Just a few months ago, I was roaming the streets of Israel and Palestine. Now I watch tensions and rockets escalate each night on the evening news, and I think back to my time in the West Bank. I became so tired of the crowds in Jerusalem that I couldn't wait to escape into less traveled areas, and let's be honest - many foreign tourists are scared to venture out of Bethlehem and travel deeper into Palestine. For me, the emotions of exploration, which were silenced during the first few days in Israel, immediately came to life when we entered the West Bank.
While my friends went to visit yet another church in the rural village of Sebastia, I decided to investigate the narrow, secluded streets where the church sat. I turned a corner and these children peeked outside their door, intrigued and happy that a foreigner was in their remote village. "Hallo, hallo, where are you from?" It was the same greeting all Palestinian children gave me during the journey, but the smiles of these boys captivated me in a special way. As always, I was struck by the innocence, beauty and curiosity of children, no matter the nation. They typically see only one race - human. As it should be.
1. The boys live at the bottom of this narrow road in Sebastia, very close to a church built to commemorate the martyrdom of John the Baptist, which supposedly occurred on this hill. Sebastia is located in the West Bank, about 15 km from the more frequently visited city of Nablus. It's impossible for tourist buses to enter here, as all parts of the village have these tiny roads on which only one car can pass at a time.
2. Of course, everyone knows about the Israeli/Palestinian conflicts which have been ongoing, but to see the ramifications of it in person suddenly makes it very, very real. As a result of the Oslo Accords, the West Bank was divided into three Areas - "Area A", "Area B" and "Area C." To get to Sebastia, we came from Area A in Ramallah, where you are greeted with these signs. I wonder how many tourists see these threatening words and become so frightened that they turn the car around?
Israeli citizens are forbidden entry into Area A, which is under full control of the Palestinian Authority. By contrast, Sebastia is located in Area C, which is under exclusive Israeli control, yet small portions fall in "Area B", which is Palestinian civil control and joint Israeli/Palestinian security control. Confused? Well, you begin to understand the complex nature of the region, where mobility is limited depending on the designation on your Identity Card. I still don't understand all the different designations, perhaps one of my readers living in Israel can explain. Prior to 2005, the Identity Cards displayed the holder's ethnicity (Jewish, Arab, etc.), but after many fierce court battles, the ethnic designations were abolished. I will not bore you with all the legal issues surrounding the Identity Cards, but you can read about it online. For a lawyer like me, it's quite fascinating.
3. However, this post isn't about the conflict or ethnic designations but rather the village and people within it. After I began snapping photos of the young boys in the cover photo, they became ecstatic. I could barely get a shot because they wanted to hug me and touch my hair. They never asked for candy, money - anything. Our giggles were loud and flamboyant, and after a few minutes, this woman came to the door to see what was going on. It's a pity, but I can't remember her name. She's the grandma, and in perfect English, she invited me inside the home for coffee or tea.
4. Perhaps it's not wise to enter a stranger's home. I can't say I would ever do this in America, but when traveling in other countries, I've done it a few times. My friends, who had finished looking at the church, were concerned I had been snatched and was being held hostage when they couldn't find me. :) In reality, I simply stepped inside the modest home, took a seat, and began speaking to grandma. The house was basic, three rooms, but well furnished and clean. A TV set, lots of dishes, I have no idea how many people live there but I assume a lot. Some of the women were shy and didn't want to be photographed.
5. Like any grandma, she constantly hugged on her grandchildren. The boys also have a sister, Salma, pictured here in purple. What did we talk about? She immediately asked if I was American, and I told her yes. Her response - "I love Americans, but not your government." I knew immediately she is a wise woman, with the ability to separate the politics of a nation from its people. Grandma spoke perfect English, had studied in the UK, but came back to what is now considered Palestine. She told me it's her home, and she has no intention of leaving, despite all the adversity of living in the region.
6. Neighbor's house or apartment? I'm not sure if this is one unit, or several. You can see the structure is old and in poor condition, but still flowers planted along the fence and in the yard.
7. From the top of the hill, you can see other small developments which look more modern, but still quite poor.
8. As in almost all rural villages, children have limited entertainment options. Most are walking the streets, riding bikes, or kicking soccer balls on an open, dirt area at the top of the hill. Standing there, I admired the simplicity of their life in that moment. Running around carefree, with smiles, and without the threat of conflict or harm. I don't think anyone in Gaza, the West Bank or Israel is currently feeling the same given the present situation.
9. When the kids become bored with the ball, they can chase sheep! A lot of them walking on the roads in the village. At one point, we were charged by a big herd, running at us head on. Luckily, the shepherd directed them away from us at the last second.
10. The ancient village of Sebastia was once home to biblical kings, later ruled by Roman conquerors, Crusaders and Ottomans, and is now identified as one of the prime archaeological sites in the Holy Land. The village includes Roman columns, a forum, remains of a palace and other historical treasures which are completely unkempt. There are no signs to indicate the significance of the archaeological zone, some of the churches have Muslim graffiti, and there's been a lot of excavation of the columns and other Roman remnants. Weeds grow in many places, covering the ruins. There are no guards manning the entrances or sites, which sit out in the wide open. Why? Well, some say the Israeli-controlled portions of Sebastia are intentionally ignored, but I don't believe this to be true. USAID renovation is taking place in some parts of the village, in an effort to encourage tourism to the West Bank and aid the local economy.
11. I saw only a few other tourists walking through the archaeological sites in the area. This man stands patiently with his camel, in the blazing heat, with the hope some tourist will arrive in the village, pay a small price to ride the camel, and put money in his pocket. Almost everyone in my group rode, but not me.
12. A rural entrepreneur - even a small pony on which tourists can ride! :)
13. There's a combined restaurant/souvenir shop at the top of the village, where these women were enjoying an afternoon lunch.
14. When I walked in, this young guy quickly offered me free cookies, dates and tea. He spoke good English, so it was easy to communicate. Friendly guy, I cannot say anything bad about the people I met in Sebastia. All were welcoming and happy to see visitors.
15. Local standing by one of the Roman columns.
16. Young girls in the open field by the ruins. I could immediately tell when it was okay to take a pic of a Muslim woman. Their reaction upon seeing the camera would be either immediate smiles indicating it was okay, or quickly putting their head down, a clear sign they did not wish to be photographed.
17. For children, I always asked the parents first. I met this father and daughter at the top of the hill. There also was a small boy, but he was shy and moved out of the frame when he saw the camera. The father spoke no English, but my request was easily understood through hand signals. Afterwards, he wanted to see the image on the camera. A quick nod of the head, validation of my amateur photography skills.
18. After spending about an hour in the village, we took a drive further up to the top of the hill in Sebastia. Along the way, we passed several people walking, somehow reminiscent of my times in rural Russia, where I always saw people walking in the middle of nowhere. Of course, the land mass of Russia is completely incomparable to Palestine, and people here are walking only short distances to reach their destinations. However, they are faced with other burdens, like checkpoints, and denied entrance to certain areas.
19. Family en route somewhere. Maybe you've noticed that a lot of the young girls don't wear hijab, even when their mothers do? Seemed to be a common theme in Palestine.
20. More sheep and ruins on the journey to the top of the hill.
21. And here it is - the peaceful view from the top. The greenery a nice change of pace after being surrounded by desert the days before.
22. I met this boy, sitting quietly on a ledge overlooking the scenery. When he turned, he had tears in his eyes. He spoke in broken English, but one of my companions spoke Arabic and he said the boy told him his brother had been killed by an Israeli soldier the night before. Is it truth, or does he sit there all day, every day, hoping some gullible and sympathetic tourist will arrive and put money in his pocket to appease him? In that moment, I chose to accept his statement as truth.
23. Back down, through the cramped, tiny roads, we saw this elder woman sitting on her steps. It was quite difficult for me to travel in a group, even though it was small. I could not escape as often as I wanted to, or stop the car, get out and speak to as many locals as I wished. But I imagine this woman has many stories to tell.
24. When I told my parents I was going to travel in the West Bank, immediate panic set in. I think many people, especially Westerners, are conditioned to believe that nothing is safe here, that everyone is running around shouting anti-American sentiments or behaving as extremists. In reality, people in the West Bank could not have been more welcoming or kind. I know many of you have anti-Muslim views, but I don't pick sides in the Israeli/Palestinian conflict. There are no winners, and all suffer. I'm sympathetic to these people I met throughout the West Bank, yet also cognizant that Israel must protect itself from the constant threat of destruction and harm from extremists in the region. I did not step foot in Gaza, the seat of Hamas, where rockets are probably being prepared and shot into Israel at this very moment. The people I met in the West Bank were normal, average citizens of the Earth, going about their daily lives the same as everyone else. This doesn't mean there aren't wolves lurking in the crowd, and perhaps I even walked amongst them, but I refuse to believe the majority of Palestinians fall into this category.
You can call it naive if you wish, but even at 40 years old, I share the same mindset of the young boys I encountered when I first began walking down that narrow road in Sebastia. I see people first as human - reserving judgment based on what I perceive, experience and feel in their presence. This day in rural Palestine was the most memorable of the trip. It completely moved something inside me, and these boys, their family, and Sebastia will forever remain etched in my mind.
Next, I'll tell you about Ramallah. A big, busy and noisy Palestinian city, often at the forefront of conflict and protest.