On our second evening in Bethlehem, I was invited by a friend of another volunteer to stay in his aunt’s guesthouse. Situated in West Bethlehem it is near to the Bethlehem 300 Israeli checkpoint – the connection for internationals and ‘permitted’ Palestinians between the city and Jerusalem.
I wasn’t ready for what awaited us.
In 2002, during the Second Intifada, Israel started to construct a 700 kilometre barrier around the West Bank. The wall violates international law and fails in numerous places to match the ‘green line’ – the West Bank zone that was agreed after the 1967 war. The majority of the barrier is fenced but, in sensitive places, a concrete wall with watch towers was created.
In Bethlehem the wall dividing the city from Israeli settlements and the contested capital of Jerusalem stands 30-feet high and cuts through the road that used to be the main route between the two cities.
Fadi is a Palestinian Christian whose family has always lived in Bethlehem. His aunt’s guesthouse sits a few metres away from Rachel’s Tomb – a highly significant Jewish landmark.
But you can’t see Rachel’s Tomb from the guesthouse. In fact, you can’t see very much at all. The only thing you can see, looking out the window, is the 30-foot wall. On three sides – at times by only a few metres – the house is enclosed. It’s a concrete cul-de-sac that is dramatic, brutal and almost impossible to take in or understand.
Fadi in his Aunt’s Street
Israeli watchtower in the street
Clare (Fadi’s aunt) isn’t even allowed to go onto her roof without permission from the Israeli authorities. I can’t imagine those wanting to visit the sacred shrine of Rachel’s tomb are particularly enamoured either. They have to go to the checkpoint in a vehicle and then are directed to drive down a road that is flanked on either side by the concrete barrier walls.
The Bethlehem Walls have been turned into a dramatic artistic statement of peaceful protest. Banksy is among the famous artists that has contributed to the colourful wrapping that seeks to dampen the depressing nature of the stark grey concrete that surrounds these local communities.
Make hummus not walls
Banksy artwork on the walls
Aida Refugee Camp
Fadi took us on a tour of the walls that culminated in a visit to Aida refugee camp – one of three that exist in Bethlehem.
In 1948, after the British had left Palestine, the resulting Arab-Israeli conflict meant that around 85% of Palestinians had to leave their homes. According to testimonies we were told on our tour, many were instructed to temporarily leave their homes and, because of the urgency, were unable to take any possessions. They were assured that they would return home soon.
The vast majority left with only the clothes on their backs and their front door key. The majority never returned home. As you enter the Aida refugee camp, you are confronted with an arch, adorned with a giant key – a powerful reminder to residents.
Boy in Aida Camp
Key at entrance to Aida Camp
The Aida camp now stands at about 5,000 people according to official UN figures. It sits a stone’s throw away from Bethlehem’s plush Intercontinental Hotel. In fact Fadi told us that, in order to enlarge the Hotel, the owners struck a deal with the Camp whereby a few houses would be demolished to make way for new buildings. In return, the Hotel would ensure that 50% of its employees came from the Camp. Unemployment remains a major issue.
The walls and Camp present an image that is as far removed from the little town we see on Christmas cards and in nativity scenes.
While crowds of tourists make the day trip to see the Church of the Nativity during the day (the town is almost devoid of foreigners in the evening), Bethlehem has another dramatic, contemporary story on its doorstep that needs to be told.
The Church of the Nativity
The Nativity Grotto
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