Visiting Palestine from Israel is about as easy as visiting Mexico from the USA. In Jerusalem as in San Diego, you just take public transport to the border then walk through an unattended turnstile with large walls on either side and there you are.
Once across we found a servees (minibus) to Ramallah and disembarked right near the centre of town. It was Friday, so we weren't sure of whether onward transport would be available. Unlike many other places we'd visited, people didn't rush towards us as soon as we got off the servees trying to shuffle us into another one.
What everyone did do, however, was want to greet us and welcome us to their home. I reckon more people in Ramallah spoke basic English than did people in small-town Israel (which isn't a fair comparison, I realise, but is interesting nonetheless).
We eventually did find a servees headed to our destination, the town of Taybeh. As we entered the town we were greeted by a Jesus blessing traffic around the roundabout. Hardly surprising that this, Palestine's last entirely Christian town was the home of the Taybeh brewery, the oldest craft brewery in the Middle East.
Sadly, even I had arrived too early for their legendary Oktoberfest. But we had a really great time looking around the brewery and talking with Madees as she ran quick tours for other visitors and as we sipped out way through their range of beers (all good, all fault free. Maybe not all 100% to style, but this was by design, so who really cares.
After our brewery visit we had a bit of a wander through the very quiet town and eventually found our way up to a hilltop to enjoy the late afternoon sun. When the subset came, we found ourselves a campsite with a really nice view over the town a few hundred metres away.
It was far from a quiet night's sleep. There was wind, yowling dogs and cars coming and going as the town's men came up to drink beer, smoke and chat. One of them even tapped on our tent and, even after being assured and reassured that we were okay and not freezing (Taybeh is around 1000m above sea level), he still insisted on leaving us with a bottle of Palestinian brewed Amstel and a pillow from the back seat of his car.
The next morning we caught a minibus back down the mountains to Ramallah and then northwards up into the deep heartland of Palestine, Nablus.
I loved Nablus. It's a lively, ancient city (at about 7000 years old, many say it's the second oldest continuously inhabited city in the world). It's beautiful, sitting at the bottom of a deep valley, with homes climbing up the sides. And the inhabitants are almost uniformly friendly and welcoming, showing off the very best of warmth and hospitality of Palestine.
We stayed at a hostel we just wandered into. It was under renovation and not super cheap (accommodation is the one thing in Palestine that isn't) but our host Bakr was just so delighted to see us, and even made knefeh, a Nablus speciality of crispy flour, melty cheese and sweet syrup, for us and the construction workers. Nablus is reputed to have the best knefeh in Palestine, but I have to say my memories of the Lebanese version in Bekka still win out.
The souq, and all of the old town are just gorgeous, lively and, again, have very little tourist influence. They're everything I love about wandering around in an exotic, foreign market.
We ate tons of falafel in Nablus. The (admittedly smaller) sandwiches cost less than a quarter what they do back in Israel, at three or four shekels (NZD1 or 1.50). It's really tough to pick a favourite. Some are crispier. Some have more herbs and stronger flavour in the mix. Others have softer pita or a better selection of side-pickles. Later on in Palestine we went to a falafel place that allowed you to garnish your own and I must say that as much as I like the concept, for a novice like me, most of the falafel shop proprietors choices beat out my own.
As for specific tourist sites in Nablus, we visited the two main ones: Jacob's well, which is doubly biblically significant, as it was purportedly a campsite used by the old testament's Jacob and the spot where the Samaritan woman offered Jesus a drink of water.
And speaking of Samaritans, I learned what actual Samaritans are. In short they're a branch of Judaism who believe that the site of the Holy of Holies is not in Jerusalem atop the Temple Mount, but on top of Mt. Gerizim up above Nablus. We made the long, winding walk up through Palestinian residential areas to Kiryat Luza, one of two remaining Samaritan towns. We were a bit confused about how to continue when an old resident pointed us around the barred vehicle entrance gate to a large, though not very conspicuous, gap in the fence. It turned out to be the perfect time to visit. As we were walking through the town (past the Good Samaritan liquor store) and up towards the temple site on the mountaintop, dozens of men in traditional dress and women in their fanciest party clothes were coming down from their morning up at the temple observing Sukkot. There were even several large buses, having brought members from the other Samaritan community, in Israel proper, to the mountain for their pilgrimage.
Back down in Nablus it was time for us to move on, heading back south to the city of Bethlehem. We changed buses in Ramallah again and made the mistake of getting a direct bus to Bethlehem instead of going through Jerusalem. This was a mistake because the direct route goes a looooong way around the whole of Jerusalem, probably taking about twice as long, even including time to pass the Israeli checkpoints, and is used by Palestinians who aren't given entry permits to Israel. It was really only a minor inconvenience for us, but it gave us at least a bit of a feel for some of the day-to-day hassles that the Israeli occupation of the West Bank puts in residents' ways.
Bethlehem was the exact opposite of Nablus in a lot of ways. It was jam packed with tourists, most of them on day trips from Jerusalem, which is just 10km or so away. The tourist part of the city is centred on Manger Square, site of the Church of the Nativity, a 1700 year old church constructed on the orders of Roman Emperor Constantine on the supposed site of Jesus' birth. Like the church of the Holy Sepulchre, it's not nearly as dramatic as many European churches and cathedrals, a fact emphasized by the main door, which is probably about 1.2m high.
There was a lot more hustle from shop and restaurant proprietors, but the main market and surrounding streets, just a few hundred metres from Manger Square were pretty much devoid of other tourists. And as in Nablus, lots of locals just wanted to say hi and welcome us to Palestine. Including a guard at the entrance to the Church of the Nativity, who warmly greeted us and, on hearing where we were from told us of his uncle, who lived in New Zealand but had been killed in the Christchurch mosque shooting a few months prior. I had been very conscious of the event while travelling in majority Muslim countries through the spring, but having it brought home in such a personal way was quite shocking. I didn't really know what to say and just sort of stumbled through something about being sorry and how it had made the whole country very sad.
Before leaving Bethlehem we took a walk down to the border wall. It's probably about eight or ten metres high and topped with razor wire and guard towers and is an altogether unfriendly place. But Bethlehem residents (and others including, famously, British artist Banksy) have used it as a canvas to document the trials and pains that the occupation of their home have brought to the Palestinian people. Interspersed with the artworks are placards telling stories of the occupation of Palestine and the much sharper stories of individual tragedies and resistance to the occupation.
This was a bit of a preparation for our final destination in Palestine, Hebron. Perhaps more than any other place in a divided nation, it is a divided city. As everywhere in Palestine, anyone who spoke even a tiny bit of English (and many people who didn't) wanted to talk. This regularly involved some chat about the plight of their people. But in Hebron it seemed that, after welcoming us to their home, every single person we spoke to in Hebron immediately wanted to tell us the stories of how the presence of the Israeli military and settlers had changed their lives for the worse.
Even without the stories, it was very evident when walking through the old city where side streets were stopped up with barricades and razor wire. And where the beautiful old souq was filled with merchants whose livelihood depended on the tourist trade that continued to vanish as the accessibility of the Palestinian side of the city. At one point I was planning to snap a photo and looked up to see a masked Israeli soldier in a tower above. He or she looked very scary, ominous.
We had a long talk with the 19-year old manager of the hostel we were staying in about life in Hebron. He told us about the oppressive lack of opportunities for young peope in Palestine. About confiscations of Palestinian property, about young Israeli soldiers doing things supposedly in the interest of their/public safety that seemed almost calculated to anger Palestinians (e.g. Cutting down centuries old olive trees to remove livelihoods and connections to occupied land. Soldiers grabbing, screaming at and threatening to imprison a five year old child with a "weapon": a small pair of scissors…) But then if you've lived your whole life seeing Palestinians as the people who fire rockets at your towns and when the news and people around you have all said that every one of them wants to kick out out of the only home you've ever known or see you and your family dead (and when at least some of them do) I'm not sure how else you, as a teenager doing mandatory military service, put into scary situations in a very hostile environment, could be expected to react.
All of this just left me frustrated.
I thought that someone ought to just come and tell all of the residents of Israel and Palestine "okay, any of you who can't simply live peacefully alongside one another, leave, now. We're sending you all to Antarctica."
As someone whose family roots in my home go back no more than a few decades at best, I found the obsession of both sides with particular places and pieces of land incomprehensible. I didn't understand why our host didn't just go and join his brother's happy and comfortable life in Sweden. If my childhood home was expropriated, I'd feel sad, but especially if my parents' were paid its market value, it wouldn't go much beyond that. I certainly wouldn't throw rocks at police and risk getting arrested, tear gassed or even shot.
And on the other side, I would absolutely not choose to move my family to a place far from home that none of them had ever seen, the majority of whose residents didn't really want us there, because a book and some religious authorities told me that it was given to people like me by god.
Indeed I wanted to grab and shake both sides of the conflict and say "you both worship the same god". And further, HE/IT DOESN'T ACTUALLY EXIST ANYWAY!
I know all of these things are vast oversimplifications of a very complicated problem. But they're still better than the stark black/white good/evil way that a lot of the people involved seem to view their situation as.
Part of the reason Hebron is so strongly contested by both Israelis and Palestinians is that it is the home of the Cave of the Patriarchs. This is (supposedly… I'm getting kind of tired of saying supposedly) the resting place of Isaac and Rebecca, Jacob and Leah and, most significantly of all, Abraham and Sarah, the ancient ancestors of all three of the major monotheistic (or Abrahamic) religions.
The cave itself is inaccessible today, with the only entrance blocked by a huge marble slab. But above it is a building that is unusual in that half of it is the second holiest mosque in Israel/Palestine, and half the second most important Jewish spiritual site. They're both fairly unremarkable to look at, but it was pretty amazing being there at the very origin of almost all western religion. Not least amazing was the tomb of Sarah. All over the world, people love telling Sarah that hers is a Jewish/Uyghur/Romanian/Muslim/Moroccan/Colombian/Albanian/Whatever name. And here was my Sarah there beside the original Sarah from which all Sarahs the world over derive.
As I said, the area around the Tomb was very quiet and almost empty on the Palestinian side. The Jewish side was very quiet as well. And between them, except for an Israeli military guard post with metal detectors and turnstiles like those at the exits of the Toronto subway, was quieter still, having been turned from a Palestinian shopping and residential street into a "buffer zone" that is now entirely a ghost town.
Despite the obvious pain and struggles of the Palestinian side of Hebron, back on the other side in the new town, things are busier than I would have guessed before arriving. The main streets are all abustle with cars and shoppers and chain stores and even a couple of very fancy looking shopping malls. Walking up and down the streets in the evening I once again got the ubiquitous welcome to Palestine from everyone. And repeatedly shared a laugh with a herb seller near our hostel over a mixed vocal/sign language "Trumps stinks".
All of which, like so much else in Palestine left me confused and unsure of what to think. I feel a great deal of sympathy for the Palestinian people, but simply casting them as 100% victims of Israeli oppression is neither true nor helpful to anyone involved.
The next morning we walked back across the checkpoint at the Tomb of the Patriarchs and caught an Israeli bus (complete with wire screens over the window and an armoured engine) back to Jerusalem.
Perhaps with more time in Palestine I'd be able to make more sense of the situation there. Perhaps, but I have my doubts.