My original plan had been to take our rental car from Jerusalem to Bethlehem, which I eventually discovered was actually in Palestine. This didn’t seem like a big deal to me, but the hilarious, sleep-deprived and very sassy rental car girl in Tel Aviv had scoffed and flatly shut down that idea, saying we couldn’t take our rental car into Palestine at all. Yeah, we’ll see about that.
It turned out she was completely right, as there are a complex series of checkpoints between Israel and the West Bank, and your Israeli rental car is not covered over there. Also, Palestinians sometimes throw rocks at cars with Israeli license plates. Yikes!
After much research I resigned myself to the fact that it was all going to go a lot smoother if I just booked us a day tour to take us around Palestine. We met up at a hostel down the street and were whisked off across the border in a van with a cast of twentysomethings from around the world.
Our first stop was the spot on the river Jordan near Bethabara, where Jesus was baptized by his cousin John the Baptist. Aside from its spiritual significance, this is interesting in that the baptism and crucifixion are the only two events from Jesus’s life that were well documented at the time and agreed by pretty much all modern scholars as actually having occurred.
The river was narrow enough that it felt like you could reach out and touch Jordan on the other side.
From there we drove to Jericho, the lowest and one of the oldest inhabited cities in the world.
Jericho is most famous now for the story of the Israelites entering in 1400 BC and circling the walls of the city for seven days, carrying the Ark of the Covenant, blowing ram’s horn trumpets and shouting until the walls fell down on the seventh day.
This story’s obviously interesting for multiple reasons, but the part that surprised me was learning that the Israelites showed up to kick ass. I always think of them as this unfairly persecuted group who had to wander in the desert forever and couldn’t catch a break, etc. And that’s all true, but for whatever reason I’d never picked up on the part about how they were out to conquer a kingdom for themselves to fulfill a prophecy and they wrecked a lot of shit in the pursuit of that goal.
From an overlook in the location of Old Jericho we could see out across the entire city.
A nearby excavation revealed layer after layer of settlements reaching back to the Tower of Jericho from 8000 BC.
I find this endless stacking of civilization on top of civilization fascinating.
Another dig shows what’s left of the Walls of Jericho, in many different layers.
A nearby cable car runs up to the Mount of Temptation, where Jesus was tempted by the devil during his 40 days and 40 nights in the desert.
Aster and I were able to fill up our bottles with water from Elisha’s spring, where the prophet Elisha is said to have healed the poisoned spring water and made it safe to drink. A nearby peacock eyed us suspiciously and waited for us to try the water first.
From there we were off to the city of Ramallah. I was mesmerized by the beautiful desert landscapes along the way, as we climbed up and up from 850 feet below sea level.
On the way into Ramallah, we passed through multiple checkpoints indicating we were passing from Israel-controlled territory to that of Palestine. This was a bit confusing since we were already in the West Bank, and therefore already in Palestine, but I would quickly learn none of this is ever in the slightest bit straightforward.
Our tour guide passed the time while we were waiting at the checkpoints telling us stories about the near-daily rock-throwing vs tear gas clashes between the young local Palestinians and the Israeli troops in the guard towers above us. On a recent tour, they couldn’t get the van down the road we were on now, due to the fighting they had to find a different way into the city.
Entering Ramallah, I was disoriented by the contrast of going from the extreme antiquity of Jericho to the shambling modernity of this much larger city. I mean, they had a Popeye’s Chicken for Christ’s sake.
We stopped and visited the tomb of PLO leader Yasser Arafat, which no one knew what to make of. It was announced with great fanfare that we could get our pictures taken with the soldiers guarding his tomb, if we wanted. There was a long, awkward pause as it became clear that no one wanted this. Sorry guys.
I was mostly interested, as always, in the weird, random street swag.
We toured through a colorful and odoriferous bazaar and a bakery where we got some snacks that I’m pretty sure they were just telling us were vegan to get rid of us. But the highlight of Ramallah, all agreed, was the Stars & Bucks Café.
Leaving Ramallah, we passed through a kind of hellish netherworld of Palestinian refugee camps. Some looked like public housing blocks in a slum, only with barbed wire and the misfortune of being scattered amongst a grim, rubble-strewn landscape.
I couldn’t help but think of these refugee camps in contrast with the Israeli settlements we’d seen dotted across the landscape on our drives across the West Bank. Entire self-sustaining Israeli communities were carved out of Palestine’s land, with their own security forces to keep Palestinians out. They had their own roads, their own utilities, their own water, and stood in stark contrast to the ragged, impoverished Palestinian communities all around them. Each community was marked by a large Hebrew sign with a wolf on it. One interpretation of the wolf was that it was a warning, a sign that these communities were protected. Don’t mess with us. Looking around at how Palestine had been invaded and usurped by these seemingly illegal enclaves, the symbolism of the wolf took on a darker meaning for me.
From the outskirts of Bethlehem all through into the town, small children filled the sidewalks on their way home from school, lifting our spirits.
Driving through Bethlehem, I was continually impressed by Palestine’s unusual concept of copyright protection, which would make Australia proud.
We stopped for a traditional lunch of upside-down whatever the hell this was before we headed to the Church of the Nativity, the spot where Jesus was born.
To get to the oldest Christian church in the world, you have to cut between the KFC and the Samsung store at the mall. Yep.
Outside the church we met our tour guide, who would be explaining very little at all to us while we were inside.
When the guide asked my brother where he was from, Aster answered “California.” The young Australian guy in our group scoffed loudly.
“Americans are so arrogant! Whenever you ask them where they’re from, they always say the state, like everyone should know where that is.”
The German girl with us chimed in with gleeful agreement.
One thing I find funny is that the more I travel, the more I actually find myself defending Americans. I didn’t start out like this, as I was as critical of our behavior and flaws as anyone. But after years of hearing the same cliched complaints over and over, and seeing the same flaws and bad behavior that Americans get blamed for exemplified by people from a hundred other countries, these things start to just seem like lazy ways for people to inflate their own egos and feel proud that they’re not from some asshole country like you are.
In some ways it seems like America is the only country people can safely bash, since if you point out that tourists from some other place are acting like dicks you run the risk of seeming racist or xenophobic. I’m not hoping for any sympathy on this, it’s likely just the price you pay coming from a country with an outsized influence in the world. But it pissed me off that people were criticizing my brother.
I tried to explain that every single time I’ve answered that question with “I’m from the US,” I’m always, always, always immediately asked what state I’m from, usually with a hint of annoyance that you didn’t tell them the state straight away. So I usually answer with “I’m from Minnesota in the US” or “I’m from California in the US.” In a sense you can’t win regardless of how you respond.
Granted, if you answered the question with “I’m from Arkansas” that would be less than ideal because nobody outside the US knows what Arkansas is. But if you honestly think a tour guide in Bethlehem who deals with tourists all day every day has never heard of California, you might be the one who’s being provincial and small-minded. It’s not arrogant to acknowledge that this is a very famous place around the world.
Likewise, if the dude from Australia had just said “I’m from Sydney,” hey, that’s fine. People know where Sydney is, that’s not being arrogant. You guys have a big famous seashell building. The girl from Frankfurt? Mmmm, you might be pushing it a little, but I’d still give you a pass for just saying Frankfurt.
Of course nobody wanted to hear any of this because it was more fun to pile on about what assholes Americans are. I actually don’t think this bothered Aster at all, but I was tempted to point out that at least we don’t call people arrogant pricks to their faces based solely on where they were born, so that might be something you guys can work on.
“And they think they’re the only people who are from America!” the guy from Paraguay chimed in.
Ugh. People from South America hate it when people from the US say they’re from “America” because they consider the whole expanse of North and South America to be “America.” So we’re being arrogant for claiming the name all to ourselves. I can understand the complaint, but guys, nobody outside of South America thinks like this. It’s not the 1500s. The US is referred to as “America” all over the world, it just is. When I’m in a non-English-speaking country and I say I’m from “the United States,” “USA,” “the US,” or “the states,” I’m often met with blank stares, but if I say I’m from “America” they instantly know exactly where I’m talking about. And nobody has ever responded with “America, ay? Whereabouts, Brazil?” It just doesn’t work like that.
And also, dude, nobody knows where Paraguay is. Sorry. Many, many more people around the world could tell you where California is before they could place Paraguay. That doesn’t mean it’s better or more important, it just has really good PR.
Jeez, those arrogant Paraguayans, thinking everybody knows where they live. You guys should just say South America.
Anyway, I actually liked our little group and they were great aside from this little blip. I do find it fascinating when otherwise polite people hit upon a subject where it’s socially acceptable to act like total knobs. They’ve probably just been traumatized by exposure to too many actual asshole American tourists. They are out there.
Inside, the church had impressive wooden beams and the kind of overabundance of lanterns that I guess are a holy land staple.
In the back, a massive line of people lead into a basement of some kind.
We weren’t sure what was down there, because our guide had disappeared, but it was clearly the place to be. The tour guide for another group somehow singled me out several times to insist that his group was going down there first.
“Yeah, that's fine. I don’t care. I'm not the tour guide.”
“This is bullshit! We’re going down first.”
“Dude, I don’t even know what’s down there, I don’t even think we’re in line. Don’t worry about it. You’re good.”
“You’d better let us go down there first!”
At this point I wanted to cut him off in line just because he was pissing me off. In the end, it was a chaotic scrum just to get down the stairs. I think the high blood pressure tour guide got down there first, just barely, so hopefully they got to the Jesus while it was still fresh.
Downstairs there’s a silver star set into the floor in the exact spot where Jesus is said to have been born. You can stick a finger into the hole in the center of the star to touch the rock that Mary laid on, which seems like a hilariously bad idea to me now, writing this in the age of the coronavirus.
I’m not sure how they even think they can know this, unless Joseph was an early geotagging enthusiast. Once more, I was fascinated by the idea that people were utterly certain THIS was the spot, RIGHT HERE, where Christ was born. So certain that we’ll build a big-ass church here. I mean, good luck putting a star on the exact spot where I was born, and that was in a big, well-known hospital and wasn’t even that long ago. I’m also fascinated by the implications for these places of more new-age channeled information that has come out in recent years, which paints a very different picture of Jesus’s life. Including that he had siblings, fathered children of his own, and more importantly, was never crucified. The story is that the authorities were fearful of creating a martyr and giving more power to his teachings, and so had Jesus flogged and cast out of the country instead. At which time he and Mary Magdalene left for the Far East, where they lived well into old age.
Of course with this kind of thing you’re just taking one account’s word versus another. Personally, I find it fanciful to think that the accounts of Jesus’s disciples in the Bible have survived through the ages and through various translations without alteration or manipulation, in spite of everything that could be gained by the Church from altering them to their benefit, to disempower the masses, funnel wealth, and set themselves up as the ultimate authority and only channel to God.
But I think what is most important is recognizing your own ability to read these differing accounts and see what resonates for you, to use your own intuition and inner connection to find truth and meaning. The only thing I would judge as “wrong” in any of this is the deeply-ingrained concept that you’re a helpless child who doesn’t have the ability to discern truth for yourself, and that you need an external authority to tell you what is true. Hearing someone tell you this is a sure sign that they’re trying to manipulate you into handing your own power over to them.
In the next room over, a grate separates you from a painting of the nativity in the spot where Jesus was laid in the manger.
I’d like to stress that I know all of this because I read about it on Wikipedia just now. When we were actually in the basement it was just a confusing jumble of bodies and languages and WTF there’s a star on the floor wait where the hell are we?
Escaping outside, our tour guide reconnected with the group after wisely ditching us for the melee in the church basement. He read the lord’s prayer to us in Arameic, the language that Christ spoke, as I looked across the courtyard and tried to understand why the church had a statue of an astronaut.
Oh, it’s Yuri Gagarin. The Russians must have donated some money to this church. Weirdness.
We strolled past the Manger Square Hotel, the Holy Family Gift Shop, The Happy Family Gift Shop, Peace Restaurant, and a mens’ clothing store that definitely did not pay Johnny Depp to use him in their advertisements, on our way back to the holy mall and our waiting van.
The final stop on our day tour of Palestine was to see where the Israeli West Bank barrier runs through Bethlehem. And this is where we slam face-first into really needing a history lesson on the region for any of this to make any sense at all.
The land where we were standing was, for a very long time, part of the Ottoman Empire. World War I put an end to that with the fall of the Ottomans, and afterwards this area became British Palestine. Great Britain ended up with a headache on their hands, having to mediate clashes between the local Arabs and the growing communities of Jews living on this land, as tens of thousands of Jewish people were joining those who had already been living here, in hopes of establishing a Jewish state in their ancestral homeland. With the advent of WWII and the Holocaust, international setiment solidified around the idea that the Jewish people did need their own country where they could be safe from persecution, and the United Nations voted to divide British Palestine into two independent states: Israel and Palestine, with Jerusalem existing as a special international zone that people of all the relevant faiths could share.
Great Britain said to the UN: “Oh, you want to take this problem off our hands?” And that’s all they said because then they were just gone, everyone was looking around like “Wait, wasn’t Great Britain just saying something?” and the door was swinging because GB had peaced out, posthaste.
The surrounding Arab states of Egypt, Jordan, Lebanon, Syria, Iraq and Saudi Arabia, who had all been part of the Ottoman Empire before WWI themselves, all said “Nope, fuck that Western bullshit” and invaded Israel immediately. And I mean immediately, like literally the next morning.
The result was the ten-month-long Arab-Israeli War of 1948. The new state of Israel surprised pretty much everybody by soundly kicking everyone’s asses up the street and back, and when the war ended, Israel still had Israel, but now they also had about 60% of what had been Palestine. “Shit,” said the Arab League. This wasn’t what they were going for at all.
Jordan took control of what was left of Palestine in the West Bank, and Egypt did the same with the Gaza Strip in the southwest.
So far, so good. I have no problem seeing the Arab League as the bad guys in this chapter of the story. But what happened next is a bit murkier.
In 1948, Israel expelled 700,000 Arabs from Israel, including those who were living in the regions that had been Palestine before the war. The Israeli military threw people out into the street and bulldozed their homes in front of them, sending them on a long march across the border into Arab-controlled territory. Many call this an ethnic cleansing, while Israel calls it “totally not an ethnic cleansing you guys, come on”.
All these Arab folks ended up in refugee camps in the West Bank, Gaza, Syria, Jordan, Lebanon and Egypt, and their descendents today tally around 7 million people. Some have moved on and established lives elsewhere, while others are still living in depressing refugee camps like the ones we saw in the West Bank, waiting for the day when Israel will honor their claims on the lands and homes they were forced out of over 70 years ago.
Fast-forward to 1967, and Israel and Egypt have been squabbling for over a decade over the Straits of Tiran, a channel forming Israel’s only access to the Red Sea. In ‘67, Egypt closed the straits to Israeli ships, functionally cutting off 90% of Israel’s oil supply. Israel responded by completely destroying Egypt’s entire airforce in a single day, invading the Sinai Peninsula, and invading the West Bank and Gaza Strip while they were at it since the guys already had their uniforms on and everything.
As astute observers might glean from its name, the Six-Day War did not take very long and Israel just completely kicked everybody’s dicks into the dirt yet again. I know war’s not funny but I can’t help but be amused by the image of Egypt pulling this frankly stupid move, and sending their troops to the Israeli border like “Hey, suck on this you losersOOOH SHIT RUN” as they lost a massive chunk of their own country in less than a week. It’s like some kind of looping GIF meme about extreme hubris blowing up in someone's face.
When the dust settled, Israel had the entire West Bank, the Gaza Strip, the Sinai Peninsula, and, somehow, Golan Heights in Syra too. The Egyptian, Syrian and Jordanian militaries were in complete shambles. I find myself rooting for Israel in this specific situation, since the neighboring states all seem completely bent on Israel’s complete distruction for hateful and stupid reasons, and who doesn’t love the story of an underdog standing up to a bully?
And yet, this war was yet another disaster for the Palestinian people, who really had nothing to do with it. 300,000 more Palestinians fled their homes and country as over 400 villages were destroyed by the Israeli military, and over 100,000 Palestinians and Syrians fled Golan Heights for Syria. After the war, the United Nations condemned Israel for its actions during and after the war aimed at intentionally expelling Palestinian people from Israel’s new territory.
As a part of the Camp David Accords in 1978, Israel gave the Sinai Peninsula back to Egypt, leading to peace between Israel and its neighbors.
What followed was the rise of the Palestinian Liberation Organization, whose initial goal was ending the state of Israel entirely and returning the whole of what had been British Palestine to Palestinian hands. The PLO worked toward these ends through terrorism, though they eventually mellowed out and shifted their goal to a return to the 1967 borders between Israel and independent Palestine.
Meanwhile, Israelis began moving into the West Bank and Gaza Strip and setting up the wolf sign settlements I wrote about above. Land was cheap and many Israelis believed that this was part of the Promised Land given by god to Abraham and his descendents, and therefore rightfully Jewish territory. All in all nearly 800,000 Israelis moved into Palestine, chopping up the Palestinian land into a network of Israeli settlements that make the prospect of there ever being a truly independent state of Palestine ever again seem dim, bordering on the impossible.
This led to the First Intifada, a series of Palestinian protests that led to violent uprisings lasting from 1987 to 1993. The Israli military responded heavily, leading to the deaths of over a thousand Palestinians.
Meanwhile, Palestinians who thought the PLO was being too mellow about everything formed Hamas, a militant offshoot of the Muslim Brotherhood, another organization dedicated to the destruction of Israel and the return of the entire landmass to Palestine, which was definitely what this whole situation really needed right then.
All of these conflicts led to the Oslo Accords in 1993, which ended the violence in exchange for giving Palestine more autonomy in some of its regions. Basically nobody was happy with this, and an Israeli hard-liner assassinated Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin over this seemingly reasonable gesture toward peace.
A Second Intifada lasted from 2000 to 2005, in which 1,000 Israelis and 3,200 Palestinians died. Throughout the Intifada, Hamas militants launched thousands of rocket attacks from the Gaza Strip into Israel. This created a bizarre dynamic where real estate prices in that section of Israel became determined by how many seconds of warning the residents would receive that Hamas rockets were on their way. You want to move from a 30 second neighborhood to a 2 minute neighborhood? Wooh, that’s gonna cost ya. In 2005, Israel finally decided the Gaza Strip was too fucked up even for them and withdrew, leaving the region under the leadership of Hamas.
The violence of the Second Intifada basically broke everything, as pretty much everyone lost their belief in the peace process and Israel started building walls instead. Gaza was put under a complete blockade, ostensibly to prevent terrorism from spreading into Israel, but the blockade has had a dramatically strangling effect on the Gaza economy, resulting in extreme poverty.
During the Second Intifada, Israel built the West Bank barrier, which in the cities manifests as an eight meter high concrete wall interspersed with armed guard towers, and which cuts neighborhoods in half and separates families. Rather than being a wall between Israel and Occupied Palestine, 85% of the wall exists within the West Bank, cutting Palestine off from itself. Skeptics believe the wall represents where Israel wants the border to be and that they will declare it as the new border at some point in the future.
The Wall itself is a grim site. Looking at it, it’s hard to come to any conclusion other than that you’re in a prison. Its grim gray expanse is spiced up only by the everpresent protest art graffiti that covers many sections of the wall, none more so than the famous section we were visiting in Bethlehem.
Mere feet from the wall in Bethlehem stands The Walled Off Hotel, a small boutique hotel designed by the British street artist Banksy, whose own work is featured on the wall many times over. The hotel is designed as both a piece of social commentary and a place for tourists to stay who want to see this aspect of the conflict for themselves.
The inside of the hotel features several pieces by Banksy commenting on the Israel-Palestine conflict.
Deeper inside the hotel there’s a museum about the conflict, which Aster and I bought tickets to explore. This was well worth it, as it was extremely educational about the conflict and the impact the wall and the occupation have had on the Palestinian people.
I walked by a ringing phone inside the museum and picking it up, heard what I imagine was a real recording of calls the Israeli military made telling Palestinians they had two minutes to pack up and get out of their homes before they would be bombed. Damn.
Some have criticized the hotel and day tours like the one we were on, calling them war tourism that profits on tragedy. And some aspects of the hotel are a little questionable, like the cutesy Wall Mart next door where you can buy spray paint to add graffiti to the wall yourself. I’m sure there are tourists who come here just to take a selfie in front of the wall and leave no more enlightened than when they arrived. But I felt like the educational and awareness-raising aspects of actually being able to go there ourselves were extremely beneficial, and I think that ultimately this kind of thing happening can only help the plight of the Palestinian people.
I was grateful to be getting what I felt was a rounded education on the entire situation throughout this trip, crossing from Israel into Palestine and back. I think as an American going in blind, you tend to take Israel’s side on things, generally, since the US is their strongest ally and our media tends to cover the issue from a pro-Israeli perspective. We have it framed for us as poor Israel can’t catch a break, now they’re dealing with Islamic terrorism too.
And I think we have a certain reluctance, maybe unconscious, to criticizing Israel at all. I think some of this is due to lingering guilt over the holocaust and a feeling of “let’s cut the Jewish folks some slack, they’ve suffered enough.” I know I’ve felt that within myself.
But seeing what was going on in Palestine first-hand, I couldn’t bring myself to be in support of what Israel is doing there at all.
In a lot of ways, it’s an impossible situation. You’re surrounded by people who are dedicated to your destruction, and you’re sharing a pretty small landmass with a bunch of them. How can you resist the urge to flex what strength you do have to ensure the survival of your people? If I lived here, how long would I put up with people lobbing rockets at my house before I decided “OK, fuck it, I’ve had enough. I just want to be safe and live my life, build a wall already”? Say they do go back to the 1967 borders and Palestine is an independent state again. Yay! What if that independent state turns out to have a lot of people who are amenable to the Hamas “Drive the Jews into the sea” way of looking at things? Whoops.
That being said, Israel is far from blameless in any of this. They are treating the Palestinian people terribly in the service of their own sense of safety and peace of mind. This inhumanity is out of sight, out of mind for the majority of the Israeli people, behind the wall. The international community has called out what they’re doing as both illegal and inhumane. It’s a completely untenable situation and it’s clear what’s being done now is not any kind of long-term solution.
Why shouldn’t the Palestinian people have the right to self-govern? Why should they be forced to live as an impoverished, stateless buffer zone for Israel? The violence of the Intifadas was terrible and not something I support, but what other avenue do they realistically have to move toward independence? The great majority of the casualties in those clashes ended up being Palestinian civilians. Regardless of whether they act or not, the Palestinians suffer. When Israel’s neighbors act, the Palestinians suffer. When Israel acts, the Palestinians suffer.
Plenty of people in Israel do want to drive the Palestinian people completely off of their land so that it can all be Jewish Israel, and the settlements are a substatial step in this direction. In many ways, both sides of the larger conflict are mirrors of each other, neither wanting to tolerate the other being on this land. Israel just has the upper hand right now and most Palestinians are just caught in the middle.
The Palestinians I met seemed like they just wanted their own land to live on and to live normal lives, which I think is true of most people everywhere. They weren’t hyper-politicized, they were excited for the upcoming soccer match and hoping for better lives for their children. Our tour guide commented, maybe joking, maybe not, that most Palestinians would be fine with a true unification with Israel, but Israel would never allow it because they’d quickly be outnumbered and outvoted by the millions of Palestinians in the West Bank and abroad.
It was interesting to go through the exhibit as an American, knowing about our support of Israel, and with my brother Aster, who is half Jewish and I think equally conflicted about all of this. We had interesting conversations throughout the trip about who was in the right, or at least the least in the wrong, if there even is such a thing. Maybe the people in those Palestinian refugee camps need to move on with their lives, instead of waiting in endless limbo for some historical wrong that happened before they were born to be righted in their favor. Maybe that’s just the way history goes, this same story repeated over and over. We’re not having any conversations in the US about giving the Native American tribes their land back, are we? But then again, you can use that line of thinking to justify anything at all.
Maybe the only revolution that will truly change this is the revolution of human consciousness, where people gradually awaken to the realization that these divisions are manipulated meaninglessness and that we are not separate from each other. In some ways that’s the only ultimate solution, but I hope the Palestinians don’t have to keep living in a box until that day comes.
We cruised back to Jerusalem through the checkpoints and guard stations, about to leave the very complicated world of Palestine behind us and return to our much simpler lives and the less difficult choices we’re faced with every day. It’s true I’m just a tourist to your tragedy, Palestine, but the more people who wrestle with this calamity in their own minds, the fewer people there are who can blissfully ignore it and through inaction allow it to continue, the closer we are to some kind of eventual resolution that everyone can live with, whatever strange, mysterious beast that may be.