June 1, 2008
On Saturday, I took a half-day tour to Bethlehem. That city of 120,000 is only about 6 miles south of Jerusalem, but getting there instructs one about the tensions that exist here. The tour company collected the few of us who were going on the tour in a taxi and drove us to the checkpoint in the wall at Bethlehem. I had seen the wall from a distance -- specifically, from the observation point above the Mishkenot Shaananim, where I've been staying. But that sighting was of something in the far distance that didn't look that imposing. Up close, as at the Bethlehem checkpoint, the wall is tremendously imposing. It must be at least 15 feet high, topped with barbed wire and with observation towers built in periodically. It's not merely that this imposing structure is likely to be effective at its task; it's more that the wall so eloquently intrudes between two people -- an "us" and a "them."
We had to get out of our taxi, pass through the checkpoint, showing our passports to a guard in a fortified glass booth and alternating with people coming the other way (from Bethlehem to Jerusalem), showing work permits or some other document, and then meet our guide on the other side of the wall.
The tour of the sites in Bethlehem was excellent. Let me just remark on two facts. First, Bethlehem is mountainous. I've remarked before on the extraordinary hilliness of Jerusalem. Bethlehem is more severe. Simply driving around the city involves going up and down very, very steep roads. It makes one wonder what impelled people to settle here some 5,000 years ago. Second, the centerpiece of the tour is Manger Square and the churches there. Over the cave in which Mary had Jesus and laid him down in swaddling clothes in a manger, there is a large and impressive church, originally built by Helen, the mother of Constantine, and since modified by many other hands. To get to the grotto of Jesus' birth involves walking down a staircase to the side of the altar. Given how holy Christians consider this site to be, it should be no wonder that it is extremely crowded with many devout people praying and exhibiting profound emotion. What was notable to me about the church above this sacred site was that it is controlled by three different sects of Christianity -- the Greek Orthodox, Armenian Orthodox, and Roman Catholic Churches. Pursuant to an agreement among the three dating from the 19th century, each of those three has responsibility for a limited section of the church. None has responsibility for the overall church, nor have they agreed upon a council or third-party to take responsibility for the whole church. The result is that the three portions are each in reasonable shape but the whole church is shabby. (I should exempt the Catholic Church of St. Catherine from this description.) Talk about a collective-action problem.
Coming back from Bethlehem to Jerusalem, we took a taxi without having to get out and go through the checkpoint. The taxi was, however, stopped at a checkpoint and inspected by Israeli Defense Force members.
Our very able tour guide, Samuel, is an Arab Christian who cannot travel across the checkpoint except on Christmas and Easter. Cheerful though he generally was, he was clearly exercised about the wall and the exclusionary policies (as he thought them to be) of the Israeli authorities and very exercised about the Israeli settlements in the territories. He pointed out to us a complex on a hillside near Bethlehem that he said was such a settlement and reported that it had once been a lovely forest preserve and was now condominiums, only 20 percent of which (he claimed) were occupied.
A quick word about the settlements. I know that this is a vexed issue, and I don't intend to comment on that aspect. What I do want to say is that the impression that many Americans might have (as did I before I came here) that the settlements are temporary, slap-up housing meant solely to put a footprint on the ground is wrong. The settlements that I have seen are not inexpensive cinder-block structures of modest means. They are full-blown cities.
When one drives from Jerusalem to the Dead Sea, one goes straight down into the Jordan Valley and the territories. One passes, shortly out of Jerusalem, Maale Adumim, one of the settlements. Some of my Israeli friends had told us to take a look at that settlement to get an idea of the issues that the settlements present. So, we took a look. Maale Adumum, really a suburb of Jerusalem, is a city, pure and simple. It has apartments, landscaped stand-alone houses, shopping centers, gas stations, parks, schools, and all the other things that you would expect to see if you drove into a town or city. Our strong impression was, "These people live here and aren't going anywhere." I find it very, very hard to imagine that a peace settlement, when it comes, will involve the forceful evacuation of Maale Adumum (and, perhaps, other West Bank settlements) like those we saw when the Israeli government evacuated the settlers from Gaza. The West Bank settlements may present a far more sticky problem in the peace negotiations than I had thought to be the case.
My class at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem Faculty of Law is over. I'm taking a tour of Yad Vashem this morning (about which I'll report later), and I'll return to the United States very early on Tuesday.
June 1, 2008 | Permalink
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