Tent of Nations 2019 [4]: Bethlehem, Soldiers, Settlements & Spiritual Growth

[This is a journal entry I wrote in Palestine. Any notes made by me after the fact will be in brackets and/or not italicized. I’ve added information on some politics in this post. I also included some of my own personal thoughts about faith in this entry. The next post will be about community psychology and how I saw it in the West Bank. Please enjoy!]

4:29 pm, July 23rd, 2019, Big White Tent, Tent of Nations

Picking up where I left off. My nose is peeling from sunburn and the skin is just barely visible in my gaze while I write. 

Friday. I haven’t written anything about Friday because Eva has been using my laptop for video editing, so I’ll relay what I remember about that day now that Daoud has changed the goal of the documentation somewhat. Friday with the kids was really nice but a little rushed. [One of my campers] was leaving that day so I was running around a little bit, trying to find Daoud so she could make the design for the T-shirts as she and Daoud had talked about on Wednesday. She made a stencil on cardboard, and I adjusted it so it would fit on the shirts. I was also in a rush because that afternoon we would be going to Bethlehem to explore Wi’am, Aida Refugee Camp,  and the Separation Wall in Bethlehem. 

Our campers created poetry with some rainbow scratch-off paper that Stijn brought, and they loved it–so much that we couldn’t do much of anything else! The bus came late and so I walked down to the bus with my illustrator camper, who was leaving for Turkey the next day and would not be back to Tent of Nations. She was wonderful as always, and asked where I learned to draw so well. I wish she were here this week as I write this.

We put the campers in the bus and waved goodbye, and then turned towards the other direction on the road, over the roadblock and to the van we were all taking into Bethlehem. 

Two of our volunteers left that day. Eva did not join us on our tour because she had already been; she took my laptop to whatever guest house or hostel she was going to edit the video in. Daoud had to work, so we took a private van he ordered for us. The driver flying down the road, blasting Arabic pop party music, is something I will never ever forget. We bopped all the way to Bethlehem .We stopped at Wi’am where we met Usama, our guide. He will also be our guide in Hebron as well. He was incredible, and told stories with such grace and feeling, but the stories and walking tour sort of was split into two parts so that our enormously shoppy group could look at the gifts at Wi’am. I got a kefiya for myself and my sister. 

We then started our walk through Aida camp. My notes from the tour are in the left-handed notebook. Please look there and make sure Kathy sends the powerpoints if you don’t get them directly from Usama. [I’ll elaborate on them all throughout this, too, and I’ll make the left-handed notes a different color]. 

Aida Refugee Camp is one of 59 refugee camps within Palestine built by the UN as temporary living for the 750 thousand Palestinians displaced by the Nakba (tragedy, “Day of Catastrophe”) in 1948, during which settlers invaded Palestinian villages and homes and forced natives off of their land. Palestinians also thought this would be a temporary arrangement, and in a week or so they would be able to move back to their ancestral homes. However, the camps are still in use, and are still in use often because Palestinian families, if they were to leave the refugee camps, are afraid that they will lose the “right to return” to their own land when the conflict is over and, as was originally suggested, their families can return to their communities. Few of the family members who experienced the Nabka in 1948 survive, and many have been born in the camp and died in the camp without seeing their land, but stay in what is essentially a slum, surrounded by watchmen, barbed wire, and gratuitous armaments, with the hope that one day things will change. 

A volunteer kept explaining things before the tour guide could say them because they had done the same tour before. The volunteer spoke well, but often got things to quite right or spoke over the tour guide. The volunteer is well informed and can be helpful, but is also guilty of assuming that because they are smart and informed, that makes them aware of how it feels or what it means to live in Palestine. [I will be exploring in my sermon at Williamsburg United Methodist Church about the trip the idea that voluntourists, especially Christians, tend to feel an entitlement to other people’s stories. This was a good example of this, very literally, but I’ll be elaborating more on this in another blog perhaps.]

Aida camp was a very spiritual Christian experience for me. While the Church of the Nativity was interesting and beautiful, I did not find Christ there, in the church built around his birthplace, in the same way I found Him among the garbage, destruction, writing, and most of all, the dignity and hope of the people in Aida who had lost everything. There I felt Him cradling that community with such care. I felt like an intruder sometimes, walking along these streets, feeling as if I was engaging in poverty spectacle, but finding faith in that experience helped me see the people there as not dangerous or poor or dirty as people in the US may have imagined. 


9:42 pm, July 24th, 2019, Sleeping Tent, Tent of Nations

It’s taking me forever to write about my days but I suppose that’s a good thing. I will keep writing about [Bethlehem] and continue until today (Wednesday). Aida was distressing to see as an outsider for many reasons. The first is, of course, empathy–as much as I could understand, with my limited knowledge, the situations of the people living there, I hurt so deeply. Many people there have the ability to leave and potentially make better lives for themselves and their children but leaving the sanctity of the UN supported Aida camp would also likely mean giving up any potential to return to the ancestral homeland that their family fled in the 1940s-1960s. It seems so futile, though; many have died since then, and many have been born in the camp without ever having known their land before. 

I also was distressed by the vile disgusting way that Israeli military forces have treated this part of Bethlehem. We walked through piss in plastic bottles, thrown from the watchtowers into the cemeteries of displaced but hopeful Palestinians who will never return to their land. Grafitti decals of a 13 year old boy, shot dead on the street corner by a sniper from the tower for loitering, stared at us as we walked as a reminder of death’s place in the camp for everyone. Usama, our guide (whose contact info I have in my notes now) told us stories about how the IDF tests new gas weapons and bioweapons within the camp, throwing grenades and canisters of gas over the wall–and into the playground. I held a used canister of tear gas, found in the playground, in my hand. On the side it read, “made in U.S.A.”. Recently, an asthmatic 40 year old woman died when the soldiers threw tear gas into the camp over the wall. Piles of garbage collect in an area which was supposed to be a health clinic, but Israeli permitting restrictions disallowed the construction project. 

Grafitti lines the wall, and in a strangely beautiful way, it illuminates the beauty of the refugees’ hope and courage. Art can speak and spread over and over more than violence can, and some of the art (particularly the Banksy decals) I had seen before.

45% of the West Bank is unusable for Palestinians. The Oslo Agreement split the West Bank into three regions. Region A is supposed to be reserved for Palestinian use; you can tell you are entering Area A by massive red signs on the sides of the road warning Israelis not to enter “for threat of death”. This is hyperbole, and meant as a scare tactic to decrease contact between Israelis and Palestinians. Area B is meant to be shared, but it is not shared equally. Area C is the area that Palestinians cannot develop, live on, etc. Tent of Nations is in Area C, which is why they’ve had to fight in court for over 20 years (and continue to fight) just to keep their land and fight off demolition orders. 

There are 705 checkpoints in the West Bank; 64 are military-staffed. The numbers grow each year. Intentional division is the goal; the checkpoints aren’t placed at points where security blockades make any sense. 

The Separation Wall is another example of something which sounds like one thing when it’s really something else entirely. 85% of the wall was built inside of the green like (the border between the West Bank and Israel established by the partition plan in 1947, which was also not agreed upon by enough states to be legal). The wall isn’t complete, but when it is, Tent of Nations will be shut into the Israeli side and cut off from Bethlehem, the closest city. Bethlehem itself is being swallowed up by the Jerusalem metropolitan area, and Jerusalem’s expansion is due in large part to settlements built within the city. The wall will force the two together.

Usama, while telling us all this, turned to us to say, “Peace isn’t something you talk about; it’s something you make.” I can spit these statistics at anyone who walks past, but I must remember to include ways to take action. Look at the No Way to Treat a Child campaign, just one example of a way to act and read stories from Palestinian. 

Usama says the refugees’ outlooks on tourists in Aida is mixed. Some welcome tourists to see what it’s like and so they will take their stories home with them; others have doubts that anything can change. I wonder, too, if tours in front of your house to talk about how depressed your situation is would be insulting. I think the reason that tours like this can occur is because Usama is so tied to the communities on the ground. He knew so many people as we walked around, shook so many hands and invited us to buy from local vendors (within reason). There is a great respect and solidarity among Usama and the people that he serves, coming probably from their shared experiences. [You cannot get this experience from a guided tour from anyone else but a Palestinian. It would absolutely not be the same.]

Another special thing that the tour of Aida and the other tours have demonstrated is that the Palestinian people are not meek, hopeless, or wallowing in self pity. When some think of these oppressed people, they may imagine in their mind weeping and dirty children, and while there’s garbage in the street and low employment, no Palestinian I’ve met has indicated that they intend to give up. Internationals help them remain steadfast sometimes as well, and protect them, too, by their presence. 

We left Aida and walked along the wall, ending at Banksy’s gallery/hotel. Walking further, we got onto Star Street and walked where Mary and Joseph walked to knock on the door of an inn. We walked down to Manger Square from the Banksy museum and through all the shops. A coffeeshop owner ran to us to show us a picture of Conan O’Brien in his store. A little boy stood in the middle of us with packs of gum and no English except for “five shekel”, while Usama explained the area. He walked us down toward the church of the Nativity (which two volunteers and Grace and I had already seen somewhat accidentally, and apparently what we saw was the birthplace of Christ? Who knew.) The church is next to a peace center, and then in the adjacent alleyway were two falafel places side-by-side. We shared tabouleh and got falafel sandwiches at Abu Dawod. More and more people started eating the tabouleh and it was truly magical. 

Today in the West Bank, there are 150 Israeli settlements, and 100 outposts. There are 800,000 settlers in the West Bank, and Israel’s government has promised to reach 2 million settlers within the next ten years. Settlements are subsidized land and housing, supported by the Israeli government and often subsidized by right wing, Zionist Christians, and housing in the settlements is very cheap, encouraging movement. However, many settlers are from outside of Israel; many, in fact, were and are expatriates from their former countries.

The international community views the settlement of the West Bank illegal, because moving citizens of an occupied military territory into the territory systematically, and segregation of any sort, is against the Fourth Geneva Convention. Illegality from the start has bred corruption within the settlements: 104% of settlers voted in the last Knesset election. 

We left all together to go to the bus, parked down by the gelato place from my first time in Bethlehem. We got onto the bus much later than planned–probably a lot later than Daoud anticipated or requested, honestly. It was dark as we drove back to the roadblock. 

After the bus stopped to let us out and we all gave our most polite “shukran” to the driver and walked towards the farm, Grace noticed a blinking yellow light beside our bus from over the roadblock. I knew in my gut what it was. Our group walked back to the roadblock where two Israeli soldiers had come down in their armored vehicle from Neve Daniel to question the bus driver. When they noticed us, they climbed over the roadblock and onto the Nassar’s property, with their enormous rifles in their hands and strapped to their backs. They were young (they looked about college-aged), and they spoke very poor English. They took a long time to ask where we were going. We answered that we were sleeping in that direction, and pointed towards the farm. 

For a nerve-wracking minute we spoke with them tensely about where we were going, and they walked slowly away as they moved to get back to their car. From behind us, a volunteer saw beams of light, looking as if they were following us. I wanted to run so badly, but we couldn’t look suspicious or we could risk them shooting at us. While we walked I called Daoud to tell him we were coming and what had happened, not looking behind us. He, Jihan, their son, and two of Daoud’s siblings all stood or sat on their porch, waiting for us. We had not been followed, but it was horrifying anyway. The soldiers had not followed but even if they did we would’ve been in good hands with Daoud, who has seen it all before. We laughed nervously about the whole thing as the Nassars burned a mosquito repellant candle on the porch. Daoud helped us book a private tour to Nablus, and Daher will be coming!

If there’s anything I’ve learned from the tour it’s that being well-educated or aware is not a substitute for listening to real people; being quiet and humble is more important than being smart or well-informed. Those things are supplementary (although important) to your humanity, which is all you need to listen and learn. 

I also learned that I must make falafel with green beans from now on; that is how the falafel in Palestine is so green in the center. 

Personal portion of this blog: Friday’s trip to Bethlehem was one that showed me a lot about what Christ looks like. He does not show himself as strongly in ancient churches designed for pilgrims (although I can see why some people feel the power of God in those places; the beauty and knowledge of those walls were impressive to me too). Even at Christ’s birthplace in the Church of the Nativity I felt something was off. The elaborate shrine to Him in the church where the manger was apparently stationed was covered in gold and a velvet curtain, and Christian pilgrims kissed the dirt floor supposedly left behind. The room smelled strongly of incense mixed with human sweat, as people waited impatiently to descent the stairs and look upon where the baby had been. 

But if Christ was born today in Bethlehem, He would be born in Aida. He was not a pilgrim. He was a refugee. His parents and neighbors lived under military occupation. He would’ve grown up playing with the child shot by a sniper. He would’ve written on the wall. He would’ve said to give unto the Israelis what is theirs–for does not the Lord rule all things? What is truly theirs, in the end?

And He would’ve been killed for it.

And so in Aida I could feel Him among the piles of garbage and windowless houses and the smell of waste, This is the place, the people, from whom hope springs forth.