West Bank/Occupied Territories, a set on Flickr.
I was prepared for the heat, but not for what I saw.
I don’t think I can write too much about The West Bank or Occupied Territories. Even if I understood how Israel/Palestine came to this point, I’m just a visitor here. I can only hear people’s stories, read the news, and walk the streets. But to live day in and day out in the midst of conflict is unimaginable. I see people here trying to make a life, a normal life with work, family and hope for a brighter future. But what happens to you when you see your children training in an army for impending war? What happens when you see your community is systematically discriminated against or forced out of jobs and homes? What happens to you when you see walls erected in order to protect or to confine? What happens to you when all your life, all you have known is a battle for land, a battle for the right to exist?
After sundown on Saturday, I set out for the Old City. Though probably not the wisest thing to do, I walked up alone to the top of Mt. Hertzl to catch the first bus into town. It still took over an hour to get to Ecce Homo and I missed my stop. But I made it intact. The next morning I met the other volunteers (M, N, and N) plus an Aussi who was staying in Ecce Homo. After a late start, we made it to the Arab bus station and headed to Bethlehem. From Bethlehem, we transferred to another bus that took us into Hebron. Transferring buses would be simple, you would think, but in between are numerous taxi drivers desperate for passengers. They’re aggressive, perhaps frighteningly so for single female travelers. While waiting for the bus to fill, a woman who was obviously a tourist came on to the bus with several men were directing her. And as she sat down in the seat in front of me, I saw the men around her eying her. I knew exactly how she was feeling. I tapped her shoulder and asked if she was alone and if she wanted to travel with us in Hebron. She looked so relieved and agreed.
I don’t even know where we got off in Hebron, but we got off near the old city. Another couple, we found out, were also traveling and just like that we became a group of eight. A man began to guide us, not sure how or who he talked to, but took us towards the market. He showed us the street where shop keepers were forced out of their stores because they were next to an Israeli settlement. Grates had to be installed overhead to protect the people below from the trash thrown by settlers. We saw a small road that was closed off for the settlement – the first of many blocked streets that we would see that day.
M had a contact with the Christian Peacemaker Team (CPT) and was eager to meet up with them. So our “guide” kindly took us there. CPT is located on what was once a major road into the old city, but it was blocked off 17 years ago. That road served as a life-line to people who had to travel between their villages and their work, but the settlers and the army severed it. On the other side, only Israelis and tourists could travel along the road.
CPT invited us to the roof to give us a view of the city and a talk about Hebron and the work that they do. CPT’s primary task is to walk Palestinian children to and from school. Why? So that the settlers won’t throw rocks at them. CPT’s motto is literally “Getting in the way.” They bring an international presence to not only provide protection but to also increase awareness through non-violent resistance and witness.
Hebron, we were told, is the worst of all the cities in the West Bank in terms of tension and conflict because the signs of occupation are so blatant. For the sake of 400 settlers, perhaps even fewer, there are 1200 soldiers stationed there. For sure, violence has been perpetrated on both sides but the settlers have been granted extraordinary privilege and power, and continue to use decades-old events to justify their aggression. It’s been quiet in recent years; the man who first guided us told me that the Intifadas taught them that the Palestinians are the ones who lose and suffer. They want peace just as much as anyone else, but they also want the ability to live. Unemployment rate is high (approx 33%), travel is restricted, and tourism low.
Speaking of which, we got a lot of attention as a group walking through the city. The people of Hebron were friendly and kind (of course, it’s a different experience traveling with men than on your own). They kept asking where we were from, told us “welcome to Hebron,” and the children greeted us with smiles and shy waves. Beyond just trying to sell us things, I think they wanted to have their story heard and taken back to wherever we’re from.
The only site we saw was the Cave of the Patriarchs (and Matriarchs). Built on the traditional tombs of Abraham, Sarah, Isaac, Rebecca, Jabob and Leah, the Ibrahimi Mosque is divided into a Jewish section and a Muslim section – with some bullet-proof glass in between. Our new friends from the States couldn’t enter into the Jewish section with us because they were Muslim. Strangely, as Christians we could go to both sides (it was, at one time, a church). On the Muslim side, the women had to wear a full head-to-feet covering; I felt a bit like a druid.
Finally, we started our trek back to Jerusalem. We stopped off in Bethlehem to view the Church of the Nativity. While I saw the traditional spot of Jesus’ birth (??), the highlight for me was being in St. Jerome’s office where he translated the bible into the Latin Vulgate. Perhaps, as a theologian, along with many others, I feel like I’m continuing on the work of translation. How do we make sense of the gospel in places like Vancouver, New York, Cape Town, or Hebron? How do we understand God and Truth when there is so much diversity in experiences and perspectives?
I think all of us were trying to grapple with what we saw, by the end we were tired and numb. The next day, I made my way to lectures in the German Colony in Jerusalem – a kind of modern, trendy area of the city. Just a few hours away, 30 km in distance, live people in a kind of a reserve. It made me think of Canada’s treatment of aboriginals, and how I too live in a state of ignorance and bliss.
Well, if you made it this far I commend and thank you. It was a longer post than intended. In the Lonely Planet’s introduction to the West Bank it says, “A visit to this news-headline-hogging place will likely leave you with a host of conflicting emotions and unanswered questions, a profound sense of sorrow and quite possibly a headache.” They are right on.