I’m back at base after an extraordinary whirl through the Middle East, from the citadel and souks of Aleppo, to the desert ruins of Palmyra, to the great Ummayad mosque and caravanserais of Damascus, to Jerusalem with its manic religious intensity and finally to the West Bank, that bleeding wound at the heart of the region. As work limits my blogging time, the best I can do is post some snaps with quick commentary. It merits so much more (.
For a peaceful starter, here is the beautiful nave of the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem.
If you’re not a Christian zealot or merely a traditional tourist to the Holy Land, then the most striking – and appalling – sight in Bethlehem is the concrete separation wall (NOT fence which most Israelis euphemistically call it). This snakes through the hills of the West Bank, theoretically along the Green Line established after Israel’s invasion of the West Bank in the Six-Day War of 1967. Built by Israel to keep out Palestinian ‘terrorists’, the wall actually separates Palestinians from their land, olive groves, markets and in some cases families.
It is particularly atrocious in Bethlehem – what an irony for such an iconic town with its long and significant history – where it cuts through the centre. Arriving at the town from Jerusalem, you have to pass through a checkpoint (above) more suited to cattle, with orders barked out by an out-of-body voice over a loudspeaker, Emerging the other side into Bethlehem, you are now under Palestinian Authority control – so no patrollng IDF (as in Jerusalem). But the watchtowers replace them – Big Brother is omnipresent.
My taxi-driver, Ashraf (above) had been one of the dozens of Palestinians besieged in the Church of the Nativity during the Second Intifada in 2002 – “We ate leaves and drank dirty water” he told me. This is an example of the strikingly resourceful Palestinian spirit that resists, despite the fact that these Bethlehemites are now forced to live in a virtual island (ghetto?) encircled by the wall. Ashraf, for example, drives a taxi to help fund his university studies, hopefully taking him on to better things.
Meanwhile the wall itself has inspired incredibly inventive and moving graffiti – some from visitors (including the British street-artist, Banksy) others from the ‘inmates’. I use that term knowingly, because this is what is feels like when you leave Bethlehem through the checkpoint – you’re leaving a prison. But a prison for innocent people which has become, inevitably, integrated into daily life. As one Palestinian artist I met said, “A checkpoint represents time, not space” – i.e. you never quite know how long it will take to get through. What he didn’t say was how intensely humiliating that transition could be.
A post-scriptum, ten years on: In 2017, Banksy opened a hotel, The Walled Off, right beside the wall. Subversive in the extreme, it offers luxury suites in a colonial style, a dorm, a museum about the occupation as well as a shop renting out tools and materials for wannabe graffiti-artists. The style of graffiti has become more honed and the wall cleaned up (marginally). The grit is lost, but the story of the wall has reached a much wider public – and even Trump (that great friend of Netanyahu, Israel’s President) is memorialised, in the exact same spot as the photo above.
The town has looked up too, with more expats living there. Read about the best places to eat in my article here – and hopefully this will encourage you to visit, eat and see the wall.