My driver G turns up early on my last day, to take me to places that people don’t normally go. He suggests that my itinerary is a bit tame, and says really I should go further afield, to Bethlehem, which lies in the Palestinian Authority, take in some new settlements and see more of the wall. He says it will be more interesting. I say that I defer to his judgment, when I should have said ‘So how much extra with this be?’ After we have agreed on the new itinerary, he says, diffidently, that it will of course cost more. As it turns out, exactly what I have in my wallet. ‘God must have meant for this to happen’ I say to him. He is a Christian Arab as a matter of fact, a Catholic; there are only 10-12,000 in Jerusalem compared to 530,000 Jews and 350,000 Muslims. He says they are having a hard time and are discriminated against by both sides.
After a drive up to the top of the Mount of Olives to admire the view of the Old City, where pickpockets and scammers abound apparently, we wend our way down by the wall, built to protect Israel from the Palestinians, to Abu Diss and see how the standard of housing changes dramatically within Jerusalem. G explains that Arabs in East Jerusalem all hold Jordanian papers – this was Jordan before the 6 Day War in 1967 – and are not allowed to travel out: if they leave the country for more than four years they lose their resident status. Nor are they allowed into the Israeli areas, which is why the wall was built, surrounding the enclaves that remain within the sea of what is now Israel.
The contrast is much more marked as we leave the city and head towards Bethlehem. We see the wall and barbed wire snaking seemingly indiscriminately around villages and suddenly, on our left, is a gleaming citadel built in Jerusalem stone, serried rows of luxury apartment blocks, with tree and geranium-lined streets. ‘This is Homat Schmu’el’, says G.
This used to be Palestinian farmland until the Israelis seized it to build this fabulous settlement for the recent migrants – Russians, Americans, South Africans. When they arrive, invited as they are to join the state of Israel, they are promised benefits of all kinds, including top notch accommodation. It is separated from Bethlehem by a wadi and each settlement looks directly at the other. From Bethlehem it gleams in the bright sunshine, rather like a celestial city. Unlike Bethlehem there are no roof-top water tanks – for these citizens are never arbitrarily deprived of water. In the PA I see several water tankers making sure all households are topped up for that everyday risk.
The wall that cuts through the centre of Bethlehem is covered in graffiti and plastered with paper-printed slogans meant to offer hope. In the debris at its foot, among the broken glass and stones, we find American shell casings: ‘People try to get over the wall all the time to work in Israel where the wages are higher,’ says G, ‘Sometimes they fall and die, other times they are shot at. This is where the Pope came, and this is also where the youths from the refugee camp come and throw stones and petrol bombs’.
The back streets of Bethlehem host a large refugee camp – originally tented – for the Palestinians displaced in 1948 when Israel declared independence. Over the years, the canvas has given way to hugger-mugger stone houses, courtyards and shops – though a doorway I see bagels being made in a brick oven, as they have been for centuries. The streets are winding and narrow and I’m surprised cars are even allowed. The central roundabout is resplendent with a white Christmas tree, and red Santa sleigh complete with reindeers. ‘It lights up at night’ says G. It is all very incongruous.
The Israeli government has also blocked off various roads to Israelis Jews who are now no longer allowed to pop over to Bethlehem (or anywhere in the Palestinian Authority) to eat, shop and buy the much cheaper petrol. They say this is to protect the Palestinians but I rather wonder if the intention is more to hurt their economy, a large part of their market being cut out from under them. Certainly Bethlehem is not busy, hotels are shut, and the ancient streets are empty.
There is a huge Christmas tree in the square by the Church of the Holy Nativity: on 21 December onwards it will be heaving with pilgrims. For a month the birth of Christ is celebrated three times – by Catholics, Greek Orthodox and Armenian Christians. Despite Bethlehem being the centre of Christianity only between 10-15% of the population is Christian. I also learned that Christians, like the Orthodox, are not compelled to do army service. The Orthodox claim they are protecting their country by praying, according to a recent court case. It all adds to the general sense of injustice.
G treats me to delicious hummus and falafel – crispy on the outside and fluffy in the centre (maybe he’s feeling a bit guilty having cleaned me out!); I also bought various olive wood gifts from his ‘brother’s’ shop (I was taken there to go to the loo…). However nice people are in Israel, there’s always a commercial agenda I find.
Road 443 to the airport runs right between two walls, with checkpoints and barbed wire atop, as in Bethlehem (but without the graffiti), which dissects a village. Now to get from one side to the other it would take an hour at least. There are check points everywhere, and we are stopped a couple of times. ‘What country does she come from?’ asks a gun-toting girl soldier.
It is not without regret that I am leaving Israel. It is a country of such contrasts: on an individual basis, full of charming friendly people, but en masse the Israelis are loud, rude and aggressive. The Orthodox men are particularly intolerant of anyone in their way. One man with a kippah refused to let me sit in the adjacent empty seats (all three of them!) in the train – he shooed me away angrily. The notion of queue does not apply, whether waiting for a taxi or lining up at the airport. It’s a free for all. I find it an uncomfortable place, especially the threatening presence of the security walls and the barbed wire, with sentry boxes and no-go areas. Just like Colditz. Or worse.
After my day travelling round the Palestinian Authority – maybe too brief to make an informed opinion, but nevertheless long enough to make a distinct impression – I was struck by the similarities with apartheid South Africa, of the separate rubbish-strewn Bantustan enclaves in the middle of prime South African farmland.
But the lasting image I am taking away with me is of the parallel between the suffering in the Nazi ghettos of Warsaw and Lodz, so well documented at Yad Vashem, and the new ghettos imposed on the Palestinian people by successive Israeli governments. For any rational and liberal human being this is an inhuman solution to a situation and one that I cannot condone.
So it is with great relief that I arrive at the airport to leave after an uncomfortable week. Maybe as cousin Helen said Israelis are like the sabra cactus, with a ‘hard outer skin and a soft centre’. Certainly my airport experience is nothing like as bad as I was warned: I was sternly cautioned against mentioning visiting the PA, for example, and to name no names, hence the anonymity granted to the people I encountered in my trip. The security woman however was friendly and charming, asking only where was Dar es Salaam, my place of birth.
The runway is slick with much needed rain as we taxi out and I sip the glass of sparkling thrust into my hands by the BA hostess. Israel is not my spiritual home, despite my Jewish heritage.