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Bethlehem was the birthplace of Jesus Christ and is visited each year by millions of pilgrims. As I was predominantly based in Jerusalem for my independent trip to the Holy Land, visiting Bethlehem was both convenient and an imperative.
But not only did I want to see the area where Jesus was born, I wanted to experience modern Bethlehem and its surrounding area, to meet the local people and hear their story. I wanted something that didn’t shy away from the everyday complexities of living in this fraught region.
With that in mind I did the full-day Bethlehem Tour with Green Olive Tours, a social enterprise tour agency which binds itself to the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and hires local guides. Not only did this tour meet my expectations but exceeded them in ways I couldn’t possibly have imagined.
CROSSING THE LINE
The group’s meeting point was at the beautiful and historic YMCA Three Arches Hotel on Jerusalem’s King David Street. The mini-bus headed south in heavy traffic and within a half an hour we branched off a side road with barbed wire.
A large red sign indicated that Israeli citizens were not permitted beyond that point. Without being told we knew we had entered the area known by many as Palestine or the West Bank. My own government and the European Union refer to it as the Occupied Palestinian Territory (OPT).
A couple of minutes later we stopped to pick up our Palestinian guide. With introductions over, our first guided stop was at a roadside stall selling tea. With not a carton of milk in sight I wondered whether I could stomach black tea. Thankfully, the Palestinian brew is much lighter than Irish-blended tea and served with a sweet jasmine flavour. It got my approval.
MAR SABA MONASTERY
Our bus continued through small urban areas in the direction of the morning’s eastern sun. Mar Saba Monastery in the Judean Desert was our next stop and it wasn’t long before the desert scenery presented itself. In the distant background lay the Dead Sea and Jordan.
Mar Saba Monastery is a sand-coloured Orthodox Christian site located in the Lower Course of the Kidron/Qidron Valley. It was founded in the 5th Century by Sabbas the Sanctified and has restrictions on women entering the compound. However, its photogenic cliff-side location was some consolation for the lack of equal opportunities.
OLIVE OIL AND BANKSY
Our bus meandered back through the Judean Desert to Bethlehem’s outskirts. Another pit-stop at a fruit-sellers stall gave us an opportunity to talk to locals. They showed us the water storage tanks on the roofs of houses which are filled up to tie residents over during the frequent man-made water outages. Israeli human rights group, B’Tselem, verifies this situation. They also said there have been cases of Israeli soldiers shooting holes in the plastic water tanks.
An Italian-Palestinian Olive Oil Pilot Project was our next stop where we observed olive oil production from start to finish…and it’s a noisy business! Our group was offered a complimentary tasting of the final-product (gorgeous) with bread from the bakery next door (equally gorgeous).
On our way to the factory we saw our first of many Banksy artworks: a masked protestor with a bunch of flowers in Molotov Cocktail pose. Banksy’s Walled Off Hotel was the much-anticipated next stop.
The Walled Off Hotel, in typical Banksy mode, prides itself on having the worst view in the world for a hotel, but the entire inside is a visual treat of thought-provoking art. Its bar and museum is open to non-residents and well-worth visiting. I’ve been following Banksy’s work for almost 20 years so this was a highlight of visiting Bethlehem.
We also learned of the Banksy Apology party held outside the hotel earlier in the week apologising for the Balfour Declaration. In other parts of the OPT I saw the centenary of the Balfour Declaration marked by the burning of British flags and, in this article, the burning of Theresa May and Lord Balfour effigies. And then it dawned on me as to why my flight was so cheap.
The structure that gives the hotel its worst view accolade is the 8 metre-high reinforced concrete wall built by the Israeli government to separate the West Bank area from Israel, although in many parts it separates Palestinian communities from each other. The United Nations condemns the wall and the International Court of Justice deems the wall a violation of international law. Even the terminology surrounding this structure is fraught and it is known by many names as this Haaretz article describes.
The wall may be the most divisive issue in the region but it’s possibly the world’s greatest street art blank canvas. Banksy and other international artists have left their mark and the result is something unique, creative, provocative, political, and emotion-stirring. The graffiti isn’t legal. But the wall isn’t legal under international law. Do these two wrongs make a right? Judge for yourself.
AIDA REFUGEE CAMP
Our next stop was a short drive to Aida Refugee Camp. The camp is run by UNWRA, the UN agency founded in 1949 and tasked with providing services to Palestinian refugees who lost homes and livelihoods as a result of the 1948 conflict. UNWRA is funded by UN member states but President Trump withdrew US funding in 2018.
We learned that, week’s prior to our visit, some of the camp’s juvenile residents were subjected to tear gas and rubber bullets by the Israeli Defence Forces. Media research on my return home showed that this was not an isolated incident. We also learned that UNWRA signed a 99-year lease for the land that the camp is located on.
The focal point of the camp is the Al Rowwad Centre, a non-profit cultural and theatre centre for women and children. We got an opportunity to speak with its patrons and instructors, and were treated to two performances of traditional Palestinian drumming and dancing. The whole Aida camp experience was special for not only did the residents open their door in difficult circumstances but extended a welcoming hand. Al Rowwad Guest House caters for visitors who wish to stay in the refugee camp.
By now we were hungry and travelled to Manger Square, the centre-point of Bethlehem. We were treated to Makloubeh, a traditional Palestinian rice dish.
After lunch we strolled through Bethlehem Old Town while waiting for our Palestinian Christian guide. We got the opportunity to speak with more locals on a casual basis.
The Church of the Nativity is a UNESCO World Heritage Site and is built on the location where Jesus was born. The church is under the supervision of the Greek Orthodox Church, the Custody of the Holy Land (Catholic) and the Armenian Church.
Parts of the church date back to the 4th Century and entrance is via the Door of Humility, a low-size door where one has to bow down to enter. Restoration works were taking place during my visit so pictures were few and far between. Colossal crowds queued up to reach the 14-point silver-star on the floor which marks the spot where Jesus was born. As our group was on a time schedule we simply couldn’t wait.
In Judaism, Bethlehem was the birthplace of David, third King of Israel, and the site of Rachel’s Tomb. The latter site is located on the opposite side of the wall so was inaccessible on our tour. Despite this, the group thoroughly enjoyed the day’s experiences and much chat ensued on the return to Jerusalem. The tour comes highly recommended for the unique experience that it was.
VISITING BETHLEHEM – TRAVEL ESSENTIALS
Organised tour versus independently via public transport? Our Palestinian driver had special permission to travel between the two entities, therefore no changing of bus. Likewise, we didn’t have to go through a checkpoint. Bethlehem is a large town and not easily walked. It’s possible to get a public bus from East Jerusalem bus station but, unlike tourist buses, these vehicles do not bypass checkpoints.
Do I need to bring a passport? We were not checked at any stage but bring it anyway.
Is it safe? Completely. I never felt threatened at any stage of my trip to Israel or in any part of the OPT.
I’m not a Christian. Will this tour suit me? This is a tour which accommodates a multinational clientele of all faiths and none. Bear in mind that Jesus was Jewish. Everyone in the group felt welcome on the tour as did I. Historical knowledge of the area from 1917’s Balfour Declaration onwards will be of benefit and Green Olive Tours have these resources on their website.