Was it Area A, B, or C. I struggled to get my head around them as the highway wound its way through all three, one into the other in a convoluted mix. At each crossroad and Area juncture there were checkpoints galore. Israeli soldiers behind bullet-proof glass and on watch towers pointed their guns at every vehicle and person that passed by on the road.
“Sit still please and no pointing.” Our Arab driver insisted as we slowed down at each checkpoint. I was torn between ducking under the seat and staring at the soldiers in warped fascination. Before I could decide, we had moved on. Only to be met by another checkpoint and red road signs.
“This road leads to Palestinian Village. The entrance for Israeli citizens is dangerous.”
“This road leads to Area ‘A’ under the Palestinian Authority. The entrance for Israeli citizens is forbidden, dangerous to your lives and is against the Israeli law.”
Area A turns out to be a string of typical Middle Eastern cities with markets, mosques, and a well-worn homely feel. To get from one to the other though, one needed to travel through the war zone highways. Makes for a difficult commute if one had to do intercity travel on a regular basis.
The West Bank or Israeli-Occupied Territories has had a heart-breaking modern history. When the British Mandate ended in 1948, the United Nations’ plan was to divide the land and create two new countries: Israel and Palestine. A new state for the Jews. And a country of their own for the indigenous Palestinians after four hundred years of Ottoman and 28 years of British rule.
Instead, the 1948 Arab–Israeli War broke out and the Palestine part was captured by Jordan who christened it West Bank [of the River Jordan]. In 1967, Israel fought Jordan in the Six-Day War, won, and decided to occupy the Palestine part themselves.
If it just ended there, it was bad enough. But things were to get worse in the hope that it would get better.
In 1993 and 1995, the Oslo Accords were signed to kick-start a peace process—the Occupied Territories were divided into Area A, B, and C. These were not neat, clearly demarcated regions. Rather they were a mish-mash of areas, next to each other, within each other. So mixed up that it was hard to tell where one ended and the other began if it were not for the soldiers and the stark contrast between ‘western’ Israel and ‘eastern’ Palestine often at two ends of the same street.
Area A is under Palestinian Authority. Area B has Palestinian Authority for civilian matters and the Israeli Military for security. Area C, which is 60% of the West Bank, is fully under Israeli Military. 2.75 million Palestinians and 600,000 Israeli settlers live in 5,860 sq. kms of Israeli-Occupied West Bank.
But this post is NOT about the broken part of Palestine. I have already written about volatile Hebron, and the poignant Wall in Bethlehem. This post is about the true-blue Palestinian cities in Area A where Palestinians live, love, laugh, and pray.
My first destination was Jericho, with a pit-stop at Qasr el-Yahud in Area C, where Christ was baptised by John the Baptist and the Jordanian border ran through the river.
Qasr el-Yahud, site of Christ’s baptism by John the Baptist. We had reached early and had the place to ourselves for a short while. Across the river is Jordan.
Jericho, city with the world’s oldest defensive wall
And the trumpets began to sound,
And Joshua commanded the children to shout!
And the walls come a tumbling down.
When I heard this song as a child, I never in my wildest dreams thought I would one day be standing at one of the oldest cities in the world where the “walls come a tumbling down.” Composed by African slaves in the 19th Century, the song is based on a story recounted in the Book of Joshua in the Old Testament of how the Israeli tribes conquered Jericho. First two spies were sent into the city to suss it out. All they had to do after that was march around the city every day for six days, and on the seventh day march seven times, blow their trumpets, and shout!
Once the walls fell, the Israelis killed every living being in Jericho except for Rahab, a Canaanite prostitute who had sheltered the Israeli spies in the tower. Joshua, their leader, put a curse on whoever dared to rebuild the city.
Archaeological discoveries point at human settlements in Old Jericho as far back as 9000 BC. In the 3rd and 2nd millennium BC, at the time of the Biblical story, Old Jericho [Tell es-Sultan] was an ancient Canaanite city defended by impressive city walls and ramparts. Ruins of these walls, trenches, and towers fill the archaeological site today.
Fact or fiction, on who won how, I still had goose bumps just staring at the wall!
Looking down at the pre-pottery Neolithic tower and town hall with its flight of stairs [8500 – 7500 BC] at Tell es-Sultan/ Old Jericho.
Greek Orthodox Monastery of the Temptation, on the Mount of Temptation where Christ was tempted by the devil, looms over Old Jericho.
Friendly smiles at Jericho. Tourists are far and in-between here.
Ramallah, administrative capital of the Palestinian National Authority
Ramallah reminded me life carries on even in conflict-laden areas.
I expected to see another Hebron. In its place I found an economically prosperous city, liberal and peaceful. Most international NGOs and foreign embassies in Palestine are headquartered here. Palestinian activists, poets, musicians, and artists call it their home. A lively nightlife, restaurants, and cultural events make it a typical urban centre. I even found a Star & Bucks Cafe in the middle of the town. 😊
Yes, I felt safe. There were no Israeli soldiers. No military paraphernalia from either side. Markets sold fresh organic veggies brighter and more colourful than the rainbow. Those who wanted to pray walked into the mosques with its wide-open doors. The others carried on with business or leisure, and it was absolutely okay for all concerned.
There were the mandatory sights. The glass and beige Jerusalem stone Yasser Arafat Mausoleum built at a cost of US$ 1.75 million in 2007. Arafat died on 11 November 2004, aged 75 in France. No one knows to-date what was the exact cause of his death. A leisurely walk through the local markets. And stops at Yasser Arafat Square with a statue of a young chap holding up the Palestinian flag, a reminder of Arafat’s dream for Palestine’s liberation, and lion-clad al-Manara Square, a venue for political protests.
Yasser Arafat’s Mausoleum in Ramallah. 11 X 11 metres to commemorate the day he died: 11 November.
A piece of railway track under Arafat’s grave symbolizes it is a temporary grave. Palestinians hope to bury their leader in Jerusalem one day.
Some tea? Or would you rather have a capsicum? Veggies in West Bank’s markets would turn anyone into a wannabe cook.
Left: The iconic Star & Bucks Cafe. Right: Al-Manara Square, site for political protests against both, Israeli and Palestinian governments.
Bethlehem, Jesus Christ’s birthplace
The first thought I had as I entered Arab Christian Bethlehem was, I need to come back. Spend a few days here to poke around to my heart’s fill.
Though most Christian sites lie in Israel, a handful are in Palestine. The most celebrated being the city where Jesus Christ was born—Bethlehem. Within Bethlehem itself, the most iconic being the Church of the Nativity in Manger Square, built over the precise spot where this momentous event took place two thousand years ago.
Original Constantine-era 4th Century mosaic floors, medieval gold mosaics over the side walls, saints painted over the soaring 44 columns decorate its mystical Basilica of the Nativity run by the Greek Orthodox Church. In contrast, the adjacent Church of St. Catherine run by the Roman Catholics is newer, and simpler. Underneath it all are a string of cave chapels including the Grotto of the Nativity.
Palestine’s first UNESCO World Heritage Site, the Church of the Nativity is Holy Land’s oldest church. A place of Christian worship has stood here since 339 AD; the present edifice goes back to the 6th Century with additions and repairs over the years.
Apart from its spiritual value in the lives of Christ’s followers, the church in itself is a gorgeous work of art. Needless to say, I was in my art-heaven throughout my visit.
Basilica of the Nativity’s art treasures. Clockwise from top: Medieval gold mosaics on the side walls, painted saints on columns, original Byzantine floor.
Left: Madonna and the infant Jesus at Church of Saint Catherine where Christmas Mass is held.
Nablus, the uncrowned Queen of Palestine
Day 2, and this time it was about going deeper into West Bank’s Area A. Three highlights made the day more than spectacular. They were all in a Samarian town called Nablus nestled deep inside the hills in northern West Bank.
First was 6,000-year-old Biblical Shikmu, first capital of the Kingdom of Israel mentioned in the Hebrew Bible and a UNESCO World Heritage Tentatively-listed Site. A Canaanite city flanked by Mount Gerizim [Mountain of the Blessing] and Mount Ebal [Mountain of the Curse], it is now referred to as Tell Balata.
Shikmu excelled in agriculture and trade, and helped develop the world’s first alphabet. Little is known about its rulers except for one, King Lab’ayu who rebuilt the city in the 14th Century BC but was murdered by Egyptian King Akhenaten for rumoured heresy.
Shrouded in mystery for 2,000 years, Palestine’s great lost city remained buried under a dirt hill until it was discovered in the 20th Century.
The Altar at Biblical Shechem aka Shikmu archaeological site, Tell Balata.
Then there was Jacob’s Well where Biblical Jacob, Abraham’s grandson, had camped. Two thousand years ago, at the same spot, Christ met a Samaritan woman who’d come to draw water from the 40-metre deep well and he explained to her the spiritual meaning of the ‘water of life.’ The location was preserved by a Byzantine, followed by Crusader and later a Greek Orthodox Church, as St. Photini Church.
For the past 40 years, 78-year-old Fr Loustinos, a Greek priest who watches over the church has painstakingly painted its walls with icons and decorated its halls with lamps, built the new sections, single-handedly and with his own funds, undeterred, through the wars and revolts. I couldn’t believe my luck when I got to meet him in person and he happily posed for me by the well!
Jacob’s Well where Jacob camped and Christ met the Samaritan woman.
Fr Loustinos, the priest who has built, painted, and decorated St. Photini Church with his own bare hands and monies.
My next port of call in Nablus was the Samaritan village of Kiryat Luza perched atop Mount Gerizim. It is the last wholly Samaritan village left in the world. If you wondering who the Samaritans are, well, bet you’ve heard the story of the Good Samaritan.
Direct descendants of three of the 12 Israelite tribes, they numbered 1.6 million in the 6th Century. Following persecution by later cultures, and consanguine marriages to keep their tribe ‘pure’, their numbers have dwindled to a mere 800 now. Cousins of the Jews, but not Jews, they speak ancient Hebrew. Their head priest’s lineage goes back to Aaron, brother of Moses. And they sing some of the most ancient songs in the world.
Nablus from atop Mount Gerizim, Mountain of the Blessing. Samaritans believe THIS is where Abraham sacrificed his son Isaac and not on Temple Mount in Jerusalem as the Jews believe.
The Samaritan synagogue in Kiryat Luza.
Nablus market, a haven of spices and sweets, blue skies and casual strolls.
Jenin, where over 30% of its residents live in a Refugee Camp
I wrapped up my two-day exploration of West Bank’s Area A with a visit to a refugee camp in Jenin, in northern West Bank. A befitting end for no matter how ‘normal’ Area A may seem to be, the truth is, it is still an occupied territory and a large chunk of its populace lives in refugee camps.
The Jenin Camp is one of 19 run by the United Nations in the West Bank, founded in 1953 by Jordan to house displaced Palestinians who fled or were expelled during the 1948 War. Around 12,250 refugees live in the 0.42 sq. km camp, packed with bleak concrete houses lining narrow alleys. That’s a population density of 33,333 per sq. km. Four schools serve 2,000 students. One health centre serves the whole camp. It was supposed to be a temporary arrangement. 67 years later, the second and third generations of the refugees still live inside the camp, for if they were to leave, they would not be allowed to return.
Unemployment and poverty are rife in Jenin, school dropouts common. Though in Area A, both Israeli and Palestinian security forces often clash inside the UN camp, with much bloodshed and violence.
Despite all this, I saw kids smiling, and playing in the camp. The main market in the city, was bustling with life. I guess after a while, even violence become normal.
Jenin Refugee Camp, one of 19 UN camps in the West Bank, is home to 12,250 refugees for the past 67 years.
Recommended watching/ reading:
- Tell Balata “an ancient Canaanite city Shechem” on YouTube [12:50 mins]
- Jacob’s Well: Meet the priest who protects this biblical sanctuary in the heart of the Holy Land
- New Samaritans on YouTube [10:16 mins]
- I explored West Bank’s Area A over two days with two Abraham Tours departing from Jerusalem. The Nablus and Jenin Tour has now been discontinued.
[Note: This blog post is part of a series from my solo and independent travel to Israel and the Occupied Territories for 15 days in November 2019. To read more posts in this series, click here.]