A visit to the West Bank should be on everyone’s to-do list when exploring Israel. The easiest way to do this is on a day trip from Jerusalem. Since Jerusalem basically shuts down on Saturdays. That makes it a perfect time to cross the wall into the West Bank for a tour to Bethlehem and Ramallah. We also walked around the Aida refugee camp, near Bethlehem, which is both interesting and depressing, but worth seeing.
The tour turned out to be much more political than we expected, and our guide was a proud Palestinian. It would be interesting to do the same tour with an Israeli, to hear the other point of view. There’s clearly no right answer to the challenges in this area, so we aren’t even going to try to discuss the politics here.
When we told some friends that we were going to Israel, we often got the question “Is it safe?”. That goes doubly so for the West Bank and a city like Ramallah, where whenever we hear it mentioned in North America, it’s rarely in a positive context.
We were only there for a few hours on a Saturday afternoon, but it looked like a bustling, lively city. The streets were full of people, and the market was packed. But it was also easy to see the difference between Ramallah and many of the cities we’d seen in the rest of Israel, with Ramallah feeling and looking a bit rougher.
The Yasser Arafat Museum had literally opened the day before, so our guide took us in to see the rooms where Arafat lived while under siege by the Israeli military in the last years before his death.
From Ramallah, we drove around the city towards Bethlehem. Since our tour bus had Palestinian license plates, we could not drive through the Israeli check points. The trip that could take as little as 20-30 minutes for an Israeli ended up taking us more than an hour, which we were told is typical. On the drive we were able to see many of the Israeli Jewish settlements in the West Bank, as our guide explained his perspective on the territorial disputes.
Although we’re not religious, we wanted to see Bethlehem.
The main attraction is the Church of the Nativity, where, according to Christian tradition, Jesus was born. From the outside, the Church is again nothing to write home about. It’s currently undergoing repairs, so scaffolding covers much of the exterior. Manger Square is also a busy parking lot in front of the church.
Inside the church is no less crazy. The line to see the grotto where Jesus is believed to have been born can last 2-3 hours, which we didn’t have time for. Our guide tried to sneak a few of us in the exit (this seemed to be common for small groups), but because the part of the church we needed to sneak through is run by the Greek Orthodox, only the two Greeks in our group were allowed in.
We next walked through the old town streets of Bethlehem, which used to be filled with tourist shops and tourists before the last Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Now the buses drop people off directly at the church, so many of the stores in the surrounding streets that used to cater to tourists have shut down. Bethlehem was easily the least interesting part of the tour, and would really only be interesting to devout Christians who are willing to wait the 3 hours in line to see the grotto under the Church. For anyone else, there are many more interesting places in the West Bank to explore.
Just outside of Bethlehem, and much more interesting, lies the Aida refugee camp. The “camp”, which is really an entire neighbourhood, is located right beside the large, imposing separation wall. Israeli military is a constant presence inside and around the camp. Visiting this camp and seeing the poor living conditions of the Palestinians in the camp, while under the watch of snipers, was a surreal experience.
Even when the military isn’t visible, the presence of the separation wall was always imposing. The wall towered over the buildings in the refugee camp, and was often covered in graffiti with messages about hope and peace.
Anyone exploring Israel should make the trip into the West Bank at least once. Not doing so would really mean missing a huge component of understanding the country and region. For our first trip, we felt more comfortable taking an organized tour. While not necessary from a safety perspective, it helped provide context for what we were seeing. If we’d had more time in Jerusalem, we likely would have taken another day tour to Jericho and/or Hebron.