When we hear about the Palestinian Territories in Western media, we often get images of war, conflict and terrorism. Being so close to the West Bank during my visit to Jerusalem, I couldn't help but experience myself what Palestine was really like.
It can't be denied that the shadow of occupation and repression is quite prominent, however, what I found couldn't be more different to what I was expecting: lively cities, ancient sites filled with history and friendly people willing to do anything they could and more to make you feel welcome.
How to visit the West Bank
Most of the main tourist sites in the West Bank are only around 1 to 2 hours driving from Jerusalem. If you have enough time, it's perfectly possible and safe to travel by bus directly from Jerusalem to Ramallah, Bethlehem or Jericho.
I had heard very mixed opinions about safety in the West Bank. Most travellers that had been there had assured me that it was perfectly safe to travel on your own. Some other people didn't feel that confident and recommended me to take a tour instead, as the experience is always better if you have a local guide with you.
Now that I've visited the West Bank, I wouldn't be concerned about safety at all. If you have a rented car to drive around, or if you have enough time to depend on public transport, it is perfectly safe to travel independently, either in a group or as a solo traveller.
I only had a couple of days to spend in the West Bank and too many places that I wanted to visit, so I decided to take the Best of the West Bank Tour with Abraham Tours.
This full day tour covers a lot of the West Bank in just one day, I couldn't find any other company that would visit Ramallah, the baptism site of Qasr el Yahud, Jericho, Bethlehem and the separation wall in a single day. Yes, it was a long day, but it didn't feel rushed at all and there was more than enough time to visit each place. 100% recommended!
An introduction to the West Bank
The visit started around 7.30am from the Abraham Hostel in Jerusalem. I was lucky that many of the people that I had met in the hostel would join me as well, which made the visit much more enjoyable.
From Jerusalem, we headed straight to Ramallah, crossing to the West Bank after less than 15 minutes driving. Shortly after getting into the West Bank, our driver stopped in the middle of the road to pick up somebody that was waiting for us.
After getting on the bus, he introduced himself: his name was Tamer, and he would be our guide for the rest of the day. As a Palestinian citizen, he doesn't have the right to cross into Israel without asking for a (very hard to obtain) permit. That's why we had to pick him up on the other side of the border and couldn't join us from Jerusalem.
On our way to Ramallah, Tamer gave us a great introduction to the history of the West Bank. The boundaries of what we currently know as the West Bank were demarcated after the Jordanian-Israeli armistice of 1949.
Most part of the West Bank, known as Area C, is still under Israeli control. The Israeli forces have full control of security, as well as civilians and the land. Palestinian building and development is highly restricted in this area, as most Jewish settlers are located here.
Area B is under joint control of Israel and the Palestinian Authority. Israel is in charge of the security, while the Palestinian Authority is in charge of the civilian control.
A very small portion of land, known as area A, is fully controlled by the Palestinian Authority. This area includes the cities of Ramallah, Bethlehem, Jericho, Nabulus, and part of the holy city of Hebron.
Our guide explained how only over half a million Jewish settlers currently live on the West Bank.
This is an extremely low number considering that the Israel-controlled Area C constitutes over 60% of the land, and jointly controlled Area B constitutes another 22%. This means that the remaining 2.8 million Palestinians are concentrated in a tiny portion of land when compared to the land owned by Jewish settlers.
The incessant growth of Jewish settlements in the West Bank is one of the biggest issues in the current Israeli-Palestinian conflict. The fact that more and more Israeli citizens are moving to the West Bank makes it even harder to have a two-state solution one day, as this would involve either expelling hundreds of thousands of Israelis from the future Palestinian State; that those settlers would be ruled by the future Palestinian government (something very unlikely as settlers would strongly refuse to accept this idea), or that the future Palestinian State would end up losing a considerable amount of land.
According to our guide, the Israeli government is sending more and more settlers to the West Bank to stop a future two-state solution. Jewish settlers have a huge influence on the government, even though most Israeli citizens are not very fond of them and, in fact, do not agree with the occupation.
One of the reasons behind the new settlements would be that, if Palestine ever becomes a sovereign state and the 3 million Palestinian refugees come back to their homeland, they would highly outnumber their Israeli neighbours. This could be perceived as a threat by the Israeli government, who may be trying to stop this from happening.
Knowing a bit more about the history of the West Bank and after 45 minutes driving, we reached the de facto capital of the Palestinian Territories: Ramallah.
With just over 27,000 inhabitants, Ramallah is the cultural and secular capital of the Palestinian Territories.
I didn't do much research before my visit, so I didn't really know what to expect. Because of its lack of historical places, many travellers tend to skip Ramallah, so I couldn't really find that much information online. Ramallah turned up to be an incredibly lively city that really surprised me.
As we arrived, our guide Tamer brought us directly to Ramallah Market. He told us that he wanted to show us everything that Palestine had to offer, including its wonderful food. He went straight to the stalls and after a few minutes, he came back with different kinds of fruits, bread and sweets so that we could taste the local delicacies. It was a very kind gesture that everybody in the group appreciated.
My first impressions of Ramallah were actually quite positive. The market was a busy place, but above all, normal and safe. It couldn't be more different to what an ordinary person would think of Palestine if you base your views on what you read on the news.
After spending a bit of time in the market interacting with the locals and trying some Palestinian food, we started our walking visit of Ramallah.
Historically, the city originated as an Arab Christian town, however, most of its current inhabitants are Muslim.
It became the de facto capital of the Palestinian Authority after Yasser Arafat moved there his West Bank headquarters. This was meant to be a temporary measure, but the situation hasn't changed much since then. Most foreign embassies are located in Ramallah, but Palestinians hope to move them back to Jerusalem once they recover what they claim should be the capital of the future State of Palestine.
After a few minutes walking, we reached Al-Manara Square, one of the busiest spots in Ramallah.
With a screen that has nothing to envy to Picadilly Circus in London and my personal favourite - the famous Stars & Bucks cafes (yes, they weren't very discreet imitating the name and even the logo), you'll feel like in what could be any other European city.
It's true that the city may not be particularly pretty and doesn't really have that many tourist attractions, however, I found that a short visit is vital to see and understand how Palestinians spend their normal, daily lives.
One of the monuments that you’ll find in Ramallah is the statue of Rashid Haddadin, the founder of Ramallah City.
Rashid Haddadin was a Christian Sheikh whose tribe was from the city of Karak. He immigrated with his family in the mid 16th century from Karak to an area sixteen kilometres north-west from Jerusalem, which came to be known as Ramallah. In the statue, he’s depicted with his daughter and five sons, who became Ramallah’s main families and formed the families of Ramallah city.
Our visit to Ramallah would finish with a stop at Yasser Arafat's tomb.
Arafat was the Palestinian leader until his death in Paris in 2004. Arafat's death was surrounded by mystery, especially after a Swiss investigation discovered polonium in his body, raising suspicions about his murder. However, the French authorities ruled out this theory, confusing the public opinion even more.
According to our guide Tamer, mfany Palestinians still think that he was poisoned, maybe by someone close to him that had access to his food. A considerable amount of Palestinians wasn't very happy with all the concessions he made in the Oslo agreements, which could’ve lead to his death.
Unfortunately, there was a German official visit that day, so the tomb was closed to visitors. We could only see the tomb from the outside before heading off to Jericho.
The ancient city of Jericho is a fascinating place. Dating back over 11,000 years, it holds the record of being the oldest inhabited city in the world. Visits to the ruins are carried out by professional local guides specialised in the history of the city.
Old Jericho was an ancient Canaanite city of the 3rd and 2nd millennium BC. It was defended by impressive city walls and ramparts. Some of the human settlements that can be found here started in the Natufian period around 9,000 BC, giving birth to an extraordinary Neolithic community.
The site witnessed the creation of agriculture and animal husbandry, the birth of architecture using mud-bricks and of the beginnings of religion with the cult to the ancestors. As such, a visit to Jericho is a must for any history lover.
Unfortunately, there's not much left in Old Jericho. Nonetheless, it is unbelievable to think that you're surrounded by buildings constructed over 10 thousand years ago.
Not too far from the ruins, and connected by a cable car, is the Mount of Temptation. It was here where, according to the New Testament, Jesus was tempted by the devil.
On the slope, there's a 4th-century Byzantine monastery that was reconstructed at the end of the 19th century. Many devoted pilgrims walk all the way up every year instead of taking the cable car. Considering that temperatures can reach the 50º Celsius in summer, it doesn't sound like an enjoyable trek!
At the entrance of the ruins is Elisha's fountain. Its supposedly healing water comes from a nearby spring and has a temperature of 26º Celcius.
This is believed to be Elisha's spring, mentioned in the Book of Kings of the Old Testament. According to the story, the prophet Elisha made a miracle in this same spot when he healed the water of Jericho, making it drinkable:
Qasr el Yahud is the biblical site by the Jordan River where the baptism of Jesus by John the Baptist took place:
The Jordan river flows for about 250 kilometres from the Jordan Rift Valley all the way south until its end in the Dead Sea, marking the natural border between the State of Israel and Jordan.
Even though the Jordan River is a place of many important biblical events, the baptism of Jesus is by far the first association that most Christians will make with the river. The baptism site can actually be seen from both sides of the border: Jordan is only a few meters away on the other shore of the river, so you'll be able to see tourists and pilgrims visiting from the neighbouring country.
The side that we visited on the West Bank is currently administered by Israel. However, the State of Palestine claims it as their own territory.
The site isn't particularly spectacular, and the murky waters of the river don't really make it any better. However, the religious relevance is undeniable; it's common to find pilgrims all dressed in white that travel to the Holy Land from all over the world just to get baptized in the same place where Jesus was baptized.
We continued our way towards the city of Bethlehem, not without first stopping to admire the Flower Thrower, one of the many paintings by the elusive British artist Banksy.
Banksy has used the West Bank in multiple occasions as the setting for his paintings, many of them with a very strong political message. If you're a fan of Banksy or street art in general, you won't be disappointed.
As we arrived in Bethlehem, I realised that the city had absolutely nothing to do with the small village depicted in the Bible and that we're used to seeing in Christmas paintings.
Modern Bethlehem is a buzzing and modern city with a population of over 25,000, clearly much different than the small village of shepherds from the New Testament, but equally fascinating.
It was here where Jesus was allegedly born and as such, the main highlight of the city is the Church of the Nativity.
The church was built in 327 by Constantine the Great and his mother Helena above the cave where it was believed that Jesus was born. The church was rebuilt, modified and enlarged on multiple occasions over the centuries.
We got another local guide to visit the interior of the church. Sometimes the queue can last for hours, especially during high season, so I was afraid that I wouldn't be able to see the Grotto of Nativity ever since I booked this tour.
Fortunately for us, there weren't that many people visiting that day, so we waited patiently until it was our turn to go down to the grotto.
What happened next while we were waiting totally destroyed the atmosphere of spirituality and pretty much the entire visit to the church.
Just before it was our turn, the monks closed the access to the grotto as they were about to start a quick mass that would last only for a few minutes. When our local guide approached the security guards to ask how long the mass would be and whether they would reopen the grotto or not, they got incredibly aggressive with him, a quarrel broke out and our guide was pushed and dreadfully treated for no reason whatsoever.
They just wanted him out of the way before the mass started and they didn't hesitate to push him in front of everyone in what is supposed to be a holy place. I was absolutely outraged at that inexcusable behaviour towards somebody that was just trying to do his job and ensure that we could visit the lower part of the church.
After about 40 minutes waiting and once the mass was over, they finally opened the Grotto of Nativity.
The underground cave is accessed from the right-hand side of the main church.
Inside the grotto there is the Altar of the Nativity, the place where, according to tradition, Virgin Mary gave birth to Jesus. The exact spot where Jesus was born is marked by a fourteen-point silver star.
After going back to the ground floor, we visited the adjoining Church of St. Catherine, a Roman Catholic church built in a Gothic Revival Style in honour of St. Catherine of Alexandria. It is here where the Midnight Mass is celebrated every year on Christmas Eve.
After visiting the Church of the Nativity, we continued with a short walk through the city of Bethlehem. Its name comes from the Hebrew words 'beit' (house) and 'lechem' (bread), meaning the House of Bred. Funnily enough, the Arabic name means House of Meat or Flesh.
The current population of Bethlehem is predominantly Muslim, although there is still about a 40% of Christian Arabs. The city is controlled by the Palestinian National Authority, so all its inhabitants are Palestinian citizens.
It isn't totally certain that Jesus was actually born in Bethlehem. According to the Bible, Mary and Joseph were travelling to Bethlehem to be registered in the national tax census. Even though they lived in Nazareth, they had to be registered in their city of origin, and Joseph came from Bethlehem.
Some theories defend that Jesus was actually born in or near Nazareth and that the only reason why the Bible mentions that Jesus was born in Bethlehem is that King David came from this city. According to many prophecies, the true Messiah would descend from King David and also come from Bethlehem:
For some theologists, the fact that Jesus was born in Bethlehem would fulfill that prophecy:
The West Bank barrier
Before heading back to the Israeli side of the border, we stopped by the West Bank Barrier, also known as the Apartheid Wall.
The wall was built by Israel during the Second Intifada in 2000. With a total length of over 700 kilometres, it completely separates Israel from the West Bank. While the Israeli authorities defend that the wall had to be built in order to protect the security of its citizens, Palestinians believe that its only purpose was to segregate and isolate them.
Without getting too much into politics, I have to admit that I found the sight of the wall horrific and very sad. The fact that a country considers that this wall is necessary to protect its inhabitants, as well as the complete isolation of those on the other side of the border highlights the urgent need to reach an agreement and stop the tensions between Israelis and Palestinians.
A big part of the wall is currently covered in graffiti with very strong political messages, some of them belonging to Banksy.
Before continuing to Jerusalem, it was time to say goodbye to our guide Tamer.
Before he left, he asked us to share a message now that we knew his country a little bit better: Palestinians are normal people. He asked us to appreciate every single minute of our life just like they do when they wake up every day hoping for peace.
That day may not come tomorrow, maybe not next week or even next year, but hopefully one day.
The visit to the West Bank was an eye-opening experience. In spite of its bad reputation, during my short visit I found a very open and welcoming country that would do everything and more to get you to experience their captivating land.
But this wouldn't be my last visit to the West Bank: next day I would go to the holy city of Hebron, one of the most divided cities in the Middle East. I had the chance to visit both the Israeli and Palestinian side of the city with a local guide that would tell me their perspective of the conflict and help me understand the complex political situation.
All opinions are my own.
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