ISRAEL-PALESTINE: Three Weeks in Bethlehem

Let’s talk about car horns

In the US, a honking horn almost always expresses anger—get out of my way, you cut me off—that sort of thing. Don’t get me wrong, that happens in Bethlehem as well, but a honk can mean so much more here:

  • Warning, I’m behind you on a small street
  • I want to merge in front of you
  • I’m going to merge regardless of whether or not you want me to
  • Don’t try to merge, I’m not letting you in
  • hurry up and merge, I’m letting you in
  • Thanks for letting me in
  • Move over!
  • Why have we stopped!?
  • Please come out of that store and move your car, it’s in my way
  • Come out of that store, I’m here to pick you up
  • I’m going around you
  • Hey, I know you, how are you?
  • Oh, I’m doing well, how about you?
  • Do you need a ride?
  • From taxi drivers: Where are you going? Want to go to Jericho? Hebron? Dead Sea? Tel Aviv? Beit Sahour? Beit Jala? The Nativity?
    • The last one is usually when I am about 1/4 mile from the Church of the Nativity. I don’t know where they wanted to take me or how, but my backpack and white skin immediately identifies me as a “lost tourist” no matter what I am doing.
  • Go!
  • Stop!

The list goes on.  Slowly, we stopped jumping in shock at the sound of honking and learned that the person is most likely not angry and is just driving behind us on the cramped street and wants to let us know they are coming through. When this happens, we casually move closer to the wall, praying there is enough room for the person to scrape by without hitting us. The nuance of a car horn really is amazing. I think we have deciphered the message within the length and number of honks—so we are really learning three languages here—Arabic, Hebrew, and car!

The only one that still really bugs me is the long, blaring honk in stopped traffic. We get it, you are not moving . . . but continuing to hold down the horn for twenty seconds isn’t helping you move either!


A Visit to Um Al Khair

On the morning of October 2nd, our group drove from Bethlehem to the Bedouin village of Um Al-Khair, unrecognized by the Israeli government. An unrecognized village receives no services, meaning no connection to water, electricity, or sewers. As we approached the village from the main road, the contrast with the settlement next door was astonishing. Um Al Khair is a small village with pieced-together houses of scrap metal, wood, and plastic,  while the settlement of Carmel has nice houses, green grass, street lights, and running water. We were in Um Al Khair to help tend their olive trees and learn about how and why the Israeli government has issued demolition orders on their homes.

Before the establishment of Israel, Bedouins moved around the land herding their sheep and goats. But after 1948, they were given a choice: either serve in the Israeli military or leave their land. This community chose to leave their land, which had been located near the city of Arad. They were moved to a remote and unoccupied part of the desert. They built small tin and mud brick shacks and remade their lives. Now they are surrounded by Jewish settlements and new developments of Western-style houses. The Israeli government tells them that even though they recognize that the Bedouins have legal ownership of the land they were moved to in 1948, they do not have permission to build anything on their land. No new houses, no house additions, no mud ovens to bake their bread, no major repairs—nothing!

Home demolitions occur in Israel due to the lack of building permits. Palestinians living in Area C (an area of the West Bank that is completely under the control of the Israeli Military Administration) are required to have a building permit before any additions or buildings are built, however, they rarely are approved a permit. After years and years of waiting for a building permit, some people just decide to build without one. When the villagers build a new house or an addition to an older house without a permit, the Israeli military issues a demolition order, meaning the newly built structure will be destroyed. Palestinians can challenge this in court, but they rarely get permission to build. Petitions in court are usually only able to delay the inevitable demolitions. Demolition orders may be delayed for weeks or years. Thousands of Palestinians have been displaced after waking up to soldiers who—in the best case scenario—tell them they have 20 minutes to pack what they can before the bulldozers come. These repeated intrusions leave an environment of confusion and depression amongst the people in Um Al-Khair and other unrecognized communities, never knowing when or if an order is going to be carried out.

We stepped off the bus and a Bedouin community member ushered us into their communal tent. As our group was drinking generous amounts of sweetened sage tea, we heard story after story of abuse of the people and their land from settlers throwing rocks into the village late at night to rattle the people, to the multiple times the village’s oven—used for baking bread for the entire community—was demolished, rebuilt, and demolished again. They told us of the sewage runoff from the settlement that flows into the village’s olive groves, which can poison their goats that graze in the same area. The injustice of this situation was overwhelming … and this is just one village. In the last month, there was more to deal with: some members of the neighboring settlement take time out of their evenings to come to the edge of the fence and send a powerful message to their neighbors by throwing rocks onto their tents and tin roofs— screaming, “We don’t want you here!” and continue to harass them with hopes of them leaving. The Israeli police are responsible for the community’s safety, but when community members call the police, the police say they can do nothing to help.

We then heard yelling from a nearby house. The shouts grew louder and louder, closer and closer until the yells were standing in the same tent as we were, shouting very passionate Arabic. This 88-year old woman lived in one of the houses that rocks were thrown at nightly, a tin-roofed house where the sounds boomed all night long and she was unable to sleep.

Tariq, our guide for the day, quickly ran over and tastefully translated bits and pieces of what the woman was saying. This is (loosely) what was said:

“We have international groups here all the time. They look at us, they learn about us, but nothing changes. The Israelis forced me to move from my town in Arad when I was a young girl. And now they are going to force me to move again as an old woman? These people hate us.  How can they say they are religious? They throw stones at us!  I can’t sleep at night because they throw stones on my roof!  I am an old woman!  Why do you come here and listen to us? Are you actually going to do anything about it? Or are you going to leave and forget about us tomorrow?  I don’t want any more groups here because nothing changes. This is our reality; we live next to these people who must not believe in any God because they throw stones at us. I don’t want any more people here if they’re not going to do anything. No one knows our story.”

The woman’s shouts persisted for quite a while.  She was angry.  Angry at the Israelis for making her live this way.  Angry at the settlers for keeping her from sleeping. And angry at us, or at a generic us, visitors who come, drink tea, say “it’s a shame this is happening”, and then move on.  She had a right to be angry.

After tea, we made our way down to the fields to start our service work for the community. After the woman’s angered speech, I wasn’t sure that anything we could do would help. We walked down a long dirt hill to a valley beneath the Bedouin village and Jewish settlement.  It was hot, dry, and dusty.  We worked for about four hours in the heat of the day digging trenches around olive trees and placing stones around the trunks to prevent weeds and preserve the scarce moisture in the soil.  Some of us were singing, some of us were quiet.  All of us shocked by our powerlessness to help.  And all of us exhausted. That exhaustion, that shock, that ringing in our ears, felt like nothing compared to the hurt of the community. As I worked, I was weighed down by the fact that through this physical work, in my mind, I was doing nothing constructive to help the long-term situation. We knew the Israeli military might come with a bulldozer and destroy all of these olive trees. We know that happens all over.

I was disgusted with the unfairness of the world. How do I justify being a “poverty tourist”, coming in and listening to a few stories of pain? How can I communicate my thoughts when I can only say a few simple phrases in Arabic? What about my privileged life gives me any right to communicate my thoughts? Language barriers make communication and understanding arduous. I could not say, “I see the injustice”. I could not form the words “I’m sorry”. I could not even say, “I see you”. The loss of the phrase “I see you” was the hardest thing about this day. But would it even have mattered to this woman who probably heard this, in Arabic, from many other tourists who left and went on with their lives, never giving another thought to her and her life?

After rehydrating with water and more sage tea, we climbed back up the mountain. The community shared their precious water with us to wash our dirty hands and sweaty faces. They had prepared a meal of rice and lentils for us.  We sat and ate, mostly in silence.   Most of the time our group has lots of questions and are eager to talk.  But today, we could not put words to our feelings.  We didn’t have questions because we now understood.

This is the story of one village that is not seen by the rest of the world.  But their pain and suffering are real. We saw it. And we need to never forget it. The injustices done to them continue to happen every day. The people of Um Al-Khair live in complete neglect. They have no reliable sources of water—only purchased water bottles from an hour out of their village—no electricity, waste management, transportation to and from school… the list could go on. Yet, they are being watched by the Israeli Government 24/7. If they try to build a small oven to bake bread, Israelis will come and tear it down and explain that they need a permit. A permit to bake bread. But the government won’t give permits. The point of the permit system is to make it so miserable for these people that they will leave and go somewhere else.  But the problem is this community, which already moved once, has nowhere to go. The Israeli government wants the Bedouin land so they can build more nice homes for Jews. But what will happen to the Bedouin children and families? We, as a group, feel the weight of that question.

We must listen to the 88-year-old woman who is exploding with rage at the injustices of her world. However, we must also make the choice to believe that the healing of the hurt (that can be found in all corners of our world) materializes through the sharing of stories. This is the choice that I believe will transform the unproductive nature of “poverty tourism.” I have chosen to view our group as a team of story collectors. In order to make any kind of change, we must share our collection.


The community of Um Al Khair has a Facebook page.  Here is also a link where you can sign up to get updates about Um Al Khair.

There is also a short film about Eid Hadaleen, the artist who worked with us in the fields at Um Al Khair, made by Amnesty International.  The 2 minute film shows his art about the home demolitions. The famous Chinese dissident artist Ai Wei Wei came to Um Al Khair.  He worked with Eid Hadaleen, a self-taught artist from Um Al Khair, and they had an exhibition together in Germany about dislocation. See this article.


Roots:  Palestinians and Israelis working . . . together ?

On Tuesday, October 3, we went to see a person many Palestinians would refuse to talk to.  We drove just a few miles outside of Bethlehem to a completely different world – a settlement.

[Editor’s Note:  A settlement is an Israeli “city” in the West Bank.  Some are small with just a few hundred people, the largest with over 40,000.  All are located in the West Bank on land disputed between Palestine and Israel. All are considered illegal by many world governments. Many start small, but once acknowledged by the Israeli government they get all kinds of special treatment including security walls, military protection and for some, private roads that only Israeli Jews can drive on to connect them with other settlements or Israeli cities in Israel proper. These roads, also illegal, sometimes cut Palestinian villages in half as they exit the community, and one is literally a tunnel under Bethlehem. As these settlements grow, they encroach more and more onto Palestinian lands.  They are seen as one of the major obstacles to a two-state peace solution because Palestinians cannot have a state when their state is constantly divided by Israeli cities they cannot enter and roads bisecting their land.]  

After getting off our Palestinian bus (it needed a special pass to get through the settlement gates), we were guided through the settlement community by our host, Rabbi Hanan Schlesinger. He had to meet the bus because it was only allowed just inside the gates.  It could not drive through the community to his house. We passed student dormitories, trees with leaves changing color (a first for us on this trip), and patches of green grass. It is an island of Jewish paradise separated from the city life and Palestinian suffering found just a few miles away from the bordering fence.

Rabbi Hanan Schlesinger welcomed us to his home and we settled in to listen to a new narrative for our group: a settler. Rabbi Hanan self identifies as a Jew, a Zionist, and a Settler. He started his story expanding on these three identities:

As a Jew, he is a member of the Jewish nationality, tracing their roots back to Abraham. He identifies with Old Testament main characters like Jacob, Joseph, Moses, and others. He also identifies with the Promised Land as holding his historical roots and memories.

As a Zionist, he believes both secular and religious Jews have a connection to the land and a desire to be in that homeland. This is a unique feeling of a Jew who finally belongs somewhere when for many centuries Jews were kept on the outskirts of societies or banished from them or killed if they did not flee or convert.

As a Settler (a Jew who lives in the West Bank), the land of “Judah and Samaria” (Israeli names for the West Bank) is historically significant as a place where the Jews lived in Biblical times. He and other settlers want to be on the land of their ancestors, not on the Mediterranean coast where Jews do not have as much connection to the land historically or religiously.

Rabbi Hanan sees the settlements in a way that is different even from most Israelis. After explaining what these three descriptions meant to him, he began to share a significant turning point in his life. He came to ask a perplexing question “How can I have lived 33 years in Israel without meeting a Palestinian?” Considering that there are Palestinians living all around the settlement, it seems very unlikely geographically that he would never see a Palestinian or interact with one. And yet, this was reality in a closed community with special roads and military security.

Rabbi Hanan answered his question: he was blinded by the narrative of his people. If he is a Jew who belongs with his people in the Promised Land, then anything that contradicts this is a threat to his identity and the identity of his people. Therefore, Palestinians, who were already living in this land, are not part of the narrative. They just don’t fit. So they don’t exist. If they did exist, Jews would have a lot to explain to themselves.

When Rabbi Hanan finally talked with a Palestinian, it changed his narrative . . . and his life. Or rather, it gave him a new narrative to hold in contrast with his own and a new understanding of the non-Jewish people who live around him. Since then he has been working with Roots, a peace organization bringing Palestinians and Israelis together for dialogue and for hearing each other’s narratives. Rabbi Hanan believes that holding many narratives is the best way to be able to move forward. He understands that many people on both sides are blinded by their own narrative, at best blocking out the existence of the other. At worst, it makes the other a monster. Hearing and talking to the other opens the door for understanding and seeing humanity on the opposing side.

In response to holding multiple narratives, Rabbi Hanan described his hope for a 1.5 state solution (different from the current discussions of a two-state or one-state solution). Also called 2 States, 1 Homeland, this solution would ideally admit that all the land belongs to Palestinians and all the land belongs to Israelis. Politically, the solution would have a central, national government, but two different states that have certain governing powers over specific territories. It seems ideal, but realistically this would be very hard to implement, especially with the current levels of tension and distrust.

What no one seems to be able to answer is how to handle two families who claim to own the same plot of land or house – the Palestinian family that was expelled in 1948 and the Israeli Jewish family that moved into the “empty” house. Many Palestinian families have not released their grasp on their previous house keys, passed down to younger generations, hoping and expecting to return. For many Israelis today, the home they have in this land is the only one they have known. So who will live there? As Rabbi Hanan pointed out, the solution, whatever it is, will be unjust.

Dialogue is not as easy as it sounds. Despite his efforts to talk with everyone, many Palestinians refuse to talk to Rabbi Hanan because he is a settler. To them, he is still living on Palestinian land. A few days later, one of our other speakers, Rev. Dr. Munther Isaac, challenged the rabbi’s approach of dialogue: will talking really change anything? Talking to Palestinians does not erase the fact that Rabbi Hanan is still a settler, benefitting from the occupation and the Israeli protection, and living in the West Bank, basically eliminating the possibility of a two-state solution. Rabbi Hanan also had some criticism for Christ at the Checkpoint, an effort that Rev. Isaac is involved with. The Rabbi said the Christian speakers had underlying anti-Semitic tones rooted in the tradition of replacement theology. If these Christians believe the Church is now the Chosen people, are Jews then the abandoned people? Claiming that Christians are now God’s family takes away the Jewish right to this land. When Jews claim the land, it sounds anti-Palestine. When Palestinians claim the land, it sounds anti-Jewish. So you can see . . . dialogue is difficult.

Rabbi Hanan left us with the challenge to be Pro-Solution. No matter what challenges face the Rabbi, he believes there is a solution that people will agree on after they have the chance to acknowledge narratives other than their own.


Rejected Blog Titles:

Our group has a lot to talk about, and I’m sure everybody will hear more about it when we get home. In the meantime, here are some more blogs that we just couldn’t get to writing. Enjoy

[while on a tour of Bethlehem, our guide wanted to make sure we understood a few things]

  • Uses for a cellar:
    • storing furniture
    • Giving birth to our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ
  • I Met a Celebrity! He Sells Fake Hookahs. [He was on Conan. No joke.  Click here to see the clip]
  • Everywhere You Go, There You Are
  • Morning Horse! [after learning that “good” is very close to “horse” in Arabic]
  • There’s a Rocko in my Chaco
  • Tomorrow in the Apricot [this is actually an Arabic saying, meaning something like “when pigs fly” or “when hell freezes over”
  • I’ve sweat so much I no longer have to pee [heard while working at Um Al Khair]
  • That’s a Gnarly Nargile Sweater [while editing translations]
  • First graders laughed at my Arabic
    • I showed them my letters and they laughed harder
  • Singing in the Raindrop [after the first rain since we arrived. I felt one drop]
  • Pass the Sponge [heard while learning that the communal restrooms in Ummayad palaces would share a sponge to “clean up”]

Contributing writers:

Larissa Graber,  Lindsay Acker, Alice Maldonado, Lydia Chappell-Deckert, Lydia Haggard


ToN - We Refuse to be enemies