Bethlehem was a city under Israeli control until the Oslo Accords in the nineties when it became Palestinian. Today there are mainly Muslims and Christians living there, giving it more Christmas atmosphere than I had seen anywhere in Israel.
In the city center where was a huge Christmas tree, decorated with a Palestinian flag on top and Christmas lights were hanging over the streets. Although a popular site for pilgrims and other tourists it was pretty quiet and me and two Eastern Europeans I had met on the bus the same morning were on our own to explore the city.
First of we went to see the churches including a white one, which is said to have gotten it’s color from Maria giving milk to baby Jesus there. Right outside there was also a fake Starbucks shop, selling tourists regular coffee to Starbucks prices, just like the fake Burger King restaurant I saw in Ramallah the day before.
Th wall was also quite present in the city and a lot of time was spent walking next to it and looking at all the street art. There was even one made by the World famous street artist Banksy, where a woman had made her shop around it selling spray cans to everyone who wanted to have a go at the wall.
The empty streets in the market with nets hanging over the streets
After the 1995 Oslo accord, borders were set between Israel and Palestine, where the city of Hebron was divided into a tiny part for the Israelis (about 700 settlers) and Palestinians (over 200 000). The Israeli part contains the site “The cave of the Patriarchs” where historical people like Abraham, Isaac and Sara are resting, holy for all Jews, Christians and Muslims, where Palestinians are allowed to visit half of the part and the Jewish the other half.
I went there yesterday and started off by taking an armored bus going directly from Jerusalem into the Israeli settlements. I could then freely, with my passport walk over to the Palestinian side to look around. When I came across there was a sad atmosphere and few people in the market. Above the streets were the houses of Israeli soldiers and a net in between making sure that no-one could throw rocks up at them. It also worked as a place where the Israelis could throw garbage, and the net was full of it. People below, me included felt like rats in the sewer, where people above intentionally wanted to drive us out.
When walking around I also met some Norwegians working with escorting Palestinian children to school, as they would almost daily be harassed by the soldiers and the settlers. It was tough to see how tired the Palestinians living on the border were. Hearing the people’s stories also drained me from energy and a day spent there talking to people was enough. After that I really wanted to get back to Tel Aviv where these things seemed so far away.
The tombs of Abraham, Sara, Ismael and Isaac inside the Cave of the Patriarchs
“Dangerous to your lives”- signs that stood at every entry to Palestinian territory
What I wanted from my visit to Israel was to get a better insight into the Middle Eastern conflict, and I got thag today after visiting Balata, the biggest refugee camp in Palestine. I was a tiny bit worried about security walking by myself, so when I got to the closest town Nablus I went into the Yafo Cultural Center to ask if someone could walk with me and got a local who did not speak any English to take me around for about half an hour. Walking around in the very narrow streets I saw how over crowded the camp was. With over 20 000 people they had two schools and one tiny hospital with two doctors, both built by the UN. Children were running around using sticks and whatever they could find to play war, clearly inspired by the posters hanging everywhere of Saddam Hussein and other popular martyrs.
Towards the end of our walk I met Jamas, a guy who had grown up there, but had lives in Stjørdal, Norway since 2009 but was back in Palestine for a few days to visit his sick mother. Jamas invited me into his home for coffee and biscuits. He told me his family story, from his father being driven from his home in Haifa in 1948, and settled in Balata where Jamal and his parents were born and had run a shop that was twice destroyed by Israeli soldiers during the second entifada war when he had decided to escape. He was now happy to have made it to Norway where he also managed to get the rest of his family too.
After the coffee he drove we around the city of Nablus to show me the different areas including the Israeli settlements. The visit and stories from Balata and Nablus had been quite tough to hear first hand but has given me a unique insight into the conflict from the Palestinian side. I think all news reports from the Middle East will be more personal for me to hear about from now on.
Houses were built so close together, due to the lack of space that it was only possible for one person to go through the most narrow streets at a time.
Although Palestinians want it to be Jerusalem, Ramallah is the de facto capital of the country. Being a Christian village around a hundred years ago it js today a more liberal city with cafes, cinemas and even a brewery.
I met a Palestinian university student early in the morning who was happy to show me and an American girl his city for the day. Although we also got to see the most known and popular attractions like the West Bank Headquarters of the Palestinian Authority and the Tomb and Mausoleum of Yasser Arafat, we also got to see some other less known and more personal places. We visited a musical school for Palestinian Refugee Camps andthe Ramallite Dar Zahran Heritage building. Both places it was just the three of us talking to the owners about their work to help Palestinians and preserve their culture.
Ramallah had a special culture and feel to it, and if there was one place in the West Bank where I wish that I could have spent more time it would be there.