Category: Israel and the Palestinian Territories

In the Troubled Holy Land: Part 2

Published in The Weekend Independent Magazine on 24 June 2011

Banksy’s artwork at the separation wall, Bethlehem

After a quick journey along Israel’s flawless roads, a crowded, gear-grating mini-bus deposited its passengers in front of an enormous shed. From the outside, it resembled an airport hanger – from the inside, a gigantic sheep pen. After shuffling my way along a concrete path encased by wire fencing, I entered Bethlehem’s “processing” area. It was flanked by the separation wall, which stretched as far as the eye (sore) could see.

The queues inside the shed were plentiful and long, but after being identified as a foreigner, I was ushered to a different counter. No one else was waiting. I flashed my passport, passed through a metal detector and emerged out the other end in a matter of minutes. But as I peered over my shoulder as I walked away, I watched old Palestinian men bending over to remove their shoes, belts and winter jackets. Others, including children, were being subjected to identification tests and finger-printing. Palestinians must have permits to leave and enter the West Bank, and may be rejected from doing so without any means of recourse. It was so demeaning and so, so sad. Equally sad is the fact that ordinary Israelis cannot witness the humiliations suffered – because they are forbidden to enter altogether.

Vampire font for Bethlehem’s taxis!

And yet I couldn’t suppress a ripple of excitement — here I was, in the fabled land of Bethlehem, where all my childhood Christmas stories had begun. This feeling quickly dulled as I scanned my surroundings, which were dominated by the wall’s grey concrete slabs. At eight metres, it’s twice as high as the long defunct Berlin Wall.

I caught a taxi to the centre of the old town and had my picture taken standing beside baby Jesus’s (allegedly authentic) manger. I met briefly with a member of the activist group “Open Bethlehem” and the head of the city’s tourist police. I learnt that tourism has dropped by around 70 percent over the last five years (as at 2008). Furthermore, fewer than 30 per cent of visitors choose to spend the night in Bethlehem, despite the fact that there are more than 30 hotels. The vast majority – around 75 percent remain in the city for less than two hours. Apparently, the Israeli government sends out regular messages that the area is unsafe at night.

Head of Tourist Police, Bethlehem

As I walked away from the bustling square, I felt as though I’d stepped into a different country. The roads were poorly constructed and congested, the houses dilapidated, the cars run down and shops sold limited wares. Scores of men stood idly on street corners smoking cigarettes, while a few young boys manned fruit stalls. Ramallah, the administrative capital of the Palestinian National Authority, looks much the same, or perhaps worse. I dropped into Aida Refugee Camp and met American volunteer teachers and their over-excited pupils. The separation wall was within spitting distance from the camp, and a local pointed out a girl’s school across the road whose windows had been filled in due to shelling.

Artwork on the separation wall, Bethlehem

Although the separation wall horrified me, the protest artwork that adorns it was inspiring. Whilst it’s completely blank on the Israeli side, the Palestinian side is heavily decorated with messages of peace, humanity, anger and despair. Pink Floyd’s Roger Waters, who famously penned “The Wall,” has visited and left his mark; so too has Britain’s famous graffiti artist Banksy, whose identity remains unknown. For a stretch of around 500 metres, you don’t see a wall, but a gigantic petition against segregation. When it comes down – whenever that may be – I hope the images are preserved to remind us of this low point in humanity.

When I left the West Bank around sunset, a long line of cars had piled up at the gate, some stocked with fruit and other goods. I suspected night would fall before they were given the chance to pass through. For those who rely on passage to earn an income selling goods in Jerusalem, I could only wonder how they manage to cope with such daily frustrations.

I wasn’t allowed to take this photo. Oh well. “Peace be with you???;

The rest of my trip was relatively uneventful – that is, until I reached the airport. Customs opened my bag and discovered the leaflets and DVDs I’d collected from various organisations in the West Bank. My Australian passport was also subjected to inspection, and when the official caught sight of my visa for Pakistan, things got pretty hostile. Did I know anyone in Pakistan? Was I still in contact with anyone? What were their names and addresses? I stood dumbfounded before six customs officials, one of whom tipped open my bag and scoured its contents with a bomb detector. Other passengers, including dozens of Orthodox Jews, stared at me suspiciously. My eyes narrowed in return – after two hours of questioning and public humiliation, I was in no mood to assure them that I wouldn’t blow up their plane. Were I capable, however, of blowing up the separation wall, I may very well have been tempted.

Click HERE to return to Part 1

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In the Troubled Holy Land – PART 1

Published in The Weekend Independent Magazine on 17 June 2011

Separation Wall, Bethlehem, West Bank

“Why would you want to holiday in Israel?” asked my boss with a discernible snarl as he stood outside an English pub.

“I’m not holidaying,” I retorted obnoxiously. “I’ll be TRAVELLING around Israel AND the Palestinian territories.”

“Well you better watch your back then,” he said, and changed the subject.

We were always at war.

Yet I must admit that though I’d long been curious to see the troubled Holy land with my own eyes, I didn’t want any evidence of the fact in my passport. Having an Israeli arrival stamp makes it difficult, and in some cases, impossible (ie Iran), to enter Muslim countries — which I like to do as frequently as possible.

So when I landed in Tel Aviv airport, I had a blank piece of paper on hand along with my passport. Israel allows foreigners to receive arrival and departure stamps on blank bits of paper – I suppose on the basis that tourist numbers would drop significantly if they didn’t.

A Jerusalem market stall

“Happy birthday!” grinned the young customs official as she flipped open my British passport. I’d set off for Heathrow Airport around dawn, so it was the first birthday greeting I’d heard all day. I was tired and it made me a little emotional – and distracted.

“It was my birthday yesterday,” added the customs official cheerily, then slammed an entry stamp onto my passport before I could proffer the slip of paper (or a return birthday greeting). Fortunately, I own two passports, though of course I didn’t mention that to the plain-clothed customs official who took me aside to question the purpose of my trip. I told her that Israel looked pretty in the travel magazines and that it was my birthday. She let me go, seemingly convinced I was too stupid to do anything but swim in the Dead Sea.

After a couple of relaxing days in the hip beach city of Tel Aviv, I headed north for Jerusalem, where it’s possible to make day trips to the West Bank. I stayed inside Jerusalem’s old city’s walls, in a cheap guesthouse facing David’s Tower. The old city of Jerusalem is extraordinarily beautiful – and so well preserved that its history feels very much alive. I incredulously walked in Jesus’ footsteps along the Via Dolorosa (Latin for “Way of Grief), where he carried his cross on the way to his crucifixion nearly two thousand years earlier. I admired the Dome of the Rock on the Temple Mount and watched Orthodox Jews sway back and forth as they pushed pieces of paper into the Wailing Wall. I watched this curious ritual from an elevated courtyard not far away, and it was there I met an American man who appeared to be suffering from “Jerusalem Syndrome.” According to Lonely Planet, “only a small proportion of tourists are affected by the syndrome – for a week or so they believe they are the next Messiah. After the episode they are reluctant ever to speak of it again.”

Anyone for a dose of Jerusalem syndrome?!

His smile was serene and he sported a long white beard, head-to-toe white robes and a small copy of the Torah. As he rocked back and forth, I asked him how long he planned on staying in Jerusalem.

Without a moment’s hesitation, he replied, “For the next two hundred years.” I wished him all the best and made a beeline for the pretty Armenian quarter.

Yet even the most basic tourist activities were mired by tension. After a particularly long day of sightseeing in Jerusalem, I realized that all the shops had closed in the old city and it was now nearly deserted. I was hungry, so I asked two Israeli guards – one sporting dreadlocks — where I could find a café outside the old city’s walls.

“Why did you have to ask them?” shouted a Palestinian shopkeeper as I began to walk away.

The following day I befriended an un-official Palestinian tour guide called Omar. He led me around the old city, and pointed out defaced tri-lingual street signs. The Hebrew and English lettering remained intact, but the Arabic was frequently covered with graffiti, stickers or plain old scratch marks.

As Omar and I took a sunny coffee break on a park bench, an overly concerned (dare I say nosey) Dutch tourist mistook Omar for a pesky tout and asked him to leave me alone. I defended our companionship, but Omar was enraged, and accused her of being an enemy of Palestine. He said she wouldn’t have poked her nose into my business if he were Jewish. The Dutch woman walked away in a huff and Omar was sullen for hours, despite attempts to cheer him with copious glasses of mint tea.

Tower of spice, Jerusalem

Countless other incidents like those described above may explain why I didn’t meet a single “secular tourist” such as myself during the 10 day trip. Everyone else had a strong affiliation with one of the region’s religions, and was therefore on a pilgrimage of sorts. Most frustrating were the busloads of cheerfully loud American Christians, who seemed to arrive at a church the moment I was about to walk in.

Click HERE to read Part 2