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July 30, 2006 – A journey to West Bank, Palestinian Territories in Middle East

What a Turn of Events

On the fourth day in Israel, specifically, Old Jerusalem, journeyed into Bethlehem mainly to see the town and the birthplace of Christ. Plus, who wouldn't want to say he/she has been to Bethlehem every time the carol is sung during Christmas?

Dry joking aside, Rick decided that he didn’t want to go because of the unpredictable turmoil going on currently in Israel (Old Jerusalem is supposedly the safest place to be right now in Israel). Another pal of ours, Jon, whom we met in Egypt, decided last minute to join Andrea and I. Personally I felt the more the merrier.

After seeing Al-Aqsa Mosque and the Dome of the Rock in the morning, Rick separated from us and went off to do his own thing. Andrea, Jon, and I headed out from the Muslim Quarter through Damascus Gate. Because it was early morning, the market area on the way to the gate thankfully wasn’t as chaotic as the afternoon before. We were able to walk through pretty easily without being squashed on our way to the sherut (public minivan) station in East Jerusalem. Got on a sherut and headed over to Bethlehem, which to my realization, is situated in the West Bank.

a sherut to Bethlehem

After a few passport checkpoints along the way, the sherut dropped us three off at the wall that divides Palestinian territory from Israel. It was interesting in an uncanny way to see all the tall metal barricades, tight security, and the emptiness of the place. Passed through another checkpoint and a few metal detectors in order to get into the West Bank.

On the other side, we were met by graffiti all over the walls – much asking to stop the war and pray for peace. At first, we couldn’t figure out how to get to Bethlehem, since there was some graffiti of an arrow and ‘Bethlehem’ pointing to a barricaded police area (basically, a dead end). So, after asking for some directions back in the metal containment checkpoint, we resurfaced outside to the West Bank again and headed in the opposite direction of the false graffiti Bethlehem arrow.

The Wall and the dead end (note the false graffiti Bethlehem arrow)

Down the slope, we were met by some taxi drivers. They offered to take us to three main spots around Bethlehem. Originally we were planning to just get into the town of Bethlehem, walk around, and visit the major spot of the Church of Nativity (the Church of Nativity was built over the site where the Virgin Mary gave birth to Jesus in a manger on Christmas day a little over a couple of thousand years ago).

One of the taxi drivers told us the tour would take us to the Church of Nativity and two other sites outside Bethlehem. One of them being Shepherd’s Fields (where the angels came upon the wise men before Christ’s birth), and the other being Herodion (where persecuted Jews went into hiding from the Romans). We agreed upon the price of 150 shekels (around $35 USD) total and drove off with Mr. L.

After getting into the taxi and passing the first few streets, I took in the sights but no sounds of the place. That’s where it hit me that I really was in Palestine. The West Bank. It was eerily quiet and empty with rubble strewn everywhere and closed shops. You can definitely feel the sorrow of what had happened there while passing through. It is in your face.

I wondered what it used to be like when it was peaceful. Ever.

The first stop was Shepherd’s Fields. We entered the completely empty site and wandered around for a bit. Did not see one tourist, local, or even a worker there. Tried to figure out what some of the excavations and areas were, mostly via what was written in the LP Middle East guide. Felt a tinge of sadness to see the many empty benches (I think there were at least three areas), where I assume many tourist groups were given explanations of the place. In any case, the site seemed at peace. Afterwards, we went into the empty gift shop across the street and were met by friendly Palestinian Christians, who served us some delicious mint tea. We all got a few Bethlehemian souvenirs to help the seemingly crumbling local economy there.

ancient Byzantine church ruins at Shepherd’s Fields (hmmm, where is everyone?)

Visited the ruins of Herodion next. Mr. L. gave us a good tour of the site. Herodion is set on top a high hill and is the site where persecuted Jews fled to hide from the Romans a few thousand years back. From the top of one side of the hill, got great views of the West Bank with Bethlehem and Jerusalem in the distance. On the other side of the hill, can see Jordan and the Dead Sea. Before we entered into the hill (much of the ruins are inside as well), Mr. L. pointed out where, at the age of 8, he and his family fled and hid in caves from being attacked by the skirmishes between the Israeli, Jordanian, and Palestinian armies back in 1967. Inside the hill laid a complex maze of caves and tunnels leading down to a cistern. Mr. L. explained that these were the places where the Jews hid from the Romans.

standing from Herodion and next to some ancient cannonballs in the background is a view of Jerusalem

ruins of Herodion

stairs down inside the hill

On the way to Bethlehem, the last site, we actually were invited to have coffee and mint tea with Mr. L and his family. Little did we foresee what a memorable experience this turned out to be. We were warmly welcomed into his house. For the next hour or so, we entered into the world of what it meant to be a Palestinian living today. Most of them want peace and do not want what the few crazy people in the government are going after. A majority of them definitely do not want to be portrayed as bomb-wielding terrorists.

I found it interesting to see that even with the crisis going on in both Israel and the Palestinian territories, Israel still gets some tourists while the Palestinian side, namely the West Bank, gets basically none. Maybe I'm being naive or ignorant here. But then again, maybe the media is quite one-sided.

After tea, we set off for our last site.

Wandered around the Church of Nativity in Bethlehem and pondered our thoughts. This was actually the only site where we saw some locals and a few tourists milling about.

looking outside the entrance of the Church of Nativity in Bethlehem

We gave the taxi driver a good tip in addition to the agreed upon price of the day's tour. But really, that day in the West Bank of Palestine was priceless, and will be a lasting memorable experience for all of us.

graffiti sign on The Wall in the West Bank


So, why did I label this blog entry as ‘What a Turn of Events’? A few hours into the evening after we got into the Old City of Jerusalem from Bethlehem, all over the news were threats of bombs and attacks that would be preempted all over Israel – even near where we were staying, Jaffa Gate. Tension was definitely in the air. This flurry of madness happened because 60 women and children were killed in Lebanon from Israeli missiles that morning. When there are threats of blowing up/attacking Old Jerusalem and anyone that is a Jew, a Christian, or an American (hmmm, I can fit some of this criteria, though they probably couldn’t tell if I’m an American), that’s when you know that you should probably start heading out of there.

Like I noted in a previous entry, many Israelis from the north have been coming down to take refuge within the fortified old city walls. Most of us in the group felt pretty safe when we first landed in Israel till now. Especially since Jon was told by several locals not to walk back to where he was staying (which was only a few blocks away). Even with heightened security around Jaffa Gate, still felt very much on the edge.

Seriously, trying to sleep through the night in order to leave bright and early in the morning for the airport was very, very mentally nerve-racking - especially whenever you heard some sort of noise, crackle, or footstep outside.

What a roller coaster travel experience. You can feel quite safe in the West Bank on the same day when you don’t really feel quite that safe in Old Jerusalem.

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