A Day in Bethlehem: Visiting the Wall
I’d imagined it might be a drama getting into the West Bank, but my fears were misplaced. We caught the Number 21 bus from just opposite Damascus Gate in Jerusalem to Bethlehem and were deposited about a 10-minute walk from the city. The bus couldn’t go any further, but pedestrians could.
We were staying in a delightful guesthouse run by nuns, with a beautiful roof-top terrace from where we could admire views across Bethlehem. They invited us to join them at an early-morning (pre-breakfast) Latin mass in the crypt of the Church of the Nativity. By the time it was finishing, visitors were beginning to descend the steps, wanting to touch the 14-point star that marks the place where Christ was born. Some looked at us enviously—how did we manage to score such hot tickets?
Out on the streets, however, the sense of desperation of shopkeepers, taxi drivers and guides is palpable. Few tourists stay in Bethlehem these days—groups arrive by coach from Jerusalem, visit the Church of the Nativity and then pretty much go back, and the economy is suffering as a result.
Banksy in Bethlehem
But for me, the main attraction was a short walk northwards of the city. A modern construction for our times, this was the Wall, at its highest point of nine metres. Just walking along it is a shattering experience as it curves and backs onto itself in a way that defies logic. As ugly as it is, I couldn’t help seeing it as an enormous own goal for the Israeli government; covered in pro-Palestinian graffiti and anti-Netanyahu abuse, it's become a focal point for international citizen outrage.
The secretive artist Banksy has been here, and since our visit, even opened up a hotel, The Walled Off, where budget rooms are fitted with 'surplus items from an Israeli military barracks', and the Presidential suite is equipped with 'everything a corrupt head of state would need'. There's a piano bar, a gallery, a museum and bookshop, and its Palestinian management and staff offer 'an especially warm welcome to young Israelis who come with an open heart'.
The Wall itself is like a strange, urban contemporary art exhibition, where art of all styles mixes with Banksy originals and stories of life under the occupation, posted by the Arab Educational Institute as part of their ‘Wall Museum’ programme. Once a thriving hub for shops and small businesses, the area is now desolate—a dumping ground for old furniture and scrap.
The Wall—considered illegal under international law—is a monstrosity that has annexed both land and water, torn down centuries-old olive trees, divided farms and dwellings, destroyed livelihoods, and trampled on human rights. But as you take in its bleakness, you sense an uprising of anger, a feeling that enough is enough, that the western world (if perhaps not its governments) is sick to the back teeth of Israeli brutality and blatant disregard for Palestinian life.
The following day, on the road to Beit Sahour, we saw an Israeli-only road tunnelling its way underground, linking a settlement back to Jerusalem. Nearby, the chassis of an old Volkswagen Beetle was perched high up in a tree. More contemporary art? Was it representing the Palestinian condition, robbed of everything and no longer able to move freely?
Some will maintain that the Wall is securing peace, others, that it's an instrument of apartheid. Locals know that there are gaps throughout, and use them to exchange goods or to get to work. If the bad guys wanted to exploit those gaps to commit acts of terrorism, they could.
To find out more, I heartily recommend Mark Thomas's brilliant book Extreme Rambling, which describes his hiking expedition for the length of much of the wall, visiting Israelis and Palestinians on either side. As he puts it:
This barrier of wire and concrete is a blunt instrument of complex desires but, unfold them, and this wall, this fence, this military barrier, is the continuation of the conflict in concrete and wire form. It imposes a de facto border, creating a one-sided 'solution' achieved not through negotiation but through subjugation. It claims security but grabs land, which settlers then build upon. It is no mere protective shield but a military entity which, if completed – with the Two Fingers in the north and the E1 corridor in Jerusalem – has the added intent on destroying a possible Palestinian state.
Finally, to quote Martin Luther King: 'For here on either side of the wall are God’s children and no man-made barrier can obliterate that fact.'
© 2019 Allix Denham