(Days One and Two of this TR have been posted on the Jerusalem forum.)
Day Three brought with it a change of pace, as I was going to begin focussing my time and activities on the primary reason for my trip — to learn more about Palestine and its people and history, and to expose myself to alternative perspectives of the decades-old Israeli – Palestinian conflict. Perhaps a little back story is in order.
“Long ago when I was young and charming,” I had lived in Europe where I met several Palestinians who had put a human face on the struggle of their people to secure a homeland. In the intervening years, busy with my own life, I had followed events from afar, usually with a sense of sorrow at the lack of progress towards a lasting peace. More recently I was forced to admit that I was out of touch with events. Somewhat shamed, I looked around on the internet and discovered two things. First, the region was safe to visit, and second, a number of tour agencies and guides were offering “political” or “justice” tours in the occupied Palestinian territories (oPt) that could help people like me begin to make sense of the situation.
Intrigued, I put on hold my plans for a trip through southeast Asia (which, thanks to Tripadvisor, I had planned down to four-hour intervals!) and began exploring what a trip to Israel and Palestine might look like. I soon discovered the website of an Israeli tourist agency, Green Olive (GO) Tours (reviewed extensively elsewhere), and was delighted at the variety of tours they offered in the oPt.
Billing itself as “a social enterprise tour agency,” GO offers “informative and analytical tours covering the history, culture, and political geography of Palestine (West Bank) and Israel.” This includes, “an experience of the political facts on the ground,” and “analysis and commentary based on human rights, cultural self-determination, the right to political self-determination, the right to live in safety, the right to political freedom, and the right to a home.” Definitely not the average tour agency, but it looked like a good fit.
The plethora of glowing reviews on Tripadvisor confirmed this and so, after several months of planning, I took the plunge and booked tickets, tours, and homestays. It was a big step for me. I enjoy independent travel, but I am a man of modest means, and I had to save, save, save. However, I knew that if I didn’t take this opportunity to learn firsthand, I would probably regret it.
And so, Day Three. Another fabulous day and by 8.30 a.m., after a stop at the cash machine in the Mamilla Mall, I was at the meeting spot outside the Notre Dame Hotel for the Bethlehem – Ramallah tour. The GO website said that among other things, we would have ample opportunity to, “engage in a discussion with the guide about the cultural, religious, and economic impact of the Separation Wall, and its effect on life in Bethlehem.” This interested me. Before I left Canada I had watched a documentary, “The Iron Wall,” that explained how the wall was twice the length of the actual border, about 80 percent of it is built on Palestinian land, and about eight percent of West Bank land ended up on the Israeli side of the wall. I wanted to learn more.
About ten other “guests” showed up, mainly a young (under 30) crowd of Europeans. A guide arrived and we were soon in taxis, headed for the “Gilo” military checkpoint, where we would pass through the Separation Wall and meet a Palestinian guide, who would who accompany us for the remainder of the day.
Even though I had seen many photos, the first view of the wall, snaking its way across the landscape, was a little unnerving. The checkpoint consisted of no real checking at all, just walking past a couple of Israeli soldiers. (Apparently very few controls are made on people entering the oPt. Coming out is much different.) Our Palestinian guide met us as we emerged and introductions made, he took us on a one-kilometer walk along the base of the wall.
This proved to be a powerful introduction to life in the oPt. The wall itself, looming eight meters high and punctuated by Israeli watchtowers every two or three hundred metres, makes it very clear that this is not the land of the free. However, the colourful, in-your-face, defiant wall art that covers the lower reaches of the wall— created by Palestinians and supporters from all over the world — proclaims loudly that although seemingly down, the Palestinians are not out. In my view, every visitor to the oPt would do well to walk as we did.
Our first stop was the Aida Refugee Camp, home to several thousand refugees from the 1948 war. A short walk through the narrow lanes brought us to a small meeting hall where a director of the Al Rowwad Children’s Theater spoke to us passionately about their efforts of “beautiful resistance" — fighting despair and violence in the camp with children’s theater and dance, women’s sewing circles, computer training, vocational courses, and classes in aerobics and yoga. A committed advocate of non-violent resistance, he reminded us that 95 percent of Palestinians have never taken up arms. The man’s dignified conviction, and his commitment to both the programs and principled, nonviolent resistance to the occupation left a profound impression on me. I came away from the short viewing of a documentary about their youth programs feeling that already this tour had “paid off.”
After a walk around the camp, we got into a minibus for a short drive to Manger Square and the Church of the Nativity, built on the spot where it is said Jesus was born. A different guide took us through the church, which was much less ornate than the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem. We were soon on the move again, following our guide on a walk through the streets of Bethlehem to a small restaurant where we feasted on local fare (price not included in tour).
Lunch over, we piled into the bus for the drive north to Ramallah. For years this was a short, thirty-kilometer journey, but with the construction of the Separation Wall it now involves an 87 kilometer circuitous trip on special roads for Palestinians around the various Israeli settlements that jut eastwards from Jerusalem into the oPt, nearly dividing it in two. As we drove our guide talked about how the Separation Wall affects the overall fabric of Palestinian life, dividing neighborhoods, separating families, and keeping most Palestinians from visiting the important holy places in East Jerusalem. And always the wall to the west, carving its way through the countryside.
Midway in the journey we passed through the Israeli “Container” military checkpoint, which controls all north-south traffic. Fortunately for us, it was open and flowing smoothly. Not so for the south-bound traffic. Soldiers were searching each vehicle, and the traffic was backed up for at least a kilometer. Our guide told us that on any given day there was no way of knowing what would happen at the checkpoint, so it was very difficult to accurately make travel plans between Bethlehem and Ramallah. Hundreds of these internal checkpoints exist throughout the oPt, making intercity travel a difficult affair.
He explained that Ramallah is a “government” town — the seat of the ruling Palestinian Authority and home to many NGOs and foreign government aid agencies. As such it is more western and secular than other Palestinian towns — alcohol is readily available and western-style cafes, restaurants, and night spots are popular with some liberal Palestinians and expats.
Our first stop in Ramallah was Yasser Arafat’s tomb. I asked our guide about Arafat’s legacy among the Palestinians — how was he remembered? The question seemed to provoke a little discomfort, but he eventually replied that in his view Arafat was an essentially good man, but that he had been surrounded by not-so-good corrupt advisors who did great harm and offered bad advice. Whatever the case, I often saw Arafat’s image displayed throughout the oPt in a respectful manner.
Our bus let us out in chaotic downtown Ramallah where we plunged into the frenetic Saturday market and were soon engulfed in an overwhelming cacophony of sounds and smells. Quite stimulating! Then a short walk up to crowded Manara Square, where we enjoyed a delicious Arabic coffee from a street vendor. The price of 2 NIS was a welcome relief from the 10 NIS that I had been paying in Jerusalem. Palestine was agreeing with me.
It soon came time for us to head back to Jerusalem. In order for us to experience passing through a checkpoint to Israel just as Palestinians do, the plan was for us to take public transport back to Jerusalem, going through the Qalandia checkpoint. At the bustling bus station we said goodbye to our guide and boarded the # 18 bus. The traffic to the checkpoint was horrendous — complete chaos — and so about 500 metres from the checkpoint the driver, hopelessly stuck, told everyone to get out and walk the rest of the way.
Being Saturday and the Sabbath in Israel, the checkpoint wasn’t terribly crowded — all schools in Jerusalem and Israeli workplaces were closed. We lined up at one of the barred lanes in the drab, concrete building, and waited. These lanes, about one metre wide and ten or fifteen metres long, are enclosed by bars, sort of like a tunnel that you would push cattle through one by one into a corral. The far end is barred by a turnstile gate. We waited in these cramped barred lanes for several minutes until a klaxon sounded and the gate opened. Then we pushed forward, with other pushing behind us, and passed through. A minute or two later the gate closed.
We made our way to one of several inspection stations where we put our bags and jackets though a security machine, much like airport security. The fully armed Israeli soldiers, who were seated in an adjoining office with a large window, ordered us via a loudspeaker to pass one by one through a metal detector and scan the ID page on our passport in a machine. They then told us to collect our belongings and leave. Soon we were back on the bus and in Jerusalem.
As I walked back to my lodgings I struggled to make sense of the day. Two completely different worlds — Israel and the oPt — just a few kilometers part. Almost unbelievable. But believe it and grapple with it I must.
Meanwhile, I had to get to bed early, as my next tour started at 3.45 a.m. I was going to greet the sunrise on top of Masada.
(This Trip Report will continue on the Israel forum)