Our Visit to the West Bank, Palestine
Palestine is the destination we’ve received the most questions about; we’re hoping this blogpost will answer those questions, as well as share the stories of the people we met and narrate the experience we had while visiting. While writing this, we tried to stay away from politics; but it was pointed out to us that visiting Palestine is, in itself, is a political act. And that is a political act that we are proud to have fulfilled. Our thoughts go out to the people trapped within this very complicated conflict, and we hope that we can be a small part of sharing their stories.
Getting to Palestine
After nearly a month in the Middle East, we were getting comfortable with security and border checks; as a result, we decided to cross the King Hussein-Allenby Bridge militarized land border. This is the border that spans between Jordan, the West Bank and Israel. Crossing was an otherworldly experience; it was eye-opening to see the wall-to-wall crowd of Palestinian immigrants huddled in the middle of a stark, white building, and then be ushered to the facility where the few tourists are held (aka an attempt at a comfortable environment with informational guides about Jordan, restrooms and vending machines.) The process started with our first security screening, which led to us and the 7 other tourists being questioned and having our passports taken from us and held until we got onto the bus. (Parting with our passports like that was a bit nerve-wracking, but we met another tourist — a woman from Montreal who lived in Jordan and crossed this border often — who assured us that this was the usual protocol.) Once on the bus nearly an hour later, we were all questioned again by another set of guards before our passports were handed back to us and we were off.
The plan was for us to cross through the West Bank and into Israel, so we had to go through Palestine’s security measures before arriving at Israel’s (we would return to stay in the West Bank a few days later). After 4 checkpoints and 5 hours, we had finally made it across the ½ mile and into Israel.
Crossing from Israel back into the West Bank a few days later required another Israeli checkpoint. It was sobering to be a part of the pedestrians that were crossing through the imposing Separation Wall by foot – through mazes of chicken wire and then into cramped rooms with metal detectors and Israeli officers. Meanwhile Israel’s tour buses enter the West Bank/Bethlehem though bright white gates with a cheery, amusement park-vibe that say “Welcome to Bethlehem!” in bold blue script.
The Separation Wall
Once in the West Bank, we walked to the Walled Off Hotel (an easy walk from Israeli Checkpoint 300, the pedestrian checkpoint we crossed). For the entire walk, we couldn’t possibly lose sight of the separation wall; at some points, there were elevated views where we could see the wall stretching for miles and miles until it disappeared into the horizon. There were tear gas canisters littering the streets and bullet holes in some of the buildings. Miles of breath-taking street art adorned the wall, shouting the world’s distaste for the occupation. When visiting the West Bank, the wall won’t be a location you have to travel to see; it will be the never-ending barrier that keeps you inside the West Bank. It’ll be a reminder of the passport that you can flash in order to get out, but the nearly 3 million Palestinians that don’t have it that easy.
The Walled-Off Hotel
The Walled-Off Hotel has been at the top of our Bucket List since it was first opened, thanks to our love for Banksy. Each room in the hotel is designed by a different street artist; we booked early enough in advance to snag ourselves Banksy’s room. Sleeping under a Bansky mural was like sleeping under the Mona Lisa. This room boasts the “ugliest view in the world” - a sprawling view of both the Separation Wall and the Aida Refugee Camp. The hotel is the same sort of enigma that Bansky is: quirky, and yet thoughtful, provocative and important. There are works of his everywhere within the lobby, a “Wall Mart” outside where you can learn how to stencil your own work onto the wall, and a stage and gallery for local artists. The Walled Off Hotel was first created as a temporary exhibit, but now it is in Palestine “indefinitely,” and we can’t help but wonder if that is because of the thriving local arts community it has fostered. Over the time we were there, we had the pleasure of attending the concerts of two different local bands, as well as the opening night of a local artist’s new gallery show. Art can be such an important part of both fostering community and supporting a cause, and the Walled Off Hotel does both.
Fun fact: all profits of the hotel are given right back to the city of Bethlehem and the local community.
The Street Art
There’s no secret we love street art, you just have to follow our instagram to see that; it may just be one of the most rebellious medium of art in our modern times. The wall is absolutely covered in stunning and heart-wrenching artwork done by Banksy, local artists and the international community at large. Seeing the names of hundreds of countries scrawled onto the wall (“support from the USA,” “Germany sees you”) reinforces how much of the world feels about Israeli occupation in the West Bank. We had the pleasure of meeting one of the local artists, who then took it upon himself to lead us in an impromptu tour of his own work, as well as some of his favorite pieces. He left his juice stand long enough to take us on this personalized tour and tell us his own story about his time in an Israeli prison, then returned to selling juice afterward. Likewise, the following day we hailed a cab to take us to what may be our very favorite work of art in the world (pictured below); once our cab driver saw how much we loved that piece, he asked of if we wanted to see more. We said yes, of course, and then let him wind us through the streets of Bethlehem, pointing out his favorite pieces and telling us in broken English about the artists he knew personally. Throughout our time in Palestine, one thing was abundantly clear: these people just wanted a chance to tell their story.
The Aida Refugee Camp
Though our entire visit to the West Bank was sobering, perhaps the most sobering was our tour through the Aida Refugee Camp, led by a resident of the camp. Admidst the rundown buildings, we saw children playing in the streets, adults racing their cars, a woman feeding the camp’s stray cats, and a long line of locals waiting for falafel that smelled delicious. In other words, we saw normal people doing normal things: enjoying food, taking care of their pets, entertaining themselves.
During our tour, we learned that the key is an important symbol for the residents of the Aida Refugee Camp; every single family within the camp (despite there now being three generations) still owns the key and the deed for the property of which they were forced out of, in hopes that they will one day have the chance to prove ownership again. A giant key stood imposing at the front gate of the camp, and images of keys were painted numerous times on the walls within. To understand just how important of a concept “home” was to these people was a new perspective; I know that I’ve never felt so strongly about or defended so fiercely the concept of “home.”
As far as safety, we had no concerns. The people of Palestine are kind and courteous; they smile often, offer their help and tell you their story whenever you’re willing to listen. We had excellent conversations over the course of our time there, including chatting with residents our age about the power of art, the flaws of capitalism and the hopelessness of being caught in the regime of leaders who are decades older and have far different views than yourself. In other words, our conversations with the Palestinian people went beyond the small talk; they aren’t afraid to get into the deeper issues and explore your worldview.
When we hear of nations fighting, we tend to forget about the sheer mass of humans that make up those nations. We define each side by its leaders and then we choose which to stand with based on that (or, even more often, simply based on the preferences/prejudices of our own country or community.) But what about the citizens of those nations? The moms who are just trying to raise their kids, the artists who just want to paint, the bakers who just want to make delicious food, the little boys who just want to learn how to ride their bikes, the elders who just want to pass on their wisdom. It’s THOSE people who make up a nation. And every single one of those people deserve to be heart, understood and protected. That’s why travel is so important – it shows you the actual faces of the nation. We recommend that everyone takes a trip to Palestine with an open heart and listens to the stories of those they meet.