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Middle East » Israel » West Bank » Bethlehem
September 19th 2006
Published: October 6th 2006EDIT THIS ENTRY

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My first view of the Wall from the Palestinian side
So this is sort of a blog within a blog, as it details my daytrip into Bethlehem from Jerusalem, however I figured that since my last blog dealt with Israel, and Bethlehem is clearly not an Israeli city, I should do it separately. I was somewhat nervous about going into the West Bank, given the political situation in the Palestinian territories, however the security situation was stable at the time that I was there, and given that this was probably the best chance I would ever have in my life of seeing Bethlehem, I decided to go for it.

Anyway, for those not familiar with it's location, Bethlehem is in the West Bank, just south of Jerusalem. And while people's definitions may vary slightly of what constitutes the West Bank (the Old City of Jerusalem is technically also the West Bank, however you wouldn't know it by going there as Israel is in full control of it), Bethlehem is by all accounts a full blown West Bank city. It is on the Palestinian side of the 'security fence' (more on that in a minute), it's populated pretty much entirely by Palestinians, not Israelis, and aside from the occasional military invasion,
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located at the site of Jesus' birth, next to Manger Square (aka the parking lot)
Israel really has no presence there. All of which makes it very different from Israel and therefore very interesting to see. Also very easy to get to as it's only about eight kilometres from the Old City of Jerusalem. Once can actually walk there if one has a spare two hours and lots of water to drink. I personally favoured the air conditioned bus #124, which leaves from the Arab East Jerusalem bus station outside Damascus Gate of the Old City (as opposed to the Israeli West Jerusalem bus station. The Israelis and Arabs don't do anything together). The bus drops one off right at the security checkpoint to the Wall, otherwise known as the 'security fence', or 'separation barrier', or 'aparteid wall' depending on one's politics. I personally didn't see anything fencelike about it, what it reminded me of was a prison wall, since there are guard towers every few hundred metres. Effectively what the Israelis are doing is they're building one giant prison wall around the parts of the West Bank that they don't plan on keeping, then they'll just evacuate from the inside of the Wall, seal it up, not let the Palestinians out, and then just
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Greek Orthodox chapel within the church
wash their hands of the whole Palestinian problem and be done with it. So that's my political rant for the day. Feel free to disagree with my assessment.

Moving on, as one would expect, crossing into the West Bank is generally not a problem, at which point one can either walk or take a taxi to continue to the Church of the Nativity, which is the site of the birth of Jesus, and is obviously the main tourist attraction in Bethlehem. Given that I didn't know exactly what direction to go, I opted to take a taxi, and all the Palestinian drivers at the taxi stop were quite happy to see me, as they don't get a whole lot of tourists these days, and were very eager to offer to drive me all over Bethlehem and the surrounding area for the whole day and show me every possible tourist attraction in the area. I apologetically replied that just to the Church of Nativity would be sufficient, which they were disappointed with, but still happy for the business. Then upon getting to the church, as similar scene ensued regarding tour guides for the Church. Getting a guide for the church
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Catholic chapel within the church
is more or less required, since this being the West Bank, it's not like there are audio headphones or self guided tour maps available, so unless one wants to walk around with no idea of the history of anything, a guide is a good idea. My tour guide was an official tour guide certified by the Palestinian Authority, and was acutally quite knowledgeable about the history of the Church.

The Church itself is very old, as there has been a church on that location since about the 4th century AD. It's also very fortresslike it it's outside design, as it's been attacked and fought over many times in it's history, most recently in 2002, when about 200 Palestinians took shelter in the Church to avoid being captured by the Israelis. You can acutally still see some bullet marks in the Church courtyard resulting from that standoff. Similar to the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, various parts of the inside of the Chruch are controlled by different denominations, primarily the Catholic, Greek Orthadox and Armenian churches. This also means that Christmas must be celebrated three times: December 25 (Protestants and Catholics), January 6 (Orthadox Churches), and January 18th (Armenian Church).
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Exact location of the birthplace of Jesus
Again the Armenians feel the need to be different from everyone else. Armenia must be a very strange country if their religion is any indication. So anyway, we walked through the various chapels in the Church, Greek, Armenian, Catholic, then we went down below to the grotto that is said to be the actual cave/stable where Jesus was born. So they have the actual spot where he was born, and then right beside it they have the spot where he lay in his cradle and was visited by the three Wise Men. Quite fascinating to see all of this. So that was the Church of the Nativity.

After the church, my tour guide took me to see Milk Grotto, which is a chapel that commemorates the Lactation of the Virgin Mary, so in other words she breast fed Jesus at that particular spot. For anyone who thinks I'm kidding, I wouldn't be able to make that one up if I tried. You can sure tell when one is in the Middle East, as they to tend to get rather insane over their religion here. So we eventually got to the chapel, which was not all that remarkable, and was
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Israeli settlement in the West Bank
under renovation besides, but along the way my guide made sure to take me through three different souvenier shops to encourage me to spend money in Palestine. Also I think he was related to the owners of at least two of the shops, but this is typical in the middle east with family and business intertwining. I did buy a few items, such as a T-shirt and a small wooden carving, mainly because I could see that Bethlehem depends alot on tourist income, yet there were virtually no tourists present, so I felt bad because they definately needed the income. It's kinda sad, as the Church is well worth seeing, and if it were located virtually anywhere else it would be filled with tourists, and yet because it is in the West Bank, there were mabye five other tourists the whole time I was there.

So that was pretty much the end of my tour through Bethlehem. My guide made one last attempt to get me to take an extended tour with him, going to all the sites around the Bethlehem countryside, which was very tempting, but unfortunately I only had one day left before I had to leave
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Note how it cuts right through Bethlehem
for Egypt, and there was alot left in Jerusalem that I had yet to see, so I had to turn him down, which I again felt a little guilty about, since it was looking as though I would be his only source of income for that day. Depending on tourism to make a living can be very difficult when there are no tourists. So he settled by giving me his business card, and implored me to come back soon to see more of Bethlehem, and to tell everyone I knew to come to Bethlehem and to contact him for a tour. I pledged to remember this, bade him goodbye, and then proceeded to walk back to the Wall checkpoint. It was actually quite easy to get to by walking as opposed to taxi, and this way I was able to get a better feel for Bethlehem. Clearly not an Israeli city, and also down on it's luck of late, primarily I think because of the Second Palestinian Intifada in 2000, and the subsequent building of the Wall. One can debate back and forth as to whose fault it is, since if the Intifada had not happened then the Wall probably
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Imaginative grafitti showing the outside world through the window
never would have been built, but this is the Middle East, and things are very complicated here. Bethlehem though is still more or less stable and safe, as opposed to Gaza, which is in chaos. Anyway, as I was walking back to the checkpoint and passing the taxi stop, some of the taxi drivers looked at me suspiciously and asked if I was an American. I assured them that no I was a Canadian, but they didn't look convinced, so I took out my passport and held it up to them, at which point they broke into smiles and gave me a thumbs up and said Canadians are good and wished me a good trip. While I was glad of the reaction it was also a little disturbing as to how much emphasis they place on a person's background and where they're from, as opposed the goodness of that specific individual. It says much about why people have trouble getting along in this part of the world. Continuing on towards the checkpoint, I was walking parallel to the wall for a while, which was quite interesting as there is grafitti on the wall that is fun to look at (see Wall photo #3). Entering back into Israel was also an experience as not surprisingly it was more difficult than going the other direction, although all that much for me, as really all I had to do was show my Canadian passport and they moved me through quite quickly. The Palestinians in the line behind me did not have nearly as easy a time of it, as they got subjected to detailed questioning, plus they had to go through a metal detector that was set so sensitive that they had to take of everything that had the tiniest bit of metal on it, including belts, shoes, rings, everything, which seemed a bit excessive to me, especially since I was just waved through and told not to bother with it. But anyway, I was now back in Israel, my journey into Palestine having lasted about four hours, but it was a very interesting four hours, and I am most glad that I made the trip. Stay tuned for my final blog regarding the Sinai peninsula of Egypt.

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16th November 2006

Hello, you don't know me, but I was perusing travel blogs and read this entry of yours. I would love to go to the West Bank someday, and hearing from you that it is relatively safe and that they need the tourism, then I can't wait! I also think it is sad how Israel has dealt with Palestine. Thanks for your insight and have a safe journey. - A Fellow N American

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