I've been in Tel Aviv for the last week and a half, and tomorrow I'm heading into the West Bank for the first time. This is, I think, my sixth or seventh visit to Israel, and I've toured most of the holy sites tourists normally visit: Jerusalem, of course, but also Nazareth, the Sea of Galilee, Capernaum, Yardenit, Jaffa, and many others. But I've been hesitant to head into the West Bank – for obvious reasons. I've decided to try it this time, though. If you haven't been to Israel, it's hard to make people believe that it doesn't feel like CNN makes it look. Here in Tel Aviv, the only sign of any tension is the security guards outside every restaurant, and the sign in Rabin Square (the plaza next door to our apartment) that reads, "תושבי תל-אביבת לתושבי שדרות: אנחנו עתכם" ("Citizens of Tel Aviv, to the citizens of Sderot: We are with you.") On the whole, Tel Aviv feels like any Mediterranean city: sunny, lots of cafes, great restaurants, a surprising excess of baby strollers. I feel safer in Tel Aviv, walking the half-mile from the office to the apartment at midnight, by myself, than I would feel in Seattle. You see single women walking alone after dark all the time: the city just feels safe.
But it's a different matter in the West Bank. I'm meeting Samuel Akleh, a Palestinian Christian, in Bethlehem at 8:30 tomorrow. Three weeks ago, his family's home was taken over by Israeli soldiers for seven hours, for use as a base of fire on the house next door – Samuel's brother tells the story here, here and here. When I tell my Israeli friends that I'm heading into Bethlehem, the typical response is something like, "You're kidding", or, "Please don't go there." For some years now, Israeli citizens haven't been allowed into most of the Western Bank, as it's generally too dangerous and provocative. It's somewhat different for US citizens, I believe, as they represent an important source of tourist dollars, but I suspect that the US is only slightly less popular than Israel.
Still, I'm looking forward to the visit. Bethlehem is arguably second in importance to Christians only after Jerusalem. I've been rereading the nativity stories (in Greek) to prepare myself. I'll try to write more from the hotel tomorrow night, but in the meantime, I have to get to bed, as I'll be getting up early.