In the middle of Middle Eastern conflict: visiting Israel and the West Bank

This article is about my trip to Israel and the West Bank. I usually feel the need to put humour in my writing – I’m that kind of guy – but having seen what life is like in the West Bank and with the conflict in Gaza escalating, a spoof piece isn’t really appropriate. I’ll also avoid opinions as well as jokes – I’ll just relay what I saw and heard.

The first part of the trip was spent at the Sea of Galilee and travelling in northern Israel. Here there were few signs of conflict, apart from old tanks from the 1967 war and miles of fencing on the no man’s land, which stretches across the borders of Syria and Lebanon. It was only on the drive down to Jerusalem that the atmosphere became noticeably more hostile. A landscape of endless palm and olive trees gradually gave way to harsh and arid desert, as the military presence became more prominent.

There are checkpoints – not just at the borders of the West Bank, but also apparently at random within it. In a big, air conditioned coach with Gemm Travel on the side, packed with camera-toting English and American tourists, we were invariably waved through checkpoints without soldiers even entering the bus, let alone checking our passports. But we saw how Palestinians and their cars are fully and regularly searched, and we were told that no car with a green Palestinian license plate is allowed into Israel itself (someone inevitably compared the green license plate with the gold star used to identify another closely-policed race in the not so distant past).

 

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Palestinian license plate

 On our drive to Jerusalem we were scheduled to visit a Palestinian refugee camp in Abud but, since three Israeli teenagers had been kidnapped and were still missing, this was not possible. Too much ‘military activity’ and the camp was not safe. Instead, in a bizarre alternative, we floated our bodies in the Dead Sea and coated ourselves in the mineral-rich mud. We crafted giant nipples and extra-long chins for ourselves out of the clay and laughed at the stinging effect of acidic salty water on our sensitive skin. 

 

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Dead Sea Clay

Back on the bus, our Arab-Israeli driver – a pleasant man with a fondness for mother-in-law jokes – recounted the bloody history of the Arab-Israeli conflict and calmly doubted whether the fighting could ever end. We later heard that many Arab-Israelis had been evicted from their homes near Jerusalem to make way for new Jewish settlers, and wondered how our driver could remain so calm and objective when his home must have been at risk.

Then, we finally had our first glimpse of Jerusalem. It was and is the most incredible city I have ever seen. Everywhere, ancient historical monuments are juxtaposed with striking modern buildings. Frequently, these historic buildings were deeply spiritual and important places for all three Abrahamic faiths: Judaism, Christianity and Islam. In contrast to the empty desert we had travelled, there were fresh, green lawns and palm trees on every road, maintained across the city by sprinklers and hoses. Ten minutes later, another border into another world: Bethlehem. The opulent buildings of Jerusalem were replaced by unfinished high-rises, with scattered piles of rubble and rebar protruding from concrete roofs. Though the roads were well tended, there was none of the greenery, grandeur or wealth on display in Jerusalem. We stayed in the friendly Angel Hotel – one of the few luxurious buildings. A giant projector screen on the roof showed Soccer or Arabic music videos and at night, the locals could come and watch the World Cup while drinking Taybeh beer from the bar and smoking hookah pipes. 

 

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Rubbles in Bethlehem

It was in Bethlehem that we visited two completely unforgettable places. First was the Bethlehem Arab Society for Rehabilitation Hospital. The hospital treats everyone disregarding race or creed and only charges those who can afford to pay. There I saw an eleven-year-old boy blinded in one eye, and several child amputees – victims of the violence in the area. The General Director, Edmund Shahedah explained to us the hospital’s objectives, activities and funding. From the hospital roof, a nurse showed us the olive groves, which were the key source of income for the hospital and provided jobs for Palestinians living in the area. We were told that the Israeli Government were seizing the land, building a security wall directly beside the Hospital, destroying roads and installing barbed wire. The security wall was to protect a nearby Israeli settlement, but the nurse was insistent on the real reason: ‘if the wall is for security, why must they build it right here? Why not over there by the settlement? Because it isn’t about security, it’s about gaining land.

 

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Bethlehem Children’s Creche

The second unforgettable place was the Bethlehem Children’s Creche. Founded by French nuns; the Creche takes care of over a hundred children under six years old. Some children are orphans, others are there because their families are too poor to support them, some abandoned at the Creche to avoid the ‘honour-killing’ which may befall the Arab mother of an illegitimate child. The Creche deals the same problems as any other orphanage, but deals with them in an area with unique challenges, short of resources in a military occupation zone. We saw the overworked nuns, the sick children who could not get the medicine they need, and the nearly empty water tank (the water supply from Israel is regulated and only renewed intermittently). This last point especially disgusted me. The previous day in Jerusalem we saw Israeli parks and trees being watered, apparently more important than the lives of Palestinian children. We played with the children before we left – I blew bubbles with a happy mischievous couple – a pretty three-year-old girl, and a four-year-old boy with a Spongebob t-shirt and thick, scratched, ill-fitting glasses. I enjoyed playing with them but couldn’t help thinking that those two children are going to grow up in a war-torn country, without parents to support or protect them, and a government which cares more about its tourists and trees.

Various sources I recommend: