AFTER East Jerusalem, we headed for the fabled biblical town of Bethlehem in the Palestinian West Bank. We were surprised to discover that Bethlehem is a suburb of Jerusalem these days, only about seven or eight kilometres from the middle of the city.
I was going to stay at the Walled Off Hotel, next to the Israeli border wall (which is inside Palestinian territory) and Sarah was headed for a farm-stay called Al-Buraq Arabians, about another kilometre further on down the road. Al-Buraq was run by a US-trained veterinarian named David — a Palestinian in spite of his name — who saved the lives of sick and injured horses. The ‘Arabians’ in question are, of course, the horse breed: fast Saracen warhorses that are the ancestor of the modern racing thoroughbred.
A suburban bus could have taken us for the equivalent of forty American cents each. But we were feeling lazy, and the buses to Bethlehem left from another part of town. So, we got an Uber expecting it to cost the equivalent of $15 US and ended up being charged way over the odds at 290 Shekels ($70 US).
The Ubernaut tried to charge Sarah another $20 US for the last part of the journey after dropping me off! Ubers are supposed to be cheaper than regulated taxis but not in this case; it’s the Wild West.
I was paying $80 US a night to stay for three nights in the ‘Budget Barracks’ part of the Walled Off Hotel, a hotel hard up against the Israeli barrier, which was financed by the British graffiti artist named Banksy.
The Budget Barracks was a mixed dorm with about 8 beds. It was very nicely done with blinds, a fridge, and a locker in the room with great taste.
I loved the door key. To open the lounge door to the stairs, you had to put the door key to the breast of a portrait of a woman! There are only ten rooms in the hotel, eight of them personally decorated by the artist Banksy and the other two with work by a Palestinian and a Canadian artist respectively.
So, a lot of people visit to eat, drink and look at the artwork. The décor is old retro furniture, with bomb or cannon shells in the room next to old toolboxes.
The hotel had a museum that told the entire story, of occupation; of the losing of land in the West Bank to Israeli settlements with maps, and the theft of land in general. It told of Gaza and the blockade of Gaza. And of the story of the building of the wall.
It came home to roost how the Palestinians in Gaza feel. They have a phone in the Museum with a recording, this is Sargant blah blah bah, you have five minutes to get out of your house before we bomb you. Palestinians from all around the World visit the museum, and it is brought home by that simple phone call.
A Tour of the Walled Off Hotel (video)
Presentation in the Museum at the Walled Off Hotel (video)
The hotel opened in March 2017. It employs about twelve Palestinian people. There is a lifesize plastic monkey butler at the front door! Many artists come to stay at the hotel, and can get paint, paper, ladder and spray can from next door.
The hotel advertises itself as the hotel with the worst view in the world. Even so, the murals on the Israeli barrier wall are very informative. There is one of the nurse who was killed helping Gazans during a protest, and one of Donald Trump hugging a gun turret and supporting the building of another wall.
I was running on thin air after two very full on days in Jerusalem, one near arrest and the awful feeling around the place. And now, another three days seeing the sights. I was alive running on adrenaline and wanting to see what was happening. Realising I was near a wall where Israeli troops were stationed was hardcore.
They had a refugee camp tour for only $6 US at the Aida Refugee Camp which is two kilometres north of Bethlehem, meaning that it too is at one and the same time in the West Bank, and in the suburbs of modern Jerusalem as well. It is next to Rachel’s Tomb, a historic biblical site marked on Google Maps.
They had a tour going shortly at 5 pm, so I went. It was arranged by a guy called Marwan, who had attended a lot of protests in the area. He was to talk about the history of Palestine since the 1917 Balfour Declaration, the 1948 War that followed Israel’s independence, and the violations of various United Nations declarations that still persist through the theft of land. What little the Palestinians still had was really chopped up.
Marwan showed how, during the Muslim Eid celebrations, they had cleaned up his father’s grave, which was below an Israeli watchtower. He said that the soldiers filled their empty plastic water bottles with urine and chucked these and leftover food scraps and other rubbish down onto the graves.
High school students were graduating and driving around half in and half out of cars in celebration, so it was all a bit noisy. Marwan said that the families living in the camps wanted to stay there, as they wanted back the land that was taken from them.
And so we entered the Aida refugee camp, which had a ‘key of remembrance’ above the gate, so they do not forget the land and houses they lost seventy years ago. We stayed about forty minutes. I bought a shirt which said Make Hummus not Walls. I also bought a coin made to resemble the coinage used before 1948. So, I bought that and gave Marwan a sizeable donation.
Marwan said the Israeli Defence Services open the wall gates and use plastic bullets on the kids in the camp for target practice.
Marwan demonstrating rubber and plastic bullets (video)
Most people were just horrified at what they were hearing.
People in the West Bank cannot go to the beach. Imagine that! Although they are just a short distance from the Mediterranean, they have to go through Israel to get to the beach and it is very difficult for them to be allowed through the wall (a bit like getting into West Berlin when the Berlin Wall was up).
Also, the Israelis took the aquifers and control the water Palestinians are sold water every two weeks, and have to fill their tanks then, shocking. The power is also more expensive to Palestinians than Israelis.
The camp is not very big, 0.071 square kilometres or the equivalent of about seventy large (quarter-acre) suburban sections. It has a bit over 3,000 permanent residents and 5,500 people registered with the camp, so it is pretty crowded.
After that, I spoke to Marwan’s friend Mustafa Dar Alaraj, a leader of the Aida camp community. He was getting married to a woman who worked for an NGO. Initially her parents disagreed with the match, as he lives in the camp, but they agree now. It makes you realise how it must be a stigma to be in the camps — a further source of aggravation.
We discussed the main Palestinian political factions in charge of the West Bank and Gaza, Al-Fatah and Hamas respectively. The Sunni religious party and militant organisation Hamas won the majority of seats on the Palestinian National Authority legislature on both the West Bank and Gaza in 2006; but outside aid funding was then withdrawn since Hamas were classified as a terrorist organisation and vetoed by the USA.
Mahmoud Abbas, the President of the Palestinian National Authority — a body set up under the Oslo Accords in 1993 — then declared a state of emergency and dissolved the legislature in 2007. Abbas has ruled the West Bank by decree ever since (Hamas physically retained control of the Gaza Strip), and there haven’t been any elections for the Palestinian National Authority (widely known as the Palestinian Authority, for short) since that time either.
Abbas is a veteran Palestine Liberation Organisation (PLO) leader from back in the 1960s and 1970s. Abbas was often referred to in the media, back in the day, as Abu Mazen. Their party, Al-Fatah, is the main party in the PLO.
These days, Abbas is in his eighties and has ruled the West Bank for well over a decade. His presidential rule and 2007 decree were meant to have a certain time limit, and a lot of people think that Abbas’s political parking meter expired a long time ago. He and his sons are extremely wealthy, and people I spoke to also seemed to think that the Abbas faction was more-or-less corrupt and sold-out.
On the other hand, to give quite a bit of credit where it is due, the authority has done a lot to try and promote tourism on the West Bank, which has a vast number of historic and biblical sites.
The Palestinian Authority constantly interposes its own police between the Israeli troops and local stone-throwers, thereby preventing the eruption of serious violence (most of the time) and perhaps acting to prevent a third Intifada, or insurrection, of which there have been two so far.
Intifada is an Arabic word meaning ‘shrugging off’. In Palestine and Gaza, it means open confrontation with the Israelis.
The first Palestinian Intifada ran from 1987 to 1993, and the second from 2000 to late 2004 or early 2005.
The first and second Intifadas claimed thousands of lives, most Palestinian but including over a thousand Israelis in the second Intifada (Israeli casualties had been modest in the first conflict). Most of the Israeli casualties in the Second Intifada were civilians killed by acts of terrorism.
Everywhere I went I could see that things that had been more-or-less ruined for years were being done up, Cuba-style. Apart from the death and injury that would surely result, another Intifada would tragically set all the Palestinians’ tourism and development achievements back to zero.
All the same, people in the Palestinian territories are very disillusioned with endless restrictions and failures of the Oslo accord, which they expected would lead to a normal life; and some polls show that if free elections were held, Hamas would win not just in Gaza but in the West Bank as well, mainly to spite Israel.
Although Hamas had a lot of unappealing qualities, it seemed to me that the main source of trouble in the region was Israel itself. Above all, its creeping, bad-faith annexation of the West Bank, in which the Palestinians were confined to chopped-up, ghetto-like homeland areas divided by corridors of Israeli military occupation and Jewish settlement.
Where had I seen something like this before? Oh yes that’s right, in Apartheid South Africa, where the blacks were nominally citizens of tiny ‘tribal homelands’ with names like Transkei and Boputhatswana: homelands that didn’t even consist of contiguous territories but merely isolated and scattered places. The map of the nominally independent but in practice Israeli-occupied and settled West Bank looks just the same.
Here’s the official version of one of the maps Marwan showed me — it’s not too different — plus a photo of an ingenious anti-occupation protester, which I saw in the Walled Off Hotel.
Ultimately, Israel holds the cards and the power, and is able to set the agenda. So what do we hear? ‘The weak are slaughtered, the strong prevail’, says Prime Minister Netanyahu. This might gain him votes from the fearful and the ill-informed, but is it a statesmanlike attitude in the long run? I think not.
Altogether, the most modern nation in the region seems to be ruled by a political class that isn’t modern at all but rather dominated by atavism and land-grabbing.
It is hard to imagine a modern state with the capacity to make the desert bloom, and some of the world’s best scientists and architects, being wagged, by such a political tail. But there you are.
Everywhere I went, Palestinian people said they hated politics. And no wonder.
Mustafa Dar Alaraj and the Aida Refugee Camp can be contacted for visits and volunteering on https://www.facebook.com/volunteerpalestine / +972 56–956–3407.
(For more travel stories, check out my other posts on Medium, and my website, a-maverick.com.)