I apparently suck at blogging. I keep making notes in my book about everything I want to write here and then, when online, I get so absorbed in email that I totally forget to blog. My apologies that this post is so long, but it's four days worth of thoughts and ramblings...
I arrived in Bethlehem on Saturday. I was told by several people to take the Beit Jalla service because it avoids checkpoints. Most of the travel advice I get here involves minimizing checkpoint stops. Driving into town I saw the Apartheid Wall for the first time. I want to say that I was overwhelmed with anger and sadness, but it was so surreal that I felt kind of numb. It wasn't until I was actually standing beside the Wall that I started to feel just how oppressive this structure really is. The part of the Wall I saw first surrounds Rachel's Tomb - a site that is holy to Christians, Muslims and Jews. The Israelis have stolen Rachel's Tomb by circling it with the Wall. The Tomb is within Bethlehem itself, so the wall does one of its characteristic loops in to grab what the Israeli's want. The Wall then continues to confiscate land belonging to the villages surrounding Bethlehem. These villages are particularly targetted because they sit on some of the most water rich land in the area. The path of the Wall, of course, ensures that the Israelis capture as much water and good farmland as possible. The result is that travel takes much longer than it should and here in Bethlehem, perhaps the biggest issue is the cutting off of access to Jerusalem, which is a really short distance away. One of the people I was driving with commented on the fact that he hasn't been to Jerusalem in almost 10 years, because he only has West Bank ID and West Bank plates - he can't legally go to this neighbouring city.
I also had my first encounter, at least visually, with a settlement here in Bethlehem. From the window of the room I'm staying in you can see the massive settlement of Gilo, just across the valley from Bethlehem. Pretty much everywhere you go in this area you can see a settlement, the Wall or both.
Last night we had dinner at someone's house in Beit Sahour and everyone kept commenting on how nice her view was because you couldn't see any settlements. Here that's quite a privilege. Even though there are no Israeli soldiers patrolling the streets these days (they are still at the border with the Wall and make frequent incursions to arrest people), the Israelis are everywhere.
On my first night here, I went with a bunch of people who work at Badil - the Resource Centre for Palestinian Residency and Refugee Rights - to a village called Batteer. It is by far the most beautiful place I've ever been. The village is built on a hill, overlooking the valley where the Green Line is. There is an ancient aquaduct system that sends water down to farmland that has been carved into the mountains. We hiked down, took in the view and ate fruit and nuts (I am so urban and ridiculous, I didn't know how almonds grew - I do now) fresh off the trees. We then had dinner at a small restaurant that overlooks the same valley. We watched the sun set - it was incredible. This is part of why I wanted to come here - we talk so much about the settlements, occupation and apartheid, but one of the biggest tragedies of Israeli Apartheid that I don't hear about too often is the confiscation and destruction of such an incredibly beautiful land. Coming from Canada, the commodification and destruction of natural beauty feels too familiar. I want to find ways of bringing this into the political analysis more often.
Some pictures of Betteer:
Yesterday, I got a tour of the Old City of Bethlehem. Between Jerusalem and Bethlehem, I have been in more churches this weekend than I have in my entire life. One would think that the fact that the Church of the Nativity and other sites holy to Christians are in the West Bank would lead to problems for the Israelis. Not so. There are tons of Israeli tour companies that escort tourists from Jerusalem to Bethlehem, drop them right at the holy sites and pick them up promptly before they can shop in Palestinian tourist areas. They then whisk them back to the Israeli side of the Wall, where they can buy Israeli tourist products. These buses get to sail through checkpoints so the tourists aren't bothered by the Occupation. I knew this practice has been devastating for the Palestinian tourism economy, but it becomes so clear when you see what must have been a bustling tourist centre, now reduced to a few shops.
This afternoon I'm heading to the Ibdaa cultural centre at the Deheishah refugee camp, which is in Bethlehem. Yesterday I visited the Azza camp, which is the smallest camp in the West Bank, with around 2000 people. I got to drink tea and listen to stories about the invasion during the 2nd Intifada. I was shown before and after pictures of the destruction caused by the Israelis. There are still bullet holes in many buildings, but for the most part, homes have been repaired, as has the Paradise Hotel which was occupied and blown up by the Israelis during the invasion. Apparently the UN helps pay for these repairs - this begs the obvious question about why they aren't doing anything to stop the destruction in the first place, but I think we all know the answers to that question.
I promise to try to blog more often. Hope everyone back home is doing well!