Rammallah, West Bank – I stood in a crowd of young Arabs at the Qalandia checkpoint between Israel and the West Bank. My bus was carrying several dozen passengers—presumably Arab Israelis and Palestinians—the short distance from Ramallah to Jerusalem. We exited at Qalandia, where we entered a small, metal corridor resembling a cage. At the opposite end, over a sea of hijabs, I could see a turnstile. Every few minutes a red light would flash green and the gate turned just enough for three or four people to scramble through. The rest of us waited, pressed together in the cold, as another bus arrived and the crowd doubled. An hour later I made it through the gate to a security check not unlike what you find in airports. This one was unmanned, and a voice from a crackling speaker instructed me to pass through to retrieve a basket for my belongings and return and put them through the x-ray machine, which I did (twice sounding the alarm). Afterward, I waited at a glass window where an Israeli soldier of about twenty sat texting on her iPhone. I waited, thinking about the people still in the cage: the Qalandia crossing was an inefficient and uncomfortable grind, and many of them did it every day…
Travel is largely about different kinds of crossings: crossing borders, crossing time zones, crossing rivers and mountains and oceans. Travelers are usually crossing things in order to get somewhere, but I enjoy the act of crossing. Peripheries interest me—trying to understand their significance, separating as they do two places that might otherwise be one and the same. Consider a coastal mountain range separating two very different environments. If you summit the pass, exposed suddenly to the coastal weather system, you begin to understand the role the mountain plays in creating two distinct flora. Or, travel fifty miles from Vienna to Bratislava and observe the effect of fifty years of political division. Differences, it seems, sometimes emerge as much from the divider—whether topographical or political—as from the people or places that are divided.
There are a lot of “crossings” in Israel and the West Bank, so this gave me a lot to think about. Partly for this reason, I spent far more time in Israel and the West Bank than I planned to. I also stuck around because the year was coming to an end and I wanted to be in Jerusalem for Hanukah and Bethlehem for Christmas, and I was waiting for a friend who would join me for New Years Eve and the onward trip to Egypt. I spent a total of about five weeks in the Holy Lan, entering and exiting the West Bank several times to visit Ramallah, Bethlehem, Hebron, Nablus, and the shores of the Dead Sea. It was far too little time to understand the place, but enough to become curious.
I wasn’t sure how to feel about traveling in the West Bank. To be clear, I wasn’t concerned about safety. I’d done my homework and knew that it was far from dangerous to visit the cities I’d chosen. Rather, I was concerned about being a tourist for someone else’s misfortune. I typically travel without a guide, and although I felt welcomed and believed that Palestinians probably benefited economically from my tourist-dollars, I worried that a superficial visit—one that didn’t explore the political reasons for life being what it is in the West Bank—would be unworthy of these people’s hospitality. At the same time, photographing someone else’s misfortune (which is pervasive here) seemed dangerously close to a sort of poverty porn. I was unsure about the ethics, but I was sure I had to go; the only thing worse would have been to not go at all, which was equivalent to pretending the whole situation away. So I decided to go, and arranged a guide through a Bethlehem-based nonprofit.
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PHOTO: The 300-mile Separation Wall, built by Israel to divide it from the West Bank, here seen from the Palestinian side near Bethlehem.
My first memorable encounter with the wall occurred while driving from Jerusalem to Bethlehem. Whatever your feelings on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and the purpose of the Israeli Separation Wall—the 300-mile cement structure between Israel and the West Bank—the object itself is a horror to see. It cuts through the bushy hills like the jagged, winding tail of a big, grey dragon. I’d read about it in the news, but I never imagined the way it twists and turns, interrupting hillsides, encircling parcels of land, and rising up overhead like a curling cement wave (portions are constructed with overhangs). I passed through the wall at the Rachel’s Crossing checkpoint, named for the wife of Jacob, and arrived in Bethlehem shortly after.
The bus dropped me roadside and I wandered uphill to the old city. It was early afternoon and the streets were littered with remnants of market produce. The buildings were older and more crowded than those in central Jerusalem. Foot traffic hustled up and down the streets in a holiday buzz (sixty percent of Bethlehem is Christian), and little shops sold both ordinary goods and tourist items. After cresting a hill I arrived at Manger Square, a large modern public space and location of the 19th century Omar Mosque and the Church of the Nativity, birthplace of Jesus. A large Christmas tree stood on one side, and the square was alive with vendors selling nuts, hot tea, and felafel. I made a short tour of the area and then headed off to find my accommodation.
I’d arranged to stay with a Christian family in a suburb below Bethlehem. The family was a nice but quirky bunch, consisting of two sharp sons of about 17 and 23, their kind mother, and a father who shuffled around in leather slippers shouting at the others. The older of the two sons, Mark, showed me to my room to unwind. However, a few minutes later, he returned and sat down on the bed.
“We must talk.” His tone was grave, and he was holding a pair of drumsticks.
“What’s up,” I said, offering a blank smile.
“You must do something,” he began. “We need things. You must help us.” He was preparing a pitch, but he spoke in imperatives. “We don’t have many resources, and we need things. There are not ways to meet our needs.”
I had stopped wondering about the drumsticks. “Please, go on.”
“I am the scout leader,” he continued in earnest. There was a long pause, then he continued again, slightly frustrated as though I wasn’t listening closely enough. “I am the only scout leader.”
“Ok. I’m not sure I understand.” It was uncomfortable.
“You will meet the head of our church.” My mind wandered back to my college years, when I dated a girl who tried—unsuccessfully—to recruit me to her faith by inviting me to church. “You are a Christian,” he continued. It seemed like a question.
“Sort of,” was my miserable, dithering answer. “I went to Catholic school.” He waited for more. “I am a seeker,” I offered, deploying a euphemism for “atheist” that I read in a travel book once. He looked satisfied.
As it turned out, Mark wasn’t trying to convert me. He explained that he was the leader of a newly-formed Cub Scout troupe affiliated with his church (there was also a band, hence the drumsticks). Church membership was weak and they were struggling to launch the scout troop, so they were looking for Christian patrons in the U.S. Mark’s dictates were clear. I would meet the scouts. I would meet the head of the church. He would list their needs. I would return to the U.S. to locate the items, and I would ship said items. I tried to explain that I wasn’t going to the U.S. for another year, but he insisted that I meet the scout troupe and hear their band. I knew I wasn’t pious enough for the task, but I said I’d do it, and I meant it. Most of all I wanted him out of my room.
Later his younger brother came by. John was a nice-looking kid who spoke no English. He took me to his room and sitting me at a computer began playing action sequences from a Twilight film (just the action sequences). Then he cued up pictures of his face Photoshopped onto images of Robert Pattinson cradling Kristen Stewart. We communicated via Google Translate: “That’s pretty rad,” I typed, which likely came out a bit too enthusiastic as, “This very rad.” It had to stop. I excused myself with a deep yawn and went to my room.
A couple days later, after I failed to show up for band practice, Mark found me reading in my room. He was going to visit with family in an apartment downstairs and invited me to join him. On the ground floor a merry group of aunts and uncles and cousins were chatting and snacking on typical Levantine food. They gave me a warm welcome, offering hummus and olives and dolma and peppering me with questions about my background and travels. One of the men—Mark’s uncle—was the church leader who I’d stood up. He was charismatic and gracious and didn’t mention this. At one point the conversation died a little and a woman asked to pose a serious question.
“Do the Americans know there are Christians in Palestine?”
“No,” I said, without hesitation. “No. I think most do not.”
“That is what I thought,” she said. “Only Muslims,” she added, looking at the others with somber vindication.
Shortly afterward I thanked them for their hospitality and returned to my room for the night. I felt awful for not meeting the scout troupe, stupid as it was. I knew a lot Christians had fled the West Bank of the years, and I felt for them as I did those—Muslims and Christians—who stayed. And I regretted genuinely that I was not the advocate they hoped for and deserved, the one that could provide pens and drumsticks and things. I packed my bag for the morning and fell asleep.
PHOTO: Bethlehem at Christmas.
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In the morning I met Marwan, my guide in Bethlehem. He was a well-spoken man of about forty, with a kind smile and confident eyes. Marwan was a professional activist—like myself—who’d participated in many protests against Israeli policies (and been jailed for it). As we drove the hills around Bethlehem he showed me properties bisected by the Separation Wall, houses bulldozed by the Israeli army (presumably because the inhabitants had been prominent activists), and far-nicer Israeli settlements behind walls separating them from nearby Palestinian homes. In the distance he pointed out many more Israeli settlements checkering the hillsides.
The focus of the day was Aida, a well-known Palestinian refugee camp on the edge of Bethlehem. Aida was established by the United Nations in 1950 to house Palestinians from Jerusalem and Hebron, dislocated after the formation of the Israeli state. Initially it consisted of about a thousand individuals in cloth tents, but today Aida houses three-times as many people in a series of close-built buildings that nearly hug the Separation Wall. We entered Aida through a gate with a giant key atop it, representing the house keys which refugees kept with them while fleeing their homes (hoping to eventually return). Inside the wall was painted with colorful graffiti recounting the history of Aida in images—hardships too numerous to count. Protests and intifadas and crackdowns and a school with windows boarded up to protect from gunfire.
But the conflict was not just a thing of the past. During our walk, Marwan introduced me to friends and told me about the faces depicted in the murals. Several of them were men who’d been prisoners. Israel had recently released one thousand Palestinian prisoners in return for an Israeli soldier held captive by Hamas, and some of those released came from Aida. Warwan also told me about Mustafa Tamimi, whose name I already knew. Mustafa was a Palestinian of my age who died in a town near Ramallah the day I arrived in Jerusalem. He was struck in the head by a teargas canister during a protest in Nabi Saleh. That protest, as elsewhere in the West Bank, was a weekly event intended to draw attention to the Separation Wall and Israeli settlements inside the West Bank. Subsequent protests attempted to draw attention to Tamimi’s death, and Marwan invited me to attend one. Having a background in nonviolent protest, I was extremely interested.
PHOTO: The entrance to Aida camp near Bethlehem.
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The event took place several days later, in a tiny village just outside Bethlehem. I drove out in a van with Marwan and half a dozen European 20-somethings. Several were Palestinian sympathizers working in the West Bank, while others were volunteering with an international organization whose purpose was to document protests. We arrived at a small house and sat about for a while chatting as people assembled for a march. When fifteen or so had arrived, Palestinian flags and large photos of Tamimi were distributed and the group began marching up the empty village road. Fifteen minutes later, near the edge of the town, we encountered several military vehicles and a row of green-clad Israeli soldiers with rifles. They stood in a line across the road, separating one stretch of dirt from another. As we approached, I could see that each one of the soldiers was a young man of about eighteen. As the marchers approached, the line retreated a few meters and then stood still again. The marchers approached a second time, and the soldiers stood firm.
A bit of theatre ensued. One of the foreigners, a Frenchman, was a performer and had prepared a skit. Wearing a red clown nose and a suit, he laid a piece of rope at the feet of the soldiers and began tiptoeing along it, taking care not to cross it. He was teasing them. Like a mime, he didn’t speak but pointed to his actions while keeping his attention fixed on the soldiers. The young soldiers remained still as the mime mocked the rope’s invisible authority. Afterward, a little old Palestinian woman showed up to shout angrily at the soldiers. Again, they were silent. Afterward, a man who was a regular coordinator of the march spoke. He announced that the group only wanted to walk peacefully down the road, and he demanded to know why they could not pass. Silence ensued as photographers on both sides snapped photos.
After twenty or thirty minutes of this, the organizer left the road and attempted to walk around the soldiers. They shuffled sideways, routing him in the field. He tried once more and they moved again, this time making contact. He tumbled into the dirt. The organizer got up again and spoke passionately about his desire to walk peacefully down the road—no response. The exchange was painful to watch, because there wasn’t any exchange at all. I wondered how many times the two sides had performed this dance. At the end of the long line of soldiers, I asked one in my most naïve voice why the group couldn’t just pass.
“This is your first time here,” he proposed. I nodded and he looked away. These were the only words I heard from any of the soldiers that day.
Eventually the group turned back. The organizer kept everyone together, cautioning that those who lingered behind could be arrested. To an outsider, the whole thing appeared to mean nothing—just a lot of noise without any result. In fact, when our group finally piled into the van and left, we turned the car around and drove straight out of town on the same road where the protest had occurred. The soldiers were gone, and we were free to leave now without a word. It was baffling.
PHOTO: Children hoist the Palestinian flag and set off on a march outside Bethlehem to draw attention to a Palestinian man killed by an Israeli teargas canister.
PHOTO: At the protest outside Bethlehem, street theatre.
PHOTO: An organizer of the march explains the goal of the march and asks to pass along the road. Not happening.
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During the remainder of my time in the West Bank I traveled beyond Bethlehem. In Hebron, I visited the tomb of Abraham where a fateful 1994 shooting resulted in the death of 29 Palestinians and the division of the holy site into Jewish and Muslim halves. I walked the now-defunct bazaar, above which Israeli settlements have inconceivably been installed (literally, in the upper stories of the buildings that housed the souk). Further south still, I met with the mayor of Dura, visited a nonprofit group where I learned about water scarcity issues in the West Bank, and visited several small sanitation projects. In Nablus I met a 19-year-old Palestinian named Mohammad who showed me the An-Nasir Mosque, took me for a demonstration of bread-making, and treated me to kanafeh (a cheesy pastry for which Nablus is famous). In Ramallah I visited a nonprofit that does education around the Separation Wall, and back in Bethlehem I enjoyed a rainy Christmas Eve before falling asleep in an apartment full of travelers and pilgrims. The interesting experiences were too many to count.
I’m not sure I ever settled on what exactly I hoped to get from my visit to the West Bank, and admittedly it feels a bit silly writing things that have been written so many times before. As with any destination, I wanted to acquire some degree of understanding of the circumstances under which other people live. I wanted to absorb some small quantum of ethos. My purpose was essentially the same here as anywhere, even if the walls and gates surrounding the West Bank made it a very different place entirely. Ultimately I gained a great appreciation for the Palestinians and their capacity for generosity and poise amidst conditions at times unlivable. It was important that I saw the walls and soldiers and checkpoints that divide Israel from the West Bank. But, interestingly, I began to think less about the divider and more about actual people and lives divided by the conflict.