Israel has arguably the strictest security procedures of any nation. Its military and political actions have made things terribly complicated in the Middle East and for all travelers. Israel no longer stamps passports, as it is well aware that evidence of having visited poses difficulty ranging from light (Dubai) to impossible (Lebanon) in visiting Arab countries. For instance, one cannot even route via Beirut if you have evidence of having visited Israel. These regulations are obviously silly since everyone will do what they can to hide their travel history to facilitate their routes. For instance, people can have multiple passports, one of which would be used for Israel and the other for Arab nations. From a common sense point of view, countries could run probabilistic models to determine that someone who has visited the Middle East many times has likely visited Israel, but that would be too analytical for bureaucrats. If Arab countries truly wanted to rid themselves of any travelers with any Israeli connections, they would start scouring social networks, Instagram pictures, etc. for Jewish friends and such.
My views on Israel are fair, but in the context of the United States, they can border on being perceived as antisemitic simply because they are not categorically Zionist. There are 32 members of the United Nations that do not recognize the sovereignty of Israel. The vast majority of members of the United Nations recognize the State of Palestine. Almost no one recognizes Israel’s annexation of East Jerusalem, leaving the United States in an awkward and oftentimes, indefensible position.
When I was in my young 20s, the thought of visiting Israel and the Middle East would not have occurred to me. A few years later, I would want to tour the area but perhaps with the presence of someone who has already visited. Now, I realize how easy it can be to move around the world. Still, I had to do some light research on visiting the West Bank of the State of Palestine. As it turns, someone like me who has no obvious sympathies, name, or physical characteristics of an Israeli, Arab, or Muslim can navigate the area more freely than any actual citizen from this area! It is a bizarre and at times, heartbreaking state of affairs.
Jerusalem is unquestionably the city most worth visiting in the Middle East, if we are not counting Istanbul as being of this region. Like many people, I have read for many years about the conflict in this area. I did not see any violence or demonstrations during my short stay here, but the results of various policies yield a startling juxtaposition between Israel and the State of Palestine.
Although I have my opinions, I am careful to be Switzerland and uninterested around others in the Middle East. To people with strong pro-Israeli opinions, even using the terms “State of Palestine” or “Occupied Palestinian Territories” are offensive, even though they are the official terms for basically everyone except Israel and the United States!
Bethlehem is one of the easiest ways to enter the West Bank. To get there, I walked 30 minutes from my Airbnb home to Damascus Gate. From there, I walked across the street and veered left, where there were a bunch of buses, including the #21 headed toward Bethlehem, where David was crowned king of Israel and where Jesus was born. It’s an important city in the world of religion.
Bethlehem is only 7 kilometers south of Jerusalem, and the bus ride cost $4 and took 38 minutes, not including any waiting. I found the journey enjoyable, so I did not view covering such a small distance in more than an hour as an inconvenience. The bus ride is filled with almost all Palestinian citizens. The bus was full enough that even with four seats in each row, people had to stand in the aisle. Of course, one could take a prepackaged tourist bus filled with only rich visitors, but readers will know that I avoid such ways whenever possible. Riding this local bus added to the experience and sympathy I gained for the isolation many Palestinians feel. It was effectively a segregated vehicle of transportation. Can you imagine riding a vehicle designated for only Muslims or blacks on the implication that they are less desirable or more dangerous? I felt absolutely comfortable on the bus. The older woman sitting by the window to my right only spoke Arabic, and she offered me a sugar wafer, which I like.
The ride provides fantastic views of the valley and landscape. The terrain is quite hilly, and I saw many terraced landscapes and beautiful trees, along with the changing building quality. From afar, one could easily not distinguish physically between Jerusalem and Bethlehem. The geography is identical, and the shocking differences between the two are produced entirely from geopolitical actions. When we entered Bethlehem, I noticed a sign reminding any Israelis who made it this far that it is illegal to enter the West Bank, under the danger of death (by other Palestinians). Needless to say, signs that suggest neighboring citizens will want to murder you is not conducive to fostering friendly relations. It is easy to cast entire populations as having certain tendencies, but I would venture to say that almost all Israelis and Palestinians are not naturally homicidal people.
Bethlehem has a population of 25,000, and its economy is tiny. Although tourism is important to the city, it is minuscule compared to Jerusalem and Tel Aviv. As far as I could observe, tourism was nearly nonexistent. The taxi drivers were especially desperate to give me a ride into the main Manger Square, despite my firm intention to walk. I did not see any religious observance, far less than what I usually see in the United States. It seemed to me that most people were fairly indifferent to the religious aspects of the conflict. They just wanted to eat.
The economic embargo enforced by Israel on the Palestinian territories is devastating. While it ostensibly chokes the people from any decent livelihood, it also breeds a lot of resentment. In the U.S., one could make statistical cases to cage certain segments of the population not based on their actions but on their demographic make-up, but that would inspire riots and be considered a gross violation of civil rights. Somehow, it goes on here, except it’s one country controlling another. It’s brutal to see. The GDP per capita of Jerusalem is over $30,000. In the West Bank, it is below $2000. Even the physical movements of Palestinians are tightly controlled. The bus I took ferries select Palestinians back-and-forth between Bethlehem and Jerusalem, as only certain people are allowed to work in the Old City area.
Bethlehem itself is small. Walking through the market was awesome because I felt like viewing it in its natural state, totally unaffected by any tourists, whereas the other ones I see in the U.S. or around the world are catering toward tourists. No one ever approached me. I also never saw a smile or heard a laugh. People just seemed to be depressed in the West Bank, resigned to their fate of making the best of life with what few goods are allowed to be brought in. I ate at one delicious restaurant. It was obviously filled with locals since there were so few tourists in the city. It did not even offer a menu or prices, but I asked what to pay at the end, and the tab was only 15 shekels, which is $4.
Taking the #21 bus back was memorable for the wrong reasons. Again, I was one of the few non-Palestinians on the bus, which was the same exact one I took in the morning. A few minutes into the return trip, we stopped at a checkpoint. There was no checkpoint from Israel into the West Bank since there is not as much concern over who is exiting Jerusalem. At the checkpoint, without any instructions, all the Palestinians immediately got off the bus. I and a couple other passengers just waited and looked outside the window at them queuing, waiting to have their papers checked. Then, a couple of Israeli solders got on the bus and made sure there were no Palestinians left on the bus. The passengers eventually returned and the trip resumed, but those few minutes nearly brought tears to my eyes. I have read many terrible news accounts of terrorist attacks in various parts of the world where a bus is stopped. Then, all the victims are identified as Christian or Muslims and either kept on the bus to be burned alive or taken off the bus to be slaughtered in a camp or on the spot, depending on the terrorist group. Now, my bus just had a routine security check, but it was hard not to have that thought in my mind, since the general procedure would be the same, if the end result were more nefarious. It’s a vicious cycle because people do not naturally want to kill other people. But any peoples who are oppressed will eventually lose their temper.
Bethlehem and the part of the West Bank I saw was set in an attractive area. After we passed the checkpoint, I looked back through the window, and you cannot help but think how sad the whole situation is, seeing the walls, armed soldiers, and barbed wire. I was supposedly leaving the birthplace of Jesus, but it felt like I had just visited a prison of 25,000 people.
The other part that was confusing to me was the physical barrier being constructed by Israel around the West Bank. I naturally thought that the 1967 borders of West Bank would be the physical barrier, so I was confused when I saw walls at certain locations. I figured out that the barriers are being erected well inside the West Bank, which accounts for the frustration Palestinians have in saying their territory is effectively being usurped since they cannot cross the wall. It would be like if the U.S. were building a wall along the Mexican border, well south of the line. The wall is also not uniform. At times, it is high and sturdy. At other points, it is just an amalgam of barbed wire and chain-link fence.
I would want to return to the West Bank, visiting other cities, such as Ramallah and Jericho. I am so glad not to have taken one of the few tourist buses because I would have missed out on much of the perspective I gained.
When I first got off the #21 bus on Hebron Road in Bethlehem, I was immediately approached by a desperate taxicab driver offering to take me to the main square. I declined, but I did express slight interest in seeing the famous Banksy works on the heavily guarded border. I still declined his offer of 10 shekels (US$2.56), which was confusingly low because I was later approached by a guy who started at 80 shekels before going down to 40 shekels. Banksy is an elusive artist whose work I admire for its mystique and intelligence. His work often highlights the human condition, absurdity, and blatant anti-war messages.
There are hundreds of miles of wall and much of it is decorated. Even now, many critics regard these works as some of Banksy’s best. There are 8 or 9 stencils he painted, some of which he might have done while having snipers trained on him. They are so famous that the taxicab drivers have a prepared brochure with his works outlined. Although the works are officially untitled, their unique location in one of the most famously bloody areas on Earth leaves little doubt as to what he believes.