A different tour of the Holy Land






(from PIEN supporter Colin Taylor)

IT’S hard to say what felt the saddest of the sights we encountered during our 90-minute walk along one small section of the Israelis’ West Bank barrier wall.

Was it the unworked olive grove, once lovingly tended by generations of Palestinians, but now locked away behind eight metres of impenetrable concrete? Maybe the family-owned souvenir shop/guest house, tightly hemmed in by the wall on three sides, or the long and sloping steel mesh walkway at Checkpoint 300, where workers are forced to queue for hours as they wait to cross in order to go to work in Jerusalem.

Was it the words and images painted on the wall itself or the poignant artworks and shocking museum displays housed in the quirky Walled Off Hotel on Caritas St?

I was in Bethlehem last November as part of a two-week, 21-person study tour organised for Whitley College in Melbourne.

After 10 days in both Israel and Jordan, being ferried around by tourist bus to one site of religious significance after another, we were given two days on the West Bank, hosted by the staff of Bethlehem Bible College.

Crossing the checkpoint from Jerusalem, we were strictly warned by our guide not to take photographs of the Israeli soldiers. Once through, the self-assuredness and order of the capital gave way to an atmosphere of quiet desperation and neglect.

Secure in the care of the college, we attended chapel, listened to lectures from senior staff and ate together, opening our minds and hearts to a glimpse of the realities faced by Palestinians in the shrinking prison of their occupied lands.

We were led on an impromptu walk along one small part of the wall, hearing about a few of the disturbing experiences visited upon local people, pausing to read the protests and pleas for freedom displayed on the grey concrete, gazing across at that lonely olive grove and making sure we bought something at the shop so cruelly enclosed by the wall’s architects.

The black humour of one local business, Wall Mart – which supplies art materials, spray paint, ladders and stencils – and the Walled Off Hotel, a project of renowned street artist Banksy, is inviting.  You think you’re going to be entertained by some clever art, but instead are smacked between the eyes – metaphorically speaking – by the intensity and deep sadness of the messages conveyed.

The hotel’s museum tells the full story of the occupation from a Palestinian viewpoint – cleverly, but with dramatic impact.

When our time was up in Bethlehem, we left for Amman, Jordan, and home.

The overwhelming feeling among the group was one of profound sadness for an oppressed people and regret that the world seems to care so little for their flickering hopes and daily struggles.

Support – from any quarter – appeared to us to be the only lifeline possible.