Great lunch in Bethlehem followed by a visit to Hebron, an experience in sorrow.
Travelers can find joy and sorrow on the West Bank.
We visited the International Cultural Center, a youth and cultural center offering education, enrichment, opportunities to build skills the arts, community support and health services to young people, plus a small guesthouse. The complex is one of the hopeful signs of better, more tranquil times to come.
Then we made our way through the old city, which has been significantly restored, for lunch at a restaurant called Afeem, down a little street near Manger Square in Bethlehem. Under vaulted stone ceilings, the staff brought out wonderful renditions of Middle Eastern specialties that we’d had before and would have again. Everything came out family-style, so the narrow table was packed with plates and bowls. The hummus was the best I’ve ever eaten. But the real discovery was lemonade mixed with finely chopped mint. A champion in the thirst-quencher competition.
From Bethlehem, we drove to Hebron, a city that was an early hotbed of Palestinian resistance to the Israeli occupation of their territory and unprecedented retaliation on the part of the Israeli government, whose army has the big guns in this conflict. The city center is busy and lively, but pairs of armed soldiers stand around, and scores of checkpoints require Palestinians to show identification on demand when traveling around their own city. Palestinians, especially men, are constantly hassled and sometimes jailed for no reason other than the Israeli Army can detain anyone without cause.
Most controversial and provocative are the Jewish settlements plunked in the middle of old city, not on the outskirts as elsewhere. Palestinians have been displaced to make way for these in-town settlements, each surrounded by a high fence or wall and armed soldiers. The population of the three settlements is reportedly somewhere between 300 and 500, with something like 1,000 soldiers to “protect” them. Streets and alleyways that used to go through to and from the market are now blocked off, and hundreds of shops in the old souk have closed, either their metal doors welded shut by the Israelis or abandoned by shopkeepers who no longer had enough business in this tense place.
One of the settlements looms above the centuries-old market. The settlers, fanatics by anyone’s standards, took to throwing trash down on the narrow market paths below. Nets and fencing suspended over the streets (below) now prevent this detritus from hitting passersby. Hebron authorities are so eager to repopulate the old city that they are offering free housing, free schooling and free medical care as incentives to Palestinian families to return to the heart of the old city. It would take that for people to be willing to endure the inconvenience and even humiliation literally and figuratively heaped up them by the small minority of settlers in their midst.
Visitors get an eyeful as they walk through the market, passing many forever-closed shops, en route to Harem el-Kahlil Mosque. It should be sacred to all three major monotheistic religions. It holds the red and white striped Tombs of the Patriarchs — where Abraham, Sarah, Isaac and other members of the Biblical family are buried. They are revered by Arabs, Christians and Jews and should be sacred to all.
But it was the site of one of the West Bank’s worst incidents — and there have been a lot of incidents. In 1994, Dr. Baruch Goldstein, an American-born Israeli physician with undisputed credentials as a fanatic, donned his Army reserve uniform, entered to mosque and threw a grenade, killing 29 people and wounding 125. The tragic incident made headlines around the world and has kept tension high for years.
I was very disheartened when we left the mosque and again passed through a floor-to-ceiling metal turnstile watched by an armed soldier and then walked down the net-covered byways and shuttered market stalls, I bought a beaded bracelet in the colors of the Palestinian flag from one of the young street vendors.
It was a sad and sobering afternoon. There are many Israelis and non-Israeli Jews who favor peace talks and peace. But the Israeli government, with its own ideology and many restrictions, makes such talks difficult. I hope something clicks in, that the conservatives and fanatics on both sides lose power and influence, and that future generations will be able to live in harmony and peace. Having spent even a short time in Hebron, it’s not really expectation on my part, but a hoping.
En route out of town, we stopped at a glass and ceramics shop (three photos just below) with one traditional glass-blower showing off his craft for visitors’ camera. Then we briefly visited the Pools of Solomon, an ingenious water storage and delivery system from antiquity. The pools are located in a shaded area that is currently roped off (bottom) while workmen do some restoration or repairs. Across the street is is a newer resort and conference center. Who will visit?, I wonder.