It was difficult not to hear things about the West Bank, to maintain an open-mindedness. Written about as full of danger, with anger and sadness and violence around every corner, we thought quite hard before deciding to visit the contested territories of Palestine. I understood Callum’s reluctance. We had had a beautiful, endlessly happy time wandering the streets of Jerusalem, the ancient walls of Acre, and the beaches at Mikhmoret… why would we want to jeopardise that?
In the end though, we decided we had to go. It was too important an area to stay away from, with such a history and such a present. We took all the precautions we were told to, hiding away cameras and taking out SD cards of photographs of Israel. We made sure to have nothing on us that suggested that we were anything other than two young Christians on a pilgrimage to Bethlehem.
The approach to the Qalandia Checkpoint itself was eerie, with huge, intimidating signs, banning these people from going there, and those people from coming here, with barbed wire and armed guards. The streets in the settlements around Bethlehem were still pockmarked with bullet holes, and you got the sense that thought things at the moment felt calm, tension was rippling underneath it all. We knew there had been fighting (“terrorist attacks”) just days previously, at the Beit Shomron settlement, and that there were nets still stretched across the divided streets of Ramallah so that the molotov cocktails thrown would be caught up there rather than falling indiscriminately on the crowds making their way through their life below. But we wanted to see all this. It was one thing hearing it on he news, and following it on various political commentary sites, but an entirely different thing to actually be there.
We took buses out of the main touristy areas, walked the length of the apartheid Wall, saw where it cut through homes and farms, livelihoods and families.
It was difficult knowing that just on the other side there was Jerusalem. It felt a world away once we passed through the checkpoint. The intricacies of the relationship between Israel and Palestine are far too convoluted to try and explain, or even for us to try and really understand at the time, despite my having tried to soak up a full explanation from a brilliant political studies student with a particular interest in the Six Days War and it’s ramifications. We knew enough though, to understand the graffiti that lined the “security fence” (as the Israeli’s referred to it), the “apartheid wall” (the Palestinian term), the propaganda posters and flags that lined the walls, and the protesters heard in the distance. We were also aware that as we took the buses and wandered further away from the touristy areas, we were watched quite closely, and not altogether surreptitiously, by gun-toting locals.
When we tried to return to Israel, back through the checkpoint, we were watched with even more suspicion. Despite trying to keep up the pretence of the Christian experiences – with “Holy” water, and small statues – we knew that if they realised we were anything more, we could potentially run into trouble. Having decided we were okay to leave, much like we were okay to enter in the first place, and weren’t considered revolutionaries, the guards watched as we left, muttering under their breathe “yallah”… “go”. It didn’t particularly feel like a piece of friendly advice.
But aside from that, aside from the fighting and anger, those we met and talked to, whilst we were visiting Bethlehem’s Church of the Nativity in particular, were very proud, and very welcoming. They knew they had an incomparable history, and not all of it about cultures tearing themselves apart, and were excited and pleased that we were so genuinely interested in learning about it. We left the West Bank with mixed feelings, and it is very hard not to. On the one hand, there are so many terrible things happening there, for so many terrible reasons, but on the other there is such an amazing sense of the history and formation of a world religion.
It is an extraordinary place, and once we were settled back in our little rooftop kingdom in Jerusalem’s Old City, no longer feeling the need to always be watchful, we could reflect more openly on life behind the Apartheid Wall.