Looking out over yanoun villageWe visited a small village near Nablus called Yanoun. The village has only 9 families living in it and their ancestors have lived there for hundreds of years. In 1996, the village was invaded by fundamentalist Jewish settlers, who wanted the villagers out. They surrounded the villagers in the valley from outposts in the hills and stole their land, poisoned their animals, and beat and harassed the villagers. By 2002, the locals had enough and fled to a nearby town. This was the first time an entire village had been evacuated by settlers and it caused the international community to take notice. They set up an “International House”, where volunteers live 365 days a year to help International house Yanoun villagemake sure no more shenanigans take place. The villagers have moved back but still have difficult lives, always watching over their shoulders, tending to the little land they have left. We spoke with an old woman who invited us for some coffee and told us about getting harassed by the settlers. Her husband was in a wheelchair after being beaten defending his father during a scuffle with them. The young boy in the photo is her son. When our guide Mahmoud asked him if he was fed up living here, he amazingly was not angry about his situation and said “No, it’s not that bad.” He said he could deal with the settlers, because this was his home.

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How can there be peace when even the priests are fighting about how to clean up the church of the Nativity? More here.

Huwarra checkpoint
The last few days have been very sobering, and I almost feel guilty after having such a good time in Jerusalem, the Dead Sea, and in the north in Galilee. We took a two day tour of the West Bank with a Palestinian guide, Mahmoud, and witnessed first hand the types of restrictions the Palestinians face, daily. During our tour we visited Ramallah, Bethlehem, Hebron, Yanoun and Nablus, which are all Palestinian controlled territories, and are subject to numerous checkpoints. Checkpoints and security checks aren’t a big deal to us; we’ve been through maybe 100 or more between Turkey, Egypt, Syria, and Jordan. But in Israel it’s completely different. In order to go in/out of a Palestinian city, there are check points that are monitored by Israeli soldiers, even though it’s Palestinian territory. The Palestinians are scrutinized at every turn, their IDs are checked; they are humiliated, humbled and basically emotionally berated in their own land. In addition to the permanent checkpoints, there are “flying checkpoint” (checkpoints set up randomly). The young Israeli soldiers are trained to question and interrogate. They are intimidating, serious and seem to be easily angered and offended. While we were in line at the Nablus checkpoint, the soldiers began to yell, because someone was standing “over the line” of where the line should start. All of the people in the cattle coral were told to move back before anyone else would be processed. Because the the Hamas and Fattah movements were centered in Nablus, the city is closed except by two entry/exit points, which makes coming and going out of Nablus difficult. In addition to the security checks, Palestinians are only allowed to travel on specific roads built for the Palestinians. These routes are indirect and require driving around Israeli settlements and make travel difficult and time consuming. The first day our guide was almost an hour late meeting us, because of the checkpoints. Apparently, it took him close to 3 hours, for what should have taken only 30minutes.

Palestinians are forbidden from carrying weapons, but the Israelis carry machine guns–EVERYWHERE. Walking down the street, at a bar, restaurant, in the country, at the Western Wall– EVERYWHERE. If an Israeli settler on Palestinian land feels they need a machine gun for safety, they are given one along with at least one security guard per family.

Creating a situation frustrating enough to make the Palestinians leave or to resume suicide bombings, is not the solution. I certainly have no answers to the situation and frankly, it’s depressing. There are both Israelis and Palestinians who share my point of view, but it is the extremists/fundamentalists that make it impossible for everyone to live together. When the Israeli West Bank Wall is completed in the year 2010 and Israelis and Palestinians are physically separated by a 26 foot high wall, repairing the damage that has been done between the two groups of people will take more than the eight years it took to build the wall.

Our guide mahmoud We were very impressed by our guide in Palestine, Mahmoud. At 25 he’s lived a rather extraordinary life. He volunteered as a paramedic during the 2nd Intifada and told us many sobering stories of the 22 day siege of Nablus. He led us around the old city and, his voice cracking as he described losing both friends and family members as a result of the fighting. Having seen the horrors of war first hand, Mahmoud now devotes his time to 3 organizations. Project Hope, an organization providing educational and recreational activities for children in Nablus, West Bank Tours, a local tourism company hoping to show people the real Palestine, beyond the sensationalism and headlines, and As-Sirk As-Saghir, a volunteer circus that puts on shows and teaches kids juggling, clowning and performing. He told us his goal is to reach a new generation, helping needy kids find positive outlets growing up in an extraordinary situation.

Since we were in Jerusalem, we wanted to visit Bethlehem for Christmas. Seemed like the thing to do. Looking at the map it’s close. It’s gotta be easy to get there, right? We could just hop a cab or even walk a bit. Oh wait…look at that. There’s a 26 foot wall surrounding Bethlehem. In fact it’s 436 miles long and surrounds the entire West Bank!!!

Banksy made some headlines recently, creating some artwork on the wall to raise awareness about the situation in Bethlehem. Here’s a slideshow of some of what we saw.

Here’s a panorama of a small section of the wall.