel, who both accused UNESCO of making a political statement. (UNESCO is the only UN body to recognize Palestine.) Any action that takes place here is inherently political, but surely we can all agree that that this city, where Jesus was born for Christ’s sake, deserves its place among the rest of the sites recognized as contributing to our shared, human experience. Regardless of the bureaucrats, the listing was a source of pride for the city’s residents—Christian an Muslim alike—and, like many events in the West Bank, called for a citywide celebration.
We have also visited Mar Saba, a Greek Orthodox monastery, built into the side of a canyon. (The photo at the top of this site is of Mar Saba.) We spent a night here, sleeping under the stars and taking in the stunning desert landscape. Opposite the monastery, on the other side of the canyon, is a series of caves, dug into the side of the rock. They say errant monks were sent to live in isolation in these caves as punishment for whatever transgressions they committed.
We also visited the Dead Sea, another remarkable natural phenomenon that is difficult to describe. It is the hottest place I’ve visited this summer—38 celsius, with winds blowing as if we were in a furnace. And we arrived at 5 pm… it gets much hotter midday. It was the first time I’ve been below sea level. The Dead located on the Israeli/Jordanian border, a short distance from the King Hussein/Allenby Bridge, where I started my journey in Israel/the West Bank.
We spent a few hours floating (not swimming) and covering ourselves in the famous Dead Sea mud. At one point, I managed to get some water in my eyes… it was incredibly painful. The salt burned like crazy. I tried to climb the stairs out of the water but my eyes burned even more when I opened them. I stumbled around for a bit until someone rushed over with a bottle of fresh water for me to wash my eyes out. Lifesaver! This happened to a few other volunteers, as well… the Dead Sea is not the place to splash around. We were all very careful after that.
The excursion was a great distraction from life in the camp. We left relaxed and in good spirits. On our way back, though, we turned onto the road for Beit Jala, and all of a sudden we were next to a watchtower. It came out of nowhere, looming over us, probably watching our every move. We drove along the wall, and the few easy hours we spent at the Dead Sea quickly became a distant memory.
I don’t like to make East/West distinctions (those terms tend to evoke generalizations that are usually completely wrong), but this place is definitely far from home. We are not in the West. Despite this, despite the language barrier and the constant tension, there is an element of ease to traveling here. Yes, it’s difficult to reconcile my respect for Israel as a state and my admiration for the Jewish people and culture with my support for the Palestinian cause. Gross abuses of human rights are occurring here everyday. I’ve seen it.
But the people are wonderful, and life manages to go on. It’s fairly peaceful now, and I hope (but am sure it won’t) stay that way.
More people need to take advantage of the relative calm and see this place for themselves. See the wall and the checkpoints, listen to stories of land confiscation and house demolition… and after you start to understand what it means to live under occupation, take in the sights. History, culture, treks, and camping… there’s a lot to do and see on both sides, and it’s not as inaccessible as you might think. Plus, the food is delicious.
The “scary” West Bank is not scary at all. It can be pretty dicey, without a doubt, but do your research and you’ll be fine. Sure, you’ll wonder where exactly you are at times, but that’s part of the adventure. (Am I in Palestine? No, it doesn’t exist. The Palestinian Territories? Yes, but there are Israeli soldiers here. Israel? Not really… we’re a million miles from Tel Aviv and West Jerusalem. The Occupied Territories? Yes, let’s go with that…)
I will walk from Beit Jala to Bethlehem a couple more times before I leave, and I hope to talk to as many strangers as possible. I have had an amazing experience here but am not too proud to admit that I’m looking forward to relaxing on the beaches of Tel Aviv in just a couple more days…
In front of the wall:
More photos soon… they take too long to upload…