Intrepid Urban Adventures' Occupied Palestine Tour
I want to start by first saying the full name of the Intrepid Urban Adventures tour that took us into Palestine and Bethlehem. The tour is called "In Focus in Occupied Palestine: Bethlehem Along the Wall". The tour is hosted by an NGO by the name of ActionAid. In fact, had it not been for the connection to this NGO, we probably wouldn't have been interested in taking a "tour" of someone else's struggles. But, after we read the description of the tour and read a bit about ActionAid we decided we wanted to learn more about the conflict and the impact on Palestinian lives. Intrepid Urban Adventures sponsored our tour, but the opinions stated in this post are our own.
The Saturday we were scheduled to take this tour was gorgeous. The sun was shining, there was a slight breeze and we felt we were in for an interesting day of learning, thinking and thinking some more. We had previously taken Intrepid Urban Adventures Food Tour of the Old City and were excited to link back up with them for this trip. We were also happy to be meeting up with the Australian gals we met on that trip; they were doing this tour too! In fact, we walked to their hotel and hitched a ride to the Singer cafe in Bethlehem where we met our guide.
Zac and I had previously been in Bethlehem a few nights before with the hosts of our housesit, so we had some idea of what to expect. This Saturday, however, we took a different (long) way into the city. The first thing you do is cross over the checkpoint into Palestine from Israel. We didn't have any issues crossing into Palestine either time, and have been told that it's getting out that's more difficult.
Our Intrepid Tour Began With Coffee & A Map
Our taxi was not checked at all as we slowed at the gate and the armed men waved the driver through. We continued to the meeting point at the charming Singer cafe and arrived in plenty of time for the group to have some beverage. Our guide showed up on time and with maps in hand. Our first lesson was to take place over beverage at the cafe.
Our guide opened the maps and started explaining the history of Palestine and Israel. How the borders were drawn and redrawn over the years and then how the wall is being built on Palestinian land. We talked about the wall and the impact this has on Palestinians. He spoke of the ID cards and restrictions on movements and the daily lives of Palestinians. He explained what we were going to see and encounter that day.
The five of us got into his car and drove out a bit, winding around through the hills and stopped at an overlook. The first thing I noticed is how barren it was in some areas and how built in others. We stopped and looked out upon an Israeli settlement that was cutting into Palestinian lands. We also looked out upon a fence that was topped with barbed wire that guarded a very empty road. Leading up to the barbed wire fence was fine sand meant to show any footprints.
Palestinians are not allowed to cross over despite the fact that many families have land on the other side. Our guide stated several times, that he was not out to give his opinion on the crisis, that he was providing us with facts and scenes so we could come to our own conclusions. As we stood looking out over the land these people could no longer access, I saw a shepherd down below moving his sheep along in the scrubby bush below. This was a hard life. You could see the difference in the Palestinian houses versus the Israeli settlements.
Our guide Hassam pointed out that one way to find a Palestinian house is to look for the water tank on the top of the house. Palestinian houses have water tanks, Israeli houses do not. We learned that the Palestinian water supply is controlled by the Israelis and is only turned on once per month. Once per month! The water tanks are used to collect water and hold on to it for sparing use throughout the month. We all just sort of stood in silence, got back into the car and moved on to our next destination.
We went to see some of the wall that divides Palestine from Israel and in many cases Palestine from Palestine. There are no words to describe what it feels like to be penned in by this wall. It is a sobering feeling indeed, and really difficult to describe. It seems one of those incomprehensible things that needs to be witnessed in person. Anyone who is in favor of building walls to keep people out should spend some time living on the "wrong" side of this wall. I suspect they will quickly change their mind about the efficacy of such an act. In fact, we learned that the wall is illegal in the eyes of the International Community and yet it persists. We were also so ignorant as to think the wall was decades old, but were astounded to find that the first segment was built in 2000 - 2003.
The Palestine Wall on our Intrepid Adventures Tour
As we stood looking at the wall, which is broken up by guard towers where unseen armed guards look out at every move, I was overwhelmed and staggered a bit in asking questions. I remember just shaking my head and watching each of us on the tour just take in what we were seeing and trying to process it. This is not an easy thing to do. Of course, people have adorned the wall with graffiti and words of support to the Palestinian people. There are posters telling stories of abuses that have been experienced by Palestinians at the hands of Israeli soldiers. There are stories everywhere of what it is like to live one's life in an occupied land and the fear that comes along with that. We saw unfinished houses where the owners are allowed only to live in the bottom floor because they are not allowed to live with access to look over the wall, so the higher floors remain empty. Palestinians who live near the wall need special permits from Israeli soldiers to access their rooftops in order to make repairs to the water tanks or air conditioning.
We continued our walk through a neighborhood playground that was fenced in by the most serious barbed wire I have ever seen. The playground was a ghost town and there was not a child to be seen. The playground goes unused because soldiers in the nearby watchtower would frequently shoot tear gas at the playing children. We saw a lot of empty canisters littering the ground along our path and throughout the tour.
Palestinian Refugees in Palestine
Hassam had arranged for us to stop at the apartment of a friend of his in the refugee camp in Bethlehem. The camp we visited started out as tents but then has turned into makeshift buildings and schools that have grown as the population of refugees grew within this area. I have to be honest and say that I could not figure out how there would be Palestinian refugees in Palestine. How does this work? I had to ask several times and Hassam did a great job of being patient with me and explaining that the refugee camps are housing Palestinians who were displaced from their homes after the conflict in 1948. Palestinians are not allowed to build new construction so if the family did not have a home already built before the conflict, or if their lands were taken or destroyed, they were put into refugee camps. Which is how you come to have Palestinian refugee camps within Palestinian territory.
It was within one of these camps that we met a young man who attends University in Bethlehem. He is a filmmaker concentrating on documenting what life is like in the camps. He recently completed his first film documenting the nightly 'checks' by Israeli soldiers in the camps. He was fascinating to listen to and had a really focused sense of what he is trying to accomplish in showing the lives of the people in the camps. He poured us some tea as we sat and chatted with him about his work and the families that live here. We all had a sense of guilt as we knew he was using his limited water supply to make us tea. It was a definite highlight of the tour to be able to talk with him and see inside his life for a few short minutes.
We left him to get on with his day and headed toward Manger Square. It was the weekend before Easter and we wanted to check out the Church of the Nativity. But before we made it there, Hassam took us to the rooftop of an olive wood carver to have an amazing view out over Bethlehem. This was an incredible stop and we continued our discussions about religion, various conquerors and current day politics.
A Change of Focus: Church of the Nativity
Now we headed to the Church of the Nativity. The church is under renovation but you can still go in. There was a huge line waiting to get in to see the area where Jesus was born and spent his first night but somehow Hassam managed to maneuver us to the front. We made our way down as a group and observed the devout saying prayers and blessings at the sites. This was not part of the tour but Hassam went out of his way to help us be able to have access to this site.
We had all worked up an appetite in the Church of the Nativity, and were ready to sample some food. We stopped by a falafel stand that Hassam stated was the best in Bethlehem. This was my second falafel sandwich at this point and I have to say was the best. The fellow at the stand took great care in building the sandwich and the falafel were beautifully herby and fluffy. It was a great way to end the tour.
We were hitching a ride back with the Australian gals and so headed to the Walled Off Hotel to catch our taxi and return to Jerusalem. There were some communication errors and some things went awry but this just gave us more time to have a drink at the new Banksy art hotel.
This tour with Intrepid Urban Adventures was extremely eye opening I even resist calling this a tour because it makes it feel a little trivial, when the topic is deadly serious.
If you are in Jerusalem, we strongly encourage you to visit Bethlehem with Intrepid and come to your own conclusions. I can honestly say that this is the first tour I have ever taken that had such an impact on me. This was an experience I will never forget.
Special thanks and credit to Dalia for organizing and keeping our facts straight!