The final destination of the great (in so many ways) tour of Palestine was the little town of Bethlehem. A town as steeped in history and atmosphere as Jerusalem, we spent an enjoyable afternoon wandering around, checking out the sites and watching the hive of activity at the Church of the Nativity and Manger Square.
The nearby Aida Refugee Camp provided an alternative perspective to the quaint Israeli postcards of the area (I couldn’t send any on this trip as I couldn’t find any Palestinian ones!) The camp suffers the common problem of Israeli soldier harassment (80% of young people in the camp have injuries from live bullets and nearly half the youth have been arrested at some point). Our guide shared many personal stories of the harassment, particularly when the (frequent) curfews are imposed – as little back as 2000 if soldiers caught you out during the curfew they would make you choose which bone in your body to be broken as punishment! Even with this terrorising thought in our heads, I think one of the craziest things I took away from our guide was that he had been to most European countries, but never Jerusalem which is only 7km away, as he has never been allowed in – I just cannot imagine having the basic human freedom of movement being taken away, especially in my home country.
The main problem at this camp however is the lack of water. The situation presents a serious threat in terms of drought, sanitation and hygiene. Two hundred and fifty of the villages in the Jordan Valley don’t have running water. They rely on unreliable and unhygienic tankers (spending up to 40% of their income on it) and take the extra from the shallow aquifer which carries waterborne diseases dangerous to children. Israelis have authority over the water resources and have not approved a single permit for construction of a well in the area since 1967, despite the fact that illegal Israeli settlements nearby have enough water for sprinklers in their gardens. The lack of sewage facilities in some parts has also led to septic hoses contaminating existing water supplies, in fact 69% of the West Bank is not connected to a sewage system and waste from the septic tanks and cess pits is therefore often dumped into surrounding lands as they have no treatment works or tankers to dispose of it properly. Even this however compares badwell to Gaza where 98% of the water from the network is inadequate for drinking and only 60% of Palestinians are connected to the sewage network. Given these conditions, it was heartbreaking to see for ourselves the bullet holes that Israelis had shot into people’s own water tanks on the roofs of their homes in this camp, rendering them useless – we were informed that this was a common process.
The camps had nothing on our penultimate destination however. We had been warned that Hebron, and in particular Shuhada Street, would be the hardest place to see – and the warning was not in vain. The city of Hebron is as a microcosm of the conflict running through the country as a whole, with the situation in the old city being possibly the worst in the West Bank. One area of the city is under Israeli rule, while the other is under Palestinian Authority rule. There are 300,000 Hebronites in the city, with 400 illegal settlements and 4 soldiers for every settler, and 101 checkpoints in the city alone. The restrictions imposed here are extreme – the most absurd being the closing off of the main Shuhada Street to Palestinians, even those living on that very street. One of the lovely and spirited residents who invited us to her home for lunch can no longer access her front door, it was welded shut in the night by soldiers. In order to get to her apartment we had to take a back entrance into her neighbours’ house, which is now openly linked to her own (luckily for her she has good neighbours!) She is one of the luckier ones on the street though, we went onto the roof to check out the long-winded entrances some people have up ladders, over walls, and through their neighbours homes in order to get home – I still have no idea how they get their shopping up those ladders!
Hebron was the only place where we came up close to the soldiers – twice having guns waved in our direction from rooftops and once having a group of soldiers aggressively pushing through the shoppers and tourists in the marketplace, waving their guns – all completely unnecessary. The city has so much potential for tourism, with the fateful Abraham’s Tomb (originally a mosque although half the building has now unbelievably been converted into a synagogue) as well as the plethora of local arts and crafts (I picked up most of my glass and pottery from Hebron, as well as the famous chequered Palestinian scarves, or keffiyeh) but the soldiers continue to intimidate those who visit – only two days before our arrival the same soldiers that had pushed past us in the tourist market place had releases percussion grenades into the crowd, designed to frighten and disorient anyone nearby, and I suspect quite successful in the mission.
The other saddening aspect of Hebron is the slow takeover of illegal settlers who move into any apartment they see empty above the shops on the market streets, they then knock through walls to take over the next apartment and so on down the line. The Palestinians still own the shops below and have had to erect a mesh covering over the street as the settlers often throw things at them from above (as was obvious from the assorted debris caught in the wire).
With such a heavy day at the end of our tour, we decided to finish our trip with a lighter visit to yet another beautiful Palestinian city. As the oldest city in the world and the second most popular tourist attraction in the country after Jerusalem, as well as an area of rich and diverse agriculture and large water resources, Jericho could provide a substantial economic contribution to the country, however Palestinians are sadly refused access to the Dead Sea. After ensuring plenty of memory space on the cameras in order to show those unable to visit, we braved the heat and dry air and descended to the lowest point on Earth. The heat was pretty intense so our wandering was limited to the Sycamore tree that the short man climbed to see Jesus followed by a scenic trip in the cable car up the Mount of Temptation for lunch with a view and a peak inside the Greek Orthodox monastery at the top.
It was a relaxed day to finish on, giving us time to clear our heads and let the previous two weeks’ activities and stories sink in. The trip was fantastic, easily the best I have ever done. I learned and felt so much from those at the heart of the issue – so much so that I now feel a piece of Palestine has lodged in my heart too, and I really hope that I can at least help to spread the word about the actuality of the situation there and share the spirit, warmth and hospitality of the amazing people who refuse to give in to their captors. These blog posts are my humble start…