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

The Other Side of Israel – The World Within the Wall – Part 2

Hebron is about 30 minutes by car from Bethlehem and a known hotspot for Palestinian and Israeli tension. We decide to begin our day with a visit. Yousef picks us up and during the drive we see a big security checkpoint on the opposite side of the road. I see Yousef tense up. He explains to us that the registration on his car expires the following day, but he can’t renew it due to the festival. He fears he’ll get a ticket if he’s stopped by a soldier.

We arrive in Hebron and park in a public lot. The day before, Yousef had told us how much the apparently “illegal” Jewish settlements are expanding. In some cases, the entrances to Palestinian peoples’ homes have been blocked, causing them to have to enter and exit through windows on the back side of their houses. As we park, we see a man crawling out of a window and down a ladder to the street. He comes over to Yousef to say hello and tells him in Arabic that he’s just been visiting his family. He doesn’t speak English and for a moment I’m thankful, because I’m at a loss for words.
We walk over to Ibrahim Mosque, through a security check and then up to the entrance for another security check. This is the place, where in 1994 a Jewish settler opened fire inside the mosque, killing 29 Muslims. Abraham is believed to be buried here, so the sight is sacred to both Jews and Muslims. Sadly enough, the entrance is divided so worshippers can enter on the appropriate side- Muslims to the left, Jews to the right.
After touring the mosque, we walk down the path to a shop run by Yousef’s friend, Abbot. We spend some time visiting with him, sipping sweet spearmint tea. Apparently the entire street used to be lined with Palestinian shops. Now they are all boarded up and closed. This area has now been deemed a Jewish settlement area and shop owners have been forced to shut down. As we sip tea, we watch two Israeli soldiers patrol a checkpoint, checking ID’s of each person who passes, making sure they are allowed to be in the area they are in. A Jewish man walks by carrying an automatic weapon. Despite being one of the 800 Jewish people protected by 4,000 Israeli soldiers, he still feels the need to carry his own weapon and is allowed to do so. I ask Yousef if Palestinian people are allowed to carry weapons, and he looks at me as if I have two heads. He said, if a Palestinian man were to carry a weapon, his own people would most likely turn on him.
From here, we walk through the main market of Hebron- which basically sits under a Jewish settlement. A wire roof has been built across the top of the shop roofs to catch the garbage that is thrown at them – this often includes human excrement. The wire roof is covered with trash. Israeli soldiers patrol each end of the market. We visit a few shops and walk back through the market to the mosque and queue in a long security line, something that is just a part of daily life for the people living here.
We head back to the car and back to Bethlehem. Five minutes into the drive, Yousef pulls over and asks a driver stopped at a traffic light on the other side of the road about the security checkpoint we saw earlier. We have the all clear to head back the way we came.
Yousef drops us at Manger Square in Bethlehem as we need an hour or so to see the Nativity Church and the Milk Grotto before heading back to his house for dinner. We have no gumption. Hebron has left us feeling flattened and emotionally and mentally exhausted – possibly with more questions in our head than we began with.
We sit down for a coffee and then force ourselves to see the sights. We’re then on a hunt for sweets to take to Yousef’s house. We find nothing that’s good enough, so when he comes to collect us we insist that we stop by his favorite sweet shop on the way to his home, no questions asked. He reluctantly agrees and takes us to buy $30 worth of kunafah, enough to feed the 13 of us that will be there.
Yousef is a gracious host and throughout the first few minutes, we begin to meet the five of his seven sons who are home. We then meet his wife, and when he returns from performing the formal call to prayer, we meet his father. We sit in the formal living room and Yousef breaks out a family photo album that includes all of his son’s school photos, graduation pictures, baby pictures, trips to Arafat’s tomb and in earlier days, trips to Jerusalem.
Not too long after we arrive, a massive plate of rice, chicken and vegetables is brought out and it’s enough to feed everyone, but we eat with just Yousef and two of his students from South Korea. Yousef also teaches Arabic. He insists we eat more, asking us why we don’t like the food, and then only stops insisting when he realizes we are in physical pain. After too much food, the plates are cleared and Yousef’s wife, Ramosa joins us, and one by one, the sons join too. It’s time for kunafah and this is a family affair. Ramosa prepares spearmint tea and we share stories and communicate in broken English and Arabic. The second to eldest son studies pharmacy in English, so he helps translate while Yousef leaves to pray.
Ramosa enjoys having guests and putting her sons to work for her – something which probably isn’t a common occurrence. It’s up to the woman to run the house, and she is up daily at 4:30 to take care of everyone before the first call to prayer.
The conversation turns to marriage and dating and Yousef tells us he struggles with the western world’s views on dating today. He explains how it works in Palestine. Say his son is interested in a girl. Yousef will take it upon himself to learn all he can about that girl’s family through asking the village people. If he feels she is a good person, Yousef will then approach the family and show interest in the daughter. Then the girl’s family will do the same sort of background check on Yousef and his family. If they are in agreement, the two can start to see each other, only in supervised settings at first. Four to six months later, Yousef will ask his son if he wants to continue seeing the girl. If so, the visits can now be unsupervised now and plans for an engagement and wedding (which all fall financially on Yousef) can be made. We shared stories of our traditions and Yousef made us promise that we would not only return for his first son’s wedding, but that we would stay in his home. The Arab hospitality puts many others to shame.
Grandpa is still with us at this time and something is said in Arabic that causes an uproar of laughter. You can tell the boys are encouraging Yousef to tell us something. He says to us, “How old do you think my father was when he married?” Anita and I look each other and don’t know where to start. So, I throw out the number 14 and one of Yousef’s sons pushes his hand down as if to say “younger.” We begin counting down until we get to 9. Apparently the two families wanted this couple to wed, so it was arranged. Yousef’s father was 9 and his bride was 14. Yousef looked at us and said, “You always hear of the groom carrying his bride to bed, but never of the groom having to be put to bed by his bride.”
Yousef and his boys have a good laugh, and grandpa sort of shrugs and looks at his watch as if it’s time to go. It was time for us to go too, but we were reluctant to see the night end. We piled into Yousef’s car- Anita, Ramosa and me in the back, Yousef in the front passenger seat with his 6-year-old son Mantes and Ahmed at the wheel. He tells us not to worry, that he has a license, and Yousef said it was good for him to remember what it’s like to be driven around.
They drop us back at Ibda and we say a heartfelt goodbye. Ramosa squeezed our hands for so long, it was like we were saying goodbye to a lifelong friend. We thanked Yousef profusely. Hebron had been a difficult way to start the day, but spending time with Yousef’s family was a testament to optimism and hope and shows that sometimes in bleak conditions, you find reassurance and happiness in the compassion between family and friends, and in what you value and believe in. It had been a day of rich experiences.
We checked out of Idba the following morning and headed to the bus station for public bus 21. We had heard that this was an easy checkpoint and that travel would be more straightforward. As we boarded the bus, we saw Yousef across the street and called out to him. He knew we would be there, and we had the chance for a final goodbye. We had no problems crossing back into Israel, and no more than 20 minutes later we were back at Jaffa Gate in Jerusalem. It was hard to believe that less than 5 miles away a wall contained such a different world, and here we could come and go so freely, while some people within will never get to see Jerusalem. As the man we had shared a taxi with earlier said, “We live in a very big prison.” My initial impression had been an accurate and lasting one.
I hoped that I would continue my time in Israel with an open mind, but I knew it would be difficult to push this experience to the back of my mind. My time in Palestine would come up in conversation again and again throughout my trip, with other travelers and Palestinians. I hoped too that it would be part of conversations with Israelis as well. I had so many burning questions in my mind and needed to feel like there was another side to this story.
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.