It’s a clear sunny morning in Israel. Either side of the road from Tel Aviv airport the countryside is dusty brown interspersed with cultivated green. I hadn’t realised how close Jerusalem and Bethlehem are to each other. A matter of miles. There’s no traffic at this time of day so we drive through Jerusalem rather than taking the by-pass. Reaching the top of Mount Zion we look down at the golden dome of the Dome of the Rock and the old walled city. It’s beautiful, peaceful at this early hour.
Five minutes down the road we’re in a war zone.
Concrete barriers, checkpoints and a surly teenage soldier shifting his machine gun across his chest as he approaches. He inspects my passport with suspicion. We drive slowly through the checkpoint.
And there it is. Nine metres high, stark concrete, mind-numbingly incongruous.
The Israeli separation wall snakes its way through suburbia, chopping through gardens, separating neighbours. The gap is just wide enough to drive through. There’s Berlin-style graffiti. “American money is killing Palestine” reads one. Elsewhere someone has drawn a window and a pretend view through the Wall, trying to deny it’s there. Jerusalem and Bethlehem: sister cities within a five minute drive. Now more than ever, worlds apart.
On the other side it’s another country. More muddled, slight shabby, very vital Palestine is a surprise after the order and prosperity of Israel. I am the only guest at the 250 room Jacir Palace Intercontinental. The staff fall over themselves to help as I walk through the ornate marble entrance. It’s a long time since they’ve seen a tourist*. I have the vast breakfast buffet to myself. At the start of renewed hostilities between Israel and Palestine in 2000 visitor numbers plummeted from 91,726 a month to 7,249. Eighty per cent of Bethlehem’s income is tourism-related.
The Wall now virtually surrounds the Little Town. It’s being strangled. This is apartheid.
Palestinians are forbidden to visit Jerusalem and, importantly for the local economy, Israelis who used to shop here for cheaper goods and to dine in Arabic restaurants are not allowed in Palestine.
I’m here as a guest of Open Bethlehem. This organisation, founded by Bethlehem film director Leila Sansour who currently runs it in coordination with the Bethlehem governorate and The Holy Land Trust, has a mission to awaken people to Bethlehem’s plight.
“Bethlehem is much more than a precious world heritage; it is a bastion of an open, diverse Middle East,” says Leila. “The city is placed at the point where East and West, Christianity and Islam have co-existed in harmony for generations.”
She takes me for a walk through the old town. Saturday morning and the market is alive. Headscarved old women sit on the flagstones with piles of bright fruit at their feet. The scent of guava, just in season, wafts around us. We stop at a spice shop where they grind me Turkish coffee with cardamom seeds. Nearby we see bread being baked and steaming casseroles being taken from a huge brick oven; cooking traditions that have hardly changed for eons.
In the past you’d queue for a half hour to duck through the doorway into the Church of the Nativity. Today, though Christmas is but a few weeks away, there’s just me, Leila and a few others. Down a low marble staircase the birthplace of Christ is marked with a silver star on the floor. In another corner is the nook where the manger was. It’s surprisingly simple. I sit in contemplation.
Leila and I eat that evening in a virtually empty restaurant. Recent tentative steps towards peace mean that some UK operators do offer Holy Land tours. Everyone is hoping tourists will return. But that wall is more than a physical barrier. It’s an excuse to drive by, to avoid the complication of the conflict.
“Most of the ground agents that operate these Holy Land tours are Israeli. They have no interest in bringing tourists to Bethlehem,” says Leila. “At best they bus people in for a couple of hours and retreat again behind the Wall. It brings little economic benefit.”
Leaving two days later I’m shocked to realise I’ve almost forgotten the Wall.
It’s been there glowing under 24 hour floodlights, visible from my hotel window, but I’ve been visiting churches, trekking in the desert, being a tourist. It’s amazing how quickly something so outrageous can just become part of the scenery. The Berlin wall stood for 28 years. How many years will this one stand and how quickly will the rest of the world forget about it?
Now is the time to go see Bethlehem. As tourists, we can make a difference.
*Since I wrote this piece there has been some improvement in the number of tourists visiting Bethlehem. The town logged close to a million visitors in 2013. The Jacir Palace hotel is busier these days, but the majority of tourists still come just for a half day and don’t stay the night in Bethlehem.
Fancy a trip to Bethlehem?
Stay There: Book direct with the Jacir Palace.
Do The Tour: Activity break specialist Exodus’ Treasures of the Holy Land tour includes a visit to Bethlehem and an overnight stay in the town.