Bethlehem

Why Bethlehem:

My MBA teammate Roni was getting married in Israel. Having been to Israel twice, I wanted to see new places (No need to return to Tzfat, Masada and Yad Vashem). One of those areas was the West Bank. 

The West Bank is a mountainous region just east of central Israel. The area is disputed between the Israel and the Arab locals known as Palestinians. Israel captured the land from Jordan in 1967 in the Six Day War. While Israel conquered the land, it did not incorporate it into its territory (except for the eastern parts of Jerusalem). Rather, the territory has a local government called the Palestinian Authority which has partial authority over the land. The 3 million Palestinians living under the Palestinian Authority are considered citizens of Palestine and not Israel. Due to Israel´s power and control over the area, many including foreign governments, observers and the Palestinians themselves use the term “Israeli Occupation” to describe the current situation. Some people also use the stronger term apartheid to describe the current situation, as the Palestinians have different (read: limited) rights compared to Israelis. 

Visiting the West Bank would give me ability to add Palestine to my country count as Country 80. While not recognized by the US or Israel, Palestine, is a UN observer state that has recognition from around 100 UN members and full self-governance of at least some of its territory (more on that later). Additionally, most serious travelers include Palestine as on the consensus list of 197 countries and therefore so will I. 

I decided that for my visit to Palestine to be “legit”, I needed to be in territory completely controlled by the Palestinian Authority aka Area A of the 3-zone “security” plan (more on that later). Within Area A, the most interesting areas to me were Bethlehem, Hebron, and Ramallah. As Ramallah was on the other side of Jerusalem from the other 2, I decided to go 1 day in Bethlehem and 1 day in Hebron. 

After a lot of research, I found an Airbnb in a refugee camp just outside of Bethlehem. The list had about 600 reviews and a near perfect 5-star rating! It was advertised as “the real deal” experience. Additionally, the husband of the host moonlights as a tour guide. Through WhatsApp, I hatched out a plan with Ibrahim.

A couple days before the trip, my MBA classmates Rory and Pablo asked to join. Luckily, Ibrahim was very accommodating, and they were able to join without any issue. 

October 8, 2022: Bethlehem and Surroundings

After arriving from the airport to my West Jerusalem hostel at 2:00, I got a meager 5 hours of sleep before getting breakfast at the hostel. 

At 8:00, I met up with Rory and Pablo. It was Shabbat, the Jewish sabbath where all work is prohibited, and the streets were empty. We walked for 20 minutes to reach the Damascus Gate of the Old City of Jerusalem. It is here that the buses to the West Bank depart. While Israeli public transportation does not run on Shabbat, Palestinian buses do. We boarded Bus 231 and paid the 8 shekel ($2.50 fare). 

After leaving Jerusalem, we proceeded south along an Israeli highway surrounded by military-grade barricades and bomb-proof walls.

Without stopping, we breezed through a seemingly unguarded toll booth which I later learned was the official checkpoint to enter the West Bank. We then left the highway and followed windy narrow two-lane roads. Here, we started to see a mix of yellow Israeli and white Palestinian license plates. A menacing red sign soon greeted us with the words “This Road leads To Area A Under The Palestinian Authority The Entrance For Israeli Citizens Is Forbidden, Dangerous To Your Lives, And Is Against The Israeli Law”. 

5 minutes later we were in Bethlehem. The entire drive took 30 minutes and covered just 9 kilometers as the crow flies. 

While waiting for Ibrahim to pick us up, we were swarmed by local cab drivers. They were upset that we did not want to use their services. There were two other tourists on the bus and the drivers yelled and fought over the right to drive them around. Yikes!

We walked a block away and Ibrahim showed up 10 minutes later in his car. We then drove to his house in the Dheisha Refugee Camp. The camp was created in 1949 just after the establishment of the State of Israel as a temporary settlement for 3,400 Palestinians who lived in areas west of Jerusalem that were taken by Israel (in total about 750,000 Palestinians were displaced by the war). As Israel has continued to hold the land where the villages once stood, the refugees and now their children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren stayed in Dheisha. 75 years later, the original refugee tents have turned into 5 story apartment buildings and the camp is indistinguishable from any other area of Bethlehem to the casual passerby. 

The main difference between the refugee camp and the municipality of Bethlehem is the utilities. The Palestinian government decided many years ago that the refugees will not have to pay for utilities. This means that the trash pickup is done by employees the United Nations refugee agency. 

The Palestinian Authority apparently only has resources to give the residents a few days per month of utilities for free so many people do not have power or water. There is an easy fix to this: hooking up to city´s well-functioning utility grids. However, they (I´m not sure exactly who “they” are) refuse to do so on principle, as that would insinuate that the people are no longer refugees and are here to stay. The people strongly believe that they need to reclaim their ancestral villages. Even 4th generation residents of the camp fondly speak fondly of their ancestral villages that they have never seen and likely do not exist. 

After driving on windy one-lane roads through the maze of buildings, we reached Ibrahim´s apartment building. It is 4 stories tall. Each of his brothers live on a different floor. Ibrahim´s 3-bedroom apartment was…really nice! 

Ibrahim made us some rosemary tea and dropping off our bags, before setting out to do some sightseeing. 

As we drove through the traffic-ridden town to our first destination, I couldn´t help but notice the large number of posters commemorating the martyrs who died fighting Israel or honoring those that are currently imprisoned in Israel. 

As we headed to the outskirts of the city, Ibrahim explained the 3 areas of the West Bank partition from the 1993 Oslo Accords. The West Bank is split into 3 areas: A, B, and C. Area A, 18% of the land, is fully under Palestinian Authority control. Area A contains the 8 largest Palestinian cities and the surrounding areas. Theoretically, the Israeli army cannot enter Area A. However, in 2002 during the Second Intifada, they started to enter Area A to conduct raids to arrest citizens it considers to be threats (or “terrorists”) and they continue to this day. These arrests often lead to clashes with the locals, many of which turn deadly. At the time of my trip, raids and deaths were happening daily in the northern West Bank cities of Jenin and Nablus and tensions were at a multi-year high. Most of the deaths and arrests during these 2022 raids were in fact members of militia groups but sometimes they make a mistake or someone else got in the way. 

Area B, 22% of the land, has Palestinian Authority civil control but joint Israeli-Palestinian security control. This means that both the Israeli army and Palestinian police can enter here. Ibrahim said that the Palestinian police will intervene if the dispute is between two Palestinian parties and the Israeli army will intervene if one of the parties is Israeli. 

Area C, 60% of the land, is under full Israeli control. While the 300,000 Palestinians in Area C are allowed to stay, Israel has stopped the issuance of building permits. So, Palestinians cannot build new homes, businesses or even repair older buildings. It is in Area C where Israeli builds the infamous settlements. 

When driving through, I could not tell the difference between Area A, B, and C. It all seemed to look the same. But Ibrahim knew and would point out if a block or neighborhood was Area A, B, or C. 

Palestinians are allowed to visit Area A, B, or C at any time. However, they are not allowed to enter Israel without special permits. Those permits are issued for various reasons such as a job or a medical treatment. Besides tour guiding, Ibrahim’s main job is working in a hospital in Israel. Palestinian license plates are not allowed into Israel, so many cars in the West Bank have the yellow Israeli plates even though they are owned by Palestinians. 

The Israeli government has allowed Jews to build houses and towns in Area C. These are called settlements and are one of the biggest flash points in the Israel/Palestine conflict. Some settlements are essentially suburbs of Jerusalem, but others are towns smack dab in the middle of the West Bank surrounded by uninhabited nature and Palestinian towns. In total 450,000 Israelis live in West Bank Settlements.

As the Israelis have a lot more money than the Palestinians, the settlements are objectively very beautiful. The houses remind me of suburban Southern California. Some have grocery stores and schools. 

There are many reasons why Israelis build and live in the settlements. The most talked about reason is religious: ideological settlers believe it is their Zionist responsibility to inhabit “Judea and Samaria” – their name for the West Bank. Others believe that building more settlements will increase the leverage of the Israeli government in negotiations with the Palestinian Authority. Some settlers want to reclaim land that was lost in the 1948 war. Others are here because it is cheaper, and they can get way more space than in Israel (Israel is an expensive place). Despite all these reasons I still can´t imagine why anybody would want to live surrounded by millions of people who really really really do not like you.  

Area C Palestinian town in front with a Settlement in the shade on the hill

After 45 minutes of driving, we reached our first stop: Herodium National Park. Located in Area C, Herodium is managed by the Israeli National Park Service and is guarded by an Israeli military base. 

The park contains the palace and tomb of Herod the Great, the king of the region during the time of Jesus 2,000 years ago. Herod decided to construct an artificial mountain and build his palace on top of and inside the mountain. 

After climbing to the top of the mountain fortress palace (how cool does that sound!), we were greeted with incredible 360-degree views of the West Bank, the Dead Sea, and even the skyscrapers of West Jerusalem. 

A new settlement is being constructed just to the east. This one interestingly had space for raising cattle or horses. Ibrahim mentioned that Palestinians are severely limited in their ability to raise livestock due to IDF security zones, Israeli-declared nature reserves, settler activity and a major drought (not the Israeli´s fault but still relevant).  

Inside the mountain is a dizzying network of cave tunnels and cisterns. 

Herod´s tomb, discovered only in 2007, was built on the slope of the mountain next to the Roman theater. While the tomb was looted in antiquity likely right after he died, there were a few interesting archaeological finds in recent years including a signet ring belonging to Pontius Pilate. 

There were other tourists here including 2 buses of Arab citizens of Israel (about 20% of Israelis are Arab) who Ibrahim looked at with disgust. 

Our second stop in the West Bank was the Mar Saba monastery, located in an isolated canyon east of Bethlehem. Along the way, we saw a lone Scottish man walking down the road and decided to give him a lift to the monastery. He has been traveling solo around the West Bank for 2 weeks now and said that he has experienced incredible hospitality. In fact, he has yet to pay for a meal because families keep inviting him into their houses!

The monastery was built in the year 483 by Saint Sabbas the Sanctified and has been inhabited by monks ever since, an unbelievable feat given the monastery survived the founding/rise of Islam, the Crusades, the Ottoman Empire and all of Israel´s wars. 

The monastery is inhabited by 12 Orthodox monks. As has always been the case, women are not allowed in the complex. When asked why, a monk explained that giving up sex and family for a life of prayer is a very difficult and emotional decision. Therefore, having women around his home, even in a casual setting would distract him from his life´s purpose and could cause him to doubt his decision.

The complex contains the now-empty tomb of St. Sabbas, an orthodox church, offices and living quarters for the monks. The tomb and church were brightly painted, but unfortunately photos were not allowed. 

The undisputed highlight of the tour was seeing the 1600-year-old body of St. Sabbas. He is now located in a glass box in the main church. Somehow the body has remained intact, sort of like an Egyptian mummy. The monk said that his body has survived for 1600 years because of his incorruptible faith. I think that its due to the exceedingly dry climate. 

We then went outside to get views of the gorge. The far side of the gorge has cliff houses that looked very similar to Mesa Verde. It was in one of these cliff dwellngs that St. Sabbas lived. 

For our last stop on the tour, the monk served coffee to us and the other guests – a group of Russians. This was the first time I had seen an ancient monastery actually being used for its intended purpose. 

Back in Bethlehem, we encountered a lot of traffic. There are only two stoplights for a town of 300,000 people!

We ate chicken shawarma for lunch in a popular restaurant. I couldn´t help but think about the Palestinian Chicken episode of Curb Your Enthusiasm. 

Our next stop was the Separation Wall. The 708-kilometer wall was built by Israel to separate Israel and the West Bank. Construction on the wall began in 2000 during the Second Intifada, a heated period between the two sides. Israel considers the project a success due to the massive decrease in suicide bombs and attacks on Israelis inside Israel. The Palestinians call the wall apartheid that denies them access to their lands including territory deemed Palestine during the last ceasefire. Due to the placement of the wall, 9% of the West Bank is now inaccessible to Palestinians. Numerous international organizations have ruled the wall violates international law and the human rights of Palestinians. Nevertheless, the wall is not going anywhere soon. 

In Bethlehem, the wall goes just west of the city center, dividing what used to be a major commercial. In 2015, Israel extended the wall to surround the tomb of the Biblical matriarch Rachel and place it in Israel. 

The wall is 9 meters tall. Every 50 or so meters, there is an Israeli guard post. Miniguns are also stationed on top of the wall pointed into Palestine. Compared to the US/Mexican border wall (the closest comparison I can draw), this is much more militarized and well-constructed. 

The Palestinian side of the wall is covered in street art. The art tells of Israeli injustices and celebrates Palestinians who have resisted Israel or have been murdered by Israel. There are also a few paintings of human rights struggles elsewhere in the world such as George Floyd.

The most famous piece of art here, a Banksy mural of a dove, is not actually on the wall but across the street. 

Banksy also has a hotel called the Walled Off Hotel, which promises the world´s worst view. The hotel lobby is full of authentic Banksy art and contains a museum about the Israel/Palestine conflict. While certainly biased, the museum nevertheless does a great job at explaining the numerous aspects of the conflict. The museum also contains unique relics including used Israeli weapons. 

After exploring the wall, we drove to the Aifa refugee camp. The barrier wall here had neater and more menacing street art. There, we saw group of kids hanging out that must have been at most 12 years old. Some wore black face masks. They were practicing hurling stones using slingshots against the separation wall. Ibrahim asked what they were doing, and they responded by saying they were preparing to attack Israeli. While stone-throwing in the news comes off as primitive and futile against the Israeli weapons, the stones are powerful and could easily kill someone. I felt scared!

I´m no strategist but slinging stones at soldiers sounds like a terrible idea. Attacking will do nothing except flare tensions and further convince Israelis that they need to clamp down on the West Bank. Attacking Israeli soldiers could also get the kids killed or at best placed on the blacklist and become banned from entering Israel or cross checkpoints around the West Bank. This seems like a high price to pay for what will likely be little impact.

I couldn´t help but cry a little bit inside that children so young are being taught such violence.  

It was now 4pm and we still had sightseeing left to do. We drove into the center of Bethlehem to see the town´s main attraction: the Church of the Nativity. Built in the year 326, the church protects the spot where Jesus was supposedly born (I saw supposedly because there is no way to verify). Regardless, more than 2 billion people believe he was born here, which is honestly just as important. 

The church is shared by numerous Christian denominations but houses Armenian Apostolic monks. The church has an ornate Orthodox-style altar but has very plain walls. The church has been redone numerous times in its history, but the original Byzantine mosaic floor is still visible in part of the church. 

Underneath the altar is the Grotto of the Nativity. This is the reason people come here. After waiting through a huge crowd for 20 minutes, we descended into the grotto. The far right side contains a fireplace-sized niche where a golden star demarcates the exact spot of Jesus´s birth. Pilgrims either touch or kiss the star.  

Also in the grotto is the location of the manger and the place where the 3 magi stood. 

Then, we wandered the historic old town. Directly across from the church is Nativity Square which hosts a huge Christmas celebration each year. The other end of Nativity Square has the Mosque of Omar named for the father-in-law of Muhammad, founder of Islam. When Omar conquered Bethlehem in 637, he spared the Church of Nativity and insisted it remain a place of Christian worship. Instead of praying in the church, he instead prayed at the location of this mosque. Therefore, Omar began a 1400-year friendship of Christians and Muslims in Bethlehem. Christians used to be the majority of Bethlehem, but due to numerous reasons including emigration and differences in birthrates, the town is now solidly Muslim. Nevertheless, relations between the two religious groups are good and both groups understand the importance of the town for both spiritual and tourism dollar reasons. 

The remainder of the old town has many Christian organizations and welcome centers as well as a hectic market. I loved the energy and all the old buildings. 

We then drove back to Ibrahim´s apartment for dinner. We met his wife Aya, and his 3 cute children aged 12, 9 and 5. Aya made us maqluba for dinner. Meaning “upside-down”, the centuries-old layer-cake of meat, rice, and vegetables is created in a bowl and then flipped upside down onto the plate. 

We asked Ibrahim how we came to setup an Airbnb here in the refugee camp. He explained that his wife graduated university but was struggling to find a job. A Korean foreign aid worker gave him the idea and they decided to try it out. It turned out that his first guest was a decently famous travel blogger who wrote a nice piece about the experience. Since then, they have hosted more than 700 guests. 

While the room was comfy, we heard gunfire over the night in the distance. Was it an Israeli raid? Youth practicing? We had no clue. The combination of that and the jetlag made it difficult to sleep. 

Final Thoughts:

Bethlehem was a thought-provoking trip. 

Regarding Bethlehem itself, the ancient sites draw tourists from all over the world for good reason. The Church of the Nativity, Herodium and especially Mar Saba were absolutely spectacular.  The sites are well-geared for tourism. There are no safety issues traveling in Bethlehem – as shown by the Scottish guy, it can even be done solo. The bus from Jerusalem was very easy. The locals are a mixed bag, but overall, I think tourists feel very welcome in Bethlehem and I would recommend a visit to any tourist in Israel. 

Now, to address the elephant in the room. The Israeli-Palestinian conflict is one of the most talked about in the world. And to be honest, most people including myself only hear news from one side. For me, I only heard the Israeli perspective from news, from friends and from having previously visited Israel on group trips with agendas. 

To visit Palestine, see the separation wall, see a refugee camp, see a settlement helped better define the terms that casually get thrown around. 

But more than that, to see and listen to the struggles that Ibrahim deals with, such as irregular and sudden border closures that make holding a job in Israel very difficult and the nightly fears of deadly raids really helped put the consequences of the conflict into perspective. The settlements are way more egregious than I realized and seeing Palestinians lose their own land in real time broke my heart. The policies of Israel give the Palestinian people diminishing opportunities and have forced them to resort to desperate measures. 

At the same time, omnipresent violent rhetoric of the Palestinian government (and likely the people) has created a culture where 10–12-year-old children have so much hatred that they practice throwing stones to kill Jews in their free time. The banners praising the fighters, the refusal to hook up 75-year-old refugee camps to the utility grids based on the lie they will soon take their villages back, and the media produced/consumed fuels the people´s anger. The risks posed to Jews by Palestinians are very real and many of the Israeli security measures taken, while draconian, seem reasonable or at least understandable.

To me, the key reason for this conflict – and the reason why it will continue – is a lack of acceptance that the other side exists and has a right to live here despite both sides having an undeniable ancient connection with the land. The Israeli government continues to allow settlers to live on Palestinian land. Where are the Palestinians going to go? At the same time, the Palestinians believe chant “From the River to the Sea.” Where are the Israelis going to go?

Unfortunately, both sides are using religion to argue their cause (for Muslims the desire to control the Al Aqsa Mosque and for Jews the mandate to settle the land promised by God). Since religious arguments are not rational, as they are based on the literal word of ancient texts that may or may not be relevant today, neither side can rationally resolve to this conflict. In the meantime, both governments and a majority of the people seem content enough with the status quo. Therefore, the conflict will persist. 

Next: I visit Hebron, the largest city in Palestine and epicenter of the conflict. 

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