I wanted to visit Palestine to see life on the other side of a news camera. To challenge my American pro-israel beliefs and look for another perspective. I expected my trip to the West Bank would be like visiting another country. One deteriorating from the conflict and Israeli control of goods and people. Instead a 5 shekel bus dropped me at Bethlehem Checkpoint 300 where I simply walked through a few long passageways and several metal turnstiles. In the ease of access I felt like I missed security some how.At the exit into Palestine I was greeted by the usual dozen hungry taxi drivers after an insatiable desire to convince confused tourists their services are worth much more than real prices. 100-150 shekels for a tour of three churches, a refugee camp and Israeli wall art. In actuality, the art and refugee camp is 0.5 miles down the street and the churches two miles from the checkpoint requiring just one right turn at a sign that says city center. They will play on your emotions describing how hard it is to live here even if you agree to another destination or price. This really bothered me, but luckily this is the only obstacle I was exposed to in Palestine.
The street art on the Israeli wall near the contentious Rachael’s Tomb is one of the most awe stricking living canvases I’ve ever seen. It’s clear it changes often with popular culture references to Rick and Morty and of a president Trump. The art ranges from large 15 ft high pieces to smaller contributions. One addition featured hundreds of posters in English sharing short stories of Palestinians, many highlighting Israeli abuses or injustices. The art was emotional. Themes of injustice, begging for peace and angry resistance permeated.
The main art ends at Racheal’s Tomb were frequent protests, stonings and clashes can happen and thus soldiers are visible in the towers and walking along the wall base. Here the common referral of the West Bank being an open air prison feels most relevant.
Just down the street from Rachaels Tomb is the Refugee “Camp” which is really a city with buildings slightly less nice than those of the rest of Bethlehem. Likely because these refugees have been here for 60 years since the creation of Israel. Walking down these small streets I saw posters of machine gun holding men, seemingly in tribute, and the celebratory adornment of street walls celebrating a house members completion of their pilgrimage to Mecca.
On the wall past Rachael’s Tomb the art picks up again but is less curated with big pieces. You must walk along the wall through rubble instead of a street or path to view it and it feels edgy. I turned around at one point when I felt I had strayed enough from the tourist track to have one adolescent follow me and yell hey (in a friendly way that his hurried body position did not reflect) while kicking or throwing stones at a metal wall of an abandoned warehouse to the sound of large booms. This and the taxi drivers were the only times I felt on edge, walking the refugee streets felt comfortable and other people had told me it was safe.
Backtracking a bit to the Main Street, I passed a sign for the WIAM Palestinian Conflict Resolution Center inviting people to come talk. Curious, I walked in and was soon greeted by Mohammed. WIAM’s stance is they are not pro-Palestine or Pro-Israel but Pro-Justice through non violent resolution. I talked with him for an hour in what felt a very open and vulnerable conversation. I’ll provide the details of that conversation and my reflections below but I want to give my whole experience in Bethlehem first.
After that visit, I had a desire to see the real Palestine and get a feel for life here. I walked to the city center where most shops were closed for the holidays but I found one store open for falafel. The main site people come to see (Church of The Nativity) was undergoing massive restoration (done in December) so there was much sightseeing for me as I began to loop back along streets providing a view of the city built on rolling hills and rounded a labeled military area on my map for the Palestinian Police. The place felt safe like Jerusalem but with slightly smaller streets and slightly less quality infrastructure. I saw a couple Christian priests walking the streets as well as the the progressive Muslim style I found in Jordan. I did not find a dangerous place with rubble buildings with an edge of violent protest like I expected.
Crossing back through the checkpoint I had to present my passport and put my bag through the scanner as an additional step compared to the entrance but it was pretty relaxed. Back in Israel, I soon found all busses had stopped for the Shabbat (Sabbath, day of rest) so instead of taking a taxi I walked from Bethlehem four miles back to my hostel.
Sometimes I asked questions and sometimes Mohammed shared. In all, he sounded very compassionate, tired and matter of fact. The message from Mohammed was that Zionism (the creation of Israel in the 40s) made millions of refugees as land was allocated to the state of Israel. The six day war was because of anger over that displacement. Not an attack against a religion. Which makes sense considering how often religious motivation covers more practical goals or grievance.
Unfortunately, those events happened and are in the past. Palestinians today are tired of conflict. They just want peace and equal rights. He tells me Palestinians are not identified by Israel as citizens but called residents or something like Jordanian refugees. He told me when the soldiers left Bethlehem he was one child giving soldiers flowers even through two of his friends (10 and 12 yrs old) had been killed by Israeli troops.
He continues to provide facts that 55% of Israelis in a recent poll believe the Arabs should simply be exiled. That 87% of Bethlehem cannot be visited by a Palestinian due to military checkpoints, based and settlements. The city itself is surrounded by 22 Israeli settlements slowly being annexed to Israel. That 70% of water in the West Bank goes to Israeli settlements 30% to Palestinians. Israel controls everything here and Palestinians have to get a permit to visit frequently separated family across the checkpoint in Jerusalem. Yet this is not recognized as occupation in Israel even though military, not civil law governs here.
We talk about extremism and he tells me only 1% or the people have engaged in violence resistance. Explains that there are extremists on both sides. Israeli zionists throw stones at cars on Saturday because you are not supposed to drive your car on Shabbat. He shows me a video of a young adult shouting into his phone camera that this is their (Israel’s) land and they will kill everyone on it.
In asking how and why this is happening, Osama describes how Israel has the backing of the power of US so they can do whatever they want and have no desire for peace because they have that power. Until they receive pressure, they will not change.
Similarly, the Israeli government is using this Palestinian threat as a uniting call to action. The country would be very divided without it. Externally, this conflict is used by many countries, etc. for their own means which makes any solution very difficult.
He told me he wants a one state solution with equal rights and justice. With equality, there will be nothing to resist or fight against. There will be peace.
The two state solution he sees as a delaying tactic. However, the Jewish settlements are killing the two state option because those settlements would have to Palestinian.
I wanted to go to the Zionist Museum to get an alternate viewpoint but it was closed on Shabbat. In closing on the conversation, I didn’t agree with everything Osama had said but I felt I received a much more balanced perspective of the region. My final question to Osama was what he thought my role was. In answer he told to ask others to come here and see for themselves. Clearly absent (to me) was any request to further his views or agenda. I highly recommend stopping here and going on a WIAM led tour through real Palestine. Stay a night in Bethlehem to make that possible.