May 2012

Bethlehem: Behind the wall

Bethlehem Now and Then - O Little Town - Tryptych

During my visit to Jordan, Iraq, Israel and Palestine in March-April 2012, one of my most powerful moments came in visiting Bethlehem.

I stayed in Jerusalem towards the end of my stay in Israel, after having spent time in Tel Aviv, visiting the north around Zefat, the Golan Heights and the Sea of Galilee, as well as staying in Mitzpe Ramon deep in the Negev desert.

From Jerusalem, one boards a local bus,#21, which goes to Bethlehem. Given its proximity to Jerusalem, Bethlehem is almost a suburb. When I initially arrived in Israel from Jordan, I had taken a bus to Jerusalem and then a collective taxi to Tel Aviv, I had barely noticed the “security wall”.

As far as I could tell, there were only Palestinians and a few western visitors on the bus.

After about fifteen minutes of driving a large bare wall could be seen to our left. At one point on the opposite side of the divided highway, now much closer to the wall, was an Israeli military checkpoint.

We continued a bit further , then backtracked slightly as we climbed a hill and started to enter the outskirts of Bethlehem. There were a couple of security related signs. One sign said something about Israelis not being allowed to enter under Israeli law, and another said something about it being illegal to hand documents over to Palestinian authorities. Then a series of signs saying “Welcome to Bethlehem..Welcome to Palestine.”

The bus deposited us on a busy street in the middle of town. On the bus I had met two American girls and a Korean guy, and we had decided to explore Bethlehem together. Shortly after we got off the bus, we were approached by a taxi driver who offered to show us the three highlights of Bethlehem, the Church of the Nativity, St. Catherine’s Church, the Milk Grotto Chapel and the Old Bethlehem Museum.

We negotiated a price with him and I asked if he could also show us some parts of the “security wall” and its famous graffiti. The driver was a loquacious Palestinian who decried what had been happening in recent years.

Visiting the wall was a humbling and rather disturbing experience. It is now more than twice the height of the Berlin Wall.

Revolutionary artwork is found in numerous places around Bethlehem, some by the famous anonymous British graffiti artist “Banksy”. Some of the more memorable include a dove of peace with an olive branch in its beak wearing a flak jacket with a sniper’s target on the vest, a soldier being patted down by an eight year old girl in a dress, and a blindfolded Palestinian being manhandled by two armed soldiers. The wall itself was also filled with various scrawled graffiti. “Small flowers crack concrete:” “Compassion not apartheid”. “Abort occupation”. “This is not security. This is shit.” “Facebook is exposing the truth like this.” We were also taken to a house which was surrounded on three sides by the wall.

Afterwards, we went to the Church of the Nativity and the Milk Grotto Chapel and we walked around viewing some beautiful paintings of the Nativity, the birth of Jesus in the manger, and other scenes taken from the Bible’s New Testament.

We later had lunch in town. In mid-afternoon, we boarded the bus to return to Jerusalem. This time we were checked by Israeli security at the checkpoint for about twenty minutes. As I got off the bus and started walking back to the old Walled City of Jerusalem, I felt a strong sense of sadness of what, two thousand years later, has now befallen the “O Little Town of Bethlehem”.

Bethlehem Now and Then - O Little Town - Tryptych