Bethlehem

Despite losing an hour to Palestinian Daylight Savings time, we rose relatively early on Friday for a trip to Bethlehem. The best way to do this is by taxi, because the 10 km or so between Ramallah and Bethlehem runs straight thru Jerusalem and one big wall. To travel with Harb, we took the “Palestinian” route, which is an hour-long drive on highways and backroads to avoid checkpoints, settlements, and Israeli-only roads. Israeli settlements atop hills dot the landscape, their more homogenous architecture distinguishing them from the varied buildings in Palestinian towns.

At the risk of repeating a one-sided story, there was a poignant moment on the way. We passed an odd field full of what appeared to be tens of thousands of tree stumps in orderly rows. When we commented, our driver told us that the trees used to be an olive tree orchard tended by Palestinians. Israeli settlers cut down the trees because it was bringing Palestinians too close to their settlement.

Bethlehem is home of the Church of the Nativity, an ancient Christian church built at the site where Jesus was born to Mary in a stable. It has been destroyed, rebuilt, buttressed, and added to over the years, with an entire Roman Catholic worship space attached to the original Greek Orthodox structure. The door to the church used to be a massive archway, but has been bricked in over the years to force people entering to bow as they enter. Beyond the alter, visitors may descend a stone stairwell to the religious site of Jesus’ birth, marked by a silver star set in the ground.

The shops near the Church are packed full of tourist junk. We got the whole scam from a tour guide we employed about how a friend of his ran a shop with the best quality and the best deals because he vouched for us. Our complaint of “we didn’t bring that much money” was met with an assurance that “I take the Visa and the Mastercard, no problem”. We shopped around till we found souvenirs that didn’t empty our pocketbooks, then made our way past Omar’s Mosque to the Wall.

The Wall is a towering 30 foot high construction anchored with guard towers and topped with a barbed wire fence. It has layers of graffiti across the bottom 10 feet, some quite beautiful. It runs for miles, inside and outside West Bank cities, though it is most imposing within the city limits. Then we had a random chance meeting with the director of the Wi’am Conflict Resolution Center, before proceeding further along the Wall to a refugee camp. The camp had a peculiar, semi-permanent feel to it, as most of the buildings were of stone or cement with electricity and plumbing.

At the entrance to the camp was an archway shaped like a keyhole, with a skeleton key over it. We were told this was a reminder to the camp’s inhabitants to keep the keys to the homes they abandoned in Israel, in the hopes of returning one day.

Today’s post is actually from yesterday. Our internet connection is lackluster in the best of times, and has been completely useless of late. We are making use of cafes with good wireless as a backup.

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