The sun was getting low over the distant terraced hills when I arrived into Jerusalem. Green and white split level forest into shadowy crevasses, flat roofed houses row after row after row into the distance.
I wandered the streets as the nightlights started to turn on. Narrow, cobbled alleyways – floor, walls and roof all the same golden beige – steering off from the wide main road, a sleek light rail zipping by at close proximity sending countless Jew curls flailing in the wind.
I crossed to the Arabic side and ate falafel, naively unaware of what exactly I was stepping into. A blissful but shamefully ignorant approach to the longest ongoing conflict in the world also meant I got on the bus to Bethlehem the next morning without a second thought, almost unaware of what I had just walked away from – a divided city, a proclaimed capital of two countries, or what I was about to enter – a country framed by occupation, cut off by a wall higher than the Berlin, and where more sweet Arabic cardamom coffee is drunken than salt is in the Dead Sea.
I never thought I could love a land locked, Islamic, war torn country like I loved The West Bank, Palestine. The region is surrounded by Israeli territory, a narrow strip in close proximity to the Dead Sea and the Jordanian Border. I arrived in the birthplace of Jesus on a bus the day of the Palestine marathon, an event I knew was on after meeting someone in Zanzibar a few weeks of before that had committed to running the whole thing. I planned on watching the race, an initiative of two Danish girls in an attempt to bring attention to a struggle that seems to never end.
When I first pulled up a friendly Taxi driver approached me who was at work with his two young sons. He started to brief me on the history of Bethlehem and eventually, after realizing my utter ignorance, decided to skip the marathon and get him to take me everywhere I needed to go in the city, which basically ended up as a seriously depressing family road trip.
This prompted a quick Google of Palestine and Israel’s history, something that I never want to do again, as it is one of the most complex stories I have ever read, land embroiled in conflict, occupation, diaspora and pain. Let me do my best to break it down for you.
So, first there were Jews. And then there were a whole number of occupations that included the Romans and then the Ottermans (Turkish) who effectively kicked the Jews off their land. Those guys dispersed throughout Europe and became a landless people. Then the Arabs spilled over from Jordan, eventually followed by the British. Of course it was the British. Who, after the end of World War Two decided that the cost of holding onto the land was too high, so saw the easiest solution as to give it back to the Jews, who had slowly started returning since 1922 on the basis of Zionist theory – right to the land as result of the holy scriptures that denote it as the promised land. The only problem was that the Palestinians were already there, and had been for a long time. So they split the country into parts – Israel, the northern section on the Mediterranean that borders Syria, Lebanon and the north of Jordan as well as touching the Red Sea and Egypt in the south – The West Bank Palestine – an area bordering The Dead Sea and Jordan and Gaza – a strip bordering Egypt, the Mediterranean and otherwise surrounded by Israel.
The only problem with this is that the holy sites, almost all of them, are in Palestinian Territory. These are holy sites relevant to Christianity, Judaism and Islam - all there together for people to fight over.
Seems strange doesn’t it?
Bit by bit The West Bank is becoming smaller, Israel setting up camps in the territories they occupy – camps that eventually become houses and then entire towns. These settlements are illegal under international and Israeli law, yet still they continue to build, justified under a loophole that if an area stands unpopulated for a certain number of years, then Israel can claim it as their own – something that works quite nicely if the Palestinians have been forced out.
As I walked the wall that stretches 18 kilometres on the edge of Bethlehem toward Jerusalem with my taxi driver, I shivered under the shadow it cast on the houses. Words of rebellion grafittied the length of the lower half and stories of heartache printed on each panel. For a moment I couldn’t believe it, it seemed almost barbaric to build this here, almost like putting a bandaid on when you have cancer.
A man approached me as tears welled in and out of my eyes; he leant on the gate of his house and greeted me in English.
“Why are you so sad?” he asked.
“Because of the wall” I said flatly,
“This wall is right across from my house and I am not sad. For 20 years of my life I played football in the field on the other side and now I see only the wall, but if I lose my happiness then they have won.”
“How can you live with this wall right here?”
“The Berlin Wall fell and this will too.”
I smiled, disbelief at the undying optimism. What on earth was this place?
I stood atop a mountain built by King Herod of Rome over 2000 years ago and looked at the Dead Sea in the misty distance. The landscape was yellow, buildings littered in amongst sand and rock. I could sea the wall winding it’s way ominously through the city, a refugee camp that has stood since 1948 built against one edge, the Tomb of Rachel on the Israeli side, kids taken indoors so as to not throw rocks and be tear gassed by soldiers in watch towers.
It was eerie all that history right at my fingertips, land walked by people since recorded history began, so much bloodshed etched into the dirt, and still, as these people can see it mapped so clearly before them, still it does not stop.