Bethlehem, Hebron & The Dead Sea
27.04.2012 - 29.05.2012 26 °C
We're back!! Once again it's been a crazy couple of days. Just finished up climbing Mount Sinai which is supposed to be the place where Moses received the Ten Commandments from God. He must have had a heck of climb up and his way back down with those tablets couldn't have been any easier cause it was on hell of a trek! We woke up at 1AM to start the climb to catch the sunrise. Of course more on this later...
Palestine... when we last left off we were still in Jerusalem having a fantastic time trying to cram in all the sights there. Unfortunately we couldn't quite fit them all into our itinerary but oh well... you can't see everything in one year! Sitting just to the south east of Jerusalem in Palestine lies Bethlehem and I don't think that I need to explain the historical relevance of this city. Just outside of our hostel we boarded a local bus and within a half hour we arrived in the birthplace of Jesus.
That's me with our good friend Shannon from Melbourne Australia. We actually met Shannon in Amman Jordan and fortunately he was travelling in our general direction. Our itineraries didn't quite sync up in Jordan but we met up in Israel shortly after we crossed the border and travelled together from then on after.
Navigating through Bethlehem on our way to the Church Of The Nativity.
Within a short while we had reached The Church and made our way inside.
The church was quite large and was actually two churches attached to one another. I'm not aware of the exact history of the two churches (when they were built and by whom), but if you look closely at the above picture you'll see that there are holes in the floor where there have been excavations revealing ancient mosaic floors. Again not sure of the story behind this but my guess is that a church was built on top of a church like numerous other sites in Jerusalem.
As you can see the church contained catacombs beneath it as well as a courtyard and garden area. As with most religious sites in the region The Church Of The Nativity was pretty crowded with tourists... especially at the big ticket... the spot where Jesus was born.
Before entering down into the area we purchased several candles and lit them from a flame in the church... figured they would make nice gifts for certain special people back home Pretty remarkable place. For me it was really quite crazy to visit these holy places and finally get to see them with my own eyes after hearing and learning about them throughout my childhood (had a great couple of Sunday School teachers... wink wink... that's you Mom lol). Obviously a lot has changed in the region since 0 AD so you still do have to rely on your imagination to picture these sites as they once were. Shortly after visiting the Nativity we had made our way over to the Milk Grotto which is supposedly the place where Mary was breastfeeding Jesus and apparently spilled some milk in the grotto which turned the whole place stark white. The main reason we visited was because it is a place where people pray for fertility.... no we didn't say a pray for ourselves lol... no babies yet!... but rather Stacey wanted to light a candle for someone special in her life that deeply wants to receive a baby.
This is the point in the blog where we change gears a little bit... Okay, as I explained before when we came to Israel we both agreed that we would stay open minded about the conflict and try to learn as much as we could about BOTH sides before formulating our own opinion. Like the title on the blog says, upon reaching Bethlehem we had crossed over a check point and into the Palestine Territory know as the West Bank. What will follow below is OUR account of what we saw and did in Palestine. Again because this conflict is extremely sensitive I want to stress that I'm not trying to sway opinion or take sides... I am merely documenting what we saw and experienced. So lets begin.
Upon exiting the Church Of The Nativity we noticed a billboard outlining the Palestinians struggle with Israel and a bit of the historical background. I found this map to be quite shocking...
What it shows is, in green Palestine and in white Israel. Boundaries were clearly laid out in 1948 and as you can see have been steadily changing ever since. Even from Bethlehem, just beyond the billboard you can see Israel settlements in Palestine territory.
From Bethlehem the three of us caught a taxi that shuttled us off south to the historic city of Hebron where we would be meeting up with our friend Mohammed Hassouneh. We had actually met Mohammed in Amman Jordan and he was kind enough to invite both Stacey, I and Shannon to come stay with him and his family in their home in Hebron. How awesome is that!
Us after just arriving in Hebron having coffee with Mohammed and his friends. Afterwards Mohammed took us to his home where we got to meet his family. To our surprise his mother had prepared us the most amazing meal! The food was fantastic and I can honestly say I haven't ate that much in a long time lol.
Mohammed's older brother's baby girl...
Such a little sweetheart! After dinner Mohammed and his good friend Wsem chauffeured us around Hebron so we could see some of the sites. First stop a trip to a glass blowing factory.
Then we went to a Rec Centre to play a little Ping Pong...
Shannon vs Stacey... both terrible lol Then they showed us the local soccer stadium...
And we finished off the evening with a little Shisha in a cafe...
Tasty stuff... Afterwards we returned to Mohammed's home and I commented to Stacey that this was the first time since China where we stayed in someone else's home and not a hotel or hostel. Gotta say it felt nice to be in a home again. The next day we woke early and set out to the famous Sanctuary of Abraham or Ibrahimi Mosque. We made a couple of other stops along the way including a trip to a local run museum.
I included that last picture because the display case used to contain ancient jewellery until it was sacked by Israeli soldiers and taken to the museum in Jerusalem. Obviously when entering a mosque you must dress conservatively and appropriately, and this especially goes for women...
Mohammed's mother was kind enough to lend Stacey an outfit so she could enter the mosque. I personally love the new look! After going through an intensive security check by Israeli soldiers (more on this in a bit) we entered Abrahams Mosque. Abraham, who is both a prophet in Islam as well as a founding father to both Christianity and Judaism is reportedly buried here beneath the mosque along with his entire family. The shrine is the world's most ancient Jewish site and the second holiest place for the Jewish people, after Temple Mount in Jerusalem. The Arabic name of the complex reflects the prominence given to Abraham, revered by Muslims as a Quranic prophet and patriarch through Ishmael. As you can see the religious significance of the site to both religions creates great tension and has been the site of many horrific tragedies in the past (Google Abraham Mosque Massacre).
The mosque was also separated into two different parts, each with a different entrance. The bigger part of the mosque (and the surrounding gardens) were, shockingly, turned into a synagogue. Today an Israeli flag flies from the top of this ancient mosque and Israeli soldiers control access to it. Just to get into the mosque we had to go through 2 or 3 different military check points where our passports/belongings were checked and where both metal detectors and soldiers with assault riffles were present.
Of course we were able to gain access with relative ease because we're tourists but it was a different story for our Palestinian friends who seemed to be greeted with spite and suspicion. Mohammed actually told us a story about when him and his friends were detained and harassed by Israeli soldiers for no reason which included being strip searched and beaten up among other things. Acts of intimidation, aggression and humiliation by the Israeli soldiers are apparently all too common in Hebron. You see Hebron is home to around 500+ Jewish settlers (maybe more... found this stat online). Most of these extreme settlers (who originate from USA, France, Germany, Russia and other European countries) were brought from the rest of the West Bank and from Gaza to Hebron. This was no accident as they were given incentives by the Israeli government to move there (money, free homes, power etc). The settlers aim in Hebron is to create a new Jewish neighbourhood and they work together to try and push the Palestinian people out of the area, including their homes and businesses. Attacks and other forms of harassment by the settlers take place all the time and includes things like verbal abuse, and having stones, bottles of urine, dirty water, alcohol, rubbish, fire, Molotov cocktails and rocks thrown at Palestinians, their homes and their cars in an attempt to drive them from the area. Many of them have died as a result of being hit by rocks thrown at them by settlers and it is therefore not safe for Palestinians to live now in certain areas Hebron. After leaving the mosque we got Mohammed and his friends to show us one of these areas. As you will see in the pictures below, the locals have had to install fencing above their market just to protect themselves from the settlers living above.
Notice the massive boulders in that last picture? Unreal. Pretty sure that would kill anyone it landed on. Horrific. One of the local shopkeepers pulled me and Stacey aside and told us his story. He told us that settlers, accompanied by soldiers actually attempted to evict him from his own home for no reason. Luckily they were unsuccessful in their attempt. However they were successful in welding his shop doors shut. What will then happen after several months is that the Israeli government will legally consider his shop abandoned and then legally confiscate his property. Isn't it nice that a government can hide behind the law when it's convenient?
This next picture is of a Israeli guard tower positioned above the market. It's placed there to protect the settlers as they attempt to "settle" the area.
Mohammed's grandfather still works in the market selling vegetables.
As well as the soldiers behaviour, military law makes life incredibly difficult for the Palestinians living in Hebron. Many areas are off limits for Palestinians as well as numerous roads which are also blocked off by gates and fences in order to ‘protect’ the settlements. This includes the main road in Hebron which connects the North side of the city from the South side. This road is now closed off for Palestinians who are forced to walk a really long way round in order to reach their destinations. What used to be a 5 minute journey for them now takes much, much longer. Even as we left the mosque, only Shannon, Stacey and I were allowed to enter the Jewish synagogue area. Soldiers even told Stacey to remove her outfit because if not she would most likely be mistaken for a muslim and attacked. Really? It just seems like such excessive force and action on Israel's part. I still just can't understand why? Why aren't the original territorial boundaries established in 1948 followed? Why does Israel need to have settlements inside the West Bank? To me it just seems like a no brainer... there is bound to be conflict when 500+ settlers backed up by 2000+ soldiers attempt to take over someone else's home. I'll stop here because although I could shed much more light and insight into this issue I will attempt to remain unbiased about the situation. Remember, other then Mohammed's testimony we saw most of this happening right before our own eyes.
After touring the market and old city we made a quick pitstop at Mohammed's sister's home to have tea with her family.
Mohammed is truly blessed to have such a great family. Never in my life have I been so kindly welcomed. Thanks again Mohammed! Did I mention that we had rented a car? Well actually Mohammed and Wsem did... next stop on our tour was the infamous Israeli Security wall.
How many times has this failed throughout history? Started in 2004 the wall now covers 500+ KM with around another 250+ KM slated to be completed soon. So let me get this straight... you build a wall and then you build settlements on the opposite side???
I still can't believe how huge it is. For the record... I took a piss on it lol. From the wall we dropped Shannon off at a checkpoint as he had made plans to meet a lady friend in Tel Aviv, and we continued on to the Dead Sea... only the other side this time.
We arrived rather late but still had time to take a quick dip before dark.
That night our plan was to camp on the beach... only with no tent lol. Remember camping here is nothing like Canada! Although Mohammed got cold, the only thing bothering this Canuck was the mosquitos.... God I hate those miserable creatures!
The lights on the other side are Aqaba where we crossed the border into Israel. South of Aqaba is of course Saudi Arabia which we could also see off in the distance. That night we were treated to some world class Palestinian BBQ... and man was it good.
Due to the excessive and very persistent mosquitoes I retired early from my outdoor experience and hightailed it to the car. Lol ya I know I'm a pussy... but I needed the Zzzzz. That morning we finished up our time in Palestine with a dip in the Dead Sea for our last time....
I will never get over how cool it is to just float there. Completely unique.
And that concludes Palestine. Both of us cherished our time there and can't thank our gracious hosts enough. Thank you Mohammed for all your planning, guiding and of course translation but also for letting us meet your family and of course for offering us your home. Also thank you Wsem for also showing us a great time even though your driving was a little gut wrenching at times. You our both welcome in our home anytime! Travelling to Palestine finally allowed both Stacey and I the opportunity to finally see another side of the story (and not just what the news feeds you). Again I'm trying to remain neutral (although I problem failed in my attempt) but read between the lines... Palestine has no army and are not even recognized as a proper state. What I witnessed was an occultation much the same as what we witnessed in Tibet. Israel has the world's 4th most powerful army and are using it much like a big kid in a playground uses a big stick. What the Israeli Government is doing is not right... there are however good people on both sides which is why I'm quick to point out "government" in that last sentence. I could go on in more detail about what I think and feel but this will not be that forum. I have formulated my own opinions by now based purely on what I witnessed and I hope that this blog will inspire you to also look deeper, beyond what the media portrays about this on going conflict... we at least owe the innocent victims on both sides that much.