Turkey legs, singing, latkes, and wine were my first introduction into Jewish life in West Jerusalem. I woke up early and groggy the next morning in the 10-person dorm of my hostel near the Damascus Gate of Jerusalem’s Old City.
Sun shining, I made my way towards the bus station, past Hasidic families and pretty Israeli girls. The station appeared around a corner across from bustling fruit stands and tourist traps.
As I climbed onto the “21” bus, I was suddenly back in Jordan. Jordan’s popular Radio Rotana was blasting Omar Abdullah’s latest hit on the radio and hijab-clothed women were seated, waiting for the bus’s departure.
I could tell this was not a bus frequented by the inhabitants of West Jerusalem with whom I had recently been breaking bread. The bus bumped out of the station and eastward past the walls of the Old City, Europe slowly giving way to the Middle East as West Jerusalem became East Jerusalem.
The “21” bus cruised through the Israeli checkpoint that legally and psychologically divides Israel from the West Bank.
It was the beginning of a long-awaited experience.
When the opportunity arose near the end of my semester in Jordan to visit Israel and the West Bank, I jumped at it, hungry for an experience of my own.
I arrived on a Friday in early December of 2012 via the Allenby/King Hussein Bridge crossing from Jordan. Jerusalem was beautiful in the early afternoon. By sunset, a friend had invited me to services at his synagogue and Shabbat dinner.
Upon our arrival in Bethlehem, the taxi drivers, who had been anxiously awaiting our business, picked me out of the crowd of Palestinians.
After a couple of minutes I had explained to one of them, Ashraf, that I wanted him to show me his life in the West Bank. He understood the intention of my travel and took it upon himself to show and tell me as much as he could.
We entered the Aida refugee camp, Ashraf’s home, through the keyhole-shaped entrance in the shadow of the 30-foot-high, barbed-wire-lined, concrete wall that not-so-subtly indicates the border between the State of Israel and the town of Bethlehem which falls along the western border of the West Bank.
On the wall were leftover intifada graffiti and portraits of Palestinian prisoners serving multiple life sentences in Israeli prisons. Their bodies, according to Ashraf, would not be returned to their families for burial for generations after their death.
Concrete watchtowers manned 24 hours a day by the Israeli Defense Force (IDF) loomed over the camp.
Opposite the towers, Arab houses and an elementary school are riddled with bullet holes, reminders of the IDF’s response to the second intifada. In Ashraf’s taxi, we wove through the narrow streets and concrete buildings that make up the Aida refugee camp,
Nearing the end of my tour of Bethlehem, Ashraf asked me if I wanted to head south toward the town of Hebron.
I had been debating whether I wanted to visit Hebron over the days leading up to my trip; violent riots had erupted the day before in response to the IDF shooting of 17-year-old Muhammed Al-Salaymeh on his birthday, after he started a fight at the Cave of the Patriarchs checkpoint.
Ashraf assured me that I would be safe with him and my intense interest in the Jewish settlements in Hebron persuaded me to accept his offer. We headed south past more scattered IDF towers and beautiful, West Bank farmland.
As we passed a refugee camp, Ashraf pointed out the giant gates flanking its entrance that, according to him, were often closed during times of upheaval, locking the inhabitants in and turning the camp into the equivalent of a large prison. We passed a Palestinian grape field with one of the farm’s trees enclosed in a barbed-wire fence, rendering its grape production impossible.
The Hebrew sign on the fence designated the single grape tree as belonging to an Israeli settler. According to Ashraf, this settler had tricked the Palestinian farmer into relinquishing ownership of it and fenced it off. The tree stood as a small indication of the vast importance of land in this conflict.
Thirty minutes after we left Bethlehem we were in Hebron, the saddest place that I have ever been. The tension in Hebron is palpable from the moment you pass the large road sign indicating that you are entering section “A” of the West Bank under the jurisdiction of the Palestinian Authority.
Entrance for Israeli citizens is “forbidden” and “against Israeli law.”
According to Ashraf, this is a precaution taken by the Israeli government to ensure that Israeli citizens don’t flock to Hebron to indulge in cheaper goods, in turn boosting the local economy. The darkening weather seemed to be symbolic, occurring in conjunction with our descent into the heart of Hebron where we ventured to visit the Cave of the Patriarchs and a downtown Israeli settlement.
After parking the car as close to the Cave of the Patriarchs as possible, we walked past a playground full of Palestinian children placed under the foreboding watch of IDF troops lining the rooftops of Arab houses. We turned left into the tunnel that led to the first of three checkpoints before the entrance of the Cave.
We entered the mosque side of the complex that, in 1994, was split in two to create a synagogue in the other half. The Cave of the Patriarchs is a holy site for both Muslims and Jews because it is revered as the resting place of the descendants of Abraham.
The decision to divide the mosque was made by the Israeli government after Israeli-American settler Baruch Goldstein massacred 29 praying Muslims 13 years before.
Afterwards, Ashraf and I stood talking to his friend, the 16-year-old shop owner, about lucrative Israeli settlers who have offered to buy his store from him. His store was the only one still in business on the dirty street, abandoned except for the watchful soldiers who eyed us as we spoke. During our conversation, three settler boys roughly the same age as the shop-keeper strolled down the street laughing and joking, the middle one carrying a submachine gun.
Afterwards, Ashraf and I headed down the street in the same direction as the settlers, towards the Avraham Avino Israeli settlement. We hastened through a checkpoint, making an abrupt left at an invisible barrier, which marked the border that Ashraf could not legally cross.
I observed a Muslim family walking huddled through the empty streets as an armored Israeli police vehicle passed. Israeli flags were draped in the windows of settler houses, providing a bold reminder of their owners.
Nearing the next checkpoint, Ashraf and I heard a commotion. Rounding the corner I witnessed four, heavily armed IDF soldiers encouraging two young Palestinian boys to fight so that the soldiers could capture it on their cell phones. The boys, riled up by the encouragement, were exchanging blows.
One of the boys’ fathers rounded the corner behind us and we followed him up to the group.
“Shame on you,” the man said to his son in Arabic. “Why are you fighting for their entertainment? Why do you let them laugh at you?”
One of the boys had a stream of blood connecting his nose to his chin. We kept our eyes averted from the amused soldiers as we carried on through the checkpoint. As we left Hebron, I realized that the section “A” sign might have another intention; to prevent Israelis citizens from bearing witness to the grayness and sadness that is Hebron. I ran this theory by Ashraf, and he replied with a stern look and a curt “Of course.”
By sunset, I was back in bustling West Jerusalem with clean streets, hip bars, and a sleek light rail carrying excited youth to their nighttime drinking destinations. I had no intention of returning from my trip with a conclusive point of view on the conflict, nor did I.
I returned home from the Middle East later that week with a lot to think about and a very different picture of the region that I had understood so differently before my visit.
Editor’s Note: This is Tim Bruns’ first-person, narrative account of his experience in the Middle East. We ran this article in the Life section because it tells a tale and presents questions as opposed to delivering opinion. Any opinions, either perceived or real, in this article are those of Bruns’ and do not reflect the beliefs of The Catalyst.