Soil

Trip Start Mar 21, 2005
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Palm Hostel

Flag of Palestinian Territory  ,
Tuesday, March 18, 2008

Bethlehem today defies expectations, if you have any preconceptions of the Nativity from singing "Away in a Manger" during Christmas time.  Today, Bethlehem is a place of contrasts, of barriers, and of contested holy soil.

Back in the Old Testament, when Elisha healed the Syrian commander Naaman, gods were believed to belong to each country, with the soil as being the key.  We hear so many times the importance of soil: in football games fought on home turf, in kissing our country's soil upon returning home, in seeing soil as a vital part of life.  Indeed, God created Adam from the earth. 

The healed Naaman, convinced of Elisha's God's power says: "let me have two mule-loads of earth to take home with me, because from now on I will not offer sacrifices or burnt offerings to any god except the Lord" (2 Kings 5:17).  At that time in the evolution of God and man, Earth from that god's soil was believed necessary for offerings.

It is no surprise, then, that the holy places of the world are to be the most contested, especially the one Holy Land that is the birthplace of Abrahamic faiths: Judaism, Islam, and Christianity.

The first major split in the Abrahamic faiths began when Jesus entered this world as the Messiah-to-be in Bethlehem.  Today another split is apparent, with a massive wall separating the Palestinian Territories and Israel proper.  Like the Berlin Wall, this Wall, the Security Wall, the Apartheid Wall has attracted Spray Painters with a Purpose, the taggers and bombers of the wall:

"Hope"

"Made in the USA"

"Refuse, Reject, Resist"

"This is not a Fence"

"Freedom for Everyone"

"You must riot,
you must protest
just to be heard
by the world."

"One buldozer: $5 million
The wall: $2 billion
US Aid to Israel: $3 billion a year
Freedom: Priceless"

The wall also brings out emotions that lead to Nazi swastikas (as opposed to the cosmic, lucky ones dating back thousands of years) or Anarchy symbols or peace signs.

Mattias, Carlos, and I ended our day in Bethlehem at the Wall, reading these slogans and looking at its sheer size and length, as it stretched past Israeli settlements and highways.  Mattias and Carlos, from Switzerland and Italy, were also staying at the Palm Hostel, which was packed full of people for the Holy Week and springtime in Israel.  We entered the security gates to through the "exit" or was it the entrance? Depends on where you're coming from?

Palestinians on the "wrong side" of the Wall are no longer able to drive on the major highways that cross their land.  Travel between towns in the West Bank, with all its checkpoints, can now take an entire day, when before it only took one hour or so.  Leaving your area requires a permit from Israel, whose troops prowl the streets with machine guns.  In one village, the Wall or "Annexation Barrier" separates people from their farmland, impoverishing the town and forcing them to conduct weekly demonstrations in the face of tear gas and rubber bullets, despite a court ruling in their favor (the wall in many places was illegally built to add more territory to Israel).

At the same time, many Jews are against the Wall, with one saying that "we got along fine before the wall was built."  Her neighborhood actually tore down a section of the wall, so the Palestinians on the other side could still get their mail from the post office.  A Palestinian also said that if they want to go to Jerusalem, they know how to get through.  So it's apparent that the wall is not much of a deterrent to determined terrorists.

I also met people who were firm believers in the wall: "Three times, three times! God gave us a covenant giving us all of Israel.  I won't allow the enemy any square inch of it."  This was said by a man from New Mexico who roamed America with his eight children until settling in the West Bank.

But in reality all walls must fall eventually, whether in peace or in war.

In Bethlehem, Mattias, Carlos, and I visited the Church of the Nativity.  First we passed the Bethlehem Peace Center, covered with pictures of martyred Palestinian militants brandishing machine guns (who the Israeli soldiers just killed a few days ago).  The Byzantine-era church is one of the oldest still in use, with the structure dating to 529 and older mosaics visible from the fourth century.

The birthplace of Jesus, according to this church, is under the church, in a cave, where they kept animals, where there was a manger, likely.  But it wasn't the European-looking model barn that people build today during Christmas time.  It's hard to build a limestone cave for Christmas, I guess.

Despite the crowds from tour groups, the church was peaceful, with monks singing in the grotto with incense, purifying it and blessing it before more crowds arrived. 

Bethlehem residents, mostly Muslim, were friendly and welcoming around the bazaars, in the old streets, in the new parts of town, and around the outskirts where the Wall encircles the city.

After visiting the church, we drove to the Greek Orthodox monastery Mar Saba in the middle of the Judaen desert.  Although the monastery was closed because of the holy time, we walked around the canyon and up onto the other ridge, crossing a heavily-polluted stream in a land where every drop of clean water is precious.

Though we can talk much about barriers and splits and walls and sides to every story, that's not the true message, its only the way we're perceiving things, whether danger or comfort and different or same same and your soil versus my soil.  Either way, these walls must fall, right?
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