Palestine (Part 2 of 4)

Trip Start Jan 18, 2008
Trip End Ongoing

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Flag of Palestinian Territory  ,
Wednesday, August 20, 2008

The next day I slept in and then decided to go to Bethlehem.  I first took a bus to Jerusalem and then took another bus to Bethlehem.  On the way I had a conversation with an old man who lives in East Jerusalem, which is where most Arabs live (Muslims and Christians).  He had lived there his entire life and told me he had many friends who were Jews, had many coworkers who were Jews, he lived near Jews, and all of those relationships were positive.  However, he had this to say:
"I like to think of our situation as follows: The Jews represent a people in need of a safe place to stay. All of the land Israel now controls represents the Palestinians' house.  Therefore, the Jews are given a room in our house.  However, as a houseguest, there are boundaries that should not be crossed...but as we all well know, Israel undoubtedly surpassed their welcome by taking over the entire house and in addition hurting and killing scores of original residents in the process."
It is strange that a people who have been persecuted for so many years could turn around so fast and persecute a people who were not even responsible for the Jews' horrifically sad past in Europe.
The bus dropped me off right outside of Bethlehem.  The second I stepped off, a massive wall and barbed wire fence stared me straight in the face.  So much for a nice warm welcome to a city that is one of the most holy and revered cities for Christians.  Instead, I got Israel's huge cement, graffiti ornamented, manmade creation that is blocking off human beings from human beings....who in their right mind could think that this is really something that God wants???  Weird.....and that's a word I used many, many times while in Israel.
On my way through the maze to get to border security I met a man who was a tour guide.  We started talking and he volunteered to show me how to walk to the sites in Bethlehem rather than take a cab.  So I followed him through the streets of Bethlehem to the downtown where he then told me to just follow the main road straight down to the church where Jesus supposedly was born.  This street had little restaurants, tourist shops, convenience stores, and nice panoramic views at times; it was simple, the people were all very helpful and nice, and the streets were not very busy except for the cars and busses that were on their way to the church. 
After walking for about half an hour I made it to the church.  There weren't any signs so I was confused where things were and what things were.  Outside of the church is a nice courtyard and statue.  The church itself is very large and modern, and has a small nativity scene on the side.  There is also a passageway that leads to a cave filled with many pictures and crosses and I don't know what...I had no idea what everything was but eventually found out, but already forgot, so I guess I wasn't very impressed or interested!
Then I found another passageway that led to a huge building adorned with beautiful columns, colorful lights strewn about, huge crosses, and many devoted Catholics.  I had no idea what this was either and still don't really know...I think just a place to worship.  To one side of the alter was a small opening that went downstairs to another little cave.  Here, was a shrine with Catholics all around.  One by one they would lie down, put their head under this thing, and do something.  I realized then, and asked somebody in order to be sure, that this is where Jesus supposedly was born.  Even though I am not a religious person, as you should know by now, I do believe Jesus was one of the wisest and kindest persons to ever walk this earth; therefore, it was moving to think that this is where somebody so great was first born. 
After the church I walked down the street a bit to the Milk Grotto.  This is supposedly the cave where Mary hid with baby Jesus, and as she was breast feeding a drop of her milk fell and turned the entire cave white.  I spent about two minutes in there and then was out since there's not too much to see.
A little bit down the road were shops that had items sculpted out of olive wood, an art Bethlehem is famous for, so I decided to check it out.  In one shop they had the merchandise and in the other they had the woodworkers.  I bought some crosses for gifts and then was on my way back to find a bus to Jerusalem.  This time I walked through the old downtown and not on the main street.  I loved it as it reminded me of other places I'd visited in the Middle East abound with culture. 
When I reached Jerusalem I decided to explore the Old City.  I started out in the Muslim Quarter, which also felt like I was actually in Middle East. The streets were jammed packed with locals and a few tourists, there were shops selling the usual, there were falafel stands, bread stands, and groups of Israeli soldiers here and there to set the ambience...  Towards the end of the hussle and bussle I happened upon a place where a lot of tourists were.  I had no idea what it was as there were no signs but decided it must be something special so I started looking around and taking pictures.  There was this big wooden structure with a shrine on one side that everybody was fixated on so I went up to it, thought it was pretty, and got my picture taken there.  Then I realized there was a line to get to where I was at the time.  So I walked around the structure, joined the line, and finally asked a lady what was in front of me.  In broken English she kindly explained to me, "This is where Jesus' tomb is.  And up the stairs over there is where Jesus was crucified."  So I found out that this place was kind of a big deal. 
As I was waiting in line some sort of small ceremony took place by a few men who prayed and had smoke dealies.  Once it was my turn I was able to go inside the structure and see Jesus' tomb...the Catholics had a whole big ritual they were doing but I didn't know what to do so I just looked at it for awhile and then walked out backwards like everybody else was doing. 
Following that experience, I walked around some more taking pictures and looking at these shrines marking supposedly where Jesus took his final breaths and then headed out.  I was tired from all the traveling and walking and deep religious experiences I was having ;) so I took the bus back to Ramallah to relax a bit and take a shower before I met up with Mohammed.  

That night we went out to dinner, then to Sangria for sheesha and tea, and then Mohammed took me for a car ride.  We visited Arafat's tomb, he showed me the illegal Israeli settlements in the West Bank that are easily seen from Ramallah, and various neighborhoods such as the areas that look like refugee camps as well as the areas that are beautiful and are where most Palestinian Americans keep their homes.  He explained to me as we drove by another section of town that a lot of Palestinians in Ramallah are from Haifa and other areas in Israel.  They came here during the war thinking they would just leave for the week and return home when the fighting died down.  However, Israel would not allow them back in.   
When the war was going on in 1948, Palestinians fled to Syria, Lebanon, Jordan and the West Bank from Israel-the 1948 area as it is known.  There were many that also did not leave their homes, but rather stayed and have now become Arabs with Israeli citizenship (just like my friends that I stayed with in Haifa...comes later in blog).  But, all those that fled during the war were not allowed to come back and that's the reason that Jordan is 80% Palestinians.  A lot of Palestinians living out of Palestine would most likely want to return to their homes to visit and re connect with their roots somehow.  However, most Palestinians that are doing very well in Jordan will probably not come back.  But, Mohammed assures me that all the Palestinians living in Beriut and Lebanon in refugee camps are waiting every day to come back to Palestine.  Also the Palestinians living in Iraq would come back. 
Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza are not allowed to go to Israel or East Jerusalem.  They have to obtain special permission which usually takes a long time to obtain and it would be for a 6 hour period.  To obtain this permit you have to be older in age or a very special case.  So its not common that people have permits to go to Israel or even pray in the Al Aqsa mosque or the Church of the Holy Sculpture.  It's quite amazing that Palestinians are not given freedom to travel or live in their own homeland.  Families are separated, homes have been lost, worst of all people have been killed
In a village called Belien in the West Bank, protesters were going daily to protest the Wall that was being built.  Residents there were forced to be in their houses before curfew as Israeli tanks passed through the streets.  I can't imagine living a life like that. There is no Palestinian sovereignty; Israel has its hand in everything. Palestinian leaders and entrepreneurs such as Mohammed are doing amazing things for Ramallah, but it's hard to progress when the political situation is what it is.  A fair and just solution, excluding walls and tanks, is necessary for progress and peace.    

The next day I woke up at the crack of dawn because I wanted to catch the first bus to Masada.  I started off taking the bus to Jerusalem.  Then I had to try and find the Central Bus Station which was nowhere near the Old City.  So I asked and asked and all I got were Arabs giving me long, confusing directions (because it was long and confusing), taxi cab drivers wanting absurd amounts of money, and Jews who didn't speak English, or at least acted like they didn't speak English. Then an Israeli policeman walked past so I asked him for directions and he volunteered to drive me to the bus stop where I could take a bus to the Central Bus Station.  So I jumped in, got off near the bus stop, took bus number six to the bus station, and then finally got my ticket and was off to Masada. 
From Ramallah to the bus station took around three painful hours.  Except for the policeman, the Israelis I ran into didn't care to lend a helping hand.  And here's something that I haven't been able to figure out yet....most of the Jews I came in contact with on my trip did not, or acted like they did not, speak English.  I would ask them something in English, or ask if they did speak English, and most of the time I got blank, rude stares and a no.  The change in demeanor from the Arab Middle East to Jewish Israel was quite a transition for me.  In the Middle East I always feel welcomed.  People are more than willing to help and will try to help you even if you do not need it.  They will force tea upon you, will want to talk with you, and will always make sure you feel like you are at home.  In Israel the hospitality was completely different.  I guess maybe Israel is just more western so courtesy goes out the door and time and money and the individual come in.  But the entire time I was in Israel I never felt welcomed by the people there.  Examples of this can be found throughout my blog.
The bus ride to Masada was about two hours.  I decided to go to Masada because I wanted to try and reach over to the other side for awhile, as I am obviously pro-Palestinian and have interacted mostly with Muslims and Arabs.  Masada is the last stronghold of the Jews against the Romans; they held out for days but in the end all committed suicide except ten.  This and the Wailing Wall are the two most important sites for Jews to see. 
The best part of this day trip was the bus ride.  When I got on the bus I took a seat by the window and just waited to see who fate would send to sit by me.  A lady probably around 45 years of age with dyed blonde hair and a nice sense of style sat by me in a flurry (everybody was rushing to get on the bus and find a seat because some would inevitably have to stand or wait for the next bus to come).  Another lady then started yelling at me in Hebrew because I didn't save that seat for her, a seat that I had no idea I was even supposed to save.  Blondie told me she didn't care what this other woman said, she was sitting in this seat and not getting up.  I left it to them to figure out. 
Fortunately, Blondie was very talkative.  She was going to the Dead Sea to relax for a few days.  She had moved to Israel three years ago, was originally from Australia, and lived in New York for ten years before moving here for religious reasons.  She said that nowhere has a soul like Israel.  After some questioning I found out that she has not gotten a job yet (still settling in after three years), doesn't have her own place and lives off her family, has been dating around but no husband, loves to travel, is very religious and takes both Friday and Saturday off (I don't know what the difference would be between the weekday and the weekend since she doesn't do anything anyways), and is extremely happy. 
I didn't quite know what to make out of her.  I was happy for her that she found a place where she felt close to God and where she could be spiritual and feel happy.  But at the same time she had no job, was traveling all the time, dating men, and living off of her family, so it's kind of hard not to be happy wherever that would be, Israel or the Bahamas, or anywhere else.  I couldn't figure out if she was lazy, or if she really was so deeply spiritual that she just didn't have time for anything else (except going to the Dead Sea with her girlfriend and to a play in Tel Aviv with her new boyfriend, etc.)
After she told me her story I asked her how she felt about the Palestinian situation. She bluntly told me that the Palestinians have no right to a state and no right to live in Israel.  She said that just as Israel took in the Jews of the Middle East, the Arab states should have taken in the Arabs when Israel was created.  She said that Palestine was never a state, it was always part of Syria, or Jordan, or Egypt, but was never its own state and therefore doesn't deserve one (although they were physically living in that region and called it home, much like the Native Americans living in America call it home.  Just because they didn't have a nation-state because the notion of statehood didn't even exist yet in their society doesn't mean they didn't have a life and a long history in that region). 
She said that some of her family members want to give in and just give all the Palestinians what they want because they are sick of their sons and daughters being forced into inscription and living in constant conflict.  She completely disagrees with them though and thinks that the Palestinians and the Arab states want all of Israel and don't want Israel to even exist (there are some crazy wackos out there who do think this but they are a small minority; on the other side there are crazies like her and other Ultra-Orthodox Jews who do not want Palestine to exist and believe that fighting with arms and fighting with prayer will solve it).  She said that if they gave the Palestinians one thing they'll just want another, and another, and another.  She said this is the situation with Gaza. They gave the Palestinians Gaza, which used to be a pristine area, and then turned it into a wasteland and just wanted more (However Palestinians have never really had a chance to progress and develop because of the political situation and the stresses Israel puts on them, such as disallowing the flow of necessary goods and medical services).  She said that she was extremely scared of Iran and felt that a nuclear attack by Iran on Tel Aviv is imminent (the government of Iran has said some very harsh things so I can understand her point; but the Arabs and Palestinians by the same token are scared of Israel and its friend the US who have enormous advantages that also cannot be taken lightly).  
The whole time she was talking I didn't say much except for continue to ask questions as I wanted to hear what she had to say and knew whatever I said would be futile.  One question I asked was how she felt about Israel's illegal settlements in the West Bank.  These settlements are widely known to be illegal; the UN knows it, the Arabs know it, the US knows it, and even Condoleezza Rice has shook her finger at Israel a few times but has failed to do anything more.  This lady, unfortunately and not surprisingly, didn't know about them so that conversation didn't go very far. 

It was interesting to hear her opinions and get a different perspective.  She is not a typical Israeli I would say because her views are pretty extreme. I know many Israelis at GWU who are much more moderate and kind, but I just happened to sit next to her on the bus.
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