Friday, April 25, 2014

A day in the Palestinian West Bank

By: Rebecca McKinsey
Based in Jerusalem, Israel

"Don't go alone," I was told. "A young, white, blonde woman who doesn't speak Arabic? You won't come back."

"You'd be fine — rent a car and explore on your own," others said.

Having only met a handful of Arabs during my time in Israel, and with the peace talks crumbling, I was determined not to leave Israel without visiting the West Bank. In the end, though, I decided I would be better equipped for a foray into the area if I had a guide. A friend connected me to a Christian couple from the U.S. that does work in both Israel and the West Bank, and they agreed to let me tag along one day, on the condition that I wouldn't publish their names or photos. Because of a change in the couple's plans, the day changed from a quick stop in Bethlehem to a whirlwind tour of several West Bank cities. For that reason, I apologize in advance for the sheer number of photos in this post.

During my months in Israel, I had heard many views of the Palestinians residing in the West Bank, many of them negative. But I quickly learned not to have expectations going in.

Describing the residents of the West Bank, my hosts said, "They're very happy, hospitable, eager to meet people — except when they get into politics."

They were an amusing couple. At the beginning of our trip, they said, "I don't think the seat belt in the backseat works — just pray."

We passed from Jerusalem to Bethlehem at an Israeli checkpoint called Rachel's Crossing. We flashed our passports at a bored, young, female Israel Defense Force officer, who didn't ask for a closer look and waved us in. The couple was a regular at the checkpoint; they were usually recognized, they told me. Rachel's Crossing is named for its proximity to Rachel's tomb, a beloved Jewish site. Its outside is decorated with graffiti, often sharing political messages from people around the world, as well as printed stories.

One of many stories about Palestinian-Israeli relations
hanging on the outside of Rachel's Tomb. Photo by Rebecca McKinsey.

A sign outside Rachel's Tomb: "The people of Gorinchem (Netherlands) greet you.
They say NO to the Separation Wall. And they support the full rights
of the Palestinian people." Photo by Rebecca McKinsey.

New graffiti outside Rachel's Tomb:
"With love and kisses: Nothing lasts forever." Photo by Rebecca McKinsey.
We passed several refugee camps, stone and concrete complexes that blended in with the streetscapes around them. My hosts told me, "They don't know how to leave the camps, because there's hopelessness and no future. That's why we come in and say, 'There is hope. You do have a future. You can get educated and leave here.'"

A refugee camp in Bethlehem. Photo by Rebecca McKinsey.
A United Nations-run school for girls. Photo by Rebecca McKinsey.
Political street art. Photo by Rebecca McKinsey.
Our mission in Bethlehem was to shop for dishes and school supplies for children at a small school for children with disabilities run by a Muslim family in Bethany — in Arabic, al-Eizariya. We stopped in a small, crowded shop with no order to speak of. When we asked to see some dishes near the back of these piles on the floor, the owner simply stepped on stacks of plates and bowls — not breaking a thing — to reach the items we were looking for.

And when nature called, he generously offered us the use of the private bathroom for the store's employees. It looked, well, like this.

With no seat, no flushing, no soap, no paper towels
and not much of a door to speak of, this bathroom
presented some challenges — but appealed to
my sense of adventure. Photo by Rebecca McKinsey.
As we zipped between stores, we found an unexpected sight — several shepherds leading a flock of sheep (and other animals) directly through the busy city streets.

Sharing the road. Photo by Rebecca McKinsey.

They herded the sheep right past our car. Photo by Rebecca McKinsey.

Sheep, donkeys, goats — and one dog, spreading across a Bethlehem street.
Photo by Rebecca McKinsey.

Some of the sheep were curious about us. Photo by Rebecca McKinsey.
As we drove between our various destinations, a variety of other sights met us. Store names, in particular, were a source of amusement.

Store sign in the West Bank. Photo by Rebecca McKinsey.

Store sign in the West Bank. Photo by Rebecca McKinsey.

The coffee is terrible, according to my sources, but the sign gave us a good laugh.
And no, it doesn't sell Starbucks coffee. Photo by Rebecca McKinsey.
Other sights greeted us as well.

Burning trash containers is a common protest technique, my hosts said.
Photo by Rebecca McKinsey.

An imam taking a stroll. Photo by Rebecca McKinsey.

Yellow taxis and bananas. Photo by Rebecca McKinsey.

These fruit juice stands are all over Israel as well. Photo by Rebecca McKinsey.

Burning tires. Photo by Rebecca McKinsey.
We stopped at the Church of the Nativity — a large, imposing church that some say is the possible site of Jesus' birth.

Renovations inside the Church of the Nativity. Photo by Rebecca McKinsey.

Syrian Orthodox children visiting the Church of the Nativity
in Bethlehem for a service. Photo by Rebecca McKinsey.
Although visitors typically have to wait in lines for hours before they can go underground to what's called the grotto, my host — in what she described as a miracle — caught the eye of the policeman guarding the entrance and asked him if I could run down briefly; he agreed.

This is the spot where it is believed Jesus was born. Almost every visitor
bends down to kiss the stone. Photo by Rebecca McKinsey.

Feet away, this is the spot believed to have held Jesus' manger.
Photo by Rebecca McKinsey.
We headed next to Beit Sahour, where Naomi and Ruth went from Moab. We looked over the field believed to be the spot where Ruth worked in the fields and met Boaz before eventually marrying him.

Field in Beit Sahour. Photo by Rebecca McKinsey.

Ancient wine press in Beit Sahour. People would stomp on grapes inside
the circle, and the juice would gather in the circle's outline and run
through a ridge to gather in the larger hole. Photo by Rebecca McKinsey.

One of the many caves in Beit Sahour where shepherds would spend the night
with their flocks. As my host described, the shepherds would sleep in front of
the openings in the cave to keep their sheep from leaving — the animals
wouldn't step over the shepherds, she said. Photo by Rebecca McKinsey.

My hosts do a lot of work with children with disabilities, including at a school in Bethany that we visited. In Arabic cultures, they told me, people with disabilities are hidden away. When this couple visited people's homes to offer assistance, they would hug and hold the families' children, only to be asked by their parents, "Who are you? Our doctors won't even touch the children."

They added, "You have to remember that they are people. They hear your voice; they have a brain. You have to tell them that you love them and God loves them."

After buying piles of dishes, school supplies and toys, we headed to Bethany to visit the school the couple works with. We arrived near the end of the school day as the kids were leaving. They peered out at us from their bus, excited by our presence — they reached out to hold our hands and were excited to primp and pose for pictures.

Children at a school for kids with disabilities
in Bethany. Photo by Rebecca McKinsey.

Children at a school for kids with disabilities in Bethany.
Photo by Rebecca McKinsey.
After the kids went home and the supplies were unloaded, the family that runs the school invited us to their apartment, directly above the school, for very strong coffee — local, but similar to Turkish coffee. We chatted with them for a while; they're a fascinating family. They told us about the families who bring kids with disabilities to the school. "Sometimes we see them more than their parents do," they said.

I canceled my coffee hiatus to enjoy this family's refreshments. Pictured are
their son and their nephew, who studied in Egypt to become a doctor
and has treated people in both Israel and the West Bank.

After leaving Bethany, we headed for Ma'ale Adumim, an Israeli settlement in the West Bank, to visit a mall and grab some food. The difference between the Arab streets and the settlement was like night and day.

Many people sold produce in the streets. The garlic was so strong
you could smell it from the car. Photo by Rebecca McKinsey.

Heading from the West Bank to an Israeli settlement.
Photo by Rebecca McKinsey.

Seconds after leaving the crowded, dirty streets of the Arabic West Bank,
we went into an Israeli settlement that looked like this. Photo by Rebecca McKinsey.

After seeing mainly Arabs all day, we were running into Jews again —
right in the center of the West Bank. Photo by Rebecca McKinsey.
Our next and final stop was Jericho. On the way, we passed an old Israeli tank — likely left behind after a war, my guides said.

Israeli tank in the West Bank. Photo by Rebecca McKinsey.

Israeli tank in the West Bank. Photo by Rebecca McKinsey.
We passed several Bedouin areas as we drove. As my hosts and others told me, these nomadic Arabs live in shacks, essentially, set up along the sides of hills or in the desert. Although their technology is limited, sometimes they'll have a satellite dish and will all gather together in one of the homes to watch TV together. The boys in the tribes are often much more educated than the girls, many of them learning Hebrew. It is more common for the girls, I was told, to stay closer to home.

Bedouin tribes in the West Bank. Photo by Rebecca McKinsey.

Often, Bedouins keep animals near their homes. Photo by Rebecca McKinsey.

Bedouin women and children in the West Bank. Photo by Rebecca McKinsey.
As we approached Jericho, we were stopped by Palestinian soldiers at a checkpoint. They didn't take our word that we were American — they took our passports and scrutinized them, asking where we were from and what we were doing there. ("We're here to eat falafel!" my hosts said.) Joking and smiling, the soldiers eventually returned our passports and waved us through. When we drove past them again later, they waved at us again, laughing as we honked. After the initial stop, my host said, "They didn't have to stop us — they were just curious."

With a few exceptions, Israelis are not permitted to enter the West Bank.
Signs like these, written in Hebrew, Arabic and English, serve as reminders
on the side of the road. Photo by Rebecca McKinsey.
Our final stop was Jericho. Photo by Rebecca McKinsey.

This is thought to be the tree Zacchaeus to watch
Jesus approach. Photo by Rebecca McKinsey.
We visited Elisha's Spring, considered to be the spring Elisha purified, as described in 2 Kings, when Jericho needed water. For years, even recently, the spring served as the main water source for Jericho. Still today, its water is clear, cold and delicious.

Elisha's Spring in Jericho. Photo by Rebecca McKinsey.

If you bring a water bottle (or cup your hands), you can drink water from the spring. 
It was a whirlwind day, but I'm very grateful I was able to visit the West Bank and meet some of the people I'd been hearing so much about. A popular phrase I hear a lot here, drawn from the Psalms, is "Pray for the peace of Jerusalem." I hope I have a better understanding about what that means after having been to the West Bank.


Kaylyn Hlavaty said...

Great read and I'm glad you enjoyed your experience there!

RoamingChile said...

Was nice to read about your day. I'm so glad you made it out there.