The West Bank was probably the place I have been most looking forward to on this trip, but also the one place where we could have been declined entry.
The current conflict meant we were advised against visiting the Palestinian terrortories. Yet, our interest in the area and our desire to talk to the people meant we weren’t deterred by the ‘threats’ there. Luckily for us we managed to reach Palestine with no problems, not even at the Israeli checkpoints.
We took a bus from Jaffa gate in Jerusalem to Bethlehem in the West Bank. It is only about 6km as the crow flies but we were required to take a Palestinian road route around the concrete wall built by these Israelis. This meant that it took just over an hour for us to reach Bethlehem.
When we arrived it was immediately clear that Bethlehem is not to the ‘little town’ that Christmas carols convinced me it was. In fact it is a small city within the West Bank. Initially a man approached us and tried to initiate conversation. We smiled at him and continued walking until he shouted ‘hey! I am not a terrorist, I want you to hear our story.’ At this point James stopped and turned back to him. After a short exchange of small talk the man informed us of his charity work in aid of his ‘brothers’ in Gaza. He had been standing on the side of the road collecting water from drivers by to give aid to the victims. He offered to take us on a small tour of Bethlehem for a fee – of course. We obliged.
The first place he took us was the refugee camps close to the concrete wall dividing the West Bank from Israel. He informed us of the regular protests that occur in this part of the city, where people live densely populated in an area designed only for temporary accommodation.
We then stopped off at the wall which towered above us. The messages on the wall told the story of the people in the West Bank. Our local continually expressed his anger towards the ‘Zionists’ and how his life is effected by Israel. He showed us various pictures on his mobile of children brutally injured in the attacks on Gaza. He clearly was very angry. He added a somewhat lighter note by adding that many Palestinians support Real Madrid because of Messi’s affiliation with Israel.
The wall itself was shocking. The graffiti and messages told us so much about the anger and struggle. I have added a few photos to highlight this.
Following the wall we visited what everyone associates with Bethlehem: The Church of the Nativity. We left our local tour man at Manger Square outside the church and headed in towards it. We were asked our nationality before being allowed in a narrow gap in the church wall. Once inside the church had a few people in it, but not as many as either of us expected. Much like Jesus’ tomb, we were warned that it may take up to 4 hours to see the birth place of Jesus. However, since tourism is so limited here now we had to wait a matter of minutes before heading down into the spot where Jesus was supposedly born. Copying the other people, we lay on the floor and kissed the spot. Once again, Jesus birthplace wasn’t the wooden stable in the middle of a village I had always pictured. Yet, we had now visited the sights if Jesus’ birth, death and resurrection within 24 hours. I would suspect that not many Christians can say that.
However, we may see it as a positive that we don’t have to queue but it has a much greater impact on Palestine. The lack of a queue means a lack of business in Palestine, and the lack of business has a detrimental impact on their already unstable lives. This has not been helped by the British Governments advice against visiting the West Bank or the attitudes of Israeli people towards it on the other side of the wall. Neither of us felt in danger at any point during our time in Palestine and I would advise anyone to visit this fabulous part of the world.
Anyway, we now hopped onto a 7 sweater taxi/bus (special name I can’t remember) destined for Hebron. We initially wanted to visit Ramallah but were told by locals that Hebron will give us a greater feel for Palestinian life.
In fact, Hebron offered the greatest insight into life in Palestine and contributed to the most eye opening part of our visit.
Once our bus dropped us off we were a bit stuck for what to do as we had no information about the city. As a result we began aimlessly wondering the busy market streets. It seemed that every stall we passed had someone very pleased to see us. ‘Where are you from?’ ‘welcome to Palestine!’ Were the greetings all the time. People were keen to shake our hands, especially as they were aware of the protests in London and associated us with them. There was a heartbreaking pleasure on their faces at the sight of tourists in Hebron.
We had heard of one sight in Hebron, the Ibrahimi Mosque. We followed signs and directions to the mosques whilst passing intrigued children all keen to talk with us. As we became close to the mosque a young man offered to take us the rest of the way. As he did he introduced us to his friend who worked at a stall in the old town. This boy was 16 years old but spoke very good English. He was excited to see us and informed us that we were the first foreign people to visit the old town that day, whereas it had previously been a popular destination for tourists.
He took us to the Ibrahimi mosque where we were greeted by Israeli soldiers who checked our bags and interrogated us before entering. The boy left us outside whilst we went within. We were given a short history lesson by a Muslim in the mosque who pointed out the tomb of Abraham and Rebecca. He also made clear that there were CCTV cameras in the mosque so that the Israelis could keep and eye on them and the. Showed us bullet holes from where 29 Palestinian Muslims were shot dead in the mosque in 1994. It was a story that we heard many times throughout our few hours in Hebron.
Following our walk around the mosque we returned to the boys shop, as promised. There we were joined by a couple of his friends who offered to share their shisha with us. It was aptly put when someone said the shisha ‘wasn’t the tourist bollocks you normally get’
All of our hosts were so warm and friendly and never once pressured us into buying anything. However, we both felt this was a good time and place to part with some money and give it to people who genuinely need it, and deserve a break.
When enquiring about prices of products in the shop we were both surprised at how low their starting prices were. Some 10 times less than you’d expect in Jerusalem. Consequently, and a first as a tourist, we both were willing to pay more than the original asking price for a couple of bits. It was amazing to spend so much time with ‘real’ Palestinians who have experienced life in Hebron and seen it change even in their short lifetime.
As they are in Israel, the boys were willing to share their own stories. From them we learnt that Hebron itself had around 400 new Jewish settlers, whom brought 3000 Israeli soldiers to protect them. The result of this meant that some of the old town was divided between ‘Palestinian only’ and ‘Israeli only’ paths and the once bustling fruit market was now a derelict street of closed shops.
It had been an incredible eye opening experience for us both. Made even more poignant by our last encounter with the boy who said ‘I must leave you here because I cannot walk further, I am Palestinian and that part is for Israelis’. We walked through the Israeli settlement of the city before catching the bus back to Jerusalem and reflecting on an unforgettable day.
Our arrival back in Jerusalem gave us a chance to spend another night eating cheap food on the rooftop and discussing the most unique and shocking of days in one of the worlds most misunderstood places. We both felt lucky to be part of it.