First Days in Bethlehem
Trip Start Jan 03, 2011
38Trip End Mar 26, 2011
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Currently, we’re staying in Bethlehem, the birthplace of Jesus. We’re living in the Christian neighborhood, called Beit Sahour, while the downtown area of Bethlehem is mostly Muslim. We visited the Church of Nativity yesterday, which is built over the cave where Jesus was supposedly born. Our guide said that people used to live in caves so when the Bible said “there was no room at the inn” it means there was no room at the front of the cave. So Mary and Joseph had to go to the back of the cave with the animals for Mary to give birth to Jesus. Seems strange, but I guess this guy knows more about life back then than I do! Either way, the church was beautiful and there were many pilgrims coming to see this holy place. It was pretty cool.
We spent the rest of the day touring Bethlehem by bus, and visiting the two places we will be volunteering for the next month. One is called the Holy Land Trust (where the majority of us, including myself, will be working) and the other is the Palestinian Wildlife Society (where 3 of our group will be working). Both are really cool organizations, and the work we will be doing at the Holy Land Trust sounds really awesome. We will be doing a major research project by going out into two different villages around Bethlehem, and interviewing villagers about the effect of the separation wall and Jewish settlements within their village. Sounds pretty cool, especially that we will be able to interact with actual people that are being effected by the wall and settlements. The Wildlife Society works a lot with youth and the rest of the community to raise awareness about wildlife and the environment in the area. They study native animals and tag birds to observe their migration patterns. Our group members will be working on the society’s website, fundraising projects, and public relations with the community.
We’ve also started to learn some Hebrew and Arabic, which has been really fun but really hard! Apparently Arabic and Mandarin are the two hardest languages to learn, and I’m sure Hebrew isn’t far behind.
This morning was our first day on the job at the Holy Land Trust (HLT from here on out) and we went to a nearby village called Nahhalin. It’s right outside Bethlehem, and if Bethlehem has a much lower standard of living than Tel Aviv, then Bethlehem is like Tel Aviv compared to Nahhalin. The village is entirely surrounded by Jewish settlements and the separation wall, which means there is only one road in and out of the village. In 1948, the village consisted of 24,000 dunhams of land (one dunham is 1,000 square meters) and now they only have 13. From 24,000 to 13. WHAT?! Where did the land go you ask? Remember how I said the village is entirely surrounded by Jewish settlements? Ding ding! There’s your answer.
Sidebar on Jewish settlements: A Jewish Settlement by definition is a Jewish town that was built in the West Bank, or on what would technically be considered Palestinian land. They have cement walls that go around these towns, as well as Israeli military police that are always on guard. But the settlements are constantly growing, so the walls tend to be closer to the Palestinian towns nearby rather than on the borders of the settlement. This usually means that Palestinian farmers are cut off from their land (usually olive groves), which is often the entire source of their income and livelihood. This, not surprisingly, has created quite a disturbance between Palestinians and Jewish settlers. But since the Israeli military is constantly on guard, there’s not much the Palestinians can do about it without going to jail. Of course, under Israeli occupation, Palestinians aren’t in control of the rest of the West Bank either, they are only in control of the more highly populated cities like Bethlehem, Ramallah, Nablus, etc. The rest of the land is either controlled by Jewish Settlements or Israeli military control. This means Palestinians must go through checkpoints to get from one Palestinian city to another, so they cannot freely move about the West Bank. They also may not go into Israel or even Jordan without permission papers, which are almost impossible to get, so that means they are basically stuck in their own cities. Ok, that’s probably enough background for the moment, moving on...
So anyway, Nahhalin was entirely agricultural and they’ve been forced to leave their lands, which have been confiscated, and become more service oriented in their jobs within the village limits. Also, since they’re surrounded by Jewish settlements, and since the fence or separation wall (it comes in both forms) usually extends farther out from the settlement to create a buffer zone and room to grow, this means that the Israeli government’s plan for Nahhalin is to just fence in the village itself. So the separation fence will go around the border of the village, cutting them off from what olive groves they have left, and even a school that is located on a hillside just a little too far outside the city. So, not only will the fence cut them off from the outside, but that means they have no more room to grow from the inside. In 1967, there were 3,000 Palestinians living in the village, and now there are 7,000. But there is nowhere for all these people to go since they can’t build anywhere, thus creating major implications. Three families to a house, water shortages, huge sanitation issues (a whole other blog post will have to cover that), job shortages, trash collection problems, you name it. To put it briefly, these poor people are living in a ghetto, but they have no other options.
So our job in volunteering with the HLT will be to study these issues, collect data on what kind of effect the wall and settlements are having on environmental issues in this village (mostly water and sanitation problems), and then put it into a workable report so that the HLT can start taking action to help them. There are 8 of us volunteering for HLT, so 4 of us will be working in Nahhalin and the other 4 will be working in another village that we will visit and learn more about tomorrow.
So far, this has been an incredibly eye opening experience. Seeing firsthand how these people are living is just unbelievable. Even my shower this morning was entirely different. Palestinians have to pay double what Israelis pay for water, so we try and help them conserve as much as possible. So “Navy” showers are the way to go. Turn on the water, get wet, turn off the water, soap up, turn on the water, rinse, turn off the water, you’re done. Actually I tried to take a shower last night, but I guess the water tank fills up at night because there was no hot water left. Literally, I turned the knob for the hot water and only drops were coming out, and they weren’t hot. Fortunately it was warm this morning, but jeez. When I think about the 5-8 minute showers I take at home that are always hot and available 24/7, it amazing that this is the way these people always live. They don’t get to go home to that in 3 months, this is their constant way of life. And that’s just showering, there are hundreds of other major differences that I’m not even aware of yet. It’s just mind blowing.
Anyway, I’ll try and wrap up this encyclopedia. If I haven’t already lost you, thanks for sticking around to the end! I’ll try and be more concise next time. Also, I don’t want people to think that because I’m discussing and explaining the oppression of the Palestinians that I’m anti-Israel. In fact, I’m quite the opposite. I believe that both sides have every right to their own space, Israelis just as much as Palestinians. The Jews have been under oppression for the millennia, so if anyone deserves to feel free and safe it’s them! However, I do think that Israel could be protecting their people and establishing their state differently. So I’ll just leave it at that.
Lehitra’ot! (Goodbye in Hebrew)
Ma’salaama! (Goodbye in Arabic)