Yesterday was the coolest day travelling I have had in a very long time. During my old city tour on the first day, I met two British guys, Sam and Richard, and we have travelling together ever since. Yesterday, we decided to go to the West Bank.
Remember how I was talking about not feeling the tension of the city? That all goes out the window when you go the West Bank. First of all, to leave Jerusalem and go to the West Bank, you have to go to a special Arab bus station with buses that have permission to enter both places. We went to Bethlehem first which is run by the Palestinian Authority and immediately feels like another country.It is crazy but awesome. It is here that you get the best view of the wall which separates Jerusalem from the West Bank and we saw some AMAZING graffiti, it really must be like what Berlin went through before the wall fell down. The wall is everywhere and very imposing, you can see it from anywhere you stand (about 24 ft, the Berlin Wall was only 18 ft by comparison). Despite the wall, the city is pretty indepedent in that there are hardly any Israeli soldiers there. It has an Arab feel, with Arab food and market life until you get to the Touristy section (The Church of the Nativity, which is beautiful).
After lunch, we got a shared taxi (only 3 dollars!) to Hebron, which is intense. Hebron has the largest Jewish settlement and is still heavily occupied (or protected, depending on your pointed of view) by Israeli soliders. When you first arrive, you enter a big city that could be anywhere in the Arab world. Women all veiled, but everyone out and happy running errands and meeting friends. As you walk toward the old city, however, it gets nuts. The old market, which dates back to ancient times, had previuosly been an arab market but has been closed down by Israeli soliders. The Palestinians wanted to reopen it so they just set their stands up outside since they couldnt reopen the stores. In response to this, the jewish settlers, who live above the market, decided to start throwing rocks, hot oil, etc.. on the Palestinians below. The palestinians then built a cage over the market to protect them. When you look up you see all of the rocks, bottles, concrete they have thrown down-I couldn't believe it. The people there are MORE than happy to share their stories of Israeli oppression with you and it was very nice to hear that point of view. As we continued to walk toward the Tomb of Abraham, Issac and Jacob, we did not realize that it was divided into two- one half jewish, and one half a Mosque- and its entirely in the settlement. To get in, you have to walk through a security check point guarded by HEAVILY armed Israeli army guards (18 year olds with machine guns run this country) and show a passport. It was surreal. The settlement was DEAD with creepy music playing everywhere. There are 400 settlers who live there and 5,000 soliders who protect them. Every 50 yards is a checkpoint of soliders always on guard. We decided to go into the Tomb on the jewish side and they asked us two questions: "Do you have anything sharp?" and "are you jewish?" After the tomb we walked back to the bus station through the settlement and there was propoganda everywhere, just like there had been on the arab side. Polar opposite. The Mosque directs its speakers toward the settlement so when its the call for prayer, the music saturates the air and you can see the soliders and and settlers cringe. I have never in my life seen anything like it.
It was mentally exhausting and left us with more questions that answers. It showed us just how complicated the situation is and how many people are affected by it. Whether its the soliders forced to continue the occupation, the Palestinian generations growing up with resentment and bitterness drilled into them or the arabs who live in Jerusalem with a permit and have to physically leave the bus to get checked everytime they visit home and return back to the city while jews and tourists get to stay on, the conflict permeates the air once you leave the tourist areas. I am so happy I went and will never forget that experience.