West Bank – for better or worse

After another week of interesting rotations in the Nabulsi hospitals, the second weekend-trip was imminent. A somewhat sleepy group of Palestinians and Norwegians in need of caffeine, met outside our beloved “Berlin” half past seven Friday morning. When we were all ready, the minibus headed towards Bethlehem. Even though Bethlehem is only about 50-60 km south of Nablus, the drive takes almost two hours because of the checkpoints. A few kilometers outside of Bethlehem, we picked up our guide who would show us both Bethlehem and Hebron. 

The first destination of the trip was “Sheperds Field” in Beit Sahour in the outskirts of Bethlehem. This was the place the “shepherds watched their flocks by night” and were told by the angles that a king (Jesus) is going to be born. The guide showed us the “Church of the angel” which was built here in 1953. Furthermore, the guide brought us to a view and explained the differences between Palestinian and Israeli apartments. The Palestinian apartments have water tanks on the roof. Israel decides when these tanks will be filled with water, approximately every 5-10 days. If the tanks are empty, it costs 500 shekels to fill them – about 1/6 of the average monthly income for Palestinians. It really makes you feel privileged as a Norwegian, and it puts things in perspective. Water, essential for life – it is hard to imagine living with restricted supplies.

After a quick photoshoot, we continued to the city of Bethlehem. In the old city of Bethlehem, we visited the Church of the Nativity and the Milk Grotto Chapel. The Church of the Nativity is believed to be built where Jesus was born more than 2´000 years ago. To enter the church, you must duck to get through the tiny entrance, and both boys and girls have to cover their knees and shoulders. The size of the door has been made smaller at two separate occasions to prevent attacks with horses. Inside the church, which is formed as a cross, you can see a mosaic floor from the 4thcentury and frescoes from the 12thcentury. The church was almost completely rebuilt in the 6thcentury after a Samaritan revolt. In one end of the church, some stairs led down to the Grotto of the Nativity. This is believed to be the exact place Jesus was born. Because of a two-hour queue, we decided to move on to the Milk Grotto instead. 

After the birth of baby Jesus, Herod, the great king of Judea, ordered the execution of all male children u der the age of two and under the vicinity of Bethlehem. During this massacre, the “Massacre of the Innocents”, Maria found shelter in a grotto. Here she breastfed Jesus. One day a drop of her milk fell on the ground a d the whole grotto was colored white. It is said that if you pray and touch the wall of the grotto, your health issues (for example infertility) will disappear.

After a quick shawarma/falafel, we set the course towards the desert (!!!) All the Norwegians enjoyed the bumpy ride into the desert, and we even saw camels on the way. Eventually, we arrived at a small camp run by a Bedouin family. They were so warm and welcoming, and showed us the tent we were (at least some of us) going to sleep. We watched the beautiful sunset from the camp before the family served us dinner – makloubeh <3. After dinner, we sat in a circle around the bonfire, talked, listened to music, played games and admired the stars. An evening we will never forget.

While some went to bed, the rest stayed up until 4 am. We were going to see the sunrise! Three jeeps drove us for about 30-40 minutes through the desert in the darkness of the night. When the jeeps stopped, it turned out they had brought us to a hill above the Dead Sea! What a fantastic surprise to an already incredible trip. We were all waiting in excitement for the sun to rise. All except those who did not get enough rest before we left and lay on the ground sleeping. A golden ball gradually rose from the mountains of the Judean desert on the other side of the Dead Sea.  When the sun had risen, the jeeps brought us back to the tents where we went to sleep again before eating breakfast and leaving for Hebron.

After a short trip in the minibus, we arrived in Hebron. First, we made a short stop at Hebron Glass and Ceramic Factory where we got to see a glassblower in action. Most of the Norwegians seized the opportunity to buy some souvenirs and/or gifts for family and friends. Then we went to the old city of Hebron. The city was surrounded of towers with Israeli soldiers on guard. In Hebron, perhaps the most troubled city in the West Bank, Palestinians and Israeli live close to each other, as the Israeli settlers have built their homes on top of the Palestinians. Israel occupied the city during the Six-Day-War in 1967, but following the Oslo Agreement (1995) and the subsequent Hebron Agreement (1997), Hebron was divided in two parts. H1 is controlled by the Palestinian Authority, while H2 is controlled by Israel and has 700 Jewish and 30’000 Palestinian habitants. Most of the Israeli live in and around the old city. The result of the Palestinians and Israelis living so close together is easy to spot – they had to install nets between the buildings to prevent garbage, thrown from the Israelis living on top of the Palestinians, from hitting the people walking down the streets.  

In Judaism, Hebron is considered the second most holy city after Jerusalem – and it is important for Christians and Muslims as well. The Cave of the Patriarchs was, according to these religions, bought by Abraham as a burial place for his wife, Sarah. Now it is said that Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, and their wives, are all buried in the cave. In the 12thcentury it was converted to the Ibrahimi Mosque, but in 1967 it was divided into a mosque and a synagogue by the Israelis. To get into the Cave of the Patriarchs, we had to pass through a checkpoint where our bags were sent through a scanner. 

Leading to the Cave is the Al-Shuhada Street. Because of its position, the street used to be the central wholesale market, but after riots following a massacre in the Ibrahimi Mosque in 1994, the street was closed for Palestinians. It opened again in early 2000s, but the shops remained closed, and after the second intifada parts of the street was completely closed to Palestinians again. We were allowed into the “ghost town” by Israeli soldiers standing at the checkpoint, but the Palestinians had to wait outside. It was so quiet, and it is hard to imagine that the street used to be full of people and open shops. All we could see was empty houses, closed gates and Israeli soldiers.  Finally, after a weekend full of unforgettable memories and experiences, strong impressions, important knowledge, lack of sleep and bags full of ceramics, the minibus headed back to Nablus

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