Daytrip to Ramallah, Bethlehem, and the West Bank
Was up at 5:30 the next morning to drink canned coffee from the grocery store (I wasn’t taking chances so made sure I had something) to head to Jerusalem to begin our daytrip. Ian had found a tour online with Green Olive Tours that would cover the major sites in Bethlehem and Ramallah. The tour left from Jerusalem, but there was an optional add-on from Tel Aviv which unfortunately had a pick up at 6:30 am. Ugh. No worries though, I was so jetlagged that my body was used to running on little sleep.
Fortunately the Tel Aviv pickup was only about a 10 minute walk from my hotel, and even at 6am it was light out, so had a nice brisk walk in the cold. It was just me and one other person from Tel Aviv, so we headed off early. Thanks to it being Shabaat there was very little traffic, and we were in Jerusalem over an hour before the tour was scheduled to leave. The schedule the Tel Aviv pickup at the same time each day, regardless of Shabaat, which makes little sense.
The meeting point in Jerusalem was the YMCA, which might be the nicest and largest YMCA I’ve ever seen. Had a nice coffee in their restaurant while waiting for Ian…and another coffee once he arrived. The YMCA was located right off Abraham Lincoln street – LOL!
Soon our group was together, and we were ready to go. Our guide was excited for this trip, since he’d just recently gotten his permit allowing him to travel into Israeli territory. Previously, the tour would have to go pick him up in the West Bank and then start. Green Olive is a Palestinian company, so it was interesting to get another perspective on the situation.
On the way, he gave us a bit of background on Palestine and Modern Israel, and explained about Area A, Area B, and Area C. Area A is full civil and security control by the Palestinian Authority, and makes up around 3% of the West Bank, excluding East Jerusalem but including Bethlehem, and Ramallah which we were visiting as well as Jericho. Area B is Palestinian civil control and joint Israeli-Palestinian security control and makes up another 25% or so of the West Bank. Area C is the balance of around 70% and is under full Israeli control.
Leaving Area C, we approached this ominous sign. Dangerous to my life? Oh Israel, you CLEARLY don’t know my travel history:
First stop in Area A was the tomb of Yasser Arafat:
Ok, so it’s a bit awkward posing next to a tomb, but the tour guide and the guards encouraged me:
After the tomb, we piled back into the minivan and it was off to the “capital” of Palestine, Ramallah. Ramallah didn’t used to be a very big city – but since it was handed over to control of the Palestinian Authority it has prospered and become the de-facto capital of Palestine. I’m not going to get into a discussion of politics, but over half of the members of the UN consider Palestine a country, so I counted it as my 169th of 196 countries visited. (193 members of the UN, plus 3 over half of the UN recognizes: Palestine, Kosovo, and Vatican). Ramallah was rather bustling, and apparently also has a rather sizable plus-size community as this mannequin in front of a store would suggest:
There are no real sites in Ramallah, it’s just Palestine-central, so we mostly walked around the city. People I knew who had spend a lot of time in Israel and Palestine advised me that Ramallah wasn’t really worth a visit on limited time, but I figured if I was going to count Palestine as a country I should at least see its administrative centre. I’m very glad we did, because the city had a completely different feel than Israel. The central market:
Mmmmm “fresh” bread:
What’s this? Stars and Bucks Cafe?
We had to visit. They’d clearly found their niche as a tourist destination, and our guide even suggested we go in. This was not new to them, and they had a wide variety of Stars and Bucks merchandise on offer. I think everyone in our group bought at least one mug or t-shirt, and it was to the point the barrista was offering us complimentary drinks to welcome / thank us for being there. It was something we’d experience several times on this tour – there was an amazing hospitality in Palestine and they were clearly very happy to have us visiting. Not because they wanted to sell us on their side of the story (there was none of this) but because they just wanted us to feel welcome in their land.
The view from Stars and Bucks:
Um, do you really want to call something “The Bomb” in the West Bank?
Next stop after wandering the downtown area was to an old home that had been restored to a museum of Palestinian culture. Looks like “hands up don’t shoot” has made it to Palestine too:
After Ramallah, and before lunch, we headed to the dividing wall between Israel and Palestine:
Local children playing by the wall. With our guide acting as translator, I got to have a short conversation with them. As we were getting ready to leave, the one in the brown jacket tugged on my sleeve and asked “can you take down the wall? I want to see my mother.” It was absolutely heartbreaking.
Final stop before lunch was the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem. It felt very weird being in a site that is so holy to Christians, yet having Palestinian security forces everywhere. While there’s plenty of disagreement just how authentic it is that the birth of Jesus happened at this exact spot, there was no denying it was still very powerful to be there. We were also fortunate that due to the current security situation things were relatively quiet, so it wasn’t crowded at all.
The supposed manger in the grotto:
The star marking the spot where Jesus is said to have been born:
After visiting the Church of the Nativity, our “special” lunch was not yet prepared. The Christmas tree going up in Manger Square:
While we waited for lunch, we wandered Bethlehem a bit. The market:
In America kids play Cops and Robbers, or maybe Cowboys and Indians. I don’t want to know what this was for:
Manger Square, again:
Soon lunch was ready, and we were eating Al Fresco right on Manger Square. We’d been promised Makhlouf, or “upside down” a traditional local dish of chicken and rice that was cooked together in a giant kettle and then poured out communal style upside down. It was delicious:
Note the steam rising:
After lunch, our final stop on the tour was Aida Camp. This was a Palestinian refugee camp from 1948 which was become more or less permanent and was home to people who’d been there for decades:
In the camp, we were invited up on top of a residential building to get a look at the area. Note the murals:
While up here, I noticed a bit of a sweet smell. A deeper breath, and my eyes and sinuses went into overdrive. It was tear gas. Apparently some of the local children had been taunting the IDF and they’re fired tear gas into the camp. Trust me, nothing will open your sinuses up like tear gas. Ugh.
When the gas dissipated we continued our walk through the area, and towards the end of the camp:
Wall of martyrs:
As we attempted to leave the camp, some local children insisted we get the full experience. They started flinging rocks at the IDF. They were between us and the exit, and there was no way around them:
Fortunately, the IDF showed a bit of restraint, and once the kids tired (without additional tear gas being fired) we were allowed to drive out of the Aida camp.
Outside the camp, we kept walking along the dividing wall. Trayvon Martin is even famous in Palestine:
More wall and a watchtower:
The wall. Apartheid Avenue:
After the wall came perhaps the most fascinating part of the tour – we had to cross back out of Zone A into Israel. Our guide gave us two options – either we could go through the “tourist” checkpoint, or we could cross the locals/Palestinians checkpoint with him. Of course we went for the local experience. Being shabaat, and not a work day in Israel, there was very little traffic so it was a bit of a tame experience. Metal detectors, xrays, passport and immigration check, but honestly the agent was so busy playing Candy Crush that she barely glanced at my passport. Our guide told us this checkpoint is much worse on a work day, and will be backed up for hours starting around 3am. Ouch.
It was a quick trip back to Jerusalem but once we got there it was an hour wait before my driver could take me back to Tel Aviv. Ian and I wandered to get a beer, and came across this on the side of a hotel. Looks like Mitchell is a very lucky New York Rangers fan, and was having quite the Bar Mitzvan in Jerusalem:
Once I got back to Tel Aviv, I was already starting to fade quickly, but there was a craft beer brewery in Tel Aviv I really wanted to try, so I hired a taxi who took me out to the Dancing Camel brewery. A very welcoming sign:
A sampler of all their beers:
The bartender seemed bored, and insisted on doing shots of something with me. More arak? Why not:
Delicious corned beef sandwich:
By this point in the day, having been up since 5am, I was absolutely exhausted and caught a taxi back to the hotel to crash. It was going to be yet another early morning for our daytrip to Jerusalem.
Awesome report and pictures. Way cool.