Border issues and fine fellows in Israel; Star travel guy checks out Jerusalem
Star travel writer Adrian Brijbassi just returned from a visit to Jerusalem, and Bethlehem, for Toronto Star Travel's Grand Tour series of classic destinations. Here's his final post, but look for more later in the pages of the Star.
BETHLEHEM — It’s not easy to find a good tour guide for Palestine. For obvious reasons, there is just not a lot of sightseeing done in Israel’s occupied territories. The exception is in Bethlehem, where Christians come to see two key biblical sites: Shepherd’s Field and the Church of the Nativity.
Most visitors travel by tour bus and there are some who go by small carloads led by a personal guide. Arab-Israelis who are from East Jerusalem give the majority of the tours, according to one Israeli guide I met. So, I was fortunate when I wound up with Zafer Barakat to show me around Bethlehem, where he lived up until about seven years ago.
Zafer has incredible knowledge of the West Bank, the area that was formerly part of Jordan and is given its name because it is on the western side of the Jordan River and the Dead Sea. It has been Israeli-controlled territory since the Six-Day War in 1967. At the Bethlehem-East Jerusalem checkpoint near Rachel’s Tomb (the only checkpoint where tourists can pass), we were greeted by smiling Israeli soldiers who know Zafer well. They waved us on after a cursory check.
“I often cross the border three or four times a day,” he says. “So they recognize me, they know I’m coming with tourists.”
The lines can be long and arduous at the border, so anything that can expedite a quick clearance is a huge benefit for tourists, who will want to save as much time as they can en route to exploring the Bethlehem-area attractions.
Shepherd’s Field (see photo at right, below) is the spot where Christians believe angels spoke to shepherds about the birth of Jesus and also where Mary is said to have lived. The Church of the Nativity includes the site where Jesus is said to have been born. The Greek Orthodox church maintains the main part of the basilica and a Catholic church, St. Catherine, adjoins it.
Although the church was crowded when I visited, it wasn’t nearly as busy as the Church of the Holy Sepulcher, where Jesus died, in Jerusalem. At Shepherd’s Field, which is essentially a park, I counted three tour groups and there was room for many more.
One Christian in Palestine who I spoke to said businesses have been hurting ever since 2002, when the West Bank barrier started to be erected. The drop in activity isn’t surprising. When an 8-metre concrete wall goes up, interest in trying to pass through is going to go down.
Zafer says his home was all but covered by the wall. He and his family moved to East Jerusalem, where he was born and is an Arab citizen of Israel. He and his wife, Maysa, have three boys and a daughter (the family is pictured here, with eldest son, Ammar, missing because he’s studying to be a surgeon). They and their relatives invited me for a post-Hajj feast that included the best food I had during my stay in Israel.
You’ll read more on the Barakats and what it’s like to visit Israel and its occupied territories in coming weeks in the Toronto Star’s Travel section. Meanwhile, if you’re planning a trip to Jerusalem and are interested in seeing Bethlehem or other areas of Palestine, Zafer says you can contact him through his email account: email@example.com.
MORE ON ISRAELI CHECKPOINTS
As I said, I didn’t get the chance to experience the checkpoint the way Palestinians on a day-to-day basis do. Because of time constraints, it was important that Zafer and I get into Bethlehem as fast as possible. But Mirko Petricevic of the Waterloo Region Record was also in Jerusalem this month and he shared his experience with me in an email. Here’s what he wrote about what it was like for him and his wife to cross between Bethlehem and Jerusalem while en route to catching a bus to Eilat:
“The checkpoint interior is a cavernous and bare industrial warehouse. The queue didn’t move for long periods of time, so we grew anxious about missing our bus. Because of the slowness of the process some people butt in line, sparking little quarrels with others in the queue.
One Palestinian man got into a shouting match with the gun-toting guard watching us, through dark sunglasses, from a catwalk above. Another faceless security officer regularly blared instructions over a loudspeaker.
Eventually we passed, single file, through a three-metre-tall turnstile. We were processed through just one security lane, equipped with an X-ray machine to inspect baggage, even though it looked as though the checkpoint was set up with three or more lanes. If every lane were staffed, we would have passed through much more quickly.
After about 50 minutes we finally arrived at the last inspection station. An exterior wall of the booth was decorated with an Israeli tourist poster depicting a happy family enjoying a holiday on a Mediterranean beach.
The checkpoint screening system made me feel like livestock — not like a person. It humiliates, and stokes resentment in, Palestinians. And that doesn't seem helpful in lessening the bitterness between Palestinians and Israelis.”
Check out Jim Byers' travel blog from Las Vegas on Tuesday. A rather abrupt turn from Israel, yeah, but that' s the nature of the travel biz....