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Bethlehem‘s identity was set in stone some 2000 years ago when a certain baby was born in a manger. Since then, the cradle of Christianity has magnetised hordes of pilgrims (about one million yearly) who traipse through the Church of the Nativity (below). Yet in the last couple of years another more unexpected aspect has emerged, namely gourmet food.

A recent surge in enticing restaurants and even hip cocktail bars comes as a big surprise considering Bethlehem lies in the nominally Muslim Occupied Territories of Palestine. And, yes, some Westerners actually think it is in Israel. In fact that hideous separation wall (read my 2008 post about it here) divides the two states, in the process making Bethlehem virtually an island.


The taxi-ride from the central West Bank to Jericho is a memorable experience, not least thanks to our effervescent Palestinian taxi-driver, Dudu, who sings between jokes and communicating the nuts and bolts of the Palestinian situation. In little more than an hour his aging car twists down down down to 270m below sea-level, leaving behind rolling limestone hills peppered with olive trees to enter stark pink and yellow desert.

West_Bank_Jericho_Dudu_taxidriver

We pass the turn-off to the Palestinian village of Duma, tragically known for the settler attack last July, when an entire Palestinian family was firebombed as they slept. Soon, only the odd palm tree alleviates the desolate, rocky contours, though settlement after illegal Israeli settlement crowns the hilltops.


The crack of a gunshot rang out, then another. Both came from across the valley where I was picking olives with Palestinian farmers, one of 30 British volunteers working in small groups as protective presence. The reason for the shot? The constant aggression from Israeli occupiers endured by the West Bank (Palestinian occupied territory) peaks during the harvest, the high point of the year for Palestinians. I’ve volunteered before and written blogs about aspects of the experience here and here (for other posts, enter Palestine in the search box on my home page). But this year proved to be very different.


At the turn of 2015, Muslims (whether in the Middle East, Paris or in Nigeria) have been monopolising the headlines. Sometimes, though, it’s worth thinking of those we have forgotten. One enclave is found in Nablus, in the northern West Bank, only a few kilometres from where I was staying with fellow olive-harvesters in Burin (pic below).

West+Bank+Burin+Palestinian+village


Something that struck me forcibly while in the West Bank a month ago was the incredible strength of Palestinian women. Far from the cliché of barely visible, submissive domestics, I found an attractive, feisty bunch, full of muscle (not only physical, also psychological), intelligence, confidence and humour and, as such, seemingly the bedrock of their families. So here are a few thoughts.

West_Bank_Palestine_woman_olive_farmer


So, did she or didn’t she? Some locals maintain that Salome’s legendary erotic dance with the head of John the Baptist took place in Sebastiya, in Palestine. Whether it did or didn’t is besides the point, because today’s Sebastiya is one of those little jewels of history that you feel privileged to discover. Where else can you sip coffee in a garden café, using a Roman capital as a table, and look across at a Crusader cathedral converted into a mosque? Or roam through extensive Greek and Roman ruins with not another tourist in sight?

Palestine+Sebastiya+forum+basilica


I recently spent two weeks in the West Bank, aka Palestine, helping with the annual olive harvest. It was enlightening, fun – but also depressing. Six years ago I did the same thing when there were more checkpoints, but fewer attacks on Palestinian farmers by Israeli settlers. Now, according to UN figures, attacks have quadrupled, peaking earlier this year to unprecedented levels of vandalism and theft.

Black+olives+harvest+Palestine


When I unpacked my bag the other day, wafts of za’atar enveloped me. No surprise really, as that’s the ubiquitous herbal mix (wild thyme, sesame, sumac & salt) sprinkled by Palestinians on tomatoes or used as a dip with flat-bread and unctuous green olive-oil. When cooking myself it was just too tempting to dip into a packet to flavour anything vegetal. Here’s a huge basin of it…

Palestinian za'atar in market


I’m back at base after an extraordinary whirl through the Middle East, from the citadel and souks of Aleppo, to the fabulous desert ruins of Palmyra, to the Ummayad mosque and caravanserais of Damascus, to Jerusalem with its manic religious intensity and finally the West Bank, that bleeding wound at the heart of the region. So much to say, so little time. For a peaceful starter, here is the interior of the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem.