In my previous blog post, I was still only in Jerusalem for a few hours, so I feel I should follow up on my experiences there.
First, I was privileged to visit Bethlehem, the traditional location for the birth of Jesus. Around the exact spot where Jesus is said to have been born (discovered, apparently, by the mother of the Emperor Constantine somewhere around 300 CE) there are several churches that have been built on top of each other, including Greek Orthodox, Armenian, and Roman. Today, they are easily toured by people like me, and they all revere, above all else, the holy site where Jesus was born (as marked by the silver star on the ground).
Beyond the religious importance of Bethlehem, and more interesting to me, was the modern political conflict over the area. Two of the most pressing issues for Israel and Palestine today are settlements (illegally built on Palestinian territory in contrast to the 4th Geneva Convention) and the wall (illegally built on Palestinian territory according to the International Criminal Court). The Israeli settlements in Bethlehem are illegally built beyond the 1967 borders of Israel and, thereby, on lawful Palestinian territory. In Bethlehem, they are the most prominent sight from “Shepherd’s Field”, where (according to the bible) an angel descended upon the shepherds and informed them that Jesus had been born nearby, and that they should probably go by and say hello (or something like that). The settlement today stands in stark contrast to historic Bethlehem, a town of small buildings and modest heritage.
Intimately tied to the settlement of Bethlehem is the wall. Perhaps I am being unfair, because the Israelis call it nothing but a fence, to ensure their security, but the Palestinians call it wall (as do much of the international community). I should be more fair and only use the term barrier (both fences and walls are barriers). I’ll just recommend that they reader view my photos of the barrier and decide for themselves what to call it. Moreover, I think it’s pertinent for anyone to see my video of the barrier for two reasons: first, it is a simply astonishing accomplishment of military security, and second for the graffiti. The graffiti on the wall is haunting and inspiring. We see messages from local children, writing “Make hummus not walls” on the same stretch as a work by Banksy, the internationally acclaimed street artist. One can also glean an understanding of the Palestinian perspective by looking at the wall, for example the remarkable spray-painted portrait of Leila Khaled, an activist/terrorist for the People’s Front for the Liberation Palestine (and terrorist organization) that hijacked an airplane in order to bring attention to their cause*.
My second stop in Palestine was Hebron, which was an even more impressive experience. In Hebron, there live about 400 Israeli settlers (illegal), with thousands of Israeli Defense Force soldiers there to protect them from the tens of thousands of Arabs that live in the city. Besides being the only tourist in the city, the most surreal experience was walking with my cab driver to the Al-Haram Al-Ibrahim Sharif mosque which, in order to get in, required us to go through multiple levels of security checkpoints. I come from small-town Texas where any street corner without a church is wrong, so to imagine having to walk through airport-like security to visit a place of worship struck me as odd, to say the least. Adjacent to the mosque is a barb-wire secured, walled in military compound to maintain the security of the Israeli citizens there. In one of the attached photos, you can see the minaret of the mosque alongside the guard tower of the Israeli compound.
Despite the horror stories of apartheid, my time in Palestine was fantastic, and I hope to return soon. It was an absolutely enlightening trip.
And on the subject of enlightenment, after returning from Palestine to Jordan I had final exams, and at this point I am two classes closer to graduation! Tonight my program is hosting a farewell dinner for those of us that have completed our programs (many are staying on a bit longer), and I am personally packed and ready to depart Jordan for Egypt! The experience has been magnificent, and I am sorry that it has to end, but I’m also excited for the next seven days. In this time, I will spend two days in Egypt, Lebanon, and (perhaps the most dangerous foreign country of all) Texas. On my horizon are the pyramids, the Mediterranean Sea, and seeing my family for the first time in seven months. I could not be more excited, and I look forward to checking in once more next week.
*NOTE: Leila Khaled never killed anyone during her two plane hijackings, which perhaps makes her a better example for young Palestinians struggling for freedom, than Hamas, who openly and willingly do violence against innocent people, whereas Leila Khaled never did. Of course, this does not make her an ideal example. Palestine would be well served by the teachings of Martin Luther King.