In order to get to Bethlehem, visitors must travel through the West Bank. For tourists, passing through the Israeli check point is generally problem free, but it is best to carry identification in case of a search.
The West Bank
While the West Bank is located on the east side of Israel, before the 1948 Arab-Israeli war, it was under Jordanian control. As a result, it’s name refers to being located on the West Bank of the Jordan River.
Now the West Bank territory is part of the Palestinian National Authority but it is occupied by Israel, meaning the Israeli government controls the borders and supplies water and other utilities. This is the result of multiple events which include:
- 1967 – Israel capturing the area in 1967.
- 1988 – Jordan renouncing territorial claims and stripping West Bankers of Jordanian citizenship.
- 1987-1991 – the First Intifada, a Palestinian rebellion in opposition of the Israeli military which led to the 1993 Oslo Accords.
- 1993 – the Oslo Accords which established the Palestinian National Authority in an effort to create a peaceful two state option.
- 2000-2005 – the Second Intifada, filled with many suicide bombings, which led to the construction of the Israeli West Bank barrier and Israeli occupation.
Obviously the situation is far more complicated than the summary above, but those are some of the events which have led to the current state of the West Bank. The wall in particular is troublesome, because it did not completely follow the border of the West Bank and Israel and encroaches on Bethlehem.
Bethlehem is just a short 30 min drive from Jerusalem making it easy to visit in a day. It is known as the childhood home of David who was named the king of Israel and the birthplace of Jesus, thus it is an important pilgrimage site.
The Church of the Nativity
The birthplace of Jesus, according to writings by St Justin Martyr from AD 160 was in a cave on which the Roman emperor Constantine ordered a church be erected in 326. It was rebuilt by the Justinians in 530 and later redecorated by the Crusaders.
The church, now known as the Church of the Nativity, covers the Grotto of the Nativity. Visitors enter the church through a small door that was reduced in size to prohibit Ottoman looters from coming in with carts. Though much was stolen there are still Crusader paintings and mosaics on the columns and walls.
Of course, the highlight of the church is the Grotto of the Nativity. The precise spot where Jesus was born is marked by a 14 point silver star. This star, which was installed by France in the 18th century was stolen in 1847. The Catholics blamed the Greek Orthodox, and believe it or not the battle over the star’s replacement contributed to the Crimean War.
Currently, the Roman Catholics as well as the Armenian and Greek Orthodox jointly share custody of the church, and the Greek Orthodox care for the Grotto in which there is another star. Though it is possible to get lucky and see Jesus’ birthplace for a quick glimpse with only a fifteen minute wait, be prepared for a very long line.
St. Catherine’s Church
Connected to the Church of the Nativity is St. Catherine’s Church where midnight mass of Christmas Eve is televised. The 19th century church was built by the Franciscans on the former site of 12th century Augustinian monastery and a 5th century monastery.
Caves from the 5th century monastery where St. Jerome translated the Bible from Hebrew to Latin, may be seen underneath the church.
Though these two churches were the only religious sites we visited in Bethlehem, we also visited a Palestinian refugee camp, the Israeli West Bank barrier, Noor WEG, and some famous Banksy street art.
Aida, a Palestinian Refugee Camp
Though the Palestinian refugee camps vary depending in which country they are located, I was very surprised by my visit to Aida. I naively expected to see thousands of tents and aid stations. It makes sense, however, that Palestinians stranded here since 1948 would eventually build homes and streets.
They are stranded here because they either voluntarily left or were forced out during the Six Day War that the Israelis won. Unfortunately, many thought they were temporarily fleeing the violence and unrest, and that they would be able to return their homes with their keys in hand.
In fact many still carry their keys and much of the street art includes a key theme. Not to make their situation sound good, as Palestinian yearly wages are only about $3,700 and they lost their home, but these refugees were lucky to end up in the West Bank. They at least have freedom to leave the camp and travel from the Jordan airport.
The refugees in the Gaza Strip are now controlled by the Hamas which is deemed as a terrorist organization worldwide. As a result, all borders are closed, and they cannot leave.
Similarly, the refugees in Syria cannot leave the camp and because of the delicate political situation they are not granted citizenship, therefore, they have no country or passport.
Only the Israeli Palestinians can obtain a passport from the government and use the Ben Hurion Airport in Tel Aviv, but many feel like they would be denouncing their Palestinian identity by doing this, not to mention, they want their fellow Palestians in other territories to be given equal rights.
The Palestinians face many other unjust situations as it relates to water, sewage, jobs, and even road usage, but being a traveler at heart, I was really taken aback to learn many are trapped and cannot leave the country.
At any rate, I’m not here to pick sides as I’m not Jewish or Palestinian and the conflict does not directly affect me. I’m just presenting what I learned about the Palestinian way of life while on my G Adventure Tour around Israel. Don’t worry, G Adventure also provided opportunities to understand the Jewish point of view which I will address in a later post.
Anyway, the camp basically looks like an unorganized city. As there was no city plan, roads are not on a grid system, and they simply wind through clusters of buildings.
Along our way to have lunch at Noor WEG, an organization created by women for disabled kids, one man stood in his doorway, showed us the key to his previous home, and invited us in for tea. Though we had to decline, it was incredible to see his kindness and generosity.
Noor Women’s Empowerment Group
Upon reaching Noor WEG, basically a kitchen with a big dining area, we were greeted by the ladies who started the organization as well as a church volunteer from the UK.
The organization was born out of necessity. Ladies with disabled children who are excluded from social interaction, medical care, and education needed support. In 2010, they banded together to form income generating activities such as cooking classes, embroidery classes, camp tours and home stays. Over time they have grown to have their own tiny school and rehabilitation center in a separate location.
For our visit, the ladies cooked us lunch which included chicken, rice, soup, salad, bread and dessert. In addition, they gave us time to browse through their handmade items and cookbook before we went to visit their small facility. Though a non-shopper, I actually bought something as to me, it was a very good way to give back to people trying to make a life for themselves.
Consider visiting Noor WEG for lunch or a cooking class. We enjoyed both wandering through Aida and having lunch with the ladies who have done so much for their community.
Israeli West Bank Barrier
After our tasty lunch and facility visit, we drove to the Israeli West Bank barrier or wall. It was constructed in response to the suicide bombings that took place during the Second Intifada.
The 440 mile wall, upon completion, mostly follows the 1949 Jordanian-Israeli armistice line, also known as the Green Line, but it diverges from the border by more than twelve miles in some areas which undermines any possible peace talks.
Opponents claim the divergence is a land grab by the part of Israel, while supporters claim it is too hard to build the wall in some terrain. Much of the barrier is made just of stacked barbed wire, but in Bethlehem, it is constructed of concrete. It is painted with all sorts of street art, captioned in English. I’m told English is used so visitors can understand the Palestinian plight.
Banksy Street Art
In addition to all this street art is of course works by Banksy, the famed artist from the UK. He tends to depict ironic scenes like throwing a bouquet of flowers rather than a grenade to represent peace. Taken with the plight of the Palestinians, Banksy has even open the Walled Off Hotel which overlooks the separation barrier.
While we enjoyed a peaceful visit, it made me wonder when the next conflict might arise as there doesn’t seem like there is an end in site. It’s a shame there is so much conflict and hate amid one of the most holy places in the world. Regardless, Bethlehem is an interesting place to visit and is easily reached from Jerusalem. Alternative single day tours may be found at Viator or Get Your Guide. ETB
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