12 August 2007

12 August 2007 - Bethelehem, behind the wall

On the way back from Hebron to Jerusalem on Thursday, I asked the tour leader if he would mind dropping my friend and I off at Bethlehem. We descended from the bus and walked about a quarter of a mile to the military checkpoint, the only way to pass through the security barrier. Israeli citizens are no longer allowed to visit Palestinian Authority territory; only those with foreign passports can cross over.

It was early afternoon, and the checkpoint was largely empty, save for a few Arab workers returning from jobs in Israel and a couple of Arab women crossing in the opposite direction. The guard on duty studied our passports for a long time before waving us through. Outside, the eight-metre-high wall loomed, covered with official posters proclaiming “love and peace,” almost embarrassing in their colorful irony.

We passed through a gate in the wall, and found about a dozen taxis waiting on the other side. The drivers suddenly sprang into action. We soon found out that we were the first tourists that day—at 2:30 p.m. Our driver offered to take us to all the holy sites we had time to see, plus a souvenir store and a restaurant. We agreed, not only because we were curious and hungry, but also because we pitied him somewhat.

The streets of the city were beautiful, clean, golden—but absolutely dead. Shuttered stores, empty sidewalks, and few cars. It was the hottest time of day, so we though it possible that people were taking their siesta. But the tourist sites were also deserted. The only place that showed any real sign of life was the Church of the Nativity, and even that was quieter than I had expected it to be.

Our guide, who had chatted to us in Hebrew most of the way, told us to switch to English as we approached the church. I soon understood why: the entrance was guarded by a black-uniformed soldier of the Palestinian Authority security forces. Our guide did not want to us to be seen as Israelis, nor himself to be seen as a collaborator. We walked briskly across Manger Square and into the church itself.

A common experience I have had at holy sites—Jewish, Muslim and Christian—is that they are rarely maintained well. The church was no exception; only the Roman Catholic section seemed to receive regular attention. I lent a woman my pen to write a prayer note; there were several boxes for the purpose, which reminded me of the notes at the Western Wall. God seems to have many addresses.

Afterward, we walked across the square to a restaurant where I had the best falafel I have ever tasted. I was told, by way of explanation, that the cook changes the olive oil every hour instead of every day, as is apparently the norm. From there we paid a visit to the Milky Grotto. We had stopped by the Shepherds’ Field on the way to the church; now, however, there was no time to visit anything else.

Back through the wall and the checkpoint, and out into the street beyond. A group of Arab buses waited to take us back to Jerusalem on a ride that cost less than a dollar and took about five minutes. I had forgotten how close the two cities were. If not for the second intifada, there would have been no need for walls and fences, and the streets of Bethlehem would sing with life. What a terrible self-imposed disaster.


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