"If we choose, we can live in a world of comforting illusion." - Noam Chomsky
The famous American-Jewish author, Noam Chomsky, has written a lot about the West Bank, but I believe this quote hits closest to my heart. I've already told you how I feel about Palestine in my stories from Ramallah and Sebastia. I think many Westerners live in some sort of "comforting illusion" about this region. Believing only what they see on the news. In the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, we see mostly horrific scenes from Gaza - dead children, bombed out apartments and buildings, extremists using humans as shields...Constant debate about Israel's military tactics in the area, yet also a strong understanding and justification for the defensive actions taken to protect Jerusalem and other parts of the country. However, the West Bank is much more than Gaza. It's a land filled with ordinary people, living in an undeniably oppressive environment. Colorful street scenes await your eyes around every corner, in a third-world sense. I felt the whole time that people on both sides of the Separation Wall are essentially imprisoned, but in very different ways.
1. Today, we continue with a lot of people photos. To show how people live in various parts of the West Bank. This shot was taken in the outskirts of Ramallah, in the middle of a busy workday. A young woman going about the daily chores of life, but with a colorful, rustic backdrop.
2. During the entire journey, we called Bethlehem home, staying at a fancy hotel known as the Jacir Palace Hotel. It's the largest hotel in the Central West Bank area. Massive in size and grandeur. However, it sits in the middle of a slum area of the West Bank, with a refugee camp right behind it.
I was invited as a guest, with a small group of other Americans, to stay at the hotel for free. They are desperate for more Western visitors, but most are scared to stay in Palestine. So, our mission was to provide guidance and feedback to the hotel managers about how to attract Western clientele. In all cases, the managers asked for our input on services and quality of accommodations to confirm the hotel meets the expectations of sophisticated foreign travelers. I have no complaints about the hotel. Everything is very nice. It looks like a palace inside, with immaculately kept halls, pools and meeting areas. But it sits in the hotbed of the Israel-Palestine conflict, and an assassination attempt even occurred from one of the windows. So, recognize that you're not going to some luxury beach resort here, and be aware of your surroundings at all times.
3. The hotel sits close to a checkpoint. On the first night, we arrived late, right as the sun was setting. I walked out onto the balcony to take a pic of the majestic scene with my iPhone, and immediately my eyes and throat started burning. At first, I thought someone was burning trash in the refugee camp below us. I found out the next morning that there had been a disturbance at the near-by checkpoint, and my symptoms were a result of the tear gas that floated down the hill with the breeze. Yes, it's a real possibility you will experience the same if you stay in the West Bank. I simply moved inside, shut the window, and all was fine.
4. What can I say about the Separation Wall? It's a huge atrocity and eye sore almost everywhere in the West Bank, and to walk alongside it creates immense sadness and discomfort. I remember in my younger years, frequently hearing about suicide bombers at Israeli cafes, bus stops and markets. The Separation Wall was built in response to extremist terrorist attacks, where the intent was evil and undeniable - to kills Jews and annihilate the State of Israel.
5. A reader once told me I sometimes sound like a history book, reciting basic historical facts. But, in case some of you don't know, the Separation Wall was commissioned by Prime Minister Ariel Sharon in 2002, at the height of the Second Intifada. From the beginning, its construction was highly controversial. The route for the Wall changed many times due to legal battles in the Supreme Court, and the project has cost billions of dollars. However, the defensive impact is clearly illustrated in the decreased number of suicide bombings and attacks on Israelis. The precise numbers vary. During the Second Intifada, approximately 100 suicide bombings took place. Now there are almost none. Lives saved, absolutely. But the mental impact of this barrier on West Bank residents is also worthy of discussion, and draws the attention of human rights' activists throughout the world.
6. I think the Separation Wall now covers about 525 km. My understanding is that further construction has ceased at this point. The Wall is now a template for artistic and political expression, and it's worth the time to take a walk along various portions to read the inscriptions and view the drawings. Here, a homage to a leader of the Palestinian liberation movement. She is seen as a terrorist by some, a hero by others. Leila Khaled - female hijacker of several airline flights shortly after the Six Day War ended in 1967.
7. Weeping Lady Liberty...
8. One afternoon, I had the car drop me off after clearing the checkpoint. I walked the entire mile back to the hotel, talking to the kids and looking at the Wall. They pass by it every day, play on the walkways, and throw stones against the barrier. I wonder if they can really comprehend all the political and human strife embodied in the artistic images?
9. Do you wish to go for a stroll in this neighborhood? I will never forget this walk, and the sense of emotion that overcame me. You can tell by my posts that I'm quite sympathetic to the people of the West Bank. However, at the same time, I understand Israel's position in building this monstrosity. Honestly, I'm still undecided whether the security protection for Israelis outweighs the human impact on the other side of the Wall. So, this debate will continue onward into eternity, with no real definitive answers....at least not in my mind.
10. Almost every foreigner traveling to the West Bank comes for only one reason - to see the religious sites. So, my group did that as well but I became so fed up with the crowds that I rarely went inside the churches or other religious monuments. For instance, the most popular spot in Bethlehem is the Church of the Nativity. This is the birthplace of Jesus. We visited on Easter Sunday. Can you imagine? I've never seen such a huge crowd of people crammed in a tiny place. The church is beautiful, filled with decorative paintings and artistic structures.
11. The religious were willing to wait hours in line to see the tiny room in which Jesus was born, but this has absolutely no emotional impact on me. So, in typical Shannon fashion, I left the crowd and went in search of locals. At the sight of a big camera, Palestinian children immediately flock to you. Smiling and eager to be photographed. As always, the first statement from their mouths - "Hallo, hallo, where are you from?"
12. Beautiful, when souls are still innocent and pure, having no concept of hate or nationality.
13. These young girls spoke perfect English. I'm now Facebook friends with Lara, the girl on the left. We still communicate on occasion.
14. Next stop on the holy route, Jacob's Well in the city of Nablus, Palestine. It's the site where Jesus had a chat with a Samaritan woman. The well now lies within the complex of an Eastern Orthodox monastery. Visitors can drop pails into the well to retrieve water. Again, another beautiful church decorated in gold and lavish paintings. I stayed here a few minutes and then went outside while the others waited in line to dip their pails into the well.
15. The grounds of the monastery are lush, with a lot of flowers and greenery.
17. Step outside the relgious compound, and you're again in the heart of the West Bank. Cars drive on unmarked roads, there are no pedestrian crossings - zebras as you call them - :), and people weave in and out of traffic to go about their daily business.
18. Local female residents.
19. Goat herder.
20. Neighborhood directly across from the monastery. People everywhere like zombies with their mobile devices, even in underdeveloped areas.
21. We travel onward toward to Jericho. The quality of photos in this report isn't always the best, as I was shooting from the front of the car window. But you get a general idea of the vast, open desert landscapes here.
22. The main highway to Jericho is magnificent! Great serpentine road with stunning scenery the entire way. I've never been to a desert region, not even in the U.S. So, it was an entirely new visual sensation for me. The highway infrastructure near Jericho, and a lot of the West Bank, was built and paid for by the U.S. government.
23. Everywhere, you see signs for USAID - U.S. Agency for International Development. There's an entire branch of the organization dedicated to the West Bank, primarily to provide humanitarian, education and infrastructure support. Israel - the largest recipient of foreign aid from the U.S. in recent years. On average, 3 billion dollars per year. To read more about U.S. aid in the West Bank, go here. This area receives huge financial support from almost all Western countries. I presume this sign is promoting some type of educational program established by USAID.
24. In the Judean desert, the Mount of Temptation is worth a stop. Scenic area, with an odd mix of barren and green landscapes. This is the site where Jesus was tempted by the devil, although the exact location has never been determined by Biblical scholars. The area sits about 10 km from Jericho.
25. Tourism infrastructure is semi-developed at the sight. A cable car runs high above the ground, but we didn't take a ride. If you look closely, you can see the red cars hanging from the air in this photo.
26. These damn camels are everywhere!! Heat radiating from their thick fur and smelly bodies. But this one was particularly friendly - even posed with a smile for the camera. :) I never had the desire to mount one and go for a ride.
27. Local seller tries to pawn off counterfeit handbags and fresh fruits to tourists.
28. A resident walking the path...I wonder where it ultimately leads?
29. Finally, another group of tourists! I think they were from Indonesia.
30. I was surprised to see English language on almost all signs in the West Bank. Especially important when a country uses non-Latin script. I wish Russia would do the same for foreign guests. It would make travel and navigation in the country much easier.
32. Small town on the way back to Bethlehem, but I don't remember the name.
33. I'm a horrible navigator! Easily confused by directions and maps. But everything in this area is clearly marked, a lot of signage to direct drivers. In the rural villages, absolutely nothing, and the road infrastructure sometimes non-existent. I showed you examples in the Sebastia post.
34. Local mechanic.
35. The peace sign again. A common sentiment when locals saw foreign visitors. Well, the men there are handsome in a very rugged way, though definitely unpolished. :))
36. Apartment complex en route.
37. Small bedouin village. Unfortunately, I didn't get to visit one of these communities. The local I was traveling with recently took a French film crew to one of the bedouin compounds, but they were not well received. So, he didn't feel comfortable bringing another group of foreigners to the area.
38. Camel on the side of the road, waiting for the sun to set.
39. The West Bank's version of Seven-Eleven. :) Stop for drinks or ice-cream.
40. During university, I took a class focused on nature writers. We read the famous book "Desert Solitaire" by Edward Abbey. It chronicled his work as a Park Ranger in the Arches National Park in Utah. He wrote eloquently about the transformative nature of desert landscapes, describing them as "cruel, clear, inhuman, neither romantic nor classical, motionless and emotionless, at one and the same time – another paradox – both agonized and deeply still.” He went on to write - "the desert represents a harsh reality unseen by the masses. It is this harshness that makes the desert more alluring, more baffling, more fascinating..." I understand these words, but I can't say I feel any close spiritual connection with desert landscapes. I prefer green mountains, the wilderness, or open seas.
41. It's easy to understand why musicians, writers and philosophers like the desert. Some of the most profound thoughts, songs and written prose are inspired by these landscapes. There's nothing here for a man, except his own mind.
There's so much more I can say about the West Bank, but there's no time. I'm at work, and should be doing other things. I hope you at least have a better impression of how people live in this region. It will always be the center of intense humanitarian, political and military debate. However, we should never lose sight of the rich ethnographic, historical and cultural significance in this part of the world. It's a pity so few actually experience or see it for themselves. For me, this trip was mentally transformative. Perhaps more so than any other.
Streets of Ramallah, Palestine
Sebastia - A Look Inside Rural Palestine