- Visited September 2018
The biblical birthplace of Jesus, Bethlehem is a Palestinian town south of Jerusalem in the West Bank. My experience there was not a spiritual one (I will explain…) but it was incredibly thought-provoking and moving. Many people come here on a day trip from Jerusalem mainly to see the 6th-century Church of the Nativity but I would encourage travellers open to educating themselves about the current situation in the West Bank to stay overnight and explore the town beyond Manger Square to really understand what life is like for the Palestinians who call this area home.
As a massive Banksy fan, my initial reason for visiting was to stay in The Walled Off Hotel, the hotel Banksy opened in 2017 directly opposite the Israeli West Bank Barrier. However, I got so much more out of my visit than just a nice stay in a quirky art hotel and I’m really pleased I choose to visit the West Bank.
To get to Bethlehem you can take an Israeli Egged bus or the Arab bus. Israeli buses do not run during the weekly Shabbat so if you intend to visit from Jerusalem on a Saturday, your only options are the Arab bus or a taxi (an Israeli taxi will have to drop you at the Checkpoint as they are not permitted to enter). I took Arab bus 234 from the station near Damascus Gate and it cost 5 NIS (the Israeli bus is slightly more expensive and requires a RAV KAV travel card to ride) which dropped me off at Checkpoint 300, as this was nearer to the Banksy hotel than the bus which takes you all the way into Bethlehem town centre (bus 231). Getting through the Checkpoint just entailed passing through an unmanned turnstile, walking through a barbwire-topped tunnel and then exiting through a second turnstile (the Checkpoint when you leave is more rigorous – bags have to be scanned in an x-ray machine and you will have to show your passport and Israeli visa entry card). Outside plenty of taxis wait for tourists, to take them to hotels or give tours of the town if required. A friend of mine took a tour and paid 120 NIS for three hours. As the Banksy hotel is a short walk from the Checkpoint, I didn’t intend getting a taxi but there was an incident… Five minutes into my walk following the route on Google Maps, a taxi abruptly pulled up in front of me, blocking me from walking forward. The driver hopped out and proceeded to tell me I was heading into a dangerous area, that I had walked through the wrong checkpoint, I wouldn’t be able to get to the Banksy hotel on my current route as he said it was on the other side of the wall, and that he wanted to help me. Gut instinct told me he was having me on but he was so insistent I went with it. He drove me to my hotel – and then had the cheek to ask for 50 NIS. I negotiated him down to 10 NIS and later learned that he had indeed misled me; the point he had stopped me was actually only five minutes away (round the corner) from the hotel. It was not the nicest experience to begin my Bethlehem stay but I like to think, now I know more about the situation for residents here, that he conned me because he really needed the money.
That incident aside, the rest of my stay was positive. The Banksy hotel is a twenty-five minute walk from the centre of Bethlehem. After I checked in, I set off to find the Church of the Nativity. A walk down Star Street, the oldest street in Bethlehem, led me to Manger Square and the Church. Whilst the church itself is lovely, with some beautifully preserved mosaics, it is best visited early in the morning as it was very busy when I arrived, with large tour groups dominating the space. I queued about an hour to be able to go down a small flight of stairs to the silver star that marks Jesus’ birthplace. There was very nearly a punch up between visitors in the queue, who were frustrated by the tour guides of small private tours skipping the line, and then when I finally got down to the alter with the star inside, a man was shouting at people to crouch down two at a time, touch the star and then go – strictly no star hogging allowed! The whole experience was about as spiritual as toe fungus but I imagine when the church is devoid of tour groups, that it’s probably a nice place to visit. A short walk from the star attraction (no pun intended…) you can find the Milk Grotto. Whilst the Church of the Nativity was packed full of visitors, I found the Milk Grotto to be completely empty when I arrived. There is no charge to visit either the Church of the Nativity or the Milk Grotto.
In the evening, myself and my dorm mate, a lovely Irish guy, did a walking tour arranged by the hotel. Local man, Marwan, picked us up, took us along the wall, explaining the stories behind some of the artwork, and then onto the Palestinian Aida Refugee Camp. On the way to the camp, he showed us the bottles of urine, rubbish and scraps of food that had been thrown by soldiers from the Israeli watch tower onto the Palestinian cemetery below. It was absolutely disgusting and Marwan was understandably angry about the disrespect. At the camp we met with Mustafa, an articulate young man who spoke to us about the time he had spent in prison after being arrested as a teenager for throwing stones at Israeli soldiers. We walked the streets of the camp, seeing a school with a UN sign on the rooftop and boarded up windows – the windows had had to be covered as the school kept being a target for sniper attacks. Curious kids greeted us with shyly uttered Salams and despite the hardships the people there endure, I got the sense of a strongly bonded community who do what they can for each other, as they attempt to live normal lives.
Visiting the West Bank was a complete eye-opener. Prior to my visit, I had naively assumed that the conflict here had settled down and was essentially a thing of the past. Not true. Meeting the locals, seeing the camp and also spending time at the museum about the wall in the Banksy hotel, made it clear to me that the conflict is very much a contemporary issue and the lives of the Palestinians here continue to be adversely affected by the separation wall.
If you choose to come to Bethlehem, I really recommend taking the time to visit the wall, the museum in The Walled Off Hotel and the refugee camp. Travellers have a responsibility to educate themselves about the places they visit. Though some have accused Banksy of fetishising the wall for profit, Marwan told me that he is grateful to the street artist for bringing travellers to the area; he said as long as people keep coming, he still has hope that the wall will one day come day and his life, and the lives of others, will change for the better. Check out the website https://volunteerpalestine.com/ if you are interested in learning about volunteer opportunities.
Selection of pictures from my stay: