In many ways, my trip to Israel is a fact-finding mission, and effort to meet with as many different people with different views, and to observe the various nuances of the “conflict.” So far, I have spent time with Israeli-Arabs, with secular Jews, with Peace Organizations, I have toured a kibbutz, have chatted with students at a Yeshiva at the Western Wall. Today I shifted towards two days focused on the West Bank. Today’s trip was a 10 hour journey from Jerusalem to Bethlehem, Jericho, and Ramallah.
We began at the Abraham Hostel and left around 8:10am. There were about 15 of us in total on the tour, and we drove south on the Hebron Road towards Bethlehem, and when we crossed into the West Bank, our tour guide met us on the side of the road. He is not an Israeli citizen, and thus, can not travel into Jerusalem. He began in jest by saying welcome to the “terrorist state.” I am not sure people thought it was funny. I didn’t. And then he quickly went to work, talking about his life, and talking about the places we were seeing.
Our first stop was the occupation wall, across from Rachel’s Tomb (a place I would have liked to seen, but it is on the Israeli side, and it is closed during Shabbat.). We walked a ways along the wall, looked at the graffiti, which is really quite impressive artwork. We then spent time looking into one of the oldest refugee camps in the West Bank. A refugee camp in Palestine is NOT a refugee camp in the traditional sense. These were people who were living in what is now Israel – in Arab villages, and were displaced from their homes after the independence war in 1948 (what the Palestinians call the Nakba (sp.) – or “catastrophe.” What the refugee camps looked like were large Arab villages. But these are all populated by people who want the right to return to their ancestral homes. This is a major sticking point in the resolution of the conflict. Most of those villages are NOW Israeli cities. It will be almost impossible for them to return home.
Then we did the traditional tourist things in Bethlehem, and toured the Church of the Nativity, which is the church (really three churches in one, Orthodox, Armenian, and Roman Catholic) where it is believed Jesus was born in the manger (a cave). The caves were interesting, and not all like what we always perceive when we see a crèche. No wooden manger.
After that we had a traditional Palestinian lunch – a meal I do not remember the name of – but which I had at Rida’s in-law’s house last Saturday – a week ago! Rice, chicken, cauliflower, potatoes, all in a mix. Served with yogurt and Arab salad. In Manger Square, there was a Bethlehem Peace Center, and signs for “A Tourists Understanding of the Occupation.” I noticed it used the same maps of the settlements utilized by the Global BDS movement. There were banners with the faces of Palestinians held as political prisoners. The environment was clearly different than in Israeli-Arab villages, yet much of it was very similar. One difference was that most buildings in the West Bank are white, – they look just like the buildings in Ein Mahel, for the most part, but are not nearly as colorful. The one exception is Jericho, which is in a valley, that is spread out, and there were few multi-story structures.
Then it was off towards Jericho. We began crossing the landscape, which became increasingly more desert-like, and descended to over 300 meters under sea-level. The Dead sea was straight ahead. As we bottomed out, we reached the Jordan River valley, and headed north towards the baptismal site where it is believed John the Baptist baptized Jesus in the Jordan. This site was busy, the river was not much more than a muddy stream, and Jordan was less than 50 feet away. There were people being baptized, but our group enjoyed the scenery – several of us put our hands into the water. I did. It was very cold. But it was also worth seeing.
Onto Jericho – we went to the old city, which wasn’t very old, or did not appear to be so, and went to the cable car to go up to the Mount of Temptation, where it is believed Jesus spent 40 days in the wilderness, tempted by the devil. We got up to the top, and walked up to the monastery, only to be turned back. The Orthodox Monk decided that only Russians were allowed in today. He apparently is quite grumpy. So, we never went into the grounds, but we were on top of the mountain. I learned after-ward that our timing at the Mount of Temptation was good – tomorrow’s PCUSA lectionary reading features Jesus going into the wilderness.
My one frustration was that we did not get to walk to the Tower of Jericho – the OLDEST man-made structure in existence. More than 8,0000 years old. We saw it from the cable car, but the tour guide did not have that on his itinerary. If I bring students to Jericho, that won’t happen. But I don’t know if I would go there. Still, we were in a place that was the oldest city in the world. Take that in.
From there, it was back up the mountains – and the scenery was break-taking – we saw Beduin sheep herders, and a view of the entire Jordan valley. By the way I have now seen into Jordan, Syria, and Lebanon on this trip. Our destination – Ramallah – the capital of the Palestinian Authority. On the way we passed Israeli check-points, crossed in and out of Israeli-controlled areas – saw probably six or seven settlements (which almost always have a modern look, with red tile roofs).
Ramallah was surprising to me. It was the single most modern-looking Arab city I have seen (I know, my N is small). It was much more western in look. And while it supposedly has only 57,000 residents, it seemed much bigger. Our stop here – brace yourself – was the Tomb of Yasser Arafat. I can truly say, I never thought that I would visit the tomb of someone who when I grew up, when the ONLY narrative I had ever heard was one where Arafat was the leader of a terrorist organization – the P.L.O. Of course my views are very different today, and I understand the MANY, MANY narratives.
And certainly accept why his tomb would be a revered place to the Palestinian people. The tomb was very much like the tomb of the unknown soldier in Arlington National Cemetery. When we approached it, we first drove by the government compound, and saw the prime minister’s offices, then we came to this white marble structure, guarded with four or five armed Palestinian guards. We were allowed cameras, but no bags. We walked in, and there was a building, with a glass set of doors, and a tomb, surrounded by two soldiers, with red berets, who were like the marines at the tomb of the unknown soldier. We were allowed to approach it, and to have our pictures taken, standing in between the guards if we wanted. I debated this – and decided that, just as I had opted to sit in the electric chair at Stateville prison, seven years ago, I would get a picture. I have not shared it, and have not decided if I will. I know some of my friends might take offense at that, but it certainly is not my intent. So, for now I keep that photo private.
From there were drove around the city, and took a break at a café, and had time to socialize with the members of our group. It was a lot of fun, and provided for good conversation. I spent time talking with a woman from Spain, and a couple from Australia, as well as a group of lawyers from San Francisco.
Ultimately, the day was not entirely political. It was a journey to see major parts of the West Bank. My observations was that much of the West Bank looked like how I assumed Israel looked like. Much more desert-like. While there were areas that seemed to scream out poverty – most of what I saw did not resemble that image at all. Yet, what it did scream out was contradictions. And major challenges for the two state solution. If Palestine is to be a state, then the settlements spread out through the West Bank cause a major set of problems. The fact that there are Israeli-controlled corridors, and sections that could literally split the west bank in two, is challenging.
But I will continue this tomorrow, as I return for day 2, this time, specifically visiting Hebron, on a dual narrative tour. We will take an armored Settler bus to Hebron, spend the morning in a settlement, then shift to a Palestinian guide, and have lunch with them, and hear their narrative – in one of the most contested parts of all of Israel, second only to Gaza.
Internet sucks – the hotel wi-fi is down, my hot spot is finicky, so not many photos to share tonight. Hopefully in the morning.