Monday, September 22, 2008

Taking the Arab bus to Bethlehem

On Thursday, September 18, our last day in Israel and Palestine, I took a group of seven to Deheisheh Refugee Camp in Bethlehem. We walked to the bus station near the Damascus Gate and found the #21, which would take us to Beit Jala, near the camp. The Arab transit workers are very helpful -- telling us how much, making sure we are on the right bus. The bus was full of students and older people.

We were stopped at a flying checkpoint near Tantur, where the Hebron Road turns, just before you get to the checkpoint at Bethlehem. The soldiers made some of the people get off the bus, the ones who were standing in the aisles. The IDF soldiers got on and looked at our IDs. The older woman at the front of the bus did not get her ID out fast enough and the soldier jabbed her with his automatic rifle to hurry her up. Our group was sitting at the back of the bus and when the soldier saw our American passports, his expression changed. He gave us a big smile and said, "Oh, hello -- welcome!" Of all the passengers -- people who probably ride this bus every day -- they singled us out to be friendly. The other passengers just got gruff stares and disrespect.

On the way back, we were stopped at another flying checkpoint, just outside Beit Jala, about a hundred feet from the real checkpoint on Road 60. This time our driver had to show his permits and then get off the bus and wait by the police car parked at the side of the road. After about ten minutes of waiting on the bus, Don called out, "Does anyone speak English?" No, we were told. So we just had to wait, not knowing what was going on. Even if we spoke Arabic, we would not have known what was going on. There is no explanation. No one knows why the soldiers make people wait--it's simply because they can. They have the firepower.

Saturday, September 13, 2008

From Bethlehem

This has been an eventful pilgrimage, with many surprises, beginning with lost luggage. When Gale and I arrived with our group in Amman, Jordan, at 1 am, our bags and one other person's bags were nowhere to be found! Such is the nature of pilgrimage--meeting the unexpected, being flexible. For three days we had no luggage, washing out our clothes and wearing them every day. That will teach me to leave home without a change of clothes in my carry-on.

Next, we spent two nights in a tent camp in the desert at Wadi Rum, where Lawrence of Arabia rode with the Arab fighters. These were not the genteel tents I had expected - no light, no electricity, bathrooms at the other end of the camp - actually having no luggage was a benefit here and our clothes dried out quickly in the desert! We ate in traditional goat-hair Bedouin tents, hosted by the Bedouin families who live in the area.

The desert there is beautiful - red, orange, purple hues of the rocks, seen at dawn and sunset in different light. Hiking to the top of the nearby rock to watch the sunrise and the camels grazing below. Meeting the Bedouin dog who loved having his ears scratched just like his American cousins. Watching the young men doing their traditional Bedouin dances in the evenings around the fire after dinner -- not hard to see why the women put up with the flies, the goat-hair tents, the long black dresses and head coverings for these good-looking young men!

We've seen lots of rocks in the desert, on the mountains, in the valleys, in the fields, the Roman ruins and the rock-carved tombs and temples of Petra.

Then to the Galilee - beautiful calm waters - hot and humid, but easy to see why Jesus came here to relax and get away from the crowds. Very peaceful and quiet. The waters of the Sea of Galilee are great for swimming, just the right temperature, fish nibbling on your feet, refreshing after a long day of seeing churches, springs and more ruins. We visited the Mount of the Beattitudes, Capernaeum, the springs from which the Jordan River flows, Cana, Nazareth, and the Israeli towns replacing the Arab villages on the Golan Heights.

Today we waded in the Mediterranean at Caesarea Maritima, saw the Hippodrome and the Amphitheater, ate a Druze meal under the olive trees on Mt. Carmel and checked into our hotel in Bethlehem. Now for some sleep, something we travelers are not getting enough of.

I haven't had time to write - too much stimulation and not enough time to sit and relax. That will come later.....

Tuesday, September 2, 2008

Hebron featured on BBC

This picture tells the story of commerce in Hebron--Palestinian shopkeepers' stalls shuttered and welded shut by the Israeli government, stars of David spray-painted on the closed doors, streets empty. In June, we visited a Hebron that had lost all its tourist visitors--the main market, Shuhada Street, closed by Israeli soldiers for the "safety," because Jewish settlers, who move into apartments above the Arab market, regularly attack and harass Palestinians and anyone shopping at their market stalls. One shopkeeper told me his goods have been ruined when the settlers poured bleach out of their windows above his stall.

Yesterday, Tim Franks of the BBC wrote in his Jerusalem Diary about the British government's plan to help tourism in Hebron. They invested $40,000 in the Hebron Rehabilitation Committee to fund horse-and-carriage rides through the Old City. However, the plan has not brought more tourists to Hebron and one carriage driver still waits to begin his business.

Carriage driver Said Ali Ahmed told him, "We got the permits from the Israelis to bring in the horse and the carriage into the Hebron area," he told me. "But we need an additional permit to move around. And I'm still waiting for the Israeli captain to give me it." So for weeks Said has waited, unable to drive his carriage because he cannot get the permit to move about in Hebron. He is confined to the streets open to Palestinians, which do not allow him to take tourists through the Old City. Read his story: