Saturday, October 02, 2010

Oh little town of Bethlehem

 "Where are you going today?" asked my curious cab driver. I couldn't get anyone to give me a lift on a bus-free Saturday morning and I had to meet the bus that would take Israelis to Bethlehem as part of the Visit Palestine group.

"Bethlehem - with a bus full of Israelis"

The cab driver proceeded to tell me how he speaks fluent Arabic, which he learned when he was a young teenager and hung out with Arabs from the Bethlehem/Hebron area - and that when he was in the South of France, the Arabs he met there thought he was a Palestinian from the Hebron area.

"They won't mess with you if they know you're from Hebron. They have a reputation" and went on to tell me about the camaraderie they shared. He never told them he was Jewish.

Unlike him and many other Jews who visit Arab countries and neighborhoods undercover, we were encouraged to speak Hebrew on this trip. The natives have to know we're Israeli and we're touring Bethlehem.

Even though Bethlehem is about a 10 minute walk from the most southern part of Jerusalem or even less, it's verboten for Israelis to enter this area. Yes, Israelis do sneak in on foreign passports and all that,but officially, it's never been done. Until now. Preparations began a couple of weeks ago when I was asked to sign a few forms that I would not hold the Israeli government or army responsible if anything happened to me in Palestinian-controlled Area A. I signed and faxed and was approved to visit Bethelehem along with around 50 other Israelis from the Tel Aviv/Jerusalem area.

At the Rachel checkpoint, where we had permission to enter, the soldiers told us that they didn't receive any fax giving us the permission. We waited over 1/2 hour and they said if they get the forms faxed, which could be in another 1/2 hour, we could go through, if not....there are other ways to get into Bethlehem. But our organizers wanted to go in the legal way and we detoured in the meanwhile towards Beit Jalah to meet our Palestinian counterparts and for a mini-dialogue. After many phone calls to different authorities, we were informed that we were okay'd to go through the Rachel checkpoint.

This was an historical moment for us all. This was the first time that Israelis who were not journalists, who were not police officers or soldiers, who were not closeted Israelis, were allowed in through this checkpoint. We were all elated and clapped as we went through the wall to the other side. We're in Bethlehem, finally.

Our organizer was telling us his friends reactions. When he tells people he's going to New York, or to Europe or wherever else abroad, his friends are like "cool! Great". But when he told them he was going to nearby Bethlehem, they're like "You crazy, man?" We want to change all that.

We met our Palestinian friends again - who came from Jericho, Nablus and Bethlehem and toured the Church of Nativity. The smell of incense was strong and the Armenian mass was going on. We were escorted by Palestinian police, who seemed perplexed at seeing a mixed group of Israelis and Palestinians and gave us VIP treatment as they whizzed us through the chamber where Jesus was born, in front of a long very-pissed off line of tourists, who watched us breeze by them. Who knows how long a wait they had.

We walked through the marketplace and I don't think I have ever been there. We stopped off at Mary's Place, a Catholic-owned, new, tastefully built center to look at the panoramic view.

One of the young Arab kids came over to me. I seem to be a magnet for young Arab men who confide in me all their dilemmas about women.

He points to a pretty young woman in front of me.

"How do I show her that I like her? I don't want to tell her. I want to show her. How?"

My guess is he was asking me because this was his first encounter with Israeli women. He wasn't sure she'd go out with him.

"She might go out with you." I tried to assure him. "But then she may not because you're a different religion" - let's be realistic.

I told him to get her email address and correspond at first. He seemed satisfied and happy that he now has a goal and a new Jewish mother.

"Can I call you Mama?" he asked me.

"You can, or you can call me by my name."

Did the locals know we were Israelis? Apparently, people heard the shopkeepers and locals saying to each other "Yahud?" ("Jews?") and were pleased to hear that we were from various peace groups.

The Palestinians said they were pleased to see we were also given trouble at the checkpoints and say this kind of thing happens to them every day. So we were given a taste of what they go through.

One man from one of the local Bible schools, an Christian Arab refugee from the Jerusalem neighborhood of Musrara, spoke to us to tell us that there aren't any tensions or persecutions of Christians from the Moslem majority in Bethlehem, but what only annoyed him was the call of the muezzins disturbing his sleep or tv watching; which was especially awful during Ramadan - when people were always in the mosque.  His comment annoyed the Bethlehem Moslems who told him that church bells were also very annoying to them.  That should be the worst of their problems.

We said our good byes to the Palestinian contingent and hoped we could organize a Visit Israel day for them.


Anonymous said...

what a lovely blog! found it while researching Ramle.
and I agree if the bells and muezzin were the worst of our problems, that would probably be a good thing. thank you for your work.

RSA Online said...

It is very sad how much conflict there is over there, how can you deal with it day to day?

jerusalemgypsy said...

How do we deal with it? Basically, most of us just go about our regular lives every day - i.e. wake up, coffee, go to work, errands, home, tv, read paper and sleep. A conscious effort has to be made during any spare time in the week to help ease or just help lessen the conflict, in whatever ways one can - and lessen it to an extent in the hope that one day there'll be no conflict

RSA Certificate said...

I cannot believe the conflict over there. What a tragedy!

War is no answer.