The old bus comes to an abrupt halt near some semblance of a road that retreats into a faraway hill. I climb outside onto a crumbling sidewalk and start moving toward the large grey structure looming in the distance. Each step kicks up a cloud of fine, sticky dust, the kind that gets into everything. Barbed wire fence runs on the left. A handful of kids play ball on the other side of the street.
Less than six miles from the gates of Jerusalem’s Old City, Bethlehem could not be a more different world. A journey that would — under normal circumstances — take 20 minutes takes three times as long. Few things are normal here.
This is Palestine.
I decided to board a bus to Bethlehem on a whim. It was Shabbat, a time when Jerusalem slows to a lull from sundown Friday to sundown Saturday. Only halfway certain about the steps I needed to take to get there, I waited for “the Arab bus” outside Jaffa Gate.
An older man separated from a group of about five. “Bethlehem?” he asked. I nodded. We gesticulated as best as we could for the next few minutes and I understood that I needed to follow his lead. When he got on bus number 231 with a blue ribbon running across its short sides, I did the same.
The hour-long bus ride took us through checkpoints and routes that looked like a tangled thread ball stretched across the giant patchwork of land. When we finally reached the center of Bethlehem, I thanked my guide and disembarked.
This is when I saw it.
My knowledge about the ongoing Israeli/Palestinian conflict had been limited to what I could gather from the U.S.-based headlines. I knew there was a wall, but it was so far removed from my daily routine and anything I’d ever encountered on my travels, that — if I am completely honest — the existence of the actual barrier separating parts of Palestine from Israel didn’t fully register in my mind.
Now, I stand in front of a 30-foot-high cement monster. A grocery store 100-feet away carries yogurt and American chip brands. Beat up Toyota cars zip past, the latest pop hits blasting from open windows. Another group of kids runs by me, holding kites they’re eager to launch into the high noon sky. The normalcy of this moment, played out in the surreal setting, shocks me.
Somehow, I keep walking.
Messages of hope and resilience are plastered all over the wall.
“BREAK THIS WALL.”
“WE ALL BLEED THE SAME COLOR.”
“MAKE HUMMUS, NOT WALLS.”
It breaks my heart.
I reach The Walled Off Hotel, the newly opened creation of the reclusive British artist, Banksy. A stint, political statement, and art project all at once, the thriving hotel only feet away from the wall has been attracting crowds of locals and visitors for a few months now.
Conversations about building walls have entered our daily lives, but they often focus on politics and ideologies rather than the reality of living near one such barrier. I speak to Abdulhadi, who wants me to change his name if I ever report on our conversation. “We are prisoners here,” he tells me, simply, with a smile.
Later, in the sanctity of my hotel room back in Jerusalem, I read up on the conflict. Citing security reasons, the Israeli forces began construction of the wall in 2002. Its placement and very existence has since proven to be highly controversial. Roughly following the West Bank/Israeli border, in some areas, the barrier goes deep inside the Palestinian territories, restricting movement for a large number of people living on either side.
As travelers, we move through space freely. It is simply how we traverse the world. It is something we often take for granted.
I no longer do.