Yesterday, I thought I was heading to Israel. This morning I woke up in Palestine. Perhaps I should have read the itinerary more carefully. Or perhaps not. When asked at immigration what my plans were, I said that I was going to Tel Aviv and then to Jerusalem. That I was meeting up with a scout group from Serbia and Macedonia (turns out there are six countries on this trip). And that no, I didn’t have any friends or family in Israel. Two out of three ain’t bad I suppose.
Waiting to be identified at the airport, I didn’t feel any anxiety despite my lack of preparedness. As each passenger on my flight made their way towards the exit, I stood centre concourse with by bag wondering what I’d do if nobody showed. I still thought I was staying in Tel Aviv. Not for the first time I marvelled at how easily I abdicate responsibility when someone else takes charge. If I don’t have to make decisions, I switch off completely.
On the drive to the wall (the military structure that separates Israel from Palestine on the outskirts of Bethlehem) we passed many Hasidic Jews (not at all strange really, considering we were in Israel). They wear their hats set back on their heads, showing lots of forehead. Black suits and dark shirts made it feel as if we were on the set of a black and white movie and the a fleeting notion black-and-white approaches snagged somewhere in my brain. There seemed to be mainly men, many of whom were pushing prams. Young boys, teens, older men … pushing prams. I’m not sure why that struck me as odd…but it did.
The first twinges of embarrassment at my complete ignorance of the geopolitical situation in the region started to make themselves felt when Serge began to explain to me about the Green Line: the demarcation lines set out in the 1949 Armistice Agreements between Israel and its neighbours after the 1948 Arab-Israeli War and also used to mark the line between Israel and the territories captured in the Six-Day War, including the West Bank, Gaza Strip, Golan Heights and Sinai Peninsula (the last has since been returned to Egypt as part of the 1979 peace treaty). The name derives from the green ink used to draw the line on the map while the talks were going on.
The plan was that we would take a shuttle (one of the many mini-buses that ferry passengers to Jerusalem from the airport at Tel Aviv) to the line and then use one of the enterprising local drivers to ferry us through the checkpoint into Bethlehem. Each trip nets the company $200 although the drivers themselves, working 16-hour days might net $1300 in a month. Despite this, our chap was well happy and constantly laughing and smiling. When the ten well-travelled bodies in his van began to hum, he passed around a sprig of basil. A natural air freshener that I have made note to try.
When we arrived at the wall, I was glad I had company. We were five in all so the Macedonians (having waited for me at the airport for two hours) went in the first car. The driver was supposed to come back for us … but didn’t. As we waited on the side of the litter-strewn road in the shadow of the wall I was itching to take some photos but was advised not to. They’re serious about their military installations.
Eventually we walked through. We met old-fashioned steel turnstiles and a maze of cage-like passageways lined with high railings. Stumbling over uneven pathways I was grateful yet again that I wasn’t on my own. Even if it was Serge’s first time in 15 years make the crossing on foot, at least he could speak the language. The passageway opened into a cul-de-sac where half a dozen yellow cabs stood waiting. The drivers greeted us like old friends asking where we’d come from. Judging by their enthusiasm, Ireland is popular in Palestine. A couple who had seen us waiting on the other side approached and asked if they could be of help; they thought we were trying to go to Israel and had turned back. They offered to drive us to our hotel. I couldn’t help but be impressed at the genuine warmth of the welcome and the constant smiles of the people. It was like old home week. One of the drivers told me that John Carey was also expected to pass through later …
At the hotel, having checked in, had a beer with some of the others, and Skyped home, I ventured out to my balcony to check the view. Not quite what I’d expected. It seems that inside is more important than outside when it comes to aesthetics in this part of the world – the view mightn’t be much but the hotel itself is lovely.
As Day 1 of the journey dawns, breakfast beckons and suitably attired for what they’re calling a ‘church day’, I’m ready to see more of Bethlehem and what it might offer.