In and around Bethlehem

The winter rains started today. I needed a waterproof jacket as well as an umbrella. I haven’t needed a jacket until now. I’ve been warm enough in a vest, shirt, and pullover or cardigan. But it was colder today.

I was expecting to go to Hebron. I found a “Service” minibus to take me to Bethlehem. It was 10.30 when the minibus was full and we set off. I kept my fingers crossed, metaphorically speaking, that we would arrive in Bethlehem before 12 noon, which is when Rachelle, Mennonite Central Committee’s worker in Bethlehem, had said that we would be departing for Hebron.

The road through the hills to Bethlehem is far from straight. There were several hairpin bends to negotiate as we descended into and then climbed up out of a deep valley. It would almost certainly have been quicker to go through East Jerusalem, but the apartheid Wall (or “separation barrier”) makes that impossible.

Nevertheless we reached Bethlehem around 11.40. I rang Rachelle. (How did I ever used to manage without a mobile phone?) She said she would pick me up in Manger Square. I found Manger Square and after one or two more phone calls I found Rachelle.

The planned trip to Hebron had been cancelled because of the rain. When the winter rains begin, things tend to shut down and it didn’t seem like a good idea to be wandering around Hebron in the rain. So Rachelle gave me a guided tour of Bethlehem and environs instead.

The Bethlehem district has a total population of 188,000. The urban area includes Beit Jala to the northwest of Bethlehem and Beit Sahour to the east. Within this area are three refugee camps, Dheisheh, Aida, and – wait a minute, I’ll have to look this up – Azza.

According to Wikipedia, Dheisheh was established in 1949 on 0.31 square kilometers of lamb (sic) leased from the Jordanian government. The camp was established as a temporary refuge for 3,400 Palestinians from 45 villages west of Jerusalem and Hebron who fled during the 1948 Arab-Israeli War. Six decades of natural population growth have expanded the camp’s dimensions into an area between 1 and 1.5 square kilometers. … 15% of the camp remains unconnected to the local public sewage system. These homes make use of communal percolation pits.”Rachelle told me that there are now more than 9,000 refugees living in Dheisheh.

Aida is about a third of the size of Dheisheh in terms of population. There are probably fewer than 2,000 people living in Azza (aka Beit Jibrin). Rachelle’s guided tour took me into Aida and past Dheisheh.

This was very much an alternative sight-seeing tour. The first sight was of the Wall blocking off what used to be the main road from Bethlehem to Jerusalem. Rachelle then showed me a stretch of the Wall which separates the houses of two brothers who lived just across the road from each other. The Wall snakes around this northern part of Bethlehem in order to take Rachel’s Tomb onto the “Israeli” side of the Wall. The brothers now have to drive a long way round in order to visit each other.

A little while later, Rachelle showed me the friend’s house where she took refuge recently when Israeli soldiers were firing “live” ammunition (as opposed to rubber-coated steel bullets or tear-gas) during a “clash” with Palestinian youths. Just inside a large metal gate, where the Israeli soldiers come through the Wall, Rachelle picked up three tear-gas canisters. They were marked “Made in U.S.A.” The manufacturer: Combined Tactical Systems of Jamestown, Pennsylvania.

Israel receives aid from the USA in the form of coupons which they are required to spend in the USA. One of the things they spend it on is tear-gas canisters. Combined Tactical Systems and their employees have a stake in continuing military aid to Israel.

The Wall runs along one side of Aida refugee camp. Rachelle pointed out to me where bullet holes in the walls of the houses had been filled in. The large windows of a UN school had been blocked up, leaving only a row of small windows just under the roof. The main entrance to the school was exposed to direct fire, so it is no longer in use.

We drove on through Beit Jala. Rachelle stopped the car where we had a view northwards across a valley. Where there once used to be pine forest, there is now an Israeli settlement on top of the hill. Directly below us was a stretch of Route 60 which entered a tunnel going south towards Efrat and Hebron. The road is protected by a high wall on both sides and over the entrance to the tunnel. I have travelled twice to Efrat and back on that road.

We drove on out to the village of Khadr, which is destined to be completely encircled by the Wall, leaving just one entrance/exit to/from Beit Jala and Bethlehem. On the way back towards Bethlehem we passed a couple of outposts linked to Efrat. The colonists have erected two huge Israeli flags which fly over their mobile homes.

Back in Bethlehem I didn’t see many tourists around. I guess the rain, which was now fairly heavy, must have put a few people off. And perhaps it is still a bit early for people coming to Bethlehem for Christmas. I encountered only one group of tourists in the Church of the Nativity – nothing like the crowds that I expected.

If I were not planning to spend Christmas in Prague, I would be tempted to stay here and join the celebrations in Bethlehem.


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