Four days ago, it was one month since I arrived in Palestine and it will be one year in total when it comes time to leave. Inshallah means, roughly, “God Willing.” Always I say inshallah when I say one year. Inshallah because one year is a long time. Inshallah because the longest visa I can get is three months. Inshallah because you never know in this land.
I’m an international, an American, and I arrived one month and four days ago. That was one month and four days, though, and that’s not what this is about. Journey for Justice started yesterday, and it’s going to go for eight days.
Early Saturday morning several youth filled the top floor of the YMCA Rehabilitation center here in Beit Sahour, eager to get started on the program and, in typical Palestinian fashion, about 45 minutes late. It was the kick-off, the start of the whole program and I learned one very important thing. The Danish are blonde. All of them.
The morning was filled with social activities that, while exciting at the time, generally make boring stories. So I’ll skip that. Mostly. I did get to shove my boss as part of one activity. That was fun. And I wasn’t fired. But now I’m done with that part, because in the afternoon we had a tour of Bethlehem.
This is good, because I was eager to get out into the streets, to show the other internationals what I have experienced for a month now, to walk the gutters and squeeze between the cars in the old city.
Our first stop was the Church of Nativity, where the street salesmen converge on tourists in desperation. There’s an urgency and a sorrow and a plea for help in their voices as they show off their goods. It’s very fine-tuned and they play their game well, but a quick walk around the old city shows the desperation to be true.
The narrow stone roads are packed with cars weaving their way through the people, makeshift stands for vendors and all sorts of things. I remember when I first got here, feeling out the awkward weave between the people, trying to be polite in my western way. I soon learned that you don’t move quickly when you’re trying to be polite. But today we’re in a big group, and the guide is carving out a wide swath for us to follow.
And so the other internationals get to see the Palestine I’ve come to know, which is not all of Palestine, but just the distance from one checkpoint to the next, the streets I’ve walked and the shop owners who have called me in, or ignored me, or sat with me after I buy a sandwich and asked, “You like Bush? How you like Palestine? Will America help Palestinians?” I have to admit, I don’t think America will. Not for several years at least. So all I can do is say, “I’m sorry. I’m trying,” but it doesn’t matter. I am welcome all the same.
Store after store of olive wood goods and other tourist items line the roads, with their heavy green doors. Many are shut and many are open, with their owners sitting outside, waiting, talking - mostly waiting. Waiting for someone to come by and shop, to buy something from them, because Bethlehem is empty of tourists. It’s full of people and life, full of history - ancient and not-so-ancient - and it’s full of hope, but it’s absolutely empty of tourists. So the store owners sit outside and wait. Some will close shop, some will find other work. Most won’t find anything but waiting, whether they have a shop or not.
The second day we had a tour with Angela Godfrey-Goldstein from ICAHD. I had been looking forward to this tour for a while, as I’ve been very impressed with ICAHD’s work. Angela is a small woman and she can seem frail from a distance, but once you’re in range to witness her animation, you realize she is full of fire, in spirit and action.
As soon as we were settled and Rami introduced the program for the day, she took us through a blistering overview of Israel’s historical and ongoing practice of the Israeli effort “to get away with writing the Palestinians off the map.” The information overload in the first half-hour characterized the whole day, as we toured settlements and visited Anata, a Palestinian village particularly threatened by house demolition.
Anata is located between two settlements. It’s filled with Palestinians who pay Israeli taxes and yet it’s a world away from Bethlehem. Broken concrete piled high from demolished houses, trash and what I believe was sewage ran down the middle of the main road, phone lines were strewn from window to window and the buildings rose high around us, so that we were traveling down a thin canyon. Our bus wound its way through the streets as the locals gawked and waved and wondered what a bunch of tourists were doing here.
Finally we got out of the bus, which was great for me. I need to have my feet on the ground and open air around me to feel like I’m there. Everything can play like a movie when I’m inside of a bus, but once I’m out and walking there’s a tangible human presence I can’t deny.
But here, where we’ve gotten out, there is suddenly space, open ground, rubble in a few spots. It’s a barren hilltop just outside the village, where before buildings and people and cars were spilling all over each other. I can only assume that this is the area where Palestinians cannot get permits to build.
I’m walking a long way down a hill now. We’re going somewhere, I’m not quite sure where, but there is no grass - only upturned dirt, broken chunks of cement and a rolling dirt road. Around one bend there is a small patch, about 10 meters wide, of flat dirt. Some children are playing soccer there, careful not to kick the ball off the “field”. They’re not very interested in us. The game must be good. The sun is setting now and it’s getting cool. And thirty minutes earlier we passed through an Israeli settlement with palm trees lining the road, the buildings all white with terraces and fountains and a beautiful sculpture of peace doves taking flight. Yes. A sculpture of peace doves, taking flight, in an Israeli settlement.
But here, now, it’s good to see the kids playing and the sun setting and the open air and the life moving on and on.
Nathan Wright is an American who is volunteering with the YMCA in Beit Sahour and a participant in this year’s Journey for Justice.
Journey for Justice is a program that brings international youth to Palestine to see and experience the occupation first-hand. About sixty youth, international and Palestinian, take part in a range of activities including tours of the occupation infrastructure, visits to religious sites, olive picking, day trips to areas throughout the West Bank and more. It is a joint program between the East Jerusalem YMCA, YWCA of Palestine, YWCA-YMCA of Norway and YMCA-YWCA of Denmark. This year you can follow the daily activities of the Journey for Justice online.