We were excited to go on a short day trip to Bethlehem from Jerusalem and surprisingly it was quite straight forward. We caught bus #21 from the bus terminal across from the Damascus Gate in Jerusalem. Since the bus is operated by a Palestinian company there isn’t a clear schedule, but it runs quite frequently and the cost was 7 NIS/person. We were reminded by our hotel to bring our passports together with the little white and blue entry visa paper which was issued to us at the border – those are necessary on the way back into Israel.
Bethlehem is part of the West Bank which forms the majority of the Palestinian territories, the remainder of which is comprised of the Gaza Strip. As we are not highly religious people, our focus for this trip was to see the Separation Wall and to understand a little bit more closely the strife between the Israelis and the Palestinians.
The concrete Separation Wall, covered in barbed wire is a threatening reminder of the severity of the situation in Palestine. It is covered with “graffiti” although most of it is quite poetic and beautiful. There are a number of pieces done by Banksy present on the wall as well as framed stories about families caught in this ongoing conflict. Banksy opened up a hotel facing a corner of the Separation Wall calling it the Walled Off Hotel – dubbed the hotel with the ugliest view. All are welcome to visit for free (although there is a small gallery that was 15 NIS/person). There is a second gallery which is free showcasing Palestinian artists.
Next to the Walled Off Hotel is a small shop called Wall Mart which sells ladders and paint for any budding artists interested in adding to the “art” on the Separation Wall.
Of course no visit to Bethlehem would be complete without visiting the Church of the Nativity. Christians believe that the church was built on a site where Jesus was born. The church is quite beautiful and is visited by Christians, Jews and Muslims alike. I experienced a quiet, grounding stillness there – a sense of community and oneness in the grotto of that church. Pilgrims broke out in a spontaneous rendition of Holy Night and it was truly quite moving.
For the devout Christians there are a few other stops in Bethlehem including the Milk Grotto, Shepherd’s Field, Rachel’s Tomb and the Virgin Mary Well. Most within close proximity of one another. There are also a number of refugee camps including Aida (just 2 km north of Bethlehem) which I really wanted to visit but we ran out of time.
During our short visit to Bethlehem we found the people of Palestine to be very warm and welcoming. We were offered free falafels and tea – such generosity from folks who do not have very much. We also met Sami who was featured on the Conan O’Brien special about Palestine. Sami makes amazing tea and is just happy to share it and his story of the day he spent with Team Coco.