I was looking forward to my first visit to Bethlehem so it was particularly good, on that September morning, to leave my depressing Jerusalem hotel room and head off into the early sunshine. The Jaffa Road was coming to life and the ‘ting ting’ sound of the Jerusalem Light Railway could be heard in the distance.
At the impressive YMCA building, the pick up point for Green Olive Tours, I stopped to wait for my fellow travellers. Across the road, partially hidden by the trees, was the King David Hotel, an evocative sight for the son of a British Army soldier stationed in Palestine during the Mandate period.
It’s a short journey between Jerusalem and Bethlehem and soon a Scot, two Germans, one American and an Indian were deposited at the checkpoint. I’ve crossed a few borders in my time but none quite like this. Thankfully it was quiet and the group, each with their own thoughts, walked briskly through, acutely aware of the surrounding steel cage. I found it a demeaning experience but I could only imagine how those forced to cross on a regular basis felt.
Waiting for us was our ebullient Palestinian guide Yamen who became our ‘friend for the day’. He welcomed us to a city still showing signs of the previous night’s disturbances.
Almost the first item on the itinerary was tea and a chance to learn a little about the Separation Wall and since its inception its inexorable progress around and through Palestinian communities. The Wall, much bigger than I expected, is a great scar on the landscape and politically and physically dominates life in Bethlehem.
There were of examples of it running directly in front of a house blocking the entrance, forcing the residents to use a back door or in some cases getting a ladder and climbing through a window on the upper floor. What happens to elderly or sick people living there? You only have to read some of the abundant graffiti on the Wall to understand some of the intense emotions its existence creates.
We arrived at Aida refugee camp on a day that the water was turned back on after several weeks without a supply and people were busy washing and filling their storage tanks in preparation for future shortages. As we walked through the narrow streets we saw the evidence of conflict from the first and second Intifadas still clearly visible on the walls of the houses. Some of the local kids greeted us and a few high fives were exchanged and the mood lightened a little. It was a privilege to spend an hour with the director of Aida’s youth centre and we left the camp understanding a little more about how tough life was for people who lived there.
I had been looking forward to visiting the Church of the Nativity but ultimately came away with mixed emotions. Manger Square, a utilitarian space, was packed with visitors heading for the church and we were ushered in quickly. I shook my head at the story of the rival Greek Orthodox and Armenian priests ‘doing battle’ with brooms but loved its historical legacy, its ancient Byzantine roots and wanted to spend longer in the main body of the church. Instead we headed for the steps leading down to the Grotto of the Nativity where Jesus is said to have been born. However there was little Christian spirit in evidence as visitors pushed and shoved on the narrow staircase. The men with the broadest shoulders and the sharpest elbows were the winners here.
For me the highlight of the day was lunch with Abed Rabbah on his olive farm at Al-Walaja which lies a little north of Bethlehem. Abed is a remarkable man, living, away from his family, on his farm to try to prevent it from falling victim to the relentless programme of settlement building. He is constantly under threat from settlers and an Israeli government which wants his land.
Life for this olive grower is basic; his home is a cave with no electricity, running water or proper sewage facilities but he is always happy to meet people and try to explain his situation and our little group was no exception. We were joined at our barbecue lunch by his resident pigeons and a million flies but in just a short time we learned more from Abed and Yamen about the lives of ordinary Palestinians than would have ever been possible from newspapers or television.
His story was compelling and disturbing but he is only one among many.
Neil Gunn is a freelance writer who likes to visit the Holy Land.
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