While in Israel we were allotted one free day with which we could do what we pleased. Some went to the holocaust museum, some shopped in the Old City, some went to the garden tomb, others rested, some (I think) even went to Tel Aviv, but I and three friends (Melanie, Danny, and Nick) decided to go to Bethlehem.
We woke up early, grabbed our passports, and ran out to catch the number 21 bus that would take us to the checkpoint outside of Bethlehem. It was extremely fortuitous that at the precise moment when we reached the bus stop below Joppa Gate (one of the entry ways into the Old City) we saw the number 21 bus waiting for us. These buses don’t have schedules and normally wait at a stop until they have a full load of passengers. Sometimes you are waiting at a bus stop for about 15-30min before the bus will actually come (from what I’ve heard). But for us, we got on the bus, paid our fare, and with two other passengers, began our short ride to Bethlehem. About 20-30min later we were ushered off of the bus by our driver. We were a little confused at first, but I soon realized that we had reached the checkpoint and therefore the final stop on this bus. We got out, went into the checkpoint area (which, because it was a Muslim Holy Day, Friday, was nearly deserted) and were waived lazily through by a woman in uniform. “Go through here, out door, and to left” were the only instructions we were given. No need to check our passports since we were coming from Israel and were obviously American (eye roll).
We walked through the metal rotator, and went out the door and turned left. Right as we walked outside I saw my friend Andrew Shadid with whom I had planned this trip via email and Facebook. This was perfect since I had tried calling him only to find that the phone I had refused to connect to his. We were originally meant to meet him in front of the checkpoint and walk through with him, but since I couldn’t call Andrew we just walked on through and hoped we would find him. Which we did! Yeah! After saying hello and giving introductions he proceeded to take us on a walk around the wall in Bethlehem, showing us some of the protest wall graffiti.
It was powerful to see the height of the walls, the menacing teeth of the barbed wire, and the looming presence of the guard towers placed every couple hundred feet. From what I’ve heard (and in some places seen) the wall around Bethlehem is especially high, almost 8 meters, aka 26ft (the Berlin wall was only 4 meters/13ft high). Some people are born, live, and die without ever being given permission to leave the confines of the city. The reason they cannot leave is because they must apply for a permit to leave through the checkpoint. Some people must apply months in advance in order to get an eight-hour permit to visit a doctor in Jerusalem. Hundreds of women are forced to give birth at checkpoints (which results in high mother-infant mortality rates) because they don’t have the proper permits to go through. We walked through a series of metal-bar constructed dividers (like a cattle chute) where Andrew told us people are forced to stand back to back and shoulder to shoulder as they wait to go through the checkpoint. There were even bars that had been bent just enough to allow a thin person to slip through to the front of the line in order to escape a long, sweaty, and dehumanizing wait that could go for hours.
Any attempt on my behalf to explain the complexities of this conflict and why Bethlehem is what it is now would be far, far, far, from adequate. The history of the land, of the violence, of the suffering experienced by either side has far too many layers, and I have far too little understanding to give an explanation. What I can tell you is that the people of Palestine are suffering and being treated as second-class citizens. Some of the troubles the Palestinian people are experiencing have to do with the illegal wall that Israel is constructing around the West Bank. In many areas Israel builds the wall in such a way that it not only impinges and absorbs land that is Palestinian, but also cuts farmers off from their land, thousands of Olive trees whose harvest is wasted every year because the Palestinians are not allowed to enter their farms and work the land. The wall also cuts off key water supplies so that many Palestinian neighborhoods, that were formerly self-sufficient, must rely upon food and water aid. All in all the troubles of Israel-Palestine are not as such that they can be solved by food, monetary, or even water aid. They are the product of human rights violations that are happening every day. Racism on behalf of the Jews against Arabs is rampant. One of our bus drivers, Ahmed, was told he couldn’t eat with us on our side of the cafeteria in the Negev because he was Arab. We were confused at first when he sat off by himself. We tried to eat with him, but he gently turned us aside; it was only later that we realized he was tasting the bitter fruits of racism that are common throughout Israel.
We then went to Aida refugee camp (a camp that has stood for 60+ years) and stood on the roof of one of the buildings and looked out across the wall into an Olive tree field that is cut off from Bethlehem (though it is in fact Palestinian) because an illegal Jewish settlement is just across the way. It is only the elderly patriarch of the family that is allowed to harvest the entire Olive grove himself; he is not able to accomplish this task on his own.
Another striking feature we saw from the roof were the lush surroundings of the settlement in comparison to the Palestinians. The Israeli settlers enjoy unlimited access to water while every Palestinian home in Aida had a water detainment tank on their roofs, which held their bi-weekly sometimes monthly allotment of water. When the tank is out of water, the family is out of water. After talking on this roof for about an hour and a half we went to the offices of the Holy Land Trust (if interested look at http://holylandtrust.org) where we caught taxis which took us to Al’Maasara which is, I believe, a Palestinian neighborhood. There we participated in a peaceful demonstration/protest against the illegal occupation of Israeli forces in the area. Needless to say we were stopped by Israeli soldiers from walking down a street that is typically open to everyone. We stood face to face with these soldiers carrying weapons and were shoved back by their plastic shields. They were all around my age and you could tell from the look in their eyes that they held little conviction about their place there. I would catch their eyes for a moment or so only to have them quickly look to the side. I learned later that they aren’t allowed to look in our eyes for too long nor engage us in conversation lest they make a human connection to the protesters.
I am leaving so much out about my experience, but I have to leave in 15min for Thessaloniki. Please ask me about my experience when I get back. I just wanted to get something up before it left my memory. I will make sure to post about my times in Turkey soon!