If you’re anything like me, perhaps the only time you’ve really heard about Palestine and the West Bank internationally or via the media is when there has been a report of something negative – the latest clash between Israelis and Palestinians maybe, or a raid on the home of a suspected terrorist. With that considered, this region isn’t exactly appearing in a good light now is it? I’m sure that these stories do not have you fumbling around for your iPad in a desperate bid to book a trip to travel to Palestine, most likely quite the contrary – you wouldn’t go near it with a barge pole.
As I sit at a ramshackle Bethlehem eatery surrounded by the haze of sheesha, I am among new found Palestinian friends who are eager to tell me their story. We sit together and enjoy a delightful spread of the very best Middle Eastern foods that the region has to offer, at the hospitality of the establishment’s owner who has insisted that he will not accept my money. This is the real Palestine.
While I take in the scene around me, I feel very reflective about how much the media sensationalises negativity around the globe, failing completely to reflect the true situation on the ground and it almost has us feeling too afraid to do anything. Let me tell you about how I got here.
As I boarded the bus bound for the Palestinian border crossing from Jerusalem that morning I felt a surge of panic. I was the only non Palestinian person on it. I sat debating with myself as to whether I should actually remain on the bus, or whether I should get off. I was still going back and forth in my mind, unable to commit to a decision when the bus started pulling out of Sultan Sulliman station at which point it was too late. I was going to Palestine. No backing out now.
I sat on the bus taking in the scenery, watching as the old city of Jerusalem and the Mount of Olives disappeared behind us. Suddenly the bus jolted to a halt – we had reached the Israeli military checkpoint. The 25 foot concrete wall which encapsulates Palestine was directly ahead and as myself and the other passengers disembarked we were ushered through metal turnstiles, our passports and identity cards checked by the armed Israeli soldiers on site. Crossing this border was surprisingly straightforward, and for me as a western “tourist”, I was mostly ignored.
Once through the final turnstile, the modern infrastructure of Israeli civilisation had been replaced with the dusty roads leading to Bethlehem.
“As-salamu Alaykum!” The local taxi drivers smile and yell out the names of various local places that they can take me to in unison. After I tell them that I’d like to spend some time exploring the area on foot, they point me in the direction that I need to go.
The separation wall is filled with anti-war graffiti, much of which is beautiful in its own right. You can also find many of the elusive artist Banksy’s most famous pieces here such as the masked “thug” throwing flowers, the young girl frisking a soldier, and the armored dove, highlighting his support to the struggles of the Palestinian people.
Satisfied with the extent of my graffiti exploration. I started walking to the main attraction of the town – Manger square, home to the church of the nativity and the spot where Jesus was supposedly born. I’m sure I was quite an unfamiliar site to the locals wandering around alone, as many were coming out from their homes and places of work to give me advice and directions.
Hebron road and Manger street are large main roads which extend from the edge of the separation wall at the border (and Jerusalem beyond) to the northern Palestinian towns and cities. The empty shells of buildings which had once hoped for tourism (boarded up hotels and gift shops) now lay derelict along these roads.
I reach central Bethlehem. The streets here are surprisingly stunning. The quaint little twisty alleyways are exactly how I would have pictured Bethlehem to be and, minus the absence of tea rooms and gelato parlours, wouldn’t look out of place in Europe. I stop at the Palestinian tourist information centre (yes there is one!)and go inside partially because I want a map, and partially to escape the harsh desert sun beneath the air con for a few minutes.
The centre is filled with shelves displaying glossy brochures about travel in Palestine, the walls lined with pictures of stunning monasteries and picturesque villages. Nizar, the owner, looks startled when I burst through the door and explains to me that barely anyone stops by here. He isn’t sure how much longer it will be open. Though Palestine isn’t exactly the destination at the top of people’s bucket lists, Bethlehem gets an amount of tourism every year.
(Side Note: Nizar and I are still in contact and he kindly agreed to help me write a Q&A style article for those interested in travelling to Palestine on things to do in the West Bank)
The problem for the locals being that they don’t really see any of the benefits of this in their economy since tourists opt to choose the “safe” route and hire an Israeli guide who is permitted to cross into Palestine rather than to “risk” taking a Palestinian guide.
Stomach rumbling, I find a local restaurant which is praised for its excellent falafel, and that takes us back to where I began this article. It was really humbling for me to speak to the local people, and their kindness and openness to me, a complete stranger has touched me so much that I feel inspired to go back and spend more time in Palestine. I met the occasional adventurous soul on the road in Israel and Jordan who had traveled further afield than Bethlehem, and they only sang the country’s praises.
There are many problems in this part of the world, and those faced by these people really put things into perspective for me. Too often we take for granted how lucky we are to have been born into a particular country, or for the lives we lead.
With the last bus back to Jerusalem departing at 8.30, I bid my dinner companions farewell and returned back to Israel with no problems. After the day I had and he kind people I was able to meet, it feels strange now to look back at how afraid and nervous I had felt earlier that day while boarding the first bus.
For practical advice on visiting Palestine click here
Considering heading to Palestine? If you need any help, feel free to drop me a comment below or email me! ([email protected])
Notes: I fully believe that you are generally safe travelling here, subject to the specifics of the Israel-Palestine situation at the time of your visit. Tensions are still high in this region so you should remain vigilant at all times and if you start noticing a gathering or a protest of sorts, head into a hotel or take a cab back to the border.