“Show me your passport,” a soldier demanded, carrying an automatic rifle and wearing full military combat uniform who was standing in the middle of a deserted street intersection.
“I didn’t carry my passport but I have photocopies,” I replied as Joani and Olivia held tight to my arms in fear.
After looking through the photocopies, the soldier handed the papers back to me and said in a surprisingly casual tone of voice and pointed at different directions, “You can go anywhere you like.”
We felt disoriented. It was as if we were teleported to a World War II movie set in Europe. We were walking on a large street but other than soldiers at each of the intersection,there was no one except for us. All the shops and doors to the right and left of us were closed. Every window were shut with metal wires or with wooden planks. On rooftops we saw soldiers with automatic rifles standing guard. It felt as if we should not walk any further.
As we continued walking in one of the direction, three Jewish children on bikes surprised us from the back. We felt we stood out very much in this eerie town. The children however ignored us as if we were invisible. Curious, we followed the direction they went. We passed through an arch gate. There was a plaque on the gate with the following words: Shapira Gate – In memory of Rabbi Shlomo Yitzhak Shapira, Murdered at this site by an Arab terrorist on September 23, 2002.
Passed the gate, we walked into a courtyard with a children playground surrounded by typical modern 3 story-high apartment buildings. What we entered would have been the most common modern apartment complex if it had not been for a soldier standing guard at the playground or soldiers jogging with rifles hanging on their sides. We walked up a stairway unknowingly onto someone’s private balcony on the third floor. There owner can out and walked down the stairs without even talking to us. We saw more soldiers with automatic rifles on each rooftop.
At this point, I realized that we had stumbled upon the highly publicized Beit Hadassah Jewish settlement in Hebron, West Bank. This is the place where Kobi, our recent AirBnB host warned us not to expose our children to such place of raw hatred.
Around 500 Jews live here surrounded by more than 170,000 Arabs in Hebron, a divided city and the flashpoint of the recent quid pro quo killings between Palestinian and Israeli teens. The walls of the Arabs are next to the walls of the Jewish community. Windows are barred because they are constantly being smashed by stones thrown by neighbors. Many Jews have been killed by suicide bombers and rooftop snipers, evident by the many memorial signs dotted on the walls of this neighborhood:
“Gadi and Dina Levi were murdered here by a terrorist on May 17, 2003. They were murdered by a bomb that was designed to kill dozens of children.”
“Nachum Hoss and Yehuda Partouche were murdered by Arab terrorists on the outskirts of Hebron on March 20, 1995.”
“On March 26, 2001, Shalhevet Techiyat Pass was murdered in the Avraham Avinu Neighborhood of Hebron. The Arab terrorist set an ambush fro the facing hilltop, aimed his gun at herm fired, and struck her in the head.”
The entire time we walked around, there were almost no one outside. It was deathly quiet and the atmosphere felt very tense but as we walked past soldiers after soldiers, past checkpoints after checkpoints, and past occasionally some Jews from the settlement, unexplainably no one stopped us, questioned us, or looked at us. At one point, we saw a group of soldiers crossed our path and we huddled together as a family and quickly followed them hoping for a sense of security and praying there were no snipers targeting us “stupid” tourists that walked like clowns into this war zone. But the soldiers we followed either got on a bus or in a car and soon we were all alone in the street again, with only signs around us commemorating those who died at the different spots.
Walking further we saw what seemed like a normal street side coffee shop that had lights and was actually in business with two wooden tables and benches. There was a sense of normality seeing the shop. A sign read, “Coffee donated by XXX.” True to being poor backpackers, we got excited thinking that we might get to have FREE coffee! When we approached a lady in the shop, we were disappointed when she said that coffee was only for the soldiers.
Even stranger was that only few hundred meters earlier, we witnessed our first ever “divided” tomb memorial. The site of the tombs of the Patriarch – Abraham & Sarah, Isaac & Rebekah, Jacob and Leah – was divided into two halves. The 2000 year-old Palace of Herod the Great housing the simple and modest tombs was divided into a mosque on one side and a synagogue on the other, both sharing the same common dividing wall.
Similarly, the tomb markers of Abraham and Sarah straddle over the shared wall in little “cubicles” such that worshippers from both the mosque and synagogue can view the tomb markers at the same time while being physically in each’s respective area. Isaac & Rebekah’s tomb markers are fully in the mosque area while Jacob and Leah’s bomb markers are fully in the synagogue area. Muslims and Jews both have Abraham as their founding Father. So this place is considered the second most holiest place for them, but like a broken and dysfunctional family, brothers are fighting brothers, and hating each other to the point of killing.
We wondered if Abraham ever imagined that after his death, his descendants that became more numerous than the stars and sands fought to build both a synagogue and a mosque on top of his tomb. Muslims are not allowed into the synagogue and Jews are not allowed into the mosque. There were soldiers guarding the crossing preventing them from crossing to the other side. Fortunately, since we are Chinese we were able to visit both sides.
After walking for a kilometer along the empty street of this divided city, we wanted to cross over to the Arab side to catch the service taxi before it was too dark and scary. Acting like a stupid tourist, I asked five muscular soldiers how to get back to Bethlehem where we were staying to celebrate Christmas. When the soldiers did not understand me, I said we wanted to go to the “famous Christmas city”. Looking back, we must had looked ridiculous in front of these soldiers like tourists that was lost and had wondered unknowingly into this tense divided city looking for “Christmas”. The soldier told us that we had to go all the way back to the Tombs of the Patriarch to cross over to the Arab side. So we walked back along the same deserted street back to the Arab side. At this point, it was already dark and the alleys of the Arab side was also empty and dark. All the stores were closed. We were the only tourists left. I pictured in my mind Israeli solders with guns eyeing us from the rooftop and Palestinian youths watching us with unfriendly intentions. We locked tightly to each other and walked as fast as we could without running which we were afraid might attract unwanted attention. We breathed a sigh of relieve when we reached the busy section of town and felt less conscious of ourselves. We actually welcomed peddlers heckling “hello friend” at us instead of feeling irritated. An Arab man and a group of Arab children, who were just considered to be mortal enemies few minutes ago on the Israeli side, welcomed us to their city and led us graciously to a parking lot where we could take the service taxi back to Bethlehem.
As if the divided city and divided tombs were not strong enough symbols of the conflict between Israeli and Palestinians, the next morning Nathan and I visited the three-story high dividing wall separating Israel from the West Bank.
When I set my eyes on the wall, the first thought that came into my mind was the “Berlin Wall”. The wall is roughly 10 meters tall, half meter thick, and stretches as far as my eyes could see. The concrete wall would have been all gray if it have not been for colorful graffiti that covered the entire Palestinian side of the wall. The graffiti shows the reality of the life of Palestinian on the other side of the wall and peace messages in hopes of tearing down the dividing wall. In addition, every few meters there are posters of testimonial stories written by Palestinian children about their life in the West Bank. It is called the “Wall Museum” which really brought to life the reality of living in such constant conflict:
“Getting out of here, that is what I dream said a boy after exam. Why? Because I want to study in a foreign country. A specific subject? No. I just want to get out of here. There is no future here and when I study in a foreign country maybe I can stay there. Maybe build a future there. I don’t want to be locked up here with a degree but no job and no money. I want to go and have a better life. Lots of young people want to get out here. We see no future with the wall. Our parents are against our dream and want us to stay but with the occupation we want to live in another country and be free. – By George, from Bethlehem.
“It happens only at Christmas that the gates in the Wall around Rachel’s Tomb open up, unlocking the Way of the Patriarchs. According to an old tradition the patriarch travels the day before Christmas from Jerusalem to Bethlehem along that road. There we live. Since early childhood I used to welcome the Patriarch at Rachel’s Tomb. Even after the construction of the Wall, I continued doing so Until the day a soldier refused to let me pass the gate in the Wall when I simply wanted to go back home. I was locked up in Rachel’s Tomb, in my own city, my own street! He kept me for more than an hour. The lack of freedom now overshadows my pleasant memories of greeting the Patriarch. – By Lilianne, from Bethlehem.”
Poster after poster and graffiti after graffiti, the wall tells the story of the people behind the tall concrete walls.
Next, we wanted to visit the tomb of Rachel where the Bible in Genesis 35 read, “Rachel went into labor and had difficulty in her childbirth…Thus Rachel died and was buried on the road to Bethlehem. Jacob set up a monument over her grave and to this day that monument marks Rachel’s tomb.”
Originally, Nathan and I looked for the Tomb of Rachel on the West Bank side of the wall because the map showed the tomb to be well inside the West Bank. But after looking for it and not seeing it, I was surprised to see that the Tomb is actually technically at the Israel side of the wall. What Israel had done was to wall off a long but narrow inlet or peninsula of land that looked like a fist that reached into the West Bank side and grabbed a piece of land which stood Rachel’s Tomb.
So, Nathan and I crossed through the “Checkpoint 300” to visit Rachel’s Tomb on the Israeli side of the Wall. Palestinians are not allow to cross the checkpoint without a permit. As tourist and looking Chinese, we had no problem crossing while we saw a long time for Arabs waiting to be checked. Not allowed to walk through a narrow road sandwiched by the walls, we had to hitchhike a ride in and out of the Tomb. Similar to the Tombs of the Patriarch, there was a beautiful tomb marker for Rachel but unlike the Tombs of the Patriarch, there was just a synagogue with no dividing of the tomb. Many Jews prayed and sang songs there.
The dividing wall at Bethlehem was not the only one we saw. Our AirBnB host Kobi shared that the city of Jerusalem actually has an “invisible” wall. We saw firsthand that once we crossed a certain point we saw no Arabs and vice versa no Jews. It felt like an unspoken racial rule which made this invisible wall even more scary. Similarly, the old city of Jerusalem inside the ancient wall is divided into four quarters, the Jewish, Armenian, Christian, and Arab quarters. Just crossing an alley less than 2 meters wide, we visibly saw a difference in the shops and people when crossing from the Arab to Jewish quarter. The Jews never went to the Arabs quarter and the Arabs the same.
Seeing first hand the divided city, divided tomb, and the visible and invisible dividing walls, the children became very curious about the conflict between Jews and Palestinians.
“I had always wondered what the tension between Jews and Arabs is like. Today, I learned a lot from walking through one of the tensest place…It was pretty scary…” Nathan shared still feeling the tension from earlier that day. “And it made me thankful that I am Chinese!”
Olivia shared her thoughts about the people of Palestinians and Jews, “Although many Arabs we met wanted to sell us things, but after they asked where we are from, then they would say, ‘Welcome to my country.’ They really meant it. We were just at such a tense place and they don’t like each other. We came back to this place who supposedly are the ‘enemies ‘ and who have been doing all these bombings. And then we met people who welcomed us, this is the bus stop, let me walk to you there…Sometimes they want something out of you but half of the time they just want to be hospitable. Then we met so many Jews who are so nice too. Both of their cultures are so welcoming and there are so many good people.”
We witnessed their conflict with each other from our hosts. Khalid, who was our Palestinian AirBnB host in Bethlehem, West Bank, kindly invited us to his home and shared to the children how there is so much injustice, true to the theme of the 2015 Christmas in Bethlehem which is “All I Want for Christmas is Justice”. He couldn’t travel to the Israeli side although he has an American passport. Palestinian have to pay high tax for buying land. The Jewish settlers often come over to intimidate them carrying their guns. Similarly, Leah, whom we just met in Jerusalem in an art gallery, invited us to join her for the Sabbath and shared how the problem is with the Palestinian government who received so much money but are not using it to help their own people. Also, the deceased family members of suicide bombers are rewarded with money and honor though they are murderers.
In the few short days we spent in Israel and West Bank, we met many wonderful Palestinians and many wonderful Jews whom we would gladly call our good friends in a heartbeat. We felt a sense of sadness to feel the terrifying hatred that some of them have toward each other. We also felt called as a Chinese, who is perceived to be a neutral party, to be a bridge for peace and reconciliation between these two “brothers” who are both decedents of Abraham but are divided.
Jerusalem is considered the center of the world by Muslims and Jews alike. As the name Jerusalem means “the place of peace”, our prayer is for the closing of the “divisions” and for true peace to reign in this special place.