Around the world travel, Backpacking, Bucket List, long term travel, Palestine, Travel

The Other Side of Israel – The World Within the Wall – Part 1

Anita and I had been discussing a trip to the West Bank since we met and we were glad to embark on this together. From Nazareth, we boarded a bus to Jerusalem and two hours later we were dropped at Center Bus Station. We cleared security at the main shopping center and went to find a quick snack and coffee. It was odd to be sitting in the middle of a shopping mall, watching people go about their days, while Israeli soldiers patrolled with semi-automatic weapons. There was such a heightened level of security compared to Haifa and Nazareth.

We took a taxi to the road that leads into Bethlehem, but a checkpoint was set up and unfortunately our driver was unable to take us any further. So we got out and began walking to the barricade, not knowing what to expect. We passed a couple of security guards and were stopped by one who sternly asked us where we were from, then smiled and let us pass.
About 5 minutes later, we reached the checkpoint and the passport control office- a huge, monolithic building that sat off the road to the left. To the right was the imposing wall, continuing on for miles in the distance. I looked to Anita and said, “I feel like we’re entering a massive ghetto.”
A father sat with his two sons just outside the office, and he introduced himself to us and his twin boys and said, “Welcome to my Palestine.” From there, we crossed over, barely showing our passports at all. On the other side, we were met by a gaggle of taxi drivers who wanted to take us on tours, show us their land, tell us their stories. We negotiated a ride to Ibda Refugee Camp on the outskirts of Bethlehem. There was hostel like accommodation here for volunteers, and we had hoped that by staying here we’d have the opportunity to talk to some of the volunteers and refugees alike. Unfortunately, due to the festivities surrounding Eid, no one was around, but we did manage to get in touch with a worker and get a room.
We headed into the town of Bethlehem. Our maps were not very helpful, so we stopped along the way to make sure we were heading in the right direction. The last person we asked was standing on the side of the road with three huge black bags. He spoke no English, but motioned for us to follow him. We each carried a shopping bag and began walking. When we arrived where he needed to be, he took his shopping bags from us, and motioned us down the road. We were not far from Manger Square, where the Church of Nativity sits.
Enter Yousef, a man who would dramatically change our time in Palestine. I know I say this a lot when I travel, but you can tell a lot about a person’s character in their eyes, and we were immediately won over by Yousef. We had arrived with no plans, just wanting to better understand the Palestinian way of life and to learn about the plight of its people. So after listening to Yousef’s sales pitch about where he could take us and for how much, Anita and I did what we do best and consulted over a big bowl of hummus.
We decided to go with Yousef for the afternoon to see some local sights and villages, take a visit to the monastery and to see the wall. The adventure began immediately and we were treated to Yousef’s warmth and hospitality. He was eager to teach us about his people and educate us about the situation in Palestine. Our first stop was Herodian, which afforded views of Jordan and the Dead Sea, as well as the surrounding landscape. You could see the number of settlements that have popped up over time. Yousef explained to us the 3 areas: A, B and C and explained the presence the Israeli military had in each. I became dismayed as I learned more and frustrated with myself for not knowing more.
I asked many questions to try and get an understanding of the situation, but you can’t fully understand a situation that just isn’t right. The immediate difference in the quality of life slaps you in the face. Palestinian villages are in rubble, trash is everywhere because there’s no garbage collection and dumps are not designated, buildings are old, schools are fewer in number. The Palestinian’s daily life is controlled- their roads are monitored, their goods are taxed going in and out and there is no guarantee their property will be theirs the following day. And this is all overseen by the Israeli army- boys and girls, approximately aged 18 years. They are probably some of the few Israeli’s who have seen Palestine, and I wonder if they are old and wise enough to question what they are doing and seeing on a daily basis. Other Israeli’s are forbidden to enter Palestine, under Israeli law, and I can’t help but think that Israel doesn’t want their own people to see what is going on behind the wall. They are most likely told it isn’t safe for them to be there, and unfortunately this is a misconception and a reason many tourists steer clear of the West Bank. Still, my time here was the highlight of my time in Israel and you can either be disheartened by the situation or amazed at the strength of the human spirit.
After leaving the monastery, we drove back to Bethlehem and Yousef invited us to his home the following day for one of the feasts of Eid. I was so thankful for his invitation- I had wanted nothing more that to see his village and home and meet his family. He drove us to the wall for a closer look at the size and scale of it and to look at Banksy’s famous artwork. We also saw where the Pope stayed on his visit to Palestine and had a closer look at the Aida Refugee Camp.
Questions flooded my mind, but the type of questions you’re not sure you can ask for fear of offending someone, but over a dinner of shakshuka later that night, Yousef began to tell stories that answered some of those difficult questions. He told us that the situation is improving, that five years ago it would take him 1 1/2 hours to do the 7-minute drive from his home to work due to the number of checkpoints he would have to go through. He spoke of the derogatory treatment women were subjected to from soldiers and he spoke to us about his family- his seven sons. The oldest has finished his education in business but can’t find any work. Two weeks ago, his 12-year old son was arrested in front of him and imprisoned, accused of throwing stones at Israeli soldiers. The same happened to Yousef’s older son and he was sentenced to 18 months in prison and cannot leave the country for 5 years. Even Yousef cannot enter into Israel with the ID card that he has. If he were to travel anywhere, he would first have to go to Jordan. He tells us about his dreams of traveling to Argentina.

Despite the current situation, there is a lightness about Yousef, and Anita points out that the creases on his face aren’t worry lines, they are smile lines. He is happy to be sharing with us and proving that the West Bank is a safe place, made up of decent people. It is evening when Yousef drops us back at Idba and we make plans to meet him the following morning for some more sights and a visit to his home.

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