Bethlehem. First excursion to the West Bank.
I won’t say I’m going to try to be apolitical, because it’s impossible. However I’ll try to tell you only the minimum, which is simply what I have seen. That’s why you’re going to see lots of pictures this time!
The thing about going to Bethlehem from Jerusalem when you’re a “tourist” (yeah, I already dislike calling myself a tourist around here! But it’s hard to argue I’m not), is that the check point you use is known as the easiest check point there is. It’s like going through a parking lot barrier, without the barrier, just a couple of soldiers on the side. Our car wasn’t even stopped, we drove right through. We had to meet our guide the other side of the checkpoint, because he’s Palestinian and hasn’t been allowed to go to Jerusalem for fourteen years. He has a Canadian passport (he’s wife is Canadian), so he can go absolutely anywhere in the World. Except for Israel. To take the plane, he has to go to Jordan.
First thing that struck me, was this sign, I think it speaks for itself, so I’ll just let you make up your own mind about it. Only thing you should, because apparently it wasn’t obvious to everyone: it’s an Israeli sign, not a Palestinian. It’s been put there by the Israeli government. Why? Protect its citizens? Scare its citizens? I guess everyone has their own opinion about it.
Here’s a little explanation: there are three kinds of zones in the West Bank: A, B and C. Zone C is unoccupied land, where the settlers are “free” to build anything they want. Free according the Israeli Government. The international community doesn’t really see it that way. Zone B are Palestinian villages, and Zone A are large Palestinian towns such as Bethlehem, Ramallah, Hebron, etc. In theory, that’s how it works. However, in practice the Israeli government has realized that settlers are confused about the difference between B and C, so a lot of the Palestinian villages have been called zone A, so in theory no Israeli can go and settle there, close to Palestinian villages. In practice, the Israeli government doesn’t do much to stop them. Which means now, they can actually install settlements on lands right next to large Palestinian cities. I hope that’s clear, it can be had to understand if you haven’t actually set foot there. But more on that later, I’ll probably have lots of occasions to talk about it.
We jumped in the car of our very kind and funny guide Yamen, and he drove us right into the Judeen Desert, which was one of the most beautiful sceneries I’ve ever seen (you can see a video on one of the earlier posts on this very blog).
Only problem was, it was 9’30am and we were already sweating like pigs. The roads where very remote, and the only sign of life we saw there was a very sick looking donkey walking on the side of the road. We got St. Saba Monastery, that we weren’t able to visit as it was Friday, but we walked around for a while and took a few pictures.
Right next to the Monastery, you get a wonderful “Grand Canyon” type view of the Judeen Desert.
We jumped back into Yamen’s car to go and deal with some more serious business. No doubt I was in a Palestinian car: driver with a “Free Palestine” tee-shirt, Palestinian flag, Arabic music and little stickers like the one right below.
We went to Aida refugee camp, about a mile out of Bethlehem, where we got a little informal lecture from a volunteer at the camp called Nidal. We discussed politics, obviously, but also specific details about the camp. It’s one of the 1948 camps and isn’t the typical refugee camp you would imagine, with people living in tents and Red Cross signs everywhere. There are proper buildings, schools, even though it looks more like a ghetto then a city. The camp houses round about 3000 Palestinians (I think, this can be checked) whose families fled their homes or were expelled during the war.
Here’s the situation as Nidal, who grew up in the camp, tells it: his family had to leave a village that is very close to Bethlehem during the war. The village has been completely empty since 1948, so it wouldn’t even disturb settlers if Palestinians returned there, to their original home. Another fact about the camp (this is based on a study), is the interesting shift in demographics regarding gender: there are now more men than women, because according to Palestinian tradition, men have to be rich before getting married, and being a refugee, there is very little perspective. What happens is, women “marry out” of the camp, so men are left alone.
For the younger generation, activities are organized so as to give them an education. Many of these are set around arts or journalism, and is of high quality, as the youngsters receive the input of professionals from all around the world who come and volunteer in the camp. For example, I bought a copy of “Our Voice”, which is the refugee youth magazine, written in English and Arabic. The work of the refugees has won both national and international awards.
Knowing I was French, Nidal told me that when he was younger, he’d been “adopted” by a French lady who tried to get him a French passport, and she received a letter from the French government saying that they couldn’t offer Nidal French nationality, because the Muslim population in France was already to large. This was under Mitterrand, the first socialist president of the fifth Republic. This obviously disgusted Nidal from coming to live in France.
A shop in the camp has a few “keys of return”, which are the house keys the refugees took with them when they had to flee their homes. Over the years, they’ve become a symbol.
We walked around the camp, where we saw a few kids playing football, our guide Yamen being playful, he tried to play with them, at the same time he was telling us a bit more about how the camp is organized. There are many beautiful graffiti inside the camp itself.
The camp is surrounded on two sides by a town, and on the other two sides by the separation wall, making it impossible to enlarge the camp as the population of it grows.
The seperation wall:
Close to the wall, you can see marks of bullets. Yamen says some children where shot right there.
Israeli soldiers are now afraid of going in this watch tower, as they believe that if they do, Palestinian kids will burn it again.
We walked along the wall in Bethlehem with a mass of Palestinians heading towards what they call “Check Point 300”, which is the main Bethlehem checkpoint that people have to walk through and not drive. Muslim Palestinians are allowed to go to Jerusalem to pray in Al-Aqsa mosque four times a year, every Friday of Ramadan. That’s why it was so crowded when we went (and Bethlehem so empty). However, there is a restraint: men under 40 are not allowed to go. Why? According to Yamen, because men over 40 who a married and have children are more likely to return to their homes, whereas younger men will try to stay in Jerusalem or even go to other places in Israel.
This house is surrounded by the wall on three sides. They wanted to build an extra floor on the rooth, but permission was denied, it can’t be higher than the roof. You might get a glimpse of what’s on the other side.
We got to the very crowded check point and Yamen took us right through the Palestinian police barriers. Palestinian police men and women were very nice to us and let us go through. As soon as we got to the Israeli check, we were forced by two armed soldiers to turn around and go back. When Yamen tried to explain we just wanted to stand and watch for a few minutes, they physically pushed us so we didn’t argue more. I just managed to take a few pictures.
We walked back to Bethlehem, alongside the wall again and took a look at some of the famous graffiti, on the wall and around town.
Before lunch, Yamen drove us a little out of Bethlehem to take a look at some of the huge settlements surrounding the city. When you hear “settlement”, you sometimes have the image of a little village with a few families, straw roofed houses, sheep and a vegetable patch.
They are in fact large cities. Electric fences, video cameras, all of it to protect the settlers.
FACT: Fourth Geneva Convention (August 1949, definition of humanitarian protection in war zones) – Article 49 says that an occupier may transfer parts of its civilian population into occupied territory.
FACT: the Fourth Geneva Convention says that an occupier isn’t allowed to deport numerous provisions needed for the general welfare of the inhabitants of an occupied territory. Yamen says water supplies in Palestinian territories are controlled by Israel, and are regularly cut off.
It’s a euphemism to say that it would be hard to argue there’s no violation of international law. It would be hard to argue there’s no violation of basic human rights.
Yamen showed us a land where a settlement called “Shdema” is likely to be built this year. He will be able to see it from his home, which will by then be surrounded by settlements protected by the Tsahal. He’s not supposed to linger anywhere near settlements. But he lives there.
This is how the future settlement is signaled:
This is how someone angry about it reacted:
After lunch in a very beautiful but very deserted Palestinian resort, we went to the center of Bethlehem to visit the Church of Nativity. I’ll allow myself a very subjective comment here: it was hard to feel anything holy with all I’d seen and heard. But it’s a landmark; I had to visit the Church. The Church of Nativity is divided in three sections: Armenian, Orthodox and Catholic. There’s a sort of cave under the Church, which is known as the place where Jesus was born. A few candles, and a corner where stood the donkey.
Alongside the streets surrounding the Church, a lot of tourist buses. They come, take a bus, visit the Church and go home within a couple of hours. Going through the “easy checkpoint”, most of them don’t even realize this is Palestinian territory and assume that Bethlehem is in Israel.
All of this are things to think about, but mostly, you just have to see it.
Thanks for reading all the way through, if you did. Please feel free to leave any comment or question.
Bye, bye Palestine, I’ll be back very soon!