Being a tourist in Palestine – That’s a thing? It sure is!
When I embarked on my 3 month journey to the Middle East I was looking forward to visiting historical sites, eating piles of falafels, hiding from the sun that’s too hot and a cultural adventure of a lifetime. Yes, I knew there was a conflict of massive proportions between Israel and Palestine but I was not going anywhere near there. Half way through my trip, however, I found myself to be right there, in the West Bank, as a tourist in Palestine.
Being a tourist in Palestine and exploring the West Bank
It’s funny how big of a difference there is in such a short physical distance. Ok, funny is not the word, but you get my point. It starts already in Jerusalem. When I left the walled city behind and stepped into eastern Jerusalem I was lightyears away (really just a couple of kilometres) from the ‘new’ Jerusalem I had woken up in earlier that day. Here in the eastern side of Jerusalem the trash bins were overflowing, the streets generally dirty and the people were of course predominantly arabs with a few tourists like myself wandering the streets. At the end of the day I didn’t scurry back to the modern part of Jerusalem but instead headed to the bus station.
I use the term ‘bus station’ quite liberally here, it was more like a large parking lot. Nevertheless, eventually I found the place and after a few questions was directed to the ‘sherut’ (sort of a shared minibus-taxi) that was heading to Hebron. I really had no expectations about the cities in the West Bank and really didn’t know what I was going to see there. Had I looked at the government travel advisories, I would have learnt that the city had a history of night curfews and that if shit hits the fan (pardon my French) it’s either in Gaza or in Hebron.
So there I was, on the side of a road somewhere quite central Hebron surrounded by partially destroyed buildings and a cell phone that didn’t have service anymore (it stopped as we moved further into Palestinian territory from Jerusalem). I was happy I didn’t know about the reputation the city had, because I might have missed the friendly, curious looks I got and the very welcoming people.
Nowhere have I met people who have been so genuinely happy that I was visiting their home.
So, what did I see as a tourist in Palestine?
The occupied Palestinian territories are not a happy place to visit. It will not put a smile on your face or make you feel all warm and fuzzy inside when you think back to your trip. A lot of the ‘attractions’ in Palestine actually focus on the occupation itself.
There is the ever growing separation wall painted with all kinds of graffiti, many quite thought provoking. Looking at this massive concrete wall with watch towers really makes you wonder how can anyone even try to say this is ‘just a temporary’ construction.
There are the newly built settlements with their perfectly paved roads that, admittedly, provide a huge contrast to the derelict buildings and pothole filled roads on ‘the other side’.
In Ramallah there are many NGOs focused on bringing peace to the area and some of them are happy to welcome visitors and tell them more about the history and recent events in the area. Many of these are international organizations who remain objective and true to the facts – You don’t need to fear ‘brainwashing’ of any kind. They are there to provide facts as they are and educate people about the situation behind the newspaper headlines.
The tombs of the Patriarchs, the second holiest site in Judaism and highly important location for muslims, is located in Hebron. The synagogue-mosque is known as the burial site of Abraham and is heavily guarded by Israeli forces since a deadly tragedy some 20 years ago. The two sides are separated and yes, there is even bullet proof glass. It is possible for anyone to visit, although women will get a hooded cape to wear. No matter what your religious views are, or if you have any, this site has remarkable historical value as it dates back thousands of years.
And of course there is also Betlehem, which really provides quite a polished impression of Palestine for those tourists who quickly want to tour the Church of the Nativity, kiss the altar/cave known as Jesus’ birthplace and get back to Jerusalem.
Why visit the West Bank?
So why on earth would you want to be a tourist in Palestine? The West Bank is not a place for an easy going, relaxing vacation but it doesn’t mean it shouldn’t be visited. For me travel isn’t all about sandy beaches, palm trees and pina coladas (although those do make for a great trip, too!). For me it’s about seeing different places and how people live around the globe and let’s face it, not everybody is living the dream.
Having seen what people in the West Bank have to live with every day and how absurdly different their lives are from my own truly makes me appreciate growing up in one of the most peaceful countries in the world. This was an unusual destination but like on any other trip I met lovely locals, saw interesting places and sure learnt a whole lot.
Have you visited places that are not typical tourist destinations? Would you consider a visit to the West Bank if you were visiting Israel or Jordan anyway?