I’ve been asked a number of times if I ever felt in danger during my time in Israel. Reflecting back I was surprised to find that it wasn’t fear that I had felt at all. It was more a sense of helplessness… or perhaps more accurately, hopelessness.
It was a combination of everything. The heavily armed presence of the Israeli army, the police force, the security checks complete with pat-downs and sniffer dogs, the military choppers and tanks, the land-mine studded countryside and the miles and miles of barbed wire fences separating the West Bank inhabitants from the rest of the Israeli population.
The social construct, and how it came to be so, is a brain twisting enigma, which our local guide admitted was not properly understood by many Israelis.
In the most simplest view there are:
Israeli Citizens: The predominantly Jewish population of Israel
Israeli Arabs: Arab citizens of Israel are those Palestinians Arabs who remained within Israel’s borders following the 1948 Israeli-Arab War and the establishment of the state of Israel. This is where it gets confusing – the refer to themselves as Palestinian nationality with Israeli citizenship
Palestinians: Live in what is known as the “occupied Palestinian Territories” (The West Bank, East Jerusalem and the Gaza Strip), corralled by the “Separation Wall” and The Green Line. The area is partially controlled by the Palestinian Authority under the watchful eye of the Israelis. They are not allowed to cross into Israel without a work permit and must return the same day. They undergo strict security checks and pay an exorbitant sum of money for these permits.
Clearly, its a lot more complicated than that.
But despite the political and social intricacies of Israel, a trip to the Holy Lands would not and could not be complete without a visit to Bethlehem. And this of course means crossing into the West Bank territories.
Finally a chance to see the other side of that seemingly never-ending cement wall running through the middle of the country. Would it be as terrifying as the western media hype?
Crossing through the security point on the way to Bethlehem is a damn sight easier for a bus-load of middle class Aussies, Canucks and Yanks, than I imagine it is for a Palestinian. A cursory glance at our passport covers (I could have been holding a Harry Potter book for all they knew or seemed to care) and we were waved through. Not so bad. In fact the total opposite of what I’d been expecting. (Boy, was I in for a BIG shock in about 5 days time!).
Looking out from the safety of our trusty tourist mini-bus, it looked much like Israel, except a dirtier, dustier poorer cousin. People were going about their every day life, nothing out of the ordinary.
Coming straight from Jerusalem, where every second person was packing hardware, I noticed a distinct lack of weaponry, anywhere other than the Israeli checkpoints. I might add at this point that during my travel through the Middle East, I’ve found the arab population to be nothing but warm, friendly, and enthusiastic to assist. Makes you stop and wonder doesn’t it?
Of course the big draw card for Bethlehem is the Church of the Nativity, commissioned by the Emperor Constantine in 326 AD, the site chosen because it marks the spot Jesus was born (they think). The original basilica was destroyed during a revolt in the sixth century and rebuilt keeping the tone of the original.
Entrance to the church is via The Door of Humility, so low one is required to bend to enter. You start to feel humble immediately.
Whether you are religious or not, you can’t help but be awed at the prospect of standing at the site of the birth of one of the most influential figures of all time. And one would think this would warrant some degree of silent contemplation and respect.. apparently not so if you are a group of 30 or so French tourists, whom we had to tell several times to, well, shut up, basically! People, I can’t stress this enough.. It’s a holy place – have some respect!
Unfortunately – be prepared to put up with this in most of Israel’s holy sites. They are not only a pilgrim’s “mecca”, they are also a tourist’s one.
The highlight for most people would of course be the Grotto of the Nativity, easily identified by the queue of pilgrims waiting to enter the cave…
Back it up a minute… did I say cave? Wasn’t Jesus born in a stable? Actually, the bible only says laid in a manger… we assume that means in a stable. And there are a whole lot of resources available debating the actual birth place. But for the sake of the 2 billion Christians out there, let’s just take it on faith (Another thing you need to do a lot in Israel), that X, or in this case, a silver star, marks the spot.
Adjoining the Church of the Nativity is the Church of St Catherine’s, best known perhaps, because it is the church from where the Christmas Midnight Mass is beamed to viewers all over the world.
The church was built in the 19th century to commemorate St Catherine of Alexandria. According to the traditional story, this early 4th-century matyr from Egypt was of noble birth and well educated. At the age of 18, she challenged the emperor Maxentius (or his father, the emperor Maximian) for persecuting Christians and worshipping false gods.
The enraged emperor ordered her to be tortured on a wheel— hence the term “Catherine wheel”. But when Catherine touched the wheel, it broke. She was then beheaded and tradition says angels carried her body to Mount Sinai, where in the 6th century a church and monastery were built in her honour.
Main holy sites done, when you are on a group tour there is not a lot of opportunity to see much more in Bethlehem. Expensive souvenir shops, at which we of course all dropped a small fortune on over-priced rosary beads – just because they were from Bethlehem.
Braving it on a solo trip, many people will tour the wall to take photos of the graffitied messages of hope and hopelessness, view the refugee camps or catch sight of the illegal Jewish settlements.
Of course tour companies tend to be a bit more responsible with their clientele and we had to make do with stolen moments captured through the bus windows. Then it was another cursory check of our passport covers and we were waved back through the Separation Wall and across the Green Line” once again into the Promised Land.