Around the Middle East
in 80 days

February 25th to May 14th, 2004

Part 9:

The West Bank

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Recent history

In 1947, the UN voted to partition Palestine in a jewish and an arab part of about equal size (map). When the British left in 1948, a war broke out between jewish militia and invading Arab forces. The latter were soundly defeated and only held the Gaza strip and the West Bank. In the war of 1967 Israel conquered those territories as well, but these conquests were never internationally recognised and every peace plan aims at transforming them into a separate Palestinian state in return for an Arab pledge to leave Israel in peace.

After decades of resistance, most of the Arab world is now prepared to make that pledge, but since 1967 Israel has colonised ever larger chunks of the West Bank, the biblical land of Judea and Samaria, with the openly declared purpose of making them an inseparable part of Israel by establishing facts on the ground. In direct violation of the peace agreements that have been signed during the last decade, Israel has continued to found new West Bank colonies and expand existing ones.

Israel doesn't want to annex all of the West Bank because that would eventually create an Arab majority within Israel. The strategy of recent Israeli governments has been to concentrate the Palestinian population into ever shrinking pockets of land around their major cities. From a purely practical point of view, ignoring such things as common decency and human rights, this is an excellent strategy.

Meanwhile the only organised Palestinian resistance has come from islamic extremists who deny Israel the very right of existance and terrorise its population with cowardly and barbaric attacks. This has been a self-defeating strategy that plays right in the hands of the religious and political right in Israel, as it pushes the moderate majority of Israelis into their camp.

March 26th - April 1st (days 31-37): Jerusalem

Jerusalem? Didn't we already have this? Yes we did, but it was during the week that I stayed in Jerusalem that I made the trips into the West Bank that I will describe here. First I want to tell about the hostel I stayed in, as it was a rather special place.

Faisal Hostel

While preparing my journey I'd read somewhere that the Faisal hostel is the best place to stay if you want to make excursions to the West Bank, as both the owner and the guests have up to date information on where you can go go and where you should't go. So when I arrived in Jerusalem I headed there and got a bed in one of the 12-person dorms, the only accomodation available. I'd stay a whole week.
The Faisal hostel is pretty big and there were over 50 guests there, but I was one of the few if not the only ordinary tourist there. All the people I met there were either (aspiring) journalists or activists. Many of them were there for a long time and they all knew each other, so the place had a nice community spirit. At first I was a bit of an outsider but I gradually got to know the regulars. There were some damn interesting people there, and I want to mention a few of them:
  • An all-American looking Californian guy who was actually an activist devoted to the Palestinian cause with a very deep passion. Though generally cheerful he'd get all angry and upset when talking about the injustices he'd witnessed. He was the archetypical activist and while I don't share the black&white vision those guys generally have, I do admire their dedication and idealism.

  • A Welsh photographer/cameraman who came to the West Bank whenever he found a budget. Israel tries to keep out activists and independent journalists heading for the occupied territories, but he'd managed to enter the country by telling the border guards he was going to make a documentary about the house music scene in Tel Aviv, adding some rave comments about Israeli DJ's he didn't know - funny story. Another one of his many stories was that when he went to interview a Palestinian family living in the shadow of the security wall, Israeli soldiers who had first tried to discourage him interrupted the interview by tossing a teargas grenade at them.

  • A freelance Basque cameraman/journalist who was the most professional of the bunch. One evening he was wowing the group with images of his attempt to visit a jewish settlement that day. It ended with the settlers' kids throwing stones at him and armed colonists driving him out.

  • A fat British woman who looked like a thirteen in a dozen housewife but was actually a very efficient member of a peace group that monitors the Israeli army's activities inside the West Bank. One evening I saw her in action and I was much impressed.

    Members of her group in the field called her to report that a small band of Israeli soldiers were misbehaving in some remote Palestinian village, scaring children with their machineguns. For the next few hours she bombarded Israeli army representatives with polite but firm phone calls to report the case and inquire what they were going to do about it. In the end she got to speak to the Israeli army's official spokesman, who promised to make inquiries and call her back. To his credit, he did actually call her back about an hour later, though he couldn't say much more than that those soldiers were on a routine patrol in that village.

    It may seem like she didn't achieve much, but she made the question what those soldiers were doing in that place go around the army's internal channels, and perhaps that made a difference. If that particular band of soldiers had a cowboy mentality, getting questions from HQ may make them think twice about their behaviour. In general, I think it's very good to let an occupying army know that they're being watched, so I very much respect the work of this woman and her group.

  • A Japanese journalism student who had just spent several weeks in Iraq on his own. He was traveling through the world's trouble zones to get experience with danger, as he put it. He seemed a bit smarter than the average thrill seeker but I still think he lacked responsibility and purpose. Recently a Japanese backpacker got kidnapped and beheaded in Iraq, which reminded me of this guy.
In the evenings the journalists and activists would usually be sharing their experiences of the day, understandably bragging a little when they'd been in a firefight or something. They were a cheerful and very likable bunch. The hostel owner is a fatherly Palestinian whose advise about the accessibility and safety of certain places always turned out to be accurate and up to date, so his hostel really was the best base for West Bank trips.

The most likable residents of the hostel were a bunch of tiny kittens though. They lived in the kitchen and were taken care of by the guests.

March 27th (day 32): Hebron

Since I'd very much been looking forward to visiting the West Bank, I immediately went there after my first night in Jerusalem. I chose Hebron as my first destination.


Hebron is an ancient city. According to the bible and tradition, the jewish patriarch Abraham bought a cave and some land there 3800 years ago, and centuries later David was anointed king over Judah there and made it his first capital. Abraham's cave became a holy place for jews as he and other jewish patriarchs supposedly lie buried there. In the 12th century, when the region had become predominantly islamic, the muslims built the Ibrahimi Mosque over it, as Abraham (Ibrahim in Arabic) is also a holy figure in islam.

Throughout the centuries a small Jewish community survived in Hebron, but in 1929 it was partly massacred by Arabs during anti-zionist riots, and in 1936 the last jews were evacuated by the British after more riots.

The Hebron settlers

After Israel conquered the West Bank in 1967, religious settlers built a new jewish community next to the old Hebron, and later some of them moved into the city itself, literally driving Palestinians out of their homes. These Hebron settlers are generally considered to be the most extremist among the whole settler movement. Although they number less than 500 in a town of over a 100 000 Palestinians, their leaders openly call for more Palestinian neighbourhoods to be cleared to make more room for them.

In recent years the settlers in Hebron have been involved in a lot of deadly violence with Palestinians, as well as regular clashes with Israeli policemen and soldiers. Having also been regular targets of Palestinian terrorists themselves, they view their own violence as justified self-defence. One such act of self-defence saw them embark on a rampage through a Palestinian neighbourhood, randomly shooting into houses and attacking Palestinians of all ages in what can only be called a pogrom. Even pre-1929 jewish inhabitants of Hebron have issued a statement to condemn their actions and distantiate themselves from them. Their web site looks peaceful enough though.

Ride to Hebron

The minibus ride to Hebron was an interesting experience in itself. As soon as we came in sight of an Israeli checkpoint, all the Palestinians in the minibus (i.e. everyone but me) got their passports ready and reached for their seat belt, putting it on quickly and frantically urging me to do the same.

This is curious because Arabs never wear seat belts. "If Allah wants me to die in a car accident there is nothing I can do about it anyway" is the general explanation, but it's just macho behaviour really. But apparently Israeli soldiers give them trouble if they don't wear their seat belts, and as I first witnessed here, most Palestinians are just eager to stay out of trouble.

It's kind of funny and ironic to see the Israeli army enforce security measures on Palestinians. Whether it is out of concern for their safety, or just another way to harass them, I can't say. In any case, as soon as there were no more soldiers in sight, everyone took off their seat belt again and laughed sheepishly. I saw this ritual repeated a dozen times. Always keen to immerse myself in local culture, I just played along.

Walking through Hebron

The minibus dropped us of in the center of Hebron. I'd come here to get a feel of the town in general and to see the Ibrahimi mosque in particular, so I asked which direction that was in and started walking, memorising places along the way so I'd be able to trace my way back. At first I walked through a street market and except for some UN presence everything seemed pretty normal.
Then at the end of the market I saw a street that was completely blockaded for no apparent reason. I assume there are settlers living there but didn't see any sign of life.
Beyond this point the city became desolate and the scenery changed completely. I now saw bunkers, roadblocks and abandoned buildings everywhere and felt very much inside the West Bank. I passed an Israeli army unit that was slowly patrolling the neighbourhood and stopping regularly to search buildings.
A bit further I had to turn back because the end of the street I was in was blocked. Some old Palestinians were sitting on the street in front of the blockade and were checking me out curiously, so I walked up to them and asked how I could get beyond the blockade. It turned out I just had to walk around the block, so I asked why the blockade was even there then. They just threw their arms in the air and said "we don't know!" and pointed to the army patrol which was standing still behind me. They were cheerful enough though, and with their permission I took a nice picture of them in front of the blockade.
I walked around the block and found a desolate crossroad guarded by several army bunkers (one on the street, two on the rooftops). If any picture sums up the effects of the West Bank occupation, I think it's this one.

The perfect souvenir

When I got near the Ibrahimi mosque I passed a lot of small shops that were closed, but one was still in business and since I was the only living soul there I couldn't refuse the shop owner's plea to come inside and check out his wares without being rude. He showed me some cloths, hand-made by women in Palestinian refugee camps, but I wasn't interested in any of it.

Fortunately though, just as I was about to leave I spotted something very interesting: a baseball cap made of the cloth that is normally used for the Palestinian head-dress made famous by Arafat: black and white instead of the usual red and white and with a barbed wire pattern. This I wanted! I hardly ever buy souvenirs, but as you can guess from the many times I mentioned it in my travel log and my report, I was very happy with this cap.

I like it so much because it is at once authentic and ridiculously touristy, and because it is totally original; I never saw it anywhere else. I wore it a lot during the rest of my journey, and often Arabs who saw me wearing it would laugh and yell "hey Arafat!" to me. They invariably called it a "chairman Arafat cap" so that's what I call it too.
In Jerusalem my cap attracted the attention of the souvenir shop owners and one wanted to know where I had found it, so I wouldn't be surprised if they'll be mass-producing and selling them in Jerusalem's souvenir shops within a year :)

The Ibrahimi mosque

Finally I arrived at the Ibrahimi mosque, which I already talked about above. As it is a holy site for both religious jews and muslims, it is as hotly contested as Temple Mount in Jerusalem. Since 1967, part of the 12th century mosque has been forcefully converted into a synagogue.

In 1994, the mosque made world news when a local settler by the name of Baruch Goldstein entered it with a machinegun and opened fire on the muslims praying inside, killing 29 of them and wounding a hundred more before being killed himself. While this act was condemned by almost all Israelis, Goldstein became an instant hero with the most extreme among the settlers, who still hold pilgrimages to his grave.

Nowadays the two parts of the building are being kept strictly separated (map) to prevent further violence, meaning that neither side can visit the whole site and all the tombs in it.

The big square in front of the mosque was just as desolate as the part of Hebron I'd just walked through. A few Israeli soldiers were guarding a line of metal detectors which is the entrance for muslims. Three Palestinians were sitting in front of a nearby shop, and another group of Israeli soldiers had parked their vehicles on the other side of the square and were hanging around, apparently taking a break. Those were all the people I saw there.
When I wanted to enter the mosque, the soldiers told me the mosque was closed for visitors because it was a saturday (the jewish shabbat) and that I should come back another day. This was a blow for me since I really wanted to visit the mosque, so I argued with them for a while. It didn't make much sense that I shouldn't be allowed to visit a mosque on shabbat, and they didn't seem very certain about what to do with me either.

When the soldiers stopped talking back I wandered off, sat down near the group of Palestinians and had a smoke. They soon started talking to me, asking me where I was from and what I was doing there and if I'd heard about Goldstein. When I explained my situation, one of them called out to the soldiers at the entrance and then walked over to them to ask them to let me in. Apparently the Palestinians and the Israeli soldiers are on relatively friendly terms here, probably because the soldiers have been more busy protecting the local people against the settlers than the other way around.

When the Palestinian got back he said the soldiers were finding out if they could let me in, and indeed I saw one of them talking in a radio. In any case I'd have to wait until noon prayers were over, so I started wandering around the square to take some more pictures.

When I got near the second group of soldiers, who were just hanging around and relaxing, they called out to me and asked to see my camera. I thought they were going to give me trouble, but it turned out they were just interested in the camera and I ended up demonstrating its functions to them. Nice guys. I wasn't surprised when later the journalists in my hostel told me that the soldiers in Hebron generally take more of a liking to the Palestinians than to the nutty settlers they're supposed to protect.

When I got back to the entrance the soldiers there told me they really couldn't let me in but that I'd be allowed to visit if I came back the next day. Much disappointed I decided to give up and started walking back to where I had come from.

Old Hebron

Since I had plenty of time now I wandered into an interesting side street I'd spotted on my way to the mosque, and ended up in a beautiful part of old Hebron, a maze of alleys that had been very nicely restaurated with EU subsidies, as signs indicated. This pretty much made up for the disappointment at the mosque. Except for old Jerusalem it was the most beautiful urban area I visited in all of Israel and Palestine.
When a few local children spotted me, a bunch of them started chasing me, asking my name and then singing "Filip sayooreh, Filip sayooreh!" until I took pictures of them. I felt like I was in Syria again where all the kids had been just like this. The screen on my digital camera made me the hero of the day again, and when I left they saw me off with many a friendly "bye Filip!" Sweet.

Back to base

After leaving this pretty area I had no problem finding my way back to the lively parts of Hebron and the place where I'd started off. There I was amused to discover that most of the local service taxis (taxis which drive fixed routes, like busses) were old Mercedes limousines.
Notice the green number-plate on the taxi. These are Palestinian license plates, handed out by the Palestinian Authority. While cars with yellow Israeli plates can enter the West Bank, cars with green Palestinian plates can not leave it.

March 29th (day 34): Bethlehem

The day after the trip to Hebron I visited Temple Mount and Yad Vashem in Jerusalem, and the next day I went to a West Bank town again, this time Bethlehem, which lies only some 10km south of Jerusalem.

I probably don't need to tell you that Bethlehem is the birth place of Jesus. For jews though, it is more significant as the place where Rachel (also of bible fame) was buried according to Genesis 48:7. Naturally, both religions have managed to pinpoint the exact locations of these events.

Nowadays, Bethlehem is a Palestinian town with some 184.000 inhabitants, of which 40% are christian and 60% muslim.

Ride to Bethlehem

On this day more than any other I experienced Israel's stranglehold on the Palestinian population, and it started with the ride there from Jerusalem. What used to be a simple 20 minute bus ride now takes two hours. Why? Because Israel recently built a new colony on a hill in the northern part of Bethlehem (pictures below), and this colony has to be shielded off from the Palestinians.

As a result, for a Palestinian (and me, using Palestinian transport) to get from Jerusalem to Bethlehem, only 10km to the south, he first has to make a long bus ride all around Bethlehem, get out, walk through a long muddy, blockaded section of the road on foot (no vehicles can pass), and then get another minibus to enter the city from the south. The colonists on the other hand have a direct route to Jerusalem.

All this has nothing to do with the security of Israel (one checkpoint between Jerusalem and Bethlehem would do nicely), but everything with its territorial expansion and the security of a handful of crazy colonists.
The guy in the right of the picture was a Palestinian who spoke excellent English and switched minibusses with me. As we drove into town we passed a completely destroyed building, and he explained that this had been a police station of the Palestinian Authority. Israeli war planes bombed it in 2002 to punish the Palestinian police for not preventing terrorism. I remember seeing that on TV. I regret I didn't get out of the bus or went back there later to take a picture as it was quite impressive, but here are before and after pictures I found on the web.

Walking through Bethlehem

When we got off the minibus I said goodbye to my companion, who invited me to have tea at his home after I'd toured the city, and then I started walking to the city center. Bethlehem is a pretty city. It is built on hilly terrain which gives it charm, and many of its buildings have been recently restaurated with EU subsidies.

Church of the Nativity

My walk ended on Manger Square, the large square in front of the Church of the Nativity. Until 2002 christian tourists flocked to this place, but now it looked liveless as all the shops that used to cater to tourists were closed. I was apparently the only tourist in town.

Some Palestinians started talking to me, telling me how busy this place used to be and showing me postcards of the festivities on christmas eve 2000 when the pope had been here with thousands of tourists packed on the square. Some of them were christian, some muslim, and they told me there are never any problems between them, "we're all brothers". I saw only reasons to believe them, and I think it's significant and hopeful as it shows that the Palestinian cause has not been completely hi-jacked by islamic extremists yet.
The Church of the Nativity was first built in 325, and destroyed and rebuilt later. Just like the Ibrahimi Mosque in Hebron it looks more like a fortress than a place of worship. In 2002 the Israeli army laid siege on the church for weeks when a group of Palestinian gunmen were hiding inside. That stand-off ended with the gunmen being banned to Europe.

To enter the church you have to go through a very low door called the Door of Humility, designed to force visitors to bow as they enter. The interior is rather sober. Except for a priest I was the only person there.

A stairway beside the altar led to the small crypt of the church where a silver star under an Armenian-style altar supposedly marks the exact location of Jesus' birth. I had the crypt to myself and was perhaps the only person there that day - and to think that this is the second holiest site of the world's biggest religion! I don't think a muslim could dream of ever having Mekka or Medina to himself like this :)


There is another church built against the Church of the Nativity that I also wanted to visit, but it was closed until the afternoon, so I had an hour or two to kill. I figured I'd go see Rachel's tomb, the other holy site in Bethlehem, but back on Manger Square the shop keepers told me the Israeli's have closed off that part of the city and noone can go there anymore.

They told me this in a bitter but resigned way, which seems to be the general Palestinian attitude, but I got very pissed off. Not only do the 100 000 inhabitants of Bethlehem have to make a huge detour to go between their city and their nearby capital so as not to discomfort the few hundred jewish colonists who stole their land, but they've been banned from a whole part of their own city as well. Though it was on the other side of town I decided to go there anyway, to see it with my own eyes and cool my anger on whichever Israeli told me I couldn't go from A to B inside a Palestinian city where he shouldn't even be.

After a half hour walk through Bethlehem I found myself in a deserted main street that now ended in a big concrete blockade. I walked on, expecting to find a guarded passage somewhere in that concrete wall, but was suddenly surprised by a voice shouting at me from above. I looked up and only then noticed there was an armed Israeli soldier standing on top of the guard tower next to the blockade. I guess he was surprised too to see a tourist walking down from the city center.
The soldier kept shouting something I didn't understand in Hebrew, so I kept shouting back "WHAT?" After a while he tried some English and shouted "Can't enter". I shouted back "Why not?" but he didn't seem to really understand English so now we shouted that back and forth a few times. After a while I heard him talk to someone I couldn't see and then he suddenly shouted an answer: "because of Arab terrorists!"

This made me laugh out loud and then fall silent. I wanted to say something like "yeah I'm sure you're hiding a lot of Arab terrorists in there", but it was useless trying to discuss with someone who was standing ten meters above me and didn't know English. I wasn't going to succeed in picking a verbal fight here.

After some thinking I walked back a little, put myself in the middle of the street, got my camera out of my backpack and took the above picture of the blockade. Considering how paranoid Israelis usually are about pictures I figured that would piss them off, but they didn't react. So I packed my camera and started walking back up that road to the city center, telling myself I had to remember that "because of Arab terrorists" line.


I took a different route back to the center and as I climbed a hill I got to see the reason why the inhabitants of Bethlehem are living in a big cage: the brand new jewish colony on a hill just north of the town.
I didn't know anything about it at the time, but meanwhile I've looked up some information on the web. The hill is called Abu Ghnaim and used to house a forest and agricultural land owned by Palestinians. The Israeli government expropriated the land from them, using a law that allows expropriation of land for 'public use' though it was always intended for a jewish colony. The following picture shows the Abu Ghnaim hill before and after.
Special roads, off-limits for Palestinians, connect the new colony with other jewish colonies around Bethlehem, so the town is now unable to grow and sealed off from its surroundings, like many other Palestinian towns. Israel has annexed the colony's territory to Jerusalem, even though it lies right next to Bethlehem

The whole thing made me so angry inside. I know there is much bigger misery than this in the world; there are tyrannic dictatorships, full-scale wars and massive genocides. But to see outright colonialism; the humiliation, oppression and expropriation of one people by another; so plainly before my own eyes shocked me deeply. That evening I concluded my travel log entry with "The local master race requires lebensraum", and I still think that sums up the situation nicely.

It is a tragedy for the Palestinians that they don't have leaders who know how to exploit this situation. I don't believe any decent person could understand what is going on here and not be outraged. The treatment of the Palestinians is every bit as bad as that of the blacks under South Africa's apartheid regime, but they don't have a Mandela or an ANC to expose it and conquer world opinion. Instead they have a corrupt oligarchy, and religious nutcases who commit barbaric atrocities that only divert attention away from Palestinian suffering and allow Israel's fascists to mask their outrageous land grabs as security measures against terrorism.

Around Bethlehem

Walking through Bethlehem I stumbled upon several newly restaurated buildings in a very pretty, mixed Arabic-European style that I only saw in Palestine. The nicest was a hospital. I entered it and walked around a bit, noone seemed to mind.
When I passed a university I went inside and found a lot of students hanging around in the inner garden. It was a christian university but most of the girls were veiled. After all I'd seen this day I very much felt like discussing politics with some smart young Palestinians, so I put myself on a bench and soon enough I was talking to a couple of guys.
When I said where I was from a guy called Fays looked very pleased and told me Belgium is the only country in the world that supports the Palestinians. Since he wasn't selling me anything I assume he really believed that. I guess he was referring to the Sharon trial in Belgium and didn't know that our government had backed off meanwhile.

When the talk turned to the conflict with Israel I tried to say something about how Palestinians are completely failing to use the media to show their situation to the world, but they fell rather silent and I didn't insist. All they commented was "there are terrorists on both sides" which I found a pretty neutral and very respectable opinion for people who are on the receiving end of the conflict.

St. Catherine's church

When I got back to Manger Square I could visit St. Catherine's church, a catholic church which is built against the Church of the Nativity. I'd read that it has excellent wood carvings that show the 15 stages of the crucification. When I saw them I was a bit disappointed at how small and simple they are, but the longer I looked at them the more I liked them, and now I regret I didn't photograph the whole series. Being sparing with my pictures when I didn't need to be, I only got one bad picture of three of them together (cut out below).
Below this church there was a corridor leading to another crypt. It was completely dark down there, so like many times before I was glad I had my flashlight with me. There was nothing to see down there but it was fun anyway.

Milk Grotto Chapel

Not far from the Church of the Nativity is a cave where, according to legend, Mary spilled a drop of milk while breast-feeding Jesus and made the whole cave turn white. The cave really was white long ago, but ironically the generations of pilgrims who entered it with torches have made it completely black. The warden seemed to be glad to see a tourist and turned all the lights on one by one just for me.
When I got out of the chapel I walked through a very pretty street that once had dozens of tourist shops next to each other on both sides of the street. All of them were closed with pretty green shutters before the doors and windows. It was a sight that I remember well because it was so weird and symbolic; I regret I didn't make a picture of it.

Back to Jerusalem

Since I had some time left I started looking for the house of the guy who I'd driven to Bethlehem with to drink some tea, but I didn't find it. What I did find was a reminder of home: a Belgian bus, made by Van Hool like most city busses here. As the sign indicates it once drove the Bethlehem-Jerusalem route, but since Palestinian vehicles aren't allowed out of whatever West Bank pocket they're in anymore it's now a local bus.
Figuring I'd shown enough solidarity with the Palestinians for one day, I decided to take the short route home, through a northern checkpoint that Palestinians are not allowed to pass. I took a taxi there, a long Mercedes limo like the one in Hebron I showed above. Along the way we passed a section of the security fence that is being built around Bethlehem. I asked the driver to stop and got a picture, but I'd get many more and better pictures of the wall a few days later.

When we got near the checkpoint the driver refused to get close to it because last time he did that the Israeli soldiers had damaged his car. He urged me to be careful around the soldiers because they can be violent. This was a funny thing about traveling in this region: the Israelis I talked to would always advise me to stay away from Palestinian areas, while Palestinians would always advise me to stay away from Israeli soldiers. Both were sincere and no doubt speaking out of personal experience, but as a foreigner I was actually safe everywhere and with everyone.
I walked the last 100m to the checkpoint and was surprised to find a group of Brits there. We all had to wait at some distance from the soldiers and approach them one by one to be searched and have our papers checked - an effective measure against suicide-bombers. While queuing at the checkpoint I got another look at the Har Homa colony. Notice the construction machines.
On the other side of the checkpoint I saw the Brits waiting for transport on the deserted street and I joined them. After a while we got talking and it turned out they were all members of a religious charity called Christian Aid. They were making this trip to Jerusalem and Bethlehem to see how their money was being used to help the Palestinians. When they asked if I was also being picked up there, I said no I'm just waiting for a minibus, and they told me there weren't any minibusses coming this way since local people aren't allowed to pass the checkpoint. I guess I should have figured that out myself. They offered me a lift though which I thankfully accepted.

At the time I felt incredibly lucky to have stumbled upon this group coz otherwise I'd have been without transport in this deserted area. But in hindsight it couldn't have taken more than two hours to walk all the way to Jerusalem from there (ironically the same amount of time it takes for Palestinians using a bus), which would have been nice too.

They were a cheerful bunch, a typical open-hearted religious group. I expected them to burst out into song any moment, but instead we just chatted merrily all the way to Jerusalem, where they even had the driver make a detour to drop me off near my hostel. Thank you Christian Aid! :)

March 30th (day 35): Land Day in Ramallah

The next day I was off to yet another Palestinian town, this time Ramallah, the interim capital of the Palestinian Authority (Palestinians claim Jerusalem as their capital of course). I hadn't really planned to go there, but the journalists and activists in my hostel had told me there would be a demonstration in Ramallah because of Land Day, and I wanted to witness that.

On March 30th of 1976 the Israeli army killed six Palestinians who were protesting against the Israeli government's expropriation of their farmland to make room for a jewish colony. Since then March 30th has been a day of national Palestinian protest known as Land Day.

The people from my hostel left for Ramallah at 8am, but I decided to first go check out the Russian church in Jerusalem and head to Ramallah later on by myself, which I did. After the usual minibus/checkpoint/minibus routine I arrived in the center of Ramallah at around 11am. Ramallah is a large modern town with some 200 000 inhabitants, and I'd expected to find it buzzing with an atmosphere of protest, but instead I found a busy town going about its daily life without a sign of revolt anywhere. It turned out the demonstration was on the edge of town and I had to take another minibus there, so I did.

When I finally found the demonstration I had to laugh a bit. I'd expected a loud mass demonstration in the center of town, but instead there were only about a 100 people. When I walked up I found two of my journalist friends from the hotel sitting at some distance with their cameras ready, "waiting for some action" as they put it. Well, they'd get it soon enough; seems like everyone just waited for me to arrive :)

For the past two hours the demonstrators had been chanting and waving flags peacefully in that one spot, which housed construction machines and material for the security wall that was going to be built right here.
Only about half the crowd were Palestinian demonstrators - mostly teenage guys. The rest were journalists and foreign activists, most of who were also filming or making pictures. The abundance of cameras for this small event was a bit comic. For the first 15 minutes I just walked around the crowd, took some pictures myself and talked to the people I knew from my hostel.

There was no hostility in the air, but the protesters had been singing and waving flags in front of the soldiers for two hours now and that was obviously starting to wear off, so there seemed to be a general mood that something had to happen to conclude the demonstration. After a while I saw some kids pick up stones, but others quickly told them to put them down. One or two guys didn't though.

A bit later the Israeli soldiers decided to lend a hand. One of their jeeps tried to drive through the crowd, and that triggered the action. The protesters started pushing against the front of the jeep trying to stop it, the jeep tried to push through anyway, people started screaming and the soldiers started getting nervous.

Then the driver in the jeep hit the gas and pushed through. Everyone jumped aside, except one guy who jumped on the trunk and held tight. The jeep sped away with him sitting on the trunk while other protesters ran behind it and threw stones against it. After 100m the jeep made a 180 degree turn and drove back very fast. The guy on the trunk had somehow managed to stay on top of it, and when the jeep reached the crowd again he elegantly jumped off while it was still driving at high speed, pretty amazing. Later the activists from my hostel told me this guy is actually an Israeli, and that Israeli activists are generally the most dedicated and fanatic. Something to think about for those who think all Israelis deserve to suffer for their government's policies.
Things calmed down for a while and the protestors started singing again, but the atmosphere was more tense now and soon enough a few Palestinian kids who were probably just there for the action threw some stones again. Then the Israeli soldiers suddenly decided to go on the offensive. They started shooting and throwing sound grenades at the crowd.

As this happened just as I was shooting some movies to capture the atmosphere of the demonstration, I actually have the start of the fight on film. The things flying to the right are stones, the things flying left are sound grenades :)

I kept filming until a sound grenade exploded at my feet and made me temporarily deaf on my left ear, which was quite scary. I thought it exploded right at my feet because that's how it felt, but in hindsight it may have been that grenade you see flying to my left and hear exploding just before I stop filming.

I quickly tried to make one more picture before I ran away with the rest of the crowd, but since I had forgotten to put the camera back in picture mode I accidentally started filming again and got a movie of myself running away. There's nothing but ground and my feet to see but I think it has a funny Blair Witch Project feel to it.

For a while I was worried that my ear might be seriously damaged, and I was telling myself "you were supposed to stay out of trouble you fool". But after a minute or two my hearing came back, and my ear didn't bother me anymore, so it was actually nothing compared to that Metallica concert that made my ears whistle for three days once.

The soldiers were now charging, and the protestors fled to the higher ground on the edge of town. I wisely kept to the side now and was perfectly safe, but some of the journalists had gotten caught up in the action.
It was interesting to see the media in action: the soldiers ran behind the fleeing protestors, and the cameramen and photographers ran behind the soldiers. The Welsh guy from my hostel was wearing a rather comic self-made yellow jacket with "TV" on it in big letters, while the Basque had a genuine bullet-proof vest. One cameraman, who looked more professionally equiped than the rest, rather arrogantly yelled at me and some other photographers to get out of his camera's sight. I guess his pictures sell better when there's only violence on them.
Now a stand-off followed, with Palestinian kids who were hiding behind cars, rocks and mudpiles on the hill occasionally leaving that cover to throw stones at the Israeli soldiers. Things were quite relaxed on this side though since the stones didn't reach far enough, so most of the soldiers were just hanging around now, lighting up a smoke and telling the journalists "the show is over guys". Everyone eagerly kept filming and shooting pictures though, including myself. I timed my shots to show the protesters and soldiers in action, and that worked out pretty well I think.
Things could have ended here, but just like there had been some among the Palestinian protestors who had wanted to escalate the demonstration by throwing stones, there were some among the Israeli soldiers who wanted to escalate it further. They kept launching teargas grenades and shooting rubber-tipped bullets at the Palestinian kids.

One soldier in particular was quite simply using the protestors for target practice. For minutes he stood there carefully aiming his rifle and firing shot after shot at them, and noone tried to stop him. Three people, two of them foreign activists, got shot and had to be carried off by a Palestinian ambulance, and I'm pretty sure it was this one asshole who got all three of them.
The stand-off continued while some of the journalists already started sending reports to their employers through the phone, very interesting to see. When things seemed to calm down I decided I'd seen enough and climbed up the hill myself to head back to town. I kept to the side to stay out of the line of fire, but when some Palestinian kids fled in my direction the bullets followed them and I had to run again.
Up on the hill I hung around with the activists from my hostel for a while. They were discussing the events of the day, assessing the damage and giving interviews. That wasn't too interesting so I continued into town and took a minibus back to the center of Ramallah.

The Muqata

I didn't know much about Ramallah as I had no information about it, but I knew one thing I wanted to see there: the Muqata, Arafat's headquarters which got world famous two years ago when the Israeli army laid siege on it for weeks and kept shelling it with artillery, trying to drive out Arafat (but without actually killing him as that would cause a diplomatic outrage). Arafat stood his ground though, and the whole thing just made him more popular, so it was quite a blunder by the Israelis.

I had no idea where in Ramallah Arafat's HQ was, but I found it by just asking everyone I met on the street "Arafat?" after which they'd point me in the right direction. As it turned out it was a very long walk from the city center. One guy who didn't know a word of English walked the last few minutes with me to show me the right way.

The Muqata is a large compound surround by a concrete wall. I found it in what I assume to be pretty much the state the Israelis left it in after their siege: almost completely ruined. I climbed on a fence on the other side of the street to have a look inside.
As you can see, all the buildings in the compound are practically destroyed by Israeli artillery. I guess there must be a maze of cellars below the ground because I don't see where else Arafat and his whole entourage would have lived. According to the Israelis, Arafat provided shelter to around a hundred Palestinian terrorists as well here.

I made a walk around the whole compound. When I'd found the gate, which was half open, I wanted to make some pictures, but the Palestinian soldiers guarding the gate started yelling at me and drove me away. Apparently they're just as paranoid about pictures as the Israelis.

Recently the Muqata was all over the news again when, after two years, Arafat was finally allowed to leave it to get medical treatment in Paris. You may have seen the TV footage of the helicopters landing inside the Muqata to pick him up. As you all know, he didn't make it back.

Qalandya checkpoint

On the way back to Jerusalem I had to go through one of the busiest checkpoints between Israel and the West Bank: Qalandya. As usual everyone had to line up and approach the soldiers one by one, to be searched and have our papers checked.
On 12th August a terrorist from the Al-Aqsa Martyr brigades set off a bomb he'd wanted to smuggle into Jerusalem here, killing two of the Palestinians who were lining up to pass the checkpoint. As usual, all this show of incompetence by Palestinian terrorists achieved was to demonstrate the need for these checkpoints.

Back in the hostel

In the evening the demonstration in Ramallah was of course the main topic of conversation in the hostel. While we were talking, we suddenly saw a news report about the demonstration on the hostel TV, which was on EuroNews, a satellite news station. Of course we all got a kick out of this, especially those of us who appeared on the screen (I didn't).

I was amazed that this little demonstration made it to satellite news. It was very interesting to be able to compare the familiar media coverage of West Bank violence with reality so directly, having personally witnessed it for once. The report didn't mention that the demonstration had been perfectly peaceful for two hours, and only showed footage of the violent ending. On TV the demonstration seemed a lot bigger and more violent than it had really been, because the camera was always zoomed in on the action and never showed the people who were just hanging around. I could see that these images were made by the cameraman who had yelled at me and others to get out of his view.

April 1st (day 37): The Security Wall in Abu Dis

One more day

The day after Land Day I made the day trip to Masada and the Dead Sea. The next day, April 1st, I wanted to head back to Jordan. In the morning I packed my stuff and relaxed a bit in the hostel. When I'd entered Israel two weeks earlier I hadn't been able to cross the border at Allenby Bridge because I'd arrived after 14:30, so this time I intended not to take any chances and head there at noon.

Wrong again. When I started looking for a bus or taxi to the border, it turned out they only left in the early morning because Israel only lets x Palestinians per day cross the border. I was stuck in Jerusalem for another day. I decided to go check out the Security Wall in Abu Dis, a Palestinian suburb of Jerusalem that is famously cut in two by the 9 meter high wall.

The Security Wall

The Security Wall needs little introduction, but let me quickly state my opinion on it. Any country, including Israel, has the right to build what it wants on its territory, including a 9m high wall on its border. However inconvenient it may be for the Palestinians, such a wall would be legal, and in my opinion perfectly justified since it does make it much harder for terrorists to enter Israel.

The problem is not with the wall itself, but with the fact that is not built at the border but instead cuts right through the West Bank, effectively annexing much of it to Israel. When the International Court of Justice declared the wall illegal, it did it for exactly this reason. It's just the latest and best example of Israel masquerading a land grab as a defensive measure.

Israeli politicians cried outrage over the ICJ's decision, cleverly pretending that the ICJ was forbidding the very principle of the wall and thus denying Israel the right to defend itself. Incredibly the international media all reported the ICJ's decision like this. I saw a half hour report on the ICJ's decision on CNN in which the ICJ's actual reason for declaring the wall illegal was only mentioned as a side-thought 20 minutes into the program, and that was about the only time I heard it mentioned.

Abu Dis

A minibus took me to the checkpoint in the wall in Abu Dis. The 9m high wall hadn't been constructed yet here, so there's just a 3m high temporary barrier.
Every time the inhabitants of Abu Dis need to be on the other side of the wall, they have to line up and have themselves searched, which takes quite some time. Since, as I quickly learned, this temporary section of the wall is completely useless to stop terrorists, it really has no other purpose than to oppress and humiliate the local population.

How did I learn this? Well, as soon as I arrived at the checkpoint I went behind the houses to see where the wall was running to, and at less than 100m from the checkpoint I saw two Palestinian kids climb over it, completely unnoticed by anyone but me. They gave me a sheepish smile, and I just smiled back. They were most likely just two adventurous kids saving some time, but if they can get across so easily, so can any terrorist.

Once beyond the checkpoint I tried to walk along the wall, but that was impossible because I couldn't get in between the buildings. Since the terrain was hilly I could see how I could get back to the wall in the distance though. I started walking there, but when a minibus driver approached me we agreed, after much negotiating, that he'd drive me around. His English was pretty good so I got a nice tour.

Last evening in Jerusalem

In the evening I went into the old city one last time and when I passed a barber's shop I decided to get a haircut. In the Arab world everyone walks around with nicely cut hair all the time because getting a haircut is so cheap, so I thought I'd get one too. The barber didn't even ask what I wanted, and instead of giving me the same haircut as everyone else he gave me a sort of Hitlerjugend hairstyle, with my hair split on the side and combed over my forehead. I wonder if it was because he wasn't used to European hair, or because he thought this was European taste :) In any case I looked totally ridiculous, but after washing and combing my hair again it was okay.

I wasn't going to be stuck here for another day, so I had the hostel owner reserve a taxi seat to the border with Jordan for 7am the next morning.

Epilogue: about Palestina

I've already expressed my opinions and feelings about the situation in Palestine above.

The great tragedy and irony of this conflict is that everyone knows the solution, and that majorities on both sides could agree with it: an independent Palestinian state in the Gaza strip and the West Bank, based on the pre-1967 borders but with fair land swaps to allow Israel to keep the big colonies on its border.

The only reason this conflict keeps going on is that a minority of Israelis think they have a god-given right to steal even more land from the Palestinians, and that a minority of Palestinians is helping them gain support by committing barbaric atrocities and making peace seem impossible.

<< Part 8: Jerusalem and Masada    -    Back to Index    -    Part 10: Jordan >>                      

Godsmurf Tue 24 Feb 2009 @ 11:55
About equally funny I'd say. And I have no problem with anyone calling my clothes funny. Still, it's hard to beat men who wear women's shoes and put plastic bags over their big black hats when it rains. But there can never be too much funny-ness in the world so bless 'em.

Marvin Tue 17 Feb 2009 @ 15:02
You keep mentioning the "funny" clothes that religious Jews wear throughout your writings of the Israeli portion of your trip. Are they as funny as the strange copies of middle eastern attire that Catholic priests; nuns; and the Pope wear?
You look strange as well wearing funny European clothes.

My suggestion look in a mirror before you comment on others.

Flylice Tue 10 Jul 2007 @ 09:17
Alright, thanks for helping me waste 3 hrs at work...but anyway great travelog! I'm going to Syria & Jordan in august, but only have 3 weeks :(

Silvia Thu 29 Jun 2006 @ 04:13
I just love your website. It's excellent. Didn't read everything, but great pics.

Godsmurf Mon 10 Apr 2006 @ 13:41
I wouldn't recommend it, based on what a German girl who lived in Damascus told me (cfr the last paragraph of part 5), but on the LP forums I often see female solo-travelers who say they had no problems.

Ira Sun 09 Apr 2006 @ 20:58
Nice pics...very interesting.
Is it safe for a single woman to travel to Syria? Do we have to wear head scarf too?

Zoltan Fri 07 Apr 2006 @ 17:15
Hi Godsmurf!

Excellent site;I spent hours to read Your comments and check out the photos.
Good Job!

zeituni Sun 02 Apr 2006 @ 12:29
Hi again!

According to my sister(who until recently lived in East Jerusalem), there are quite a few Christians living in the old quarter and other parts of Jerusalem. However, they might not use the churches most commonly visited by tourists. When I was there there was also a grand celebration taking place at the convent of St Mary Magdalene and the neighbouring Greek Orthodox convent. There were hardly anyone but Palestinians there, admitedly, some of them were from areas like Bethlehem or Beit'Jallah.

I know I'm not bringing firm statistics to back up this, but that was her notion and my impression as well.

Anyway, just a comment!

Still a very great travelogue! And on point on the Israeli border personnel!

Godsmurf Thu 30 Mar 2006 @ 22:05
Thank you! If you have any questions feel free to ask, my mail is linked at the bottom of each page.

Vedica Thu 30 Mar 2006 @ 09:17
i love your travelogue!! is amazingly interesting!
Am planning a trip to middle east myself (around July - yes i know itll be hot) and your site has been an EXCELLENT guide and resource! thanks for sharing!

cathleen Tue 28 Mar 2006 @ 08:36
great writeing and photos you really have a talent at breaking things down e.i. the formation of the isreali state etc. very objective

Godsmurf Sat 25 Mar 2006 @ 23:04
Thanx for the compliments, glad to have readers :)

Well I'm not sure (I said they're *probably* not christians) but firstly I don't think I ever saw a Palestinian in any of Jerusalem's churches, and secondly I sensed humour instead of devotion in the way they were selling christian souvenirs. But I could be wrong of course. Am I?

zeituni Sat 25 Mar 2006 @ 08:25
Fantastic travelogue! Are you writing a book?

One question however; why do you assume the Palestinians in the Christian quarter are not actually Christians?

hasof_TT Sat 25 Mar 2006 @ 00:11
Great trip report. Was going to just scan, but got intrigued and am reading it word for word. Thanks for sharing!


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