Last Friday, I went to Bethlehem for the afternoon.
Bethlehem is Area A, which means that it is mostly under Palestinian control and so is closed to Israelis without military permission. (A helpful mnemonic is "A is for Arafat.") As an American, though, I was free to enter.
Getting there from my apartment in Baka in Jerusalem is actually exceptionally easy. One can catch the Arab bus #124 from the stop on Derech Hevron, just south of Yehuda Street. Make sure to flag down the bus to ensure it stops. (And, throughout this whole trip, I was advised not to wear outward signs of being Jewish, including a kippa or untucked tzitzit. A baseball cap was fine, though I of course looked like a tourist.)
The bus then drops off at the pedestrian checkpoint. Entering Bethlehem is easy for an American: just show your passport and Israeli visa (e.g. the stamp you got at the airport, either in your passport or on an attached piece of paper). You don't even have to go through a metal detector. On the other side of the checkpoint, you can get a taxi to the Nativity Church and other tourist sites. Locals pay 10 shekels (~$3) - tourists might have to pay 15 but shouldn't pay more. Whole trip door to door took 30 minutes.
The Nativity Church is across from a large Mosque, and adjacent to the Bethlehem Peace Center. I was there around midday on a Friday, and so much of the square was turned into a giant outdoor (men's) mosque, with a loudspeaker broadcasting what I was told was the midday prayer. It was a fascinating site to behold, since observant Jews don't use electricity on the Sabbath and so can't experience any kind of amplified outdoor space like this.
The Nativity Church was the site of a siege during the 2nd Intifada, with Palestinian militants attempting to take refuge there. I remember reading about the events as it happened, but it was good to refresh my memory.
The picture below shows both a mosque and a church right next to each other, showing the dual heritage in Bethlehem.
I spent most of the afternoon with a friend of a friend of mine, talking about his perspective on current events in the region. This contact was a Palestinian Christian, who had spent a good part of his youth in Saudi Arabia, as his father had a job there. Since he wasn't Muslim, he was not allowed to attend the regular schools, and instead had to attend an American school. (As a silver lining, he now speaks near-perfect American English. So good that I was always a bit surprised when he would speak native Palestinian Arabic.)
His family was kicked out of Saudi Arabia along with the rest of the Christians. I can only imagine what it must have been like as a Palestinian to be kicked out your temporary home, back to the West Bank.
He made numerous fascinating comments during our conversation. I will paraphrase several of the most salient points he made, based on my memory:
"Palestinians today are 60/40 happy/unhappy economically, but 40/60 happy/unhappy psychologically."
"Things are good now, but they were much better in '99-early '00. I remember being able to ride my bike to Tel Aviv to the beach in early 2000 before the intifada."
"Things could snap and get really bad again."
"Now I would need a work permit to enter Jerusalem. Though, most years, around Christmas and Easter, Palestinian Christians are given temporary permits."
"To fly anywhere, we have to cross into Jordon and use the airport in Aman. We can't go to Ben Gurion in Tel Aviv. It's not really a problem though, because most Palestinians have Jordanian citizenship or passports in one form or another."
"I only visit my parents to the north every few months, since I have to cross checkpoints between Palestinian villages, and it takes forever."
"With former President Bush, at least we knew where he stood. We have no idea where President Obama stands. One minute he's for halting building all settlements, the next excluding the Jerusalem, the next he's just proposing it."
"I once spoke to a settler who was saying that Palestinians are all taught in school how to build bombs and that we're supposed to continue the Holocaust. I explained to her that that's simply not true of my education, and that I learned about the Holocaust in history class like everyone else in the world."
"The Palestinians voted for Hamas because Fatah was very corrupt, and Hamas said it was against their religion to be corrupt."
"Fayyad would be great if he could speak for all of the Palestinians, the way that Arafat could. Abbas only speaks for Fatah, which gives him limited influence."
"1948 was an ethnic cleansing. And it is still going on in Jerusalem."
"Israel isn't going anywhere. We should go back to the '67 borders, and have a Palestinian state in the West Bank and Gaza, including all of the Old City in Jerusalem."
"There are many Christians here. Most people think Arab Christians are only in Lebanon, but we have lots here. We even brew our own beer in Taybeh. And it's really good."
My host insisted on treating me to my beer and Baba Ghanoush, given the Palestinian tradition of hospitality.
Going home took a bit longer, since the checkpoint is much more strict. There are bag scanners and metal detectors, but unlike in airport security, there is a kiosk door that only lets in one person at a time. The metal detectors are also much stronger, since my belt and shoes each set them off, despite that neither does in American airports. The line for checking documents also bunch up, with the same person doing both ways.
Regardless of the hassle, the return trip probably took 40-45 minutes.
I'll be heading back to Bethlehem next week to meet with an organization that does non violent protest. Should be interesting.