Israel and PalestineTour 22nd December 2016 – 8th January 2017
Motivated by the dual desire for an adventurous time away and to be less ignorant about the history and political/humanitarian situation in Israel/Palestine, we embarked upon an 18 day trip over the Christmas and New Year of 2016-2017 that involved a 10 day cycle through Israel and the occupied West Bank.
Tel Aviv – Old Jaffa Hostel
There was a very pretty Christmas tree by the clock tower in the centre of old Jaffa. We walked along along the sandy shore and as an exercise in relaxation distracted ourselves by making a Christmas tree on the beach from sea glass.
We thought about the Israeli cultural appropriation, or perhaps more accurately the devastation and ethnic cleansing, of Jaffa during and following the 1948 Nakba. This place is really beautiful and interesting but: “How should we ‘be’ here?”
In the hostel itself, we met a friendly lone Irish man on a bicycle, or at least planning a solo cycle tour, lets call him Declan, (we’ll meet him later too, remarkably). On Christmas eve there was a Hanukkah celebration put on with jelly doughnuts, champagne, soup, resident dogs and cats, Hebrew prayers and, as if to balance the books, an American woman spontaneously saying a Judeo-Christian blessing over the Rabbi. All quite surreal, neither of us could fathom the place or the culture.
“May the Lord bless you and keep you.
May the Lord make his face to shine upon you,
and be gracious to you.
May the Lord lift up his countenance upon you,
and give you peace.”
The hostel decor, with interesting artwork and old photos, had an obviously Arabian inspired interior, Moroccan in a way, and with its multiculturalism should have felt serene but in the ghostly shadow of its past, an Arabic past overcome by an Israeli present, something felt amiss.
The flea market quarter shabby chic ‘heaven’ and hell, supercool shaded hipsters in cafes and Budapest style ruin bars, petit pedigree pooches and ice cream parlours, creamy old walls of ancient dwellings, juxtaposed with modern graffiti on crumbling plaster, it felt fragmented.
Already, perhaps, we were experiencing disorientation due to a kind of disconcerting disconnect with society there, as we seemed to be immersed in a fractured environment – but hard to put a finger on why – was it just imagination? New meets Old should create an optimistic aura but here the New hadn’t met the Old it had conquered it in a bloody ethnic cleansing.
The next day, Christmas day, we caught the train to Nahariya, we had done some recce work the day before to locate the station, not that easy, then after a short 45 minute or so trip we cycled to the airbnb on the Geysher Hasif Kibbutz (at this stage we had no idea airbnb was on the BDS list of no nos), we did appreciate that travelling in Israel sends out mixed messages but our mission was to see for ourselves. There was, by some odd miracle, some Baileys. for Louise, in the cupboard, the house was very basic, with a utilitarian prefab feel and relatively untouched since the 1950s.
At about 9 PM there was a knock on the door and a young couple from next door, Asif and Alon, invited us for hospitality with a friendship candle circle and singing. Asif the apprentice shaman and Alon an aspiring ‘spiritual’ tour guide. We each lit a candle in turn and then were invited to say or sing something about abundance. This was their personal traditional ceremony, and we joined in. This was genuine hospitality for the stranger in their land and we felt very welcomed as well as somewhat taken aback and out of our English comfort zone, but we embraced the moment and their kindness, as an opportunity for fellowship – Louise particularly felt a significant leap of inspiration and sang, to their surprise, a Hebrew song ‘Shalom’ that had lain dormant in dusty memory banks for many years. We heard about Asif’s shamanic journey.
The next day a 7am departure as we had a long way to go. Louise feeling nauseated and headachy. It was cold, rainy, very foggy, very hilly, and would be a very long day indeed.
Shalom my friend, shalom my friend, shalom, shalom.
The peace I have, I give you today,
Day 5 – to Tsfat
Our first cycling day. Tsfat or Zfat, or Safed, a town of Jewish mysticism or Kabbalah, a town of violent events over many years: we were asked (he had an American accent), “Where are you from? … You chucked us out of England in 1156 … well, we all make mistakes” – annoying considering Israel’s activities in that place over the past 60 odd years. A hilly sad place in the dank weather – we trudged up the last steep climb and arrived in the dark, wet through, and cold.
A warm welcome though at Safed Inn, chatty and very hospitable proprietress about our age we guess, she had lived there since the age of 13 and still had a USA accent, not unusual for Safed we understand. Homemade and clearly prized walnut liqueur offered free gratis, and lemon biscuits presented on a tray by hubby, fresh out of the oven.
A young and slightly shy Italian woman, Eleonora, shared our room. Warm shared bunk room, welcome hot shower and radiators to dry kit. Then, from a still feeling unwell and very tired Louise: “Let’s not head any further north, please. Let’s go to the Sea of Galilee and the Mount of the Beatitudes”. Louise had nurtured no little ill feeling towards Owen as he had relentlessly cycled annoyingly far ahead up the hills on and on and on forever, over 5000 feet of ascent, up over the Lebanese mountains. Sometimes these trips can be tough and draining and Louise had had a very draining day: “I’m never going on holiday with Owen, ever, like ever, again.” We agreed, not without some reluctance on Owen’s part it must be admitted, to head South the next day. It’s an important skill to know when to change plans …. Louise has it, Owen hasn’t.
We had cycled 62.5Km 5,200ft of ascent, thats a lot; 8.5 hrs non stop.
Day 6 – to Afik in the ‘annexed’ Syrian Golan Heights
An Israeli breakfast in Tsfat, and the helpful husband, chef, goes over possible routes on the map, but says “Don’t go that way”, pointing to Jenin on the map: “that’s the West Bank, that’s dangerous …. if you go there and get into trouble the Israeli government can’t protect you”, “OK” we replied disingenuously, as that was precisely where we intended to go. Today, we started to descend, but a very cold, very wet, and foggy start and Owen had a first puncture repair, in a bus shelter, and discovered his spare tube was useless, oops.
On the way to the Syrian Golan heights we called by the Mount of the Beatitudes. Louise wanted to be beaten by nuns for reciting Mt. 5: 1-12. Alas, the Franciscan nuns were unexpectedly friendly, and no thrashing to be had. We bought wedding wine of Canaan souvenirs x2 miniatures.
Blessed are the poor in spirit for theirs is the kingdom of heaven,
Blessed are they that mourn, for they shall be comforted,
Blessed are the meek for they shall inherit the earth,
Blessed are they that hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be satisfied,
Blessed are the merciful, for they shall obtain mercy,
Blessed are the pure in heart, for they shall see God,
Blessed are the peacemakers, for they shall be called children of God,
Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness sake for theirs ins the kingdom of heaven,
Blessed are you when others revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account. Rejoice and be glad for your reward shall be great in heaven.
We looked across the Sea of Galilee and tried to imagine Jesus going about his ministry. Louise tried walking on water, but couldn’t, not for long anyway.
It was a bit commercialised there, with a few restaurants selling St. Peters fish and chips. The commodification of God or Cod. And then the sun began to shine. “So pleased we didn’t go any further north.” unspoken of course.
We arrived up another steep hill in a rather bedraggled damp state in the dark, again, to a somewhat depressing concrete jungle, on the Golan Heights. Giv’At Yoav, or Afik kibbutz, on territory annexed by the Israelis from Syria in 1967, had a desolate soulless new town feel, but to our relief we were given a warm welcome to the Genghis Khan Yurt camp on the edge of ‘town’. It was very cosy, peaceful, relaxing & comfortable. We spread out and dried a lot of very wet kit. Another long cycling day, but less unremitting. Louise’s nausea and headaches were still present.
The cognitive dissonance and a feeling of guilt by association persisted, as we accepted most warmly given hospitality from our hostess, a German woman, a dairy farmer now, who had been there over 25 years, since its inception, but knowing historically that this place was the consequence of very recent conquest, destruction and even ethnic cleansing. We were given route instructions to the remnants of a destroyed Syrian village Fiq, destroyed less than fifty years ago, “At the time of its depopulation in 1967, the city had a population of approximately 2,800” part of the ethnic cleansing of the Golan heights, of over 100 villages, and over 150,00 Syrians, after the 1967 six day war. There was an apparent pride in the local biblical and Roman archaeology which sat uneasily alongside our knowledge of the recent oppression of the 1967 Arab-Israeli war. Should we have been there? But we were anyway.
That day we cycled 63.4Km, 1,384 ft ascent. 8.5 hrs.
Day 7 – to Umm el-Aghanam
From Afik, we cycled on a track down to the Sea of Galilee.
The weather was, by now, very pleasant. Along this track were numerous signs warning of mines, another reminder of the recent bloody past, the 1967 war. Louise had her first puncture, and my puncture repair failed twice … we needed a bike shop, but none in sight. Not even in the outlandish naff retail park, Mall Kinneret, with its Aldo’s ice cream, piped muzak and MacDonalds. A surreal place .. a Californian style boulevard.
We arrived at Umm al-Ghanam – (Mother of Sheep) at our second air bnb. Lovely mum. . We got lost in the village and ended up being chaperoned by a mischievous lad on a noisy motorbikes. We got directions from a friendly woman who told us she had been offered a place at the University of Leeds to study international relations but instead she studied …. at Nazareth University?
It was very basic accommodation, and our host’s mum had very limited English, but was very hospitable. Our host was the son who was in Budapest, ” …but don’t tell mum”. We prepared soup in her kitchen and we were given cheese and salad. Upstairs was minimal and cold.
Today we cycled 54.3Km, 1781 feet of ascent and 7.5 hrs.
Day 8 – to Jenin “Be careful … its dangerous.”
We were brought a very skimpy and expensive breakfast and the son wanted 10£ for it, so we had to tell mum “no way”, a difficult conversation, but later we gave the son some constructive feedback on line, which he took well. Owen had another puncture repair fail, repaired in the kitchen, Louise improving.
On way to Jenin further deflation of the same puncture repair on Owen’s bike, it fails for the third time and the spare tube is duff, bad mistake, big problem looming. But against the odds a great Bike shop in Afula (not easy to find) saves the day as 4 punctures not mending and no spare tube. We tell them we’re going to Jenin and receive another negative: “its dangerous, be careful”.
Somewhat unsure about what to expect as we spot the Jamallah check point and a queue of cars ahead- a bit nervy as we’re waved over by young soldiers wielding machine guns. Would they even let us through, or search our bags and phones, the trip could end here quite easily? So much power in the hands of such young people. Surreal. First check point encounter. “Where are you going?” “Jenin” “When are you coming back?” looking at his watch, “We’re not … we’re going to Jericho, Bethlehem, Jerusalem.” A pause and the radio or phone comes out, and we wait .. only about 5 minutes though “OK go on but be careful, its dangerous”.
Jenin felt edgy and a bit inhospitable or at least unfamiliar even for a Middle East town. Busy streets, and we stood out like sore thumbs. We looked for the cinema, the one we’d read about. Its another story, but briefly, the restoration of the cinema was the focal point of a campaign to re-vitalise Jenin inspired by the death of a child, shot by an Israeli soldier. This story was made into a film, ‘The Heart of Jenin’, which was the first to be shown at the cinema in 2010. The Cinema Hostel was to be our bed for the night, but where was it? We were at a bit of a loss, no English speakers. Then we saw it, hidden opposite the bus station, and adjacent to a big gap where the recently demolished cinema used to be, a mall in the making. Sad ending to hopeful story, and allegedly the cinema had been frowned upon by conservative elements in the town and so it became non-viable in the end. Although it was winter, December, the hostel had an air of abandonment about it. Without the cinema, presented as the symbol of hope of the future of Jenin, would the hostel survive? We were welcomed anyway, the only guests, with the whole place to ourselves. Various piles of detritus from the cinema were scattered around the foyer area, cigarettes and popcorn vending machines, tea shirts, posters, random and dusty. There was an air of tragedy about the place.
Jenin’s closest link to Israel is the al-Jalamah check point closed since the al_Aqsa intifada (uprising) and the Jenin refugee camp massacre in 2002 but reopened a few years ago since when business has allegedly been picking up. The check point still operates a back to back system for moving goods out of Palestine – which means transporting goods from one lorry to another, and many Palestinian goods can’t be exported because they ‘fail’ certain Israeli set ‘standards’ of quality. The road past the check post had a motley collection of stalls similar to stalls near borders we’ve seen in Cambodia/Thailand.
Jenin was busy, lots of bored looking young men hanging around on the streets. There was a group of heavily armed Israeli soldiers and police patrolling and questioning stall holders. The atmosphere was tense subdued and expectant. Eyes flickering briefly towards them, the soldiers appeared brazen. We found a characterful restaurant but they weren’t serving food so we had a coffee. With the hostel to ourselves, we cooked soup for tea. Louise was still feeling unwell but Owen was still hungry. A group of soldiers appeared for some fast food, and were served before us by older men who appeared to be edgy but presenting a kind of false cheerfulness, an unnatural interaction. Perhaps they felt intimidated. We heard gunfire and a loud explosion during the night and felt insecure about what might happen next, what we might we have to do if ‘the situation’ seemed to escalate. All at sea without a paddle.
Days 9 and 10 – To Nablus
Porridge for breakfast followed by a cycle to look for the Jenin Freedom Theatre in the refugee camp. In our naivety we were’t sure what a refugee camp would look like but we found the theatre in a neighbourhood of walled off buildings/habitations that must have been the camp itself. We found several children, snotty, one just perhaps a year old, playing with spent bullet cases, in a sand pit outside the theatre. No toys just spent bullet cases, a reminder of lives being lived with violence on their doorstep and of a very recent past. In Jenin we found an immaculate shop selling beautifully made Alhijaz chocolate, and were offered free tasting but without any pushiness. We were spoilt for choice and had to be disciplined as the panniers were already full– we bought almonds in white chocolate. How could such amazing chocolate be made here? However, we know why this chocolate isn’t being exported and wasn’t for sale at the airport.
On cycling into Nablus on the outskirts of the city, with hillsides covered in white houses towering above us, we were waved down by a couple of men who wanted to chat and offered us orange juice, pretty soon we were being welcomed to join a family party for a prison release homecoming, their family member, 23 yrs old, had been 3 years in an Israeli prison in the Negev desert, we don’t know what for.
We were soon engulfed by the occasion. Louise had to go with the women, ushered to the kitchen and was made to feel welcome with much dancing laughter and selfie taking. Louise felt treated like a guest of honour. Owen’s experience was slightly different, ushered into a room full of older men in armchairs smoking. An interesting discussion followed in which I was clearly suspected of being a middle class European doctor just touring through for the hell of it, fair enough.
The men wanted to know what I thought of Palestinians, but difficult to not appear naive at this point … ‘hard to generalise … err, of course there must be good and bad on both sides’. But “So you think we’re uncivilised?” Bit of a non-sequitur, and loaded question as I realise now, as this had been the way the zionists had painted the sophisticated Palestinian culture, as uncivilised to make it easier to excuse the Nakba, and whitewash their crimes. ‘Of course not.’ “Why are you here, … are you a wealthy doctor and a tourist, …. are you doing research, …. are you a communist?” ‘Yes i guess so.’ Best to say “Yes, I’m researching political theory and capitalism, Israel is terrible, and I am a communist” all reasonable, after all, and seemed to get me by. Maybe they thought I was a spy, its possible. “We’ve nearly all been to prison …. it’s an honour in our family to be imprisoned by the Israelis.” The 1967 border or green line may have been violated but what mattered here was the right to return. Little did we appreciate then that the ‘right of return’ for refugees is one of the rights refugees have under international law, (re-settlement and integration the two other choices, … to be made freely …).
“Would you be happy for us to find an Imam to convert you to Islam so that you can go to Paradise?” Not an offer easy to refuse I’m sure you can see. “Sure, that’d be just fine”. there was an enthusiastic Imam smiling at me. Other young men were intermittently tense, cross with me for taking photos, and then laughing: “I’m Daesh ..” slapping me on the back, “Only kidding ..” very funny. But an English speaking Imam to convert Owen could not be found. Restless young men become more agitated because Owen took a photo of the women ( he had asked permission outside earlier) Louise meanwhile was not having a political vivabut was being entertained by the women and children in the back room. Childs 8th birthday cake, shaving foam, loud music and dancing and being forced to eat too much food . Veil on, veil off, synchronised with, sliding door open, sliding door closed.
“He’s my husband and we have six children”, “She’s my girlfriend.” Oops. Needed to get our story straight. We are married with six children and we liked the name Joe so much that we called two of our sons by that name.
Al-Istiqal Hostel- not highly recommended if ever you are there, cheap but showers … well. Very basic shared room with hitch hiking couple from Czech Republic, no hot water, no working shower.
So, we bailed out second night to stay at all singing and dancing Al Yasmeen Hotel for New Yeas Eve, separate rooms 😦 But hot shower and hair dryer. We met Louise & Charles from Paris in the Old City , in Kanafeh chaos, (cheese, sugar syrup, pistachio, rose water, wheat noodle thread pastry. They were lovely and had a very interesting story about their medical school friend, who became a nun in Jerusalem after a religious experience instructing her to walk with a donkey from Paris to Jerusalem. They invited us to join them on a visit to Aksa refugee camp with Nasser, via Jacobs Well.
“They burst into the monastery and with a hatchet butchered Archimandrite Philoumenos in the form of a cross. With one vertical stroke they clove his face, with another horizontal stroke they cut his cheeks as far as his ears. His eyes were plucked out. The fingers of his right hand were cut into pieces and its thumb was hacked off. These were the fingers with which he made the sign of the Cross. The murderers were not content with the butchering of the innocent monk, but proceeded to desecrate the church as well. A crucifix was destroyed, the sacred vessels were scattered and defiled, and the church was in general subjected to sacrilege of the most appalling type.”
The piecemeal chopping of the three fingers with which he made the Sign of the Cross showed that he was tortured in an attempt to make him renounce his Orthodox Christian Faith.[note 6]
Nasser described how the Israeli soldiers block the roads twice weekly so that settlers on the hill overlooking the church, can go to nearby Joseph’s tomb, forbidden to Muslims, under IDF guard.
Nasser described the fortitude of the people of one of the oldest refugee camps, 60 years old – how as a people they had no official refugee status still, but they refused to be moved because this would nullify their claim to a right to return to their homes in Greater Palestine. Nasser said he knew who was living in his old home in Jaffa, a Russian family. The right to return still burned strong for Nasser, it’s a camp motto across the West Bank symbolised by the key over the entrance to the camps. The camp is under Israeli military control and there had been an ‘incursion’ the day before when a house had been forcible entered and soldiers had stayed there for several hours. The soldiers restrict access to police and healthcare services which makes it very hard for them to govern their own society there. Drugs, over crowding, poor sanitation, unemployment, poverty, all a problem. It was a shock to our systems, Louise felt as if she could barely speak, so emotional – and we guess it is some of these experiences and feelings that we have had to absorb only to try and deal with later. It adds to our perceptions of the cruelty of the occupation, and our anger.
Back in Nablus old City, an atmospheric warren of narrow alleyways and tunnels, we bought soap (8 soap factories) for our six children, and perfume (Jasmine and Amber) from a very friendly, attentive and emotional young male shopkeeper, whose dad he misses as he lives in America. Lots of coffee on the go stalls but we were grateful to be guided for a sit down coffee at a sock shop by the fresh juice stall holder
We had cycled, 48.8Km, ascent 2936ft ascent for 7 saddle hours
Days 11,12 to Jericho
We decided to cycle slightly North and eastwards towards the Jordan valley. It was desert like and hilly terrain with a few small villages, and then scattered by the side of the road a few Bedouin encampments, with their livestock and tents – there were a few signs of farming – tractor ploughing, but more signs and gates saying ‘Military Zone – Keep Out’ – the land under occupation not easily accessed by the Palestinians. The Jordan Valley annexed illegally according to the UN, in 1967, has one major road, coaches, fast cars, and views across to the Jordan mountains a few miles away. In between there is much greenery and agricultural activity in this fertile valley – a fertility no longer accessible to the Palestinians that once lived here.
We stayed the Auberge Guest House – The House of Eggplants, with a Work Away volunteer from Germany and by an amazing coincidence we meet up with the friendly lone Irish traveller with bicycle we had first met in Jaffa, day 1; he shared an epic tale of his one and only day of cycling. He was wryly regretful of his lack of research and his tortured cycle on the uphill motorway from Tel Aviv to jerusalem in the cold and rain, and a puncture to boot (we were yet to sympathise but later having cycled it downhill we felt for him). He was a keen solitary traveller and had visited Allepo the year before, before the Syrian war had broken out there.
We decided to stay in Jericho for two nights and the next day we walked for two hot hours along the Wadi El Qelt to a Greek Orthodox monastery set into the rock, to find the monastery door closed. We knocked, only to be turned away by a pious priest who decided to close 45 minutes earlier than the sign indicated on the door as it was a ‘holy day’ and they ‘had already started praying’. ‘Poor Form’ priest. At the gates, we met a large friendly Irish/Palestinian family from London who were visiting their daughter studying Arabic at the university of Nablus. The son who spoke fluent Arabic also knocked on the monastery door to try to persuade the priest to let us in but there was no reply. Oh well, the journey is the thing and the valley had been quite spectacular with deep gorges, two deer scampering up a rocky slope and a few marmots staring at us. There were a few monk like cells sculpted into the hillside with precarious overhanging steps as means of access. We wandered back along the road, thirsty and hungry , we found a little shop and bought crisps and chocolate, bliss.
That night however there was no room at the Auberge Inn, but there was a silver lining as we were then able to experience Sami’s Hostel in Aqbal Jaber refugee camp, watched Incredible Hulk in smoky lobby and met International Solidarity Movement volunteer who downloaded some books onto our camera memory card and shared his thoughts and theories with us. He predicted that Trump wouldn’t make it to his inauguration as president, but he was wrong. We would recommend this place.
We had cycled 105.1Km, 1502 feet of ascent, 7.5hrs in the saddle.
days 13, 14 to Bethlehem
We had freshly cooked Falafel breakfast wraps at the kiosk in the refugee camp in Jericho before setting off for the climb to Bethlehem.
By this stage we were increasingly aware of, and oppressed by the sheer fact of, being in a militarily (as well as illegally) occupied land. On the main road (towards Jerusalem) our eyes were drawn repeatedly to the settlements on the crests of the sandy hillsides. They reminded us of prisons with their high walls, brutal architecture and barbed wire. Maybe the inhabitants feel imprisoned? They also struck a dull chord of an alien presence in that landscape.
As the initial thrill of the adventure was wearing off the deeper purposes of our journey began to emerge. We journeyed together into the unknown and wrestled with questions of purpose and calling. Each day on the road we felt the burden of our hearts, we must find a way to allow this journey to shape our lives.
Once off the Jerusalem Road and heading towards Bethlehem we came across a hostile reception at a check point. As we approached feeling somewhat apprehensive, machine guns were pointed straight at us by a young male soldier whilst a young female told us abruptly that we couldn’t cycle through or go any further, it was ‘cars only’. We said that we had been told we could travel this way by soldiers at the Nablus checkpoint (we hadn’t) and so, just as abruptly she said OK go through , just this time … she let us through, this time. Bullying and intimidating behaviour is deeply worrying and totally unacceptable and unjustifiable. How on earth the Palestinian people put up with this and worse, on a daily basis, is beyond our scope of comprehension. Of course others claim their purpose is to protect the Israelis from Palestinian terrorists. Equally of course it is clear the Israeli state is extending its occupation, and the Palestinians have nothing to fight or to defend themselves with. The check points are there to maintain the occupation and oversee its completion.
We then faced with a dramatic hill ahead, this was to be the long and unremitting climb up the Wadi Al Nar. The smell of burning brakes, the whoops and hollers from those in passing cars who seem to think we were deranged but who also seemed to be enjoying the spectacle. We persevered, sweating, climbing. Louise felt a little fatigued and found the ultra steep gradient incompatible with her hard core gear ratios. It was a long climb. By a crazy coincidence we had a message later from a friend in England, Mike, whose friend Hamed had seen us up the Wadi, as it were, and that Louise had been making slow progress.
After a slight navigational cock up, involving more hills, we managed to find the House of Hope, and Sami the warden. Sami was the epitome of a kind and solicitous host. This residential facility for the blind had a guest house, which was rather chilly but Sami was very hospitable and the kitchen had a well stocked fridge.
We cycled to the Tent of Nations farm on the outskirts of Bethlehem on the Israeli side of the Green Line. We refuse to be enemies is the code they abide by and is written on a stone by the entrance. We were greeted by Dahir, one of the farmers and invited to plant, almond stones in rocky ground. Also helping out were Hannah the vicar’s daughter from Manchester (musical chatterbox), two Swedish girls Sophie and Anna, and a French woman called Miriam. As we dug holes and placed the almond stones, we chatted about the situation, all the time conscious of the presence of the settlement opposite. It was Hannah’s third stay on the farm as a volunteer and she told us how activity on the farm is monitored and a Israeli helicopter occasionally hovers over to survey which is quite intimidating. In plain view 500 metres away on a hill is a huge settlement with a prominent space age type dwelling, apparently owned by a Russian ‘artist’, and a large building site where an ultra orthodox religious school is under construction, more indoctrination of the young. This was truly a shocking concrete example of oppression, sanctioned by the Israeli state and helped of course, by the USA, UK and other European countries.
After lunch, Daoud gave us a talk in one of the caves. This was a very moving story of dogged resistance, of not backing down from the Israeli authorities who seek to occupy their land and evict them. We were amazed by how they had been able to sustain resilience, the Arabic name for this steadfastness in the face of overwhelming odds is sumud – we now think this represents a kind of hope without optimism (to paraphrase Terry Eagleton) that maintains a level of dignity and humanity through the struggle. One of the key things was the fact that they’d had to face innumerable challenges from the courts about their rights to even be on the land. But unlike many they did have the original deeds from when Daoud’s grandfather bought the land 100 years ago. Despite this they are still having to go to court on a regular basis. The settlers seem determined to get rid of them, they have even blocked the road to the farm causing them to take a huge detour and have even uprooted and buried whole plantations of apricot and olive trees. The farm itself has a cave at its centre where the grandfather, his brother and their families lived and even now, there are only fairly rudimentary buildings. They are continually refused permission to erect any structures including water tanks. They have no electricity.
We had cycled 21.7Km, and 1190ft ascent
The following night we stayed at House of Bread, (Issa & Diana), friends of Mike. Through a miscommunication, we were locked out until 9pm, but wandered up to Manger Square and met shopkeepers Jack and Mary who told us about the Siege of the Church of the Nativity which lasted from April 2 to May 10, 2002.
In 2002 the Israeli Defense Forces (IDF) occupied Bethlehem and tried to capture suspected Palestinian militants. Dozens of people fled into the Church of the Nativity and sought refuge. There were 200 monks resident in the church and many Palestinians who had arrived at the site for different reasons. The Franciscan order maintained no hostages were held, while Israeli sources claimed the monks and others were being held hostage by gunmen. Bethlehem was in lock down and the shops only opened for two hours each day. Electricity was cut off and drinking water was scarce. After 39 days, an agreement was reached, according to which the militants turned themselves in to Israel and were exiled to Europe and the Gaza Strip.
We bought seven Bansky fridge magnets and a map. It was humbling to hear from this elderly couple about some of the experiences they had been forced to endure during the Bethlehem lock down.
Eventually we met Issa and Diana but we were cold and tired. We had a short discussion about, which church we attended, whether we had accepted Jesus Christ as our Lord and Saviour and if we had been filled with the Holy Spirit. Owen explained that he disagreed with organised religion and had been raised as a Roman Catholic which had given him quite a negative view. Louise shared some of her story about becoming a christian at 15. And then in walked Mr Hugh(ie), bright and bustling and charming, he appeared a bit surprised to see us but sat down on the sofa and we had a lively conversation. Mr Hugh had been visiting Issa and Diane every Christmas or the past 30 odd years and was now in his late 70s. He was very entertaining with his tales and was very reminiscent of the character Neil Baldwin in the film Marvellous, which is a compliment. Mr. Hugh was from Luton – and had 30 Christmases in Bethlehem under his ample belt. He told us of his mother with a shop full of microscopes, telescopes….. “my mother was mean spirited – I never married – but God has been very kind to me since my mother died – here’s my testimony .. the Queen has a copy”. Mr. Hughie collects wigs, guitars, clarinets, microscopes, telescopes and vinyl records in his one bedroom flat and Diana has visited it. Louise commented that it sounds like Aladdin’s cave and he said that is what Diana had also told him when she had visited his flat!
“Phone – phone – phone – phone – phone!” was the refrain from Mr Hughie in an obviously well rehearsed routine as Diana’s mobile went off. “Its alright she’ll be here in a minute…” “Phone – phone – phone – phone” … “Mr. Hugh, you’re making me laugh!” – (understatement).
Owen was asked to examine Issa after breakfast whilst Louise chatted with Mr Hughie. Unfortunately Issa’s BP was 230/50, pulse rate about 32, Blood Sugar 14, not good. He had seen his own Dr recently and so we advised another GP appt. asap. On leaving it was Pay As You Feel…..Issa prayed that Louise finds her faith again ….Owen, that he would find faith through the power of the holy spirit. Owen was given his first bible…. and a conversion of Saul DVD.
We had cycled 48.8Km, and 4727ft ascent in 6.5 hrs,a tough climb.
Days 15, 16 – Jerusalem
The day began with a puncture repair before we’d even got on our bikes for the short cycle to Jerusalem. We were relaxed by this stage but weren’t sure what check points we would encounter. The wall covered in graffiti was just obscene, its physical massiveness, the barrier, spoke volumes about Israels’ attitude to their near neighbours.
The cycle was on busy roads, mostly uphill, and we were there within half an hour. We arrived at Jerusalem Old City, and initially struggled blindly into the the Muslim quarter thinking we’d probably find a way to the hostel near Jaffa Gate. The steps, and crowds made progress impossible and we turned back to find another way. There was an army surveillance point – as usual very young men and women, slouched and armed to the hilt, standing guard by the Damascus gate. We found Jaffa gate and the Hostel, and a very basic but adequate room for us and the bikes.
We spent time as flaneurs, noticing the contrast between the different quarters. the obvious polished wealth of the jewish quarter, then the more arabic quarter with its souk like atmosphere, the Armenian and Christian quarters were less remarkable, with cafes and souvenir shops.
We visited the Church of the Holy Sepulchre with the stone of unction on which Jesus is said to have been washed after the crucifixion.
At the Western Wall (Wailing Wall) we saw a mixture of Jews praying with their various styles of dress. The Jews are deeply affronted by the Muslim jurisdiction over the dome which the Jews still regard as their holy site. If the Israeli government annex East Jerusalem there could be violence ahead. The Al Aqsda area where the dome of the rock is situated was closed off.
We felt very much like outsiders as we passed through the security gates. The Western Wall is a place of segregation and barriers. It seemed like we were in an ‘after yet before time’ as if we had stepped back several hundred years. Oozing exclusivity and oppression, we felt uneasy, like intruders, voyeurs. We were not sad to leave this place, a site of religious conflict. The hat display was impressive, particularly the Shtreimel hats.
The prayers on paper stuffed into the cracks in the western wall struck us as somehow symptomatic of a religious fervour, beyond our frame of reference.
We were on a mission to find some embroidered coasters from Sunbula crafts, for Revd. Tom Lusty (St. Chads, Headingley) this proved to be a bit of a wild goose chase of no stock and closed shop but we enjoyed the walking, particularly along the Nablus road.
Our impression of New Jerusalem was of a soulless shopping mall with fast food restaurants, bereft of any creativity. We did however find a Georgian restaurant in one of the back streets and enjoyed a good meal.
Leviticus 19: v27 “Do not cut the hair at the sides of your head or clip off the edges of your beard”.
Leviticus 19:v33 -34 “When a stranger resides with you in your land, you shall not do him wrong. The stranger who resides with you shall be to you as the native among you, and you shall love him as yourself, for you were aliens in the land of Egypt; I am the LORD your God.…”
We cycled 12.7Km, 892ft ascent
Days 17,18 – Tel Aviv
We took the road out of Jerusalem and headed towards the motorway, as the most direct route, following the tram line for quite a while. It was the Sabbath, so the roads were quiet. The motorway was quiet but unpleasant cycling, mostly downhill but by no means flat. We were pulled over by one policeman who indicated we should get off the road, which didn’t surprise us, or even change our plans. So, as we had no other real options, we let him drive on and then just carried on in a spirit of defiant optimism, on the motorway, but admittedly slightly anxious, partly lest we be stopped again, and partly because of the sheer speed of the traffic. However after a hair-raising spin, we arrived back at the familiar Old Jaffa Hostel in time for breakfast, after a very quick run.
We felt relieved to have that leg of the journey over with, and to be still in one piece, and could fully relax, with a day ahead of us in the sun. We enjoyed watching a stormy sea.
We cycled 65Km, 1138ft ascent, 3hrs
The next day we called our previous taxi driver, as the one the hostel had ordered was going to be too small to take the bikes despite our explicit instructions. Transport for bikes is often a slight issue on trips like these.
Ben Gurion airport was a mixture of tedious irritation and some stress as they insisted on cutting open the bike boxes for a cursory look inside, we then had to re-tape them, but we had the foresight to have some spare tape to hand. Flight home, job done.
Total cycle 518km/321miles 6,700m/21,900ft ascent
It felt as if the trip as a cycle adventure was counter-cultural, i.e. unusual for that part of the world, in terms of customs, terrain and security. We met no other tourers, and we couldn’t recommend it freely as it came with some hazards and unpredictability. And we felt the ambiguity of the juxtaposition between adventure, a voyeuristic poverty-tourism, and hope for some socio-political awareness. It must be impossible to travel here without this conflict or dissonance. But, despite our unease, and we think partly because we were unguided, in the end it did feel like an awakening from a kind of stupor to the after effects of war and the oppressive occupation. Unfortunately the right wing zionist nature of the Israeli government and its intention to annexe the entire West Bank is likely to trigger even more violence in the near future. We have a feeling of perplexity and shame to be associated with such a nationalist UK government so supportive of the Israeli state. In the meantime the corporate media continues to wilfully silence the voice of the Palestinians. The Palestinians are not a problem to be solved, but a people to join with in solidarity with their sumud.