They set out from Bet-El [north of Ramallah]; but when they were still some distance from Efrat, Rachel went into childbirth, and she had hard labor. When her labor was at its hardest, the midwife said to her, “Have no fear, for it’s another boy for you.” But as she breathed her last—as she was dying—she named him Ben-Oni, but his father called him Benyamin. So Rachel died. She was buried on the road to Efrat—now Bet Lechem [Bethlehem]. Over her grave Jacob set up a pillar, it is the pillar at Rachel’s grave to this day.—Genesis 35:16-21
I have long wanted to walk between Jerusalem and Bethlehem, at least since one of my previous trips, maybe the second one. I realized the distance is short, some 5 miles, 8 km, and I’d been over the main route numerous times by bus and I think private vehicle. I knew the half closest to Jerusalem was often clogged with traffic and looked like any big city thoroughfare and the second appeared more rural. And I surely know about the checkpoint at the northern end of Bethlehem, having just navigated it with the Cambridge Bethlehem delegation last month. I wasn’t clear about biblical accounts of this path, whether Jesus as an adult ever walked it, whether his family brought him north after birth to settle in Nazareth or did they head immediately for Egypt to escape the slaughter of the innocents? I hoped to clarify some of my confusion and answer some questions by this walk, also to simply experience the route while imagining it 2000 yrs ago.
So on an unusually warm winter day, just 4 days before Christmas, one day after Eid Al Adha ended, and on winter solstice, I set out from the old city of Jerusalem, not sure how to thread my way thru the many fast paced roads south. While examining my map a Palestine tourist guide approached me and asked if he could help. I told him my plan. He objected, saying, “OIh, it’s a long distance and dangerous. You shouldn’t be walking it.” This message reminded me of the people in restaurants along the interstate in South Dakota when I stopped to ask about visiting local Indian reservations. “Oh, you shouldn’t do that, it’s dangerous. They’ll steal your car, hurt you.” The same fear blockage operating.
I told the man I had vowed to walk, it wasn’t that far (I said 3 miles, he claimed 8, both of us wrong), it was open highway, probably not dangerous except for being struck by a vehicle, and when I saw him relenting, I asked, “And which of these roads goes to Bethlehem?” He pointed the way. “Now,” he insisted, “if you need anything, here’s my mobile number just give me a call. I can enter Bethlehem, tour you around, show you whatever you want to see. I was supposed to meet a French couple here, they didn’t show up. Business is bad.”
Off I went, following his directions. I arrived in Bethlehem about 2.5 hrs later, stopping frequently to explore, photograph, and rest. The thought struck that this was Friday, my usual day for walking the city at home; I had just extended my range slightly. I felt jubilant, triumphant, filled with pride that I’d finally completed this walk—and that I’d made a few discoveries and had a set of photos that might make a slide show.
Inter alia (to use a preferred expression in these parts for among other things) discoveries: many Arab houses line the first half of the road, now lived in by Israelis, which is true for much of West Jerusalem. I photogaphed several, finding in front of one a large, probably pre-1948 cypress tree. Nearby a survey crew operated. The homes were all set about 3-4 m below street level, suggesting that this street was built upon older roads, as is true throughout the region. I know that much of the old city, the Via Dolorosa for instance, is at least 3 m above the original paving.
Near the half way point in the journey the demarcation between city and country, marked by the last turn off to Israeli settlements, I found a grove of what might have been fruit trees. One house sat upon this land. I walked beside it to the back and discovered a man standing in the back patio. He did not appear friendly altho he did greet me with shalom. I asked, “You live here?” “Yes.” “This your land?” “Yes.” “Grow anything on it?” “Yes.” He was not forthcoming and I did not push. Just thanked him and left, unclear about the land and the house and the man. Near this place was what looked like an old guard station or watchtower, maybe a remnant from the 1967 or 1948 wars.
In the last half of the route I found many olive groves, some old trees, some newly planted. Among them stood the ruins of more Arab houses and other installations. The arch is the usual tell tale sign. Also real limestone blocks, not just facing. An occasionally well built rock wall, the rocks of different shapes and sizes and painstakingly fitted together without mortar. At one such site I noticed embedded arches. Nearby this point I found one of the few Palestinian homes. From where I stood, it resembled a rough and crude dwelling, a shanty. In the distance a clump of sheep with a few shepherds. Up the hill from them was a pile of old railroad tracks, and behind their house was the glaring white monolith of the illegal Israeli settlement or colony, Har Homa. Will Har Homa soon expand and wipe out this family’s residence?
Kids were playing outside. Before they noticed me—I was at least 1/3 km away—I photoed a small girl carrying something in a container. They waved. I considered walking down to the family offering them the gift my daugher Katy had deposited with me according to the Jewish tradition of give someone a command and god will protect that person until the command is executed. But when I imagined trying to explain to them the part about needing a receipt, with my limited Arabic and their probably equally limited English, I demurred.
Very few other walkers joined me. I saw one elderly Jew, heading north, with a determined gait and posture. Palestinian men seemed to be waiting for vans. I was surprised by the mixture of people: Israelis usually in cars and large buses going into and out from the settlements and, sharing the rd, Palestinian serveeces (shared taxis) and vans traveling between Jerusalem and Bethlehem and to some of the small Arab villages along the route.
What are the relations between these neighbors? Do they mix socially at all? Doubtful, I’d say, except maybe during conflict. What is the potential for more positive blending? This requires vision and a degree of naiveté to suppose the cousins, all in some fashion descended from Abraham-Ibrahim, might some day shake hands, declare a truce with justice and peace, and work toward reconciliation: sharing the land of Canaan, as Mazen Qumsiyeh puts it in his book by the same title.
From Jerusalem the path is downhill, then up. Rarely is any land consistently flat in this mountainous region. As I ascended the last hill before Bethlehem I saw the wall that encircles the city. Behind the wall—and here it is truly a wall, 8 m high, solid concrete about 8 cm thick, with watchtowers—stand the settlements, 8 of them at least—Har Homa, Gilo, Har Gilo, Ephrata, Neve Daniyel, Teqoa, Rosh Zurim, and Elazar—which also surround the holy city. I paused, not wishing to too quickly pass thru the checkpoint—or, as some call it, the strangulation or choke point. Providence struck: two Palestinian men, one with a keffiyeh around his head, stood looking at the wall. A photo here. Dwarfed by the concrete, they were perhaps saying to each other, “Not forever brother, not forever.”
Rachel’s tomb is near here. Purportedly she died in childbirth (as many Palestinian women do currently at checkpoints—2 trapping Bethlehemites) and in grief her husband Jacob erected a memorial to her. Jewish women now pray here for fecundity and healthy deliveries. Jews, not Palestinians or Muslims. Christians OK if arriving with a Jewish tour group. Rachel is a figure in all 3 Abrahamic texts, most important to Jews (their third most holy site), but significant to others. Yet because of the restrictions from the occupation only a select number can visit and pray here. I wondered: I’m on foot, I’m not a Palestinian, not a Muslim, admittedly not a Jew, but I am a Christian. How do I enter the tomb walking from the Jerusalem side? I’ve yet to discover the answer. Before the beginning of the second intifada, 2000, this was not a question. As far as I know the tomb was open to all.
The checkpoint (machsom in Hebrew), like many others now, is replete with instructions, posters, hallways, narrow passageways beside glass enclosed soldiers, and turnstiles. The Arabic word for this device means chicken squasher, the set of metal blades that rips the feathers from the bird. Prominently displayed: “YOU ARE NOW ENTERING A MILITARY AREA. TO MAKE YOUR TRANSIT EASY AND TO AVOID UNNECESSARY DELAY FIRST READ THESE DIRECTIONS AND THEN OBEY THEM.”
Inside the Wall, on the Bethlehem side, on banners: “Peace be with you” (from the Israeli Ministry of Tourism.) And Jerusalem and Bethlechem (Hebrew spelling and pronunciation)—Love and Peace. Recalling the infamous and cruel words over the main gate of Auschwitz: Arbeit Macht Frei—Work Makes Free.
One might inquire: what is the point of a checkpoint into Bethlehem, Palestinian territory, Area A in Oslo parlance, under complete Palestinian control? Which fits-doesn’t fit with the fact that 95% of the checkpoints are within Palestine, not between Palestine and Israel. As is true for some 50% of the Annexation Wall, separating Palestinians from Palestinians. When will the international community wake up to this tragic reality? How long O lord?