On our first day in Bethlehem, a noisy convoy zipped through town. Worry turned into relief when I saw people waving yellow banners; not green, the Islamic color. It turns out they were celebrating a football win. On our second day, the shops were all closed. They were protesting the killing by Israeli soldiers of an unarmed Arab volunteer at a refugee camp.
The next day, Bethlehem was back to normal. Our tour guide, an Arab Christian, was angry, but he easily assured our tour group of 300 Filipinos on a Holy Land pilgrimage not to worry. The killing was not enough to spark another Intifadah or Palestinian uprising. It could’ve been any other day in occupied West Bank.
My first visit in this part of the world was toward the end of the Second Intifadah in 2004. It was on the invitation of the Israeli government. The Jerusalem I saw was a ghost town; devoid of the tourist buses that disgorge “pilgrims” of all nationalities from one holy site to another. I avoided commuter buses – riding them or walking along when I saw one coming. Suicide bombers were blowing them up. I met a Filipino who was caught in a crackdown on illegals. The Israeli police apologized and released him when they learned he was wounded in one of those bus bombings. It was around that time that the wall was starting to go up, the kind being hotly debated in the US and conceived by the Israelis back then as the only way to keep the suicide bombers out. The security wall, as Israel calls it (Palestinians call it a wall of separation), was being drawn across land the United Nations mandated in 1946 as Palestinian, but owing to a series of military defeats, has come under Israeli occupation.
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Bethlehem, place of the Nativity, is a Palestinian town, predominantly Muslim with a large Christian population. Homes around our hotel had stone reliefs of St. George, patron of the crusader king, Richard the Lionhearted. Safi, our guide, succumbs to thought that the bombings were planned by Israeli intelligence to justify the wall. It has become a canvas for protest art and graffiti, some by Banksy. High above, I saw an Israeli soldier, a woman in her twenties, her gun nozzle peering out for all to see and be forewarned. Just across it, on the Israeli side, neighborhoods that were once Arab resemble a world apart: blonde and fair-skinned joggers taking their dogs on morning runs; people dressed in athleisure, book in hand, chilling in sidewalk cafes that served espresso and freshly baked pastries and bread.
These scenes are the best evidence that the wall works. People feel safe and distant from what by comparison suddenly seems a drab existence just a few meters away. I mentioned “blonde and fair-skinned” because it’s all too palpable that many of them are not “of” the land. They’re from elsewhere. Immigrants or children of immigrants from Europe, North America, Russia, whose birthright came from a United Nations resolution that gave the long suffering Jews a country of their own.
Labor gangs of Palestinians cross daily to work in construction. Every stone or building block they put in place helps make the occupation permanent, even irreversible. In this, ethnic Arabs, whether Christian or Muslim, share a common grief at seeing outsiders taking over. Not that they haven’t tried fighting back. But the defeats and setbacks they’ve suffered have only mythologized Israel as a chosen nation. A national inferiority complex also seems to have set in. You sense it in the countless Palestinians who beg tourists to buy souvenirs at prices that keep going down and down, as if they’ve lost the power and right to bargain. There’s one more reason to despair: It is said that living conditions in the occupied West Bank are better than in many parts of the Arab world. Will self-rule even improve things?
Just south of the border in Egypt, Arab pride may be alive, but Cairo is a picture of a broken city. Pressed for an explanation why so many buildings are unfinished or in disrepair, our guide curtly said construction had to stop because of the “revolution”. That was almost a decade ago, when Egypt’s Arab Spring, sometimes called the “Facebook revolution”, saw the downfall of Egypt’s longtime ruler Hosni Mubarak. But the dystopian state of things seems to have been around for generations. I’m not sure if our guide was held back by the presence of a plainclothes policeman. Every bus is assigned one for the protection of tourists. In December 2018, a bomb exploded in Giza, near the Pyramids, killing four Vietnamese tourists). The military is back on the saddle in Egypt after a shortlived flirtation with democracy saw the election of radical Islamists. In any case, our Arab guide in Bethlehem spoke more freely. In Egypt, dissent is often dealt with force.
Egyptians, I read somewhere, are a proud but notoriously patient people, much like Filipinos. However, political watchers everywhere see another “Arab spring” welling up soon. In the West Bank, both sides are also watching out for the next Intifadah or uprising. But the world seems less interested. The killing of the aid volunteer in Bethlehem that day of our visit was carried by a minor Arab publication. Meanwhile, the United States moved its embassy to Jerusalem, which is an explicit recognition of the occupation, and Israeli President Benjamin Netanyahu announced they were keeping the Golan Heights, which is Syrian territory. Neither has caused the outrage or call to arms that they would’ve if they happened ten years ago or so.
The conflict in that part of the world (I hesitate to call it as singularly Israel or Palestine) has gone on for too long. Like that TV series Walking Dead, people are tuning out, its major cast members leaving. The plot has thickened beyond recognition and there’s no end in sight.