Tourists in a war zone
Trip Start Feb 20, 2002
26Trip End Nov 18, 2002
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"Hello" Brendan and I greeted my new room mate in my 2 bed dorm.
"Hello", The Chubby Norwegian had just arrived, from Israel.
Brendan and I had just spent 2 hours plotting and planning our trip over to Jerusalem the next morning and picked our new guest's brain as much as we could.
"So, you want to go to Israel" he said suspiciously, shifting his glasses back to his eyes.
"Yeah, headed there tomorrow..
"Uh huh... ", He said adjusting himself on the bed opposite me causing his glasses to slide down his nose again.
"Well, good luck." he chuckled
"Well, I just left Jerusalem because of tomorrow, it's a special day tomorrow and there are usually riots, this is why I left." he said emphasizing the "well" as thought about to launch into a speech.
I looked at Brendan. "Shit... just great!" we both laughed at our bad luck in choosing the date to enter the country.
We talked it though some more and measured the risk. It turned out that, even if all hell broke loose, we'd be safe in our Hotel in the Arab quarter, which meant, worse case was to spend some time inside, playing cards and drinking beer. An alternative which didn't seem that bad.
"Screw it, lets go" we both agreed and turned in for the night to conserve our energy for the next day's border crossing.
-- Day 1, "No passport stamp please!"
6am came too quickly and forced me to summon enough strength to pull myself out of bed for the early morning crossing. We'd figured that the earlier the better. Since my Chinese Visa episode in Nepal, I'd learned that it was best to catch the security and border police early in the morning before they'd had any trouble with annoying tourists trying to cross into the country. A fresh border guard was a happy guard.
Once we reached the border, along with 6 other Palestinians in our service taxi, it was time for our first challenge, The Jordanian Passport Stamp. The stamp was sure to give away our entry into Israel, which would ban us from entering other Arab countries. The only way to be allowed into Lebanon, Syria and Iran was to have the stamps slapped onto a peice of paper, not my passport.
As the border police scanned my passport as I repeated "No stamp please!" over and over with a giant please-help-me smile. The guard chuckled, it was obvious that he'd seen his share of backpackers in the same situation.
CLANK! CLANK! The sound of the large metallic stamp hitting the desk made my heart jump. It wasn't until I was given back my passport and flipped through the pages to search for a rogue Jordanian stamp that I calmed down
Now, it was off to the Israeli border. A bus took us across the barren desert DMZ to the border. Pill boxes and machine guns spotted the landscape separating both countries, both sides aimed menacingly at each other.
As we approached the Israeli border, the bus stopped and we were all rushed out. 2 men with an arsenal of weaponry boarded with dogs searching for explosives, sniffing seats, bags and compartments. The show lasted only 15 minutes and we were off, back onto the bus and continuing towards the checkpoint passing red cross vans headed to Israel and tanks parked menacingly.
Once in the Isreali checkpoint, the interrogations began.
"Hello, where you from?" the Israeli women in an official military outfit asked while scanning my passport.
"Why do you come to Israel?"
"Just a tourist"
"You know it's dangerous, why do you come now?"
"Ahh, it's not that bad, I know some other people that came and they said it was ok."
The women left, consulted a cluster of 2 other military women and returned.
"How long do you stay in Israel?"
"I see... and where have you been in the Middle East"
"Uh huh, I see... Ok, one second please", she returned to the distant huddle of security and rushed back with more questions. This went on for 10 minutes. Waltzing back and forth between myself and the commitee of security, analyzing my answers. Once 2 or 3 more questions had been asked, she would then, walk off, leaving me with the impression that the questioning was over, and then return to ask more. After a series of seemingly pointless questions had been fired at me, I was allowed to pass through the security scanning machines.
I passed through the x-ray machine and I was asked to empty my bags onto a table where the women put on white rubber gloves and hand inspected each item, rubbing a tiny white clothe over my belongings.
"One second please." She ran off with the swab to run it through a chemical detection machine.
While waiting for the results of the tests, a plainly dressed Isreali man who seemed to be passing through the checkpoint with us turned to face us, "Hey nice shirt."
"We're did you get it?"
"Ahh yeah, nice place, where did you go in India?"
Oddly, the man wasn't being interrogated by the police as I was and seemed strangely out of place
"Ohh you know, the north, south, kind of all ov..."
The security interrogator ran back through the check point to interrupt me.
"Excuse me, you have been to Malaysia?"
"Yeah, why?" At first not realizing that my entry into the Muslim country had triggered some concerns.
"What did you see?"
I tried to chose my words carefully but decided honesty was the best plan.
"Ummm, well its a Muslim country so mosques and stuff."
"Uh huh... one second" the lady ran off to consult the others.
I returned to the Israeli man I had been talking to
"Ummm... right, so you know all over India, you been?"
We talked for a while about my plans for Israel and length of my stay which all seemed very casual. He told us about some suicide bombs which had gone off the night before and chatted about general security in the country.
"Ok, you can go." The woman had finally finished all the required questions and scanning and let me through to the immigration desk. The man followed.
"Hello, no stamp please."
The women behind the glass looked up, smiled and asked "Why?"
"Because I am going to Syria and they won't exactly like that."
"Why are you going to Syria?"
"Just a tourist"
She laughed and nudged the woman next to her in the cubicle
"Hehe,... ok well, we're not responsible for you when you are in Syria you know."
This comment seemed funny to me but I held in a laugh bubbling inside. It seemed strange that Israel was concerned about me entering Syria, if anything I was more concerned about Israel than Syria!
After repeated requests for no stamp which, very obviously got on her nerves, I was given my passport, sans-stamp and moved on to the exit. Step 2 cleared... almost there...
"Ok, you can go now. Enjoy Israel... and" she smiled along with her friend before continuing, "Don't travel by bus"
"Thanks, I wasn't planning on it."
Brendan had already made it out and was waiting on a bench.
"Hey Brendan, how did it go?"
"Good... no problems. Hey do you see that guy you were talking to, he's right there in front of us. I'll bet you he's undercover."
"Nooo... really?" I had no clue until Brendan pointed out that he had a radio. Once he'd seen us glaring at his now visible walky-talky, he knew his cover was blown and casually grabbed his bags and re-entered the Immigration desk
All in all we'd had our passports checked 9 times throughout the entire crossing but we'd made it. We were on our way to Jerusalem!
To save some cash, we took a share taxi with 6 other old and very friendly Palestinian women to the town.
When we arrived at the Faisal hotel, a hotel recommended to us but teaming with Anti-Israeli International Solidarity Movement (ISM) members, we were greeted by a smiling Palestinian man.
"You with ISM?"
"No... that ok?"
"Yeah of course, just not many people here that are just tourists, let me show you to your room"
We checked into the 12 bed dorm and quickly left the hotel which was buzzing with excited, young, ISM activists.
To get used to the city, we slowly wandered the busy market ( Souq ), visited the church where Jesus died and walked the winding streets of Old Jerusalem. At first, the massive amounts of exposed M16's and security was a little uncomfortable but we quickly became adjusted. Plain dressed men with rifle's strapped to their backs and camouflaged snipers on roof tops eventually became a reassuring sight.
Not wanting to over exhaust ourselves, we ended the day by visiting the wailing wall and called it a night.
-- "Tourists in a war zone"
When I awoke early on my second day in Jerusalem at the Faisal hostel, the young ISM members sharing my 12 bed dorm were buzzing around, talking loudly on their cell phone and packing their bags for home. Sleep was near impossible. The Israeli loud speakers outside, which blue-camouflage clad army men brandished, squawked with Hebrew blasts. The noise was so loud that it seemed that my ear plugs weren't working, but as I unplugged one from my paining ear, the noise level raised to an unbearable level.
"I'm thinking of changing to the Tabasco Hotel" my Australian travel mate grunted as I rubbed the sleep from my gritty eyes and sipped a watery cup of instant coffee
"You seen the washrooms?" he continued
"MMmm? Uhh yeah... " I coughed a post sleep cackle and looked around, "MMmmm, yeah, pretty grimy... aight, let's move."
In a haze of sleepy blurred vision, I packed my tiny daypack that I'd taken into Israel and we transplanted ourselves into the new, much cleaner, yet empty hotel in the old city.
I had thought that the hotel, in the center of the busiest part of town, the Old City, would have been loud and busy but to the contrary. The fact that it had only 3 other tourists, and one reporter, in the 20 bed dorm made me wonder how many guests would actually have been in the Faisal hotel if the ISM hadn't chosen it as it's base. It had seemed that 90% of the young guests were all eager anti-Israeli protesters. Not being part of the movement, it became annoying to constantly hear of their ventures out into the occupied territories to stop tanks and graffiti road blocks. Happy to disassociate myself from them, moving was a good call.
Once settled in our new hotel in the Arab quarter of Jerusalem, we trudged back out into the tiny, narrow streets of the old city's souq ( a traditional Arab market with tiny, busy, cobblestone streets ), to catch the rest of the main sights. Before the sun was blazing over head, we climbed a church tower to glimpse at the dome of the rock which we had been denied entry. The dome had been closed to all but Muslims for months, to avoid conflicts which seemed to break out in the highly disputed sight
Over lunch we made it out to the Israeli museum, a vast building which housed large amounts of artifacts but most importantly, the dead sea scrolls. The scrolls, found just before the Arab-Israeli war ignited, was living proof to a previously unknown Jewish monastic people in the West Bank. The scrolls dated back 2000+ years and proved to be one of the largest Jewish finds, ever. The deteriorating scrolls, which had since been removed from the tiny caves where they had been unearth, were displayed beneath secured glass displays. The main one, in a bizarre circular structure which, should it be attacked, descends into a giant safe in the basement.
"Hello, where you from?" the Jewish taxi driver who was saving us from the intense afternoon heat and taking us back to the old city asked.
"Canada, and Australia" I said pointing to the back seat where Brendan was sitting.
"What are you doing here?"
"Us? Just tourists."
"Just tourists? really?" he said in disbelief
"Really, you're not with any organization or anything?" He looked away from the road ahead and quickly examined us
He was right, there weren't many foreigners who weren't ISM, photographers or journalists sticking around.
"When was the last bus attack? I mean there was the bus attack yesterday and..."
"Why? Why do you ask?"
"Well I was thinking of taking a tour to the west bank. You think its safe?" I prompted the friendly Jewish driver.
"I mean, you know, with the bus bombs and all."
"Ohh, heh... it doesn't work that way friend. You can't judge the next attacks by the last. There could be one each day. Then none for 3 months then something completely new... but if you're worried about bus attacks, don't worry. They only target public busses, a tourist bus will be fine." He said, looking at me.
Feeling comforted, I decided to book my self on the bus for 2 days later, a reservation I would later decide best to cancel.
That afternoon, back in the old city, we marched over to the Lion's gate for the Christian procession. Jesus, before crucifixion, walked down the streets of the old city, cross strewn on his back and slowly made his way to the sight of his crucifixion
The march began at the church and slowly marched, spear headed by Israeli soldiers to quell any possible attacks or riots. The assembly stopped at the 12 stations of the cross along the way. Places where Jesus fell, where he wiped his face, where he fell again, and so on, to finally finish the march at the sight of his burial. Expecting a full march with cross and all, I was slightly disappointed to notice the cross absent but intrigued by the faithfulness of the followers. This was truly holy ground.
To finish the afternoon and to make good use of the cool afternoon light, we walked back through the domed souq to the western wailing wall to witness the Jewish followers bow repetitively in front of the wall, dressed in long black robes and dark wide rimmed hats.
-- Logistics in a shattered tourism economy
After intensive sight seeing, we'd seen almost all of the sights in Jerusalem and decided to take it easy and to recover . I'd been trying to get to Masada and the dead sea, without having to take a bus there ( for obvious reasons ), and decided to find a tour agency that could get me there the next day. Unfortunately, since the Intifada was in full swing, tourists were almost completely non-existent in Israel. No tourists also meant, no tours.
The Tabasco hotel's lobby served as a great social area with it's plush velvet chairs
"Hey, are you guys going to Masada?" I asked Morgan, the American, sitting next to me.
"yeah, I think so, we're trying to get a group together, why you wanna come?"
What luck, the group of American and British travelers were on their way to the West Bank for a tour as well and were in the same predicament as I was. We gathered all our funds, worked out the logistics and managed to find a driver who had a van and was willing to drive us out for the day. Mission accomplished, I could relax, not worrying about wasting time in Jerusalem trying to find a tour.
Brendan, my Australian friend, was also leaving the next morning and I was glad to team up with another pack of eager, adventurous travelers to ease the tension of traveling in the west bank, the most disputed and troubled region in Israel.
-- "Day trip to the West Bank"
Awaking early in the morning, we assembled the troops and meet our Arab driver for the journey to the east. The drive through the volatile Palestinian territories was smooth, passing checkpoint after checkpoint through the region to finally arrive at the mountain castle of Masada. On the way we passed names of cities which I'd seen countless times on CNN.
Ramalla, the town where Yasser Arafat, the leader of the PLO, had been held under house arrest... Jericho, the only fully Palestinian and unoccupied city in Israel... the close proximity to these potential hot-spots sent a chill down my spine yet was diluted by the accompaniment of my fellow travelers.
Masada was perhaps the most cherished Jewish sight in all of the country. A 3 year siege by the Romans over the perfectly defended castle filled with Jews, thousands of years ago ended in a dramatic scene. As the Romans finally completed an enormous dirt ramp to hoist their arsenal, the Jews new their days were numbered. The night before the Romans finally breached the walls, the jews committed mass suicide leaving only a few survivors to tell the story. To this day, a popular patriotic saying was "The Masada will not fall again".
As with the rest of Israel, the Masada was virtually empty. The fact that is was only 10 km from the west bank did nothing to help the influx of wary tourists.
The climb to the top in the 40 degree heat was draining and left us dripping with sweat eager to head back down to the air conditioned visitor's center.
"BOOM" A loud explosion filled the air as we all turned to the distant mountains.
"Did you hear that?" the Paul, the Brit asked,
"Yeah what was that? An explosion?"
"Maybe, could be bomb tests or something..."
Our gazes locked on the moutains and were broken by passing fighter jets which made me wonder what the source of the eerie explosion was
The headline flashed on my computer screen when I reached the hostel later that day.
"Israel blames Palestinians for train bomb. One injured in attack south of Tel Aviv"
Thinking back to the large boom I had thought that pehaps the attack had reverberated all the way to the West Bank. We were too far away for the loud bang to have been the attack, but the timing was disconcerning all the same. The illusion of safety vanished and reaffirmed a trip I had been planning to Eilat, in South Israel for a few days later. A town far from any troubled regions.
Before fainting of heat stroke, we headed back into the west bank to the dead sea. The small sea side restaurant with shower faculties, useful to wash away the slimy feeling of the dead sea, was barren. Only us 5 tourists to run out into the water, all antsy to have the classic dead sea photo taken.
The dead sea, the lowest point on the earth, 410 meters under sea level, had a unique mixture of minerals making it actually 30% solid. The result, is an odd feeling not of swimming but of floating. To try to submerge yourself was virtually impossible, like trying to sink an inflated basket ball in a pool. We floated around, having our picture taken while floating and reading a
book, the classic shot, when an old Jewish women approached us
"Are you going back to Jerusalem?"
"Umm, yeah but we are going to Jericho first."
She froze and looked at us like aliens
"Jericho? Why? Have you been before?"
"Do you know any other Christians who have gone?" She asked assuming we were western Christians.
"Then why are you going?"
"Just to look around"
"You know, they don't care who you are there, they wont ask... they'll just shoot"
Admittedly, the Jericho visit planned for 3 hours later was now being rethought and none of us in the van made any grievances when the driver passed straight by the "Next Left Jericho" sign forgetting our extended tour into the west bank
Once we had finished our skin smoothing bath, we lathered up with dark mud-like potash and baked in the sun. We finally washed off and headed back to Jerusalem.
On the ride back the driver pointed out sights of previous attacks including a bus stop which had been bombed 4 times. I was glad to be in a taxi.
-- Into the occupied territories, into Bethlehem
"You guys want to try to go to Bethlehem tomorrow?" Paul asked the group tickling my adventurous nature.
"Hmmm... well, what's there to see?"
"You don't know?" he asks looking puzzled
"It's the church of Nativity! Aren't you Christian?"
"These Canadians, there all Atheists" Miss Louisiana said in a teasing southern drawl
"Don't worry mate, well pray for you... you'll be converted" the brit says continuing the joke. I laughed and decided to join them for the jaunt into the Palestinian town of Bethlehem.
Early in the morning we gathered the group for the trek into the Israeli controlled town of Holy Bethlehem. I wasn't sure what to expect, or even how dangerous the city could be. Since the Intifada ( the Palestinian revolt which started almost 2 years before ), the Israelis had taken over several towns in an attempt to control the flow of constant and often lethal attacks on Israelis. Bethlehem was one of those towns. Surrounded by checkpoints, tanks and streams of guards, often the source of miles of CNN and BBC news footage.
"Alright mate, how much to Bethlehem?" asked Paul, the ex-military brit, who'd taken command of the journey's logistics.
"35 Sheckles" the Arab driver offered.
"30" a blunt reply.
"Ok, ok... just get in quick" the driver motioned us into the van, antsy to take off and unblock the increasingly large number of cars backed up behind him slapping their horns
"Ok, when we get there, just tell em we're tourists going to the church. We'll most likely not get in but we'll try right?"
"Sounds good." I answered checking for my passport.
I turned to the Palestinian driver "Hey, can you wait for us at the checkpoint, just incase we don't get in, you could take us back"
"Sorry I cannot, you know it's dangerous there. you never know what happen"
"Dangerous? You mean for you right?" I said pointing at him, thinking that perhaps it was just dangerous for Arabs to attempt the border.
"No, for me, for you... not safe"... I hated hearing this, it's dangerous everywhere in the world, but locals will always tell you it's not dangerous. Statistically, you are usually ok. When a local tells you its not safe, there's reason to worry. I was still slightly disappointed that I hadn't pressed on into Jaffna when we attempted to enter the rebel controlled area of Sri Lanka months before and wasn't going to turn back now. We pushed on.
As we rolled up to the checkpoint I could see the silhouette of a monstrous armored plow the height of a fire truck parked next to a tank, and surrounded by guards
Seeing as we were in a big white van with an Arab diver which could have made the Israeli's nervous and cause a young trigger happy guard to opened fire on us, the driver slowly crept the van up towards the border stopping 300 meters away, "You get out here."
The 500 meter stretch of road leading to the checkpoint was barren. A demilitarized zone (DMZ) which would cause tanks to take action should anything suspicious approach too quickly. The tiny town of Bethlehem stood just beyond the checkpoint and we scanned over the barricades for the church. Only tattered buildings and a speckle of trees could be seen.
Paul lead the march "Alright guys, here we go."
As we approached the first bunker, a kaki camouflage clad soldier yielding an m16 stepped out of his sand bag laden cabin and stopped us.
"Hey, we are trying to get to the church of nativity, can we get in?"
The surprising friendly soldier gave us a quick once over and pointed us to a second checkpoint.
"Go there, they'll let you know if you can get in, but they may not speak English, so just come back to get me if they don't"
This was encouraging, first stop passed, on to the second more heavily fortified post where 2 soldiers stood
When we arrived within ear shot of the guard, Paul spoke up as if waving a truce flag to indicate we were friendly. "Hey, how are ya... we'd need to get to the church of nativity. We're Christians."
"Why?" the guard cracked a sly smile.
"Because we want to see the church"
"Why?" The typical official Israeli question to just about any interrogation question which was meant to keep you talking, hoping you'd slip up and fumble your answers. I'd seen the same type of questioning when arriving at the Israeli border from Jordan a week before
I jumped into the questioning "Because we're Christians and want to see the holy sight"
"I am Christian too, why do you want to go?" the guard continued with the "why" questioning.
Having already answered the question, I searched for more reasons, "...because .... we're tourists"
We handed over our French, English, American and Canadian passports as proof of our international citizenship which the guard snatched up. The guard looked through the British one and whispered into his radio which was clipped to his shoulder.
The radio buzzed and hummed with static "HISS ... visa ... HISS", "HISS... passport ... HISS" the conversation was difficult to make out but it seemed as if we might actually get in. After a slight pause, a string of Hebrew rang through on the radio then the guard turned to us.
"What do you mean closed?" I asked
"Closed... maybe tomorrow"
"Closed why? Why can't we just go and look at the church" It was my turn for the "why" questioning
"Security reasons... closed... try tomorrow"
It was clear that we weren't getting anywhere.
"Alright, we'll come back tomorrow"
We gathered our passports and marched back out of the compound back down the empty street where our driver had decided to wait for us.
"Damn, well at least we tried. Why guys want to try again tomorrow?"
"Yeah sure, why not..."
Our first attempt to play tourist inside the occupied territories had failed but we would try again the next day.
After Bethlehem, Miss Louisiana and Paul were heading off to a hand full of sites which I had previous not known of
Even for the unreligious, the history was enough to speckle my arm with goose bumps. Especially when the nun who guided us into the church sang a Christian prayer in Jesus' original language, as he would have, Aramaic.
In the process of the pilgrimage, I picked up a bible which I thought would be a good read while in the holy land.
Once done, our legs were cramped and sore from the climbing and marching we'd done over the passed days.
"Well, I have to admit, I am glad that the next few days won't be spent sight seeing" I said to the group.
We had planned to run down to Eilat, a beach town in the south of Israel to celebrate Tuguy's, a young French boy on a school assignment in Isreal, birthday then run up to Tel Aviv for more good times in Israel's main hedonist beach and party capital.
That would end my stay in Israel when I would head back to Jerusalem before going to pickup my bags, which were hopefully still in a hotel storage room in Jordan before applying for my Iranian Visa
-- Return to Bethlehem..
9am flashed on my Timex strapped to the bed post next to me. It was time to gather the troops for our second attempt to enter, passed the Israeli post, into occupied Bethlehem.
At the Damascus gate, we jumped into a Cheroot ( a share taxi ) full of Palestinians. We still hadn't heard what had happened only hours before in the Gaza strip.
"So Miss Louisiana" I said with a mock southern US accent. " Why is Bethlehem dangerous anyways?"
"You haven't heard? There was a 30 day siege there a few months back. The Palestinians took hostages and kept everyone inside for a month!" she was surprised that I hadn't heard.
"Damn, maybe this isn't as safe as I thought it was."
"Haven't you been following the news?"
"No, I've been traveling..
"Right... well yeah, 8 people died. Tragic"
We rolled up to the checkpoint where we'd been turned back a day before and quickly asked the first soldier in the sand bag bunker for permission to enter.
"Shalom, we're here to see the Church of Nativity"
"MMmmm.. ok, go by the path behind the bunkers"
What? "ok"? No... it couldn't be that easy... we walked behind the bunker to follow a path to a long tunnel leading to a glass enclosed checkpoint where 6 Israeli troops screen a long line of Palestinians trying to enter the city. On the right of us, 2 beige tanks stood, with their canon's cocked up towards the queue. Soldiers perched on either side, in tall turrets scanned the line.
When we finally reached our turn at the checkpoint the guard examined our passports and rushed us in, passed the security, pointing us to the city. It was still surreal, we had made it in. Why had it been so difficult the day before? The reason seemed to elude us.
"You need taxi?" a Palestinian waiting for locals needing a lift into Bethlehem offered. A taxi seemed a safer option than walking into the city, after a mandatory haggling session, we accepted the ride and took off at a quick pace in to the city
I tapped the driver on the shoulder and asked a question to which an answered didn't seem obvious "Hey, we tried to get in yesterday but we got turned back, any idea why they let us in today?"
"Yes, curfew, you know. We cannot go out of our houses, nor can anyone enter the city during curfew."
"Really? When's the curfew?"
"Only open on Tuesday, today between 11am and 1pm."
It was 11:30am. By complete chance, we'd reached Bethlehem during the only 3 hours during the week that we could actually enter.
"So the curfew starts in one and a half hours. So what happens then?" I asked concerned that we wouldn't make it out before the curfew was on.
"Then the Israelis will come in. You will see the tanks on streets. No one goes outside."
"... and if you do go outside?"
"Ahh then, the tanks come in and the tears gas is shot at us."
"We go to our houses, with our children. Like prisoners. Very bad situation."
As we drove down the street to the church, we could see people everywhere rushing in and out of corner stores, buying food for the curfew hours when they wouldn't be able to exit their homes.
The taxi driver continued, "Before, 2 years, 6000 visitors a day, now, only 5-6 today... most days, with curfew, no one inside. Only 5-6 a week if lucky. Very dangerous for you here."
"Now big trouble in Israeli, you know last night, Israeli army kill 16 people, some children, in Gaza, with f16 missile. Destroy many houses. You be careful, I tell you secret, don't take "egged" bus' in next days. There will be explosions. I not saying to scare but I hear things. Please, listen to me, do not take bus. If someone goes in bus, with bomb, you will die."
Wise advice that I planned to take
As we approached the ultra-holy church, we passed houses which the gigantic house-smashing tractor had laid to fresh rumble leaving the impression of being in a war zone. Which we were.
"You buy!" "Just looking!" the vicious touts shouted as we rolled up to the church, they hadn't seen many tourists in ages and were jumping all over the car, leaning into the windows trying to sell us souvenirs of the church to feed their children.
When Miss Louisiana stepped out of the car, they targeted her and attacked with intensely aggressive salesmanship."You buy!" You buy!"
"No! Go away!" She tried to fend them off.
"Where you from?"
"I kill myself for you"
"no don't that... that's my husband." She said as she walked closer and closer to the church and pointed to Paul.
The man looked over and shouted "I kill him!"
Sensing things getting a little sticky, we all rushed into the sanctuary of the church. Inside, a few local Christians were busily running around trying to finish prayers and light enough candles before the curfew was in effect. The church was the birth place of Jesus, one of the most holy sites in all of Christianity. It was hard to imagine 6000 pilgrims and tourists inside the church as we walked through the empty rooms. Adrenaline still pumping and eager to leave the town we rushed up to the bell tower where Israeli snipers had shot and killed during the siege. The view of Bethlehem below was sprawling with beige mounds of rumble and rolling hills on either side.
With only 10 minutes before our driver would leave, we ran back out into the street, running towards the car to avoid the touts. The touts surrounded the car and yelled before they poked their bodies into the car to prod us with trinkets and postcards. "You buy! You buy! Some money... please... you not want to help us? Please!" It was difficult to listen to... knowing how difficult the situation must have been but feeling unsafe, we shouted to the driver to pull away
Driving at breakneck speeds he dropped us at the fortified checkpoint and drove off. The checkpoint had a long line of exiting Palestinians. We took our place in queue and waited. As we inched forward, the tanks, guns and stares from inquisitive commando's which seemed to say "Is that a tourist? What the hell are they doing here?" floated by.
Paul was leaning back on the railing, "Hey you know, we're probably some of the first tourists in here in 2 years. We're pretty luck mate."
"Yeah... we're pretty lucky" we agreed.
The checkpoint was painless and quick, leaving us passed the razor wire fence on the main stretch of road leading to central Jerusalem.
We unfortunately didn't have a taxi waiting on the other side and walked towards the town hoping to find a ride. Half way down the road, we saw a big white van parked on the side of the road. "Hey is that a cheroot?" We approached. The van was empty. "Shit it's empty" That's not good, a big white van next to the border, empty... common guys, lets walk fast" Concerned at the suspicious potential bomb on wheels we quick stepped to the main road where we hitch hiked and were finally picked up by a nice Palestinian trucker happy to take us home, to Damascus gate
I shuffled through coins trying to find some money for the driver. "No no... please no money... no money".
We rushed back through the always-too-busy souq ( Arab Market ) to the Tabasco hotel. We were happy to have gone but happy to be back.
-- Headline: Israel kills Hamas leader
The Hamas, one of the main Arab terrorist groups in Israel had been hit, hard.
Headline: Israel kills Hamas leader
Sheikh Salah Shahada was among at least 15 people killed, including eight children, in the missile attack. Now, Hamas warns, there will be retaliation.
Not only will Hamas take revenge for the martyrs, all the Palestinian
people will unite to revenge for the blood of the martyrs," Hamas official
Ismail Haniyeh said.
I sighed a heavy breath over my terminal at the hotel
"What's wrong?" Paul asked popping his head over the tiny wall separating us. I read him the BBC WORLD article.
"You know the attack, the taxi driver told us about... it wasn't just any old attack, they killed one of the leaders of the Hamas"
"You're kidding... shit... " we paused and tried to think of the implications of what we had just read. "Arrr, might not be a good time to be in the country now eh?"
We had plans to go to Tel Aviv that night. It was time to think the plan through carefully. It was certain there would be large scale terrorist attacks in the Tel Aviv, the capital, within the next 48 hours.
"... In 1996, Yahya Ayyash, another top Hamas military leader known as "The
Engineer," was killed in Gaza by a booby-trapped mobile telephone in an
attack widely attributed to Israel's Shin Bet security service.
Ayyash's death unleashed four retaliatory suicide bombings by Hamas that
killed dozens of Israelis."
It was the biggest hit on the Hamas group in 6 years
"So... what do you think?" Paul asked as we all sat back in the hostel lobby in pin-drop silence staring out absently, considering a possible change of plans.
"Well, there are definitely going to be attacks today or tomorrow in retaliation... no doubt" I added as I slumped back into the plump, cushy red velvet chair I'd grown to love.
"Definitely" the group agreed.
"... and their going to target discos and busses... most likely in Tel Aviv" I added.
Coincidentally, we were headed to Tel Aviv ( Strike one ), to celebrate Tuggy's birthday, in a disco ( Strike 2 ) and concidering getting there by bus ( Strike 3 ... out! ) ... the combination and potential of being caught up in a lethal suicide bombing was high, very high
Morgan, the American, sat up and rubbed his bald head, "Well I always say ... if you look for a girlfriend, you'll never find one... so if we go out looking to get blown up, we wont be, it's that simple. I say let's go." he smiled and giggled. I looked over at him, paused, waiting for more, then chuckled.
My philosophy was slightly different. "Listen, if we go to Tel Aviv and something happens well be thinking 'We knew there'd be trouble and we went anyways, man that was stupid', hopefully not while we're laying in our hospital beds."
I had a better idea, "Well, listen to this, we're safe in the old city, here in Jerusalem, they'd never bomb the Arab quarter, we all know that." I sat up and adjusted my sun glasses which had a tendency to slip off my new bandana that was hiding my horribly long and greasy hair.
"... and I know a good place near by where we can have some drinks, smoke some sheisha and eat good food inside safety of the walls of the old city..
Slight nods of agreeance slowly started to bob. Deep down, I thought that perhaps everyone wanted to avoid going to Tel Aviv and risk dismemberment but having planned the excursion for days, it was a hard pill to swallow.
"Man, talk about bad timing... Alright, let's just stay here..." Paul agreed.
Another day in Jerusalem... it was safe, known well to us having been here over a week. Tel Aviv was stricken from my travel plans. With the mounting stress, I slowly started debating leaving Israel early. Things were getting nasty and my risk tolerance was reaching it's limit. Bombs were 100% certain to go off, no "ifs" remained... it was a known certainty. The trick was to not be at the wrong place at the wrong time. Staying in Jerusalem for a few more days would be my best bet.
The Hostel Manager sat next to us in the long colonial red couch. "Hey Mohamed, what do you think? You think they'll be trouble soon" I asked, already knowing the answer but eager to get a Palestinian's point of view.
He adjusted his legs, emotionless, and looked off at the distant poster, a tourism board from Palestine, when it was still called that, "MMmmm... The Israeli's will pay for this... you will see, they will pay" he said nodding slowly, expression locked, lips pursed, neither smiling, nor frowning. His eyes gleamed like someone's who knows the answer to a question with utmost certainty.
-- "Bethlehem? Are you crazy?"
Sam, the Palestinian driver who'd taken us to Masada and the dead sea 2 days before, sat still, jaw hanging to his knees in disbelief. "You went to Bethlehem?", he paused and looked away in thought, "You went to Bethlehem?", " ... and you got in? Are you crazy?" Sam slapped his hands on his cheeks as if he'd seen a ghost.
We had bumped into Sam in the winding streets of the old city and he'd joined us for drinks and dinner as we celebrated Tuguy's birthday, in the safety Jerusalem, rather than the planned Tel Aviv visit.
"Yeah, we had no idea about the attack, we headed in at 11am and just walked in totting cameras like any old stupid tourists"
"You didn't know about the attack in Gaza when you went?" Sam was in full shock. ".. and you just walked in?"
"No, how could we have? We only found out when we got there..."
"Well... You are very lucky, very..."
"Why what could have happened?"
Sam took a glug of his Maccabee and recomposed "You never know, a firecracker goes off, and you'd be trapped in a war zone."
We all realized how lucky we'd been with our successful visit of occupied Bethlehem and changed the topic to something less heavy.
-- Back to Jordan, early
At the bus station, the Isreali security had been opening and closing the red metal case which contained a fire extinguisher mounted on the wall next to where I had been sitting for hours. Every 15 minutes, like clock work she would walk by, check her watch, and robotically open the cover, check the same 3 places in the case for any new unmarked, explosive-looking packages. The bus to Jordan was late. As I sat there, waiting for my ride back to Jordan, I already regretted leaving Isreal. There was something undescribable about the place. A certain buzz in the air. Something that was at the same time worrying and exciting. The calmness of Jerusalem made it easy to forget that at any moment an explosion could come ripping through the cafe you'd been eating at or crash through a passing bus.
Having an ambitious route set through the middle east, I couldn't stay any longer in Isreal without cutting out time in other countries. My cash flow had taken a serious hit in Isreal aswell having spent 8 times my daily budget in other countries, mostly due to an excess of late nights in the locals pubs, clubs and cafe's. Drinking, smoking apple tobacco from giant water pipes and dancing the nights away, but also because of the high prices in the western-style Jerusalem New City.
Despite my regrets of leaving, I consoled myself with the promise to return one day.
The bus rode slowly back through 6 checkpoints, through the DMZ and passed bunkers and armed men which, by now, did little to shock me.
As the landscape slowly changed to bustling arabic squares and jebels ( small hills ), I prepared the list of logistics I needed to get done as quickly as possible, I was back in Jordan.
-- Headlines from Isreal
One day after I arrived back in Jordan, I was keen to find out if the counter attacks by the Hamas in retaliation for the killing of one of their leaders had begun. Having left behind my new friends, I hoped that things were still calm.
"Israeli Forces Send Tanks Into Gaza City"
"...Palestinian gunmen on Thursday shot dead a rabbi from a Jewish settlement in the West Bank in the first response by militants to the air raid ..."
"...Sheik Ahmed Yassin, said Wednesday that there would be '100 new Salah Shehadehs' and 'new operations which will bring about the death of hundreds'
The counter attacks had already begun, the hasty exit from Isreal was perhaps a wise move, I thought as I hoped that my friends planned their own exit soon.