After spending a night in Aqaba, I jumped on a bus headed for the Jordan capital of Amman where I then squashed into a ‘servees taxi’ headed for the King Hussein / Allenby Bridge border crossing to Israel & Palestine. The advice of many locals and those online was to cross the border down south at Eilat and travel north to Jerusalem. The King Hussein Bridge crossing is not exactly an ‘official’ border crossing, is notorious for lengthy delays and is predominantly used by locals wishing to cross into Palestine.
I decided to ignore all advice and cross there regardless. Why? Not exactly sure… But some of the thoughts going through my head were 1. It was the closest crossing to Jerusalem, 2. I wanted to be ‘local’, 3. I didn’t need a Jordan Re-entry Visa if I came back through this crossing and 4. It seemed like some fun 🙂
Some friends and family back home were a little worried about my suggested itinerary of Jerusalem and West Bank. I guess if you watch a lot of mainstream news and follow government travel advice below then you might prefer to stay in Jordan.
Upon arriving at the Jordan side of the border crossing things seemed to go unexpectedly smoothly. After paying some exit fees, I was then led to a bus with a German businessman and an American lady working for an NGO in West Bank. The bus ride lasted about 10 minutes, over the Allenby Bridge and then into the Israeli territory where the mean looking military personnel with AK47’s and the new modern building made it obvious I was now in the jurisdiction of Israel.
This is where my circumstances now shifted. The border control people couldn’t get over my name and didn’t really accept the legitimacy of my Arab first name and Jewish surname. One officer said to me ‘what kind of name is that’ – I didn’t bother replying. I was then told to take a seat for what felt like hours but was probably only about 20-30 minutes. I knew I had some issues when most of the Arabs went through and I along with 1-2 other westerners were held back. Fortunately the terminal offered free wifi and I was updating my Facebook status with the current situation.
I then noticed an attractive young lady in plain clothes walk out of an office carrying my passport and calling my name with some assertion. She led me into an office where I was interviewed for about 20-30 minutes and asked about so many aspects of my life. I think the turning point of the interview was when she asked me to list what countries and corresponding dates I had visited so far on my trip to which I was able to answer with a high degree of accuracy and detail. She seemed quite impressed with what I had experienced and we then started talking about suggested itineraries in Israel to which she strongly recommended I see Tel Aviv.
It was clear by this stage I was going to be granted entry but I did stop short of asking for her phone number. I then collected my Immigration Card (no more stamps in passports) and off to Jerusalem I went.
As I only had a few days in Israel I wanted to maximise my precious time so I investigated some organised tours being offered by my hostel which had good reviews. My plan was to spend a full day in Jerusalem Old Town which was simple enough, but the West Bank is where I needed some help. I knew something was up when the hostel tour manager prefaced her pitch by saying their tours were ‘strictly non-political’. The tour was called the ‘Best of the West Bank’ and included things like visiting a Palestinian brewery, seeing the Arafat’ tomb and birthplace of Jesus christ in Bethlehem.
After having a poor experience with some tour operators in Wadi Rum, I thought Id do a little research online before committing to this tour. For most of my world tour thus far I have steered clear of organised tours but in this region they do make the experience far better. It was then when I noticed the Green Olive Tours which were by far the standout online and rated so highly by those that have attended .
I was really fortunate that my tour went ahead as there was only one other person attending. Our tour guide Yamen is a local Palestinian who has also spent time in Canada. He was so passionate about telling his story and even though he has probably led this tour on countless occasions, it didn’t show as his enthusiasm and passion came through so strongly.
I focussed on keeping an open-mind during this tour. I wanted to take in as much as I could and make up my mind at then end about my views on what I had experienced. As the saying goes there are always two-sides to every story.
The tour began by crossing a checkpoint into Palestinian territory of Bethlehem. I was given the rundown of requirements for getting in and out of Palestinian territory. Entry was fast and pain-free but later I would find that without the immigration card pictured above or explicit permission granted from the Israeli government, re-entry into Jerusalem is not possible.
It was only upon crossing through the checkpoint that I even noticed the dividing wall. It’s size and scale was really overwhelming as it travelled beyond the eye can see and to this day I still think about how people can live like this. I could not even begin to imagine what it would be like.
I guess one positive aspect from such an awful structure is the outlet it provides for both local and international artists to express their work. I was blown away with the sheer volume of meaningful art and the presence of internationally recognised works such as those of Banksy whom I had also seen in other countries I had visited.
Our first stop was a Palestinian refugee camp in Bethlehem that has existed since 1948. This is where I must admit my ignorance well and truly shined bright. I was expecting to see a ‘tent city’ as often pictured on TV and was surprised so see real dwellings that were constructed by the UN. I guess for the camp to be over 60 years old, tents wouldn’t fare too well.
This refugee camp was built to shelter the Palestinian families that were displaced after the 6 day war in 1948. I couldn’t help but notice so many young children roaming around the camp for which there is not a lot too keep amused. I was told that there were no parks or activities, so the kids just roam around and often end up demonstrating with Israeli military personnel at the many checkpoints.
I also noticed that nearly every dwelling had lots of water tanks on the roof. I was then informed that despite the West Bank having ample water reserves, the water authority is controlled by the Israeli Government and frequent outages occur (weekly) and therefore locals fill tanks to live. Outages far outweigh the periods when water services are active, therefore the tanks are filled from mains water (not rainfall).
The Palestinian kids were really friendly as it was not very often that they would see foreigners like us in their neighbourhood. After chatting with us for only few minutes I really started to notice their strong dislike of the Israeli troops. Yamen told me that these days most adolescents/adults don’t really get involved in confrontations with the Israeli military. The children however often throw rocks and burn tires during almost daily demonstrations.
There were some unbelievably sad and shocking stories told to me during this visit. I was shown 2 (side by side) metal garage doors with murals painted on them and asked to find something both murals had in common. After looking for 5 minutes I didn’t really noticed anything substantial and was then shown the numerous bullet holes about 1.5 metres high across both doors. I was told that Palestinian children were lined across these doors by Israeli soldiers and as punishment for throwing rocks and demonstrating, the troops fired their automatic weapons just above the children’s heads over the doors.
There was also a burnt out military observation tower on the dividing wall nearby which attracted my attention. This is a notorious site for locals as I was told it was where an Israeli soldier shot a young Palestinian child and since then it is the target of local children.
After the refugee camp it was time to lighten the mood somewhat and off to the Church of Nativity we went to visit the spot believed to be the birthplace of Jesus Christ by the Blessed Virgin Mary. I was surprised to be able to touch the fourteen-point silver star beneath the altar in the Grotto of the Nativity as well as the Chapel of the Manger where Christ was laid.
On the way to Ramallah we were shown many Israeli settlements in the West Bank. These settlements are quite controversial and considered illegal by the international community. The scale of the actual settlements was shocking with many of them the size of large suburbs. In the news during my visit was the demolition of local Bedouin villages – minority tribal groups.
Not only do the settlements result in the loss of people’s homes but they also cause massive disruption to locals. Dividing walls are built around them, water is diverted away, roads are closed off for locals and new military checkpoints are formed.
We also had a quick stop at Yasser Arafat’s tomb before arriving in Ramallah. Numerous theories have appeared regarding Arafat’s death, with the most prominent being poisoning
Upon arriving in Ramallah I was pleasantly surprised to find such a vibrant city. I guess the Palestinians have adapted to the many issues surrounding them and it has certainly not affected the way they go about living their lives. There were very few tourists (if any) around Ramallah yet not for a second did I feel uncomfortable. The locals were so eager to talk with us and were super friendly.
We were treated to some local street food made superbly by my young friend – steamed corn sautéed in butter and spices.
I also learnt that Ramallah had a thriving nightlife scene, notably the best not only in the West Bank but also Jerusalem with many making the border crossing at Jerusalem to party there. I was really disappointed I didn’t stay at least one night in Ramallah as I’m sure I would have had a blast there. Our last stop in Ramallah was to a local sweet shop to sample one of my favourite middle-eastern sweets Kanafeh. It is a Levantine cheese pastry soaked in sweet sugar-based syrup – a must try.
At the end of the tour we were dropped off at the Qalandia checkpoint to re-enter Jerusalem. The purpose of this was for us to experience what life is like for those Palestinians that are actually able to enter Jerusalem. Upon entering the checkpoint, and walking through a cage with passport and baggage control. The queue tends to be messy and the procedure unpleasant, especially if you carry baggage (which I happened to be). We were told the entire commute can easily take 2-3 hours — however we were lucky with it taking around 90 minutes.
My tour of the West Bank has really left a lasting impression with me. It was such a worthwhile experience and in retrospect I feel that I learned such a great deal from it. The Palestinians are some of the most beautiful, friendly and good-spirited people I have met on my world tour and I really would like to return some day to spend more time, especially in Ramallah.
I really hope some day soon the complex issues surrounding this area will be resolved and everyone can freely live together in peace. There is far too much potential here not being utilised and most of the world misses out on the beauty I experienced
Below is a quote I noticed in Bethlehem, I guess it clearly shows what needs to happen.