“How much for the bullet?” I asked. It wasn’t really for sale, or even on display, but I could see it on a shelf behind some half-used cans of spray paint. The proprietor called his shop a gallery, but it was more of a garage, and he was selling Banksy and Banksy-esque ripoff graphics on T-shirts and poster paper. Location is everything in retail, and he was well-placed to move this inventory: right under the separation wall.
It is natural to want a memento from travel - a souvenir to take home and place on the coffee table - an object to stir the memory, or start a conversation.
There is no shortage of souvenirs to buy in Palestine. Carved crosses and nativity sets, ornaments laser-cut from olive wood - you can buy them absolutely everywhere.
But I’m not a collector of ornaments, and I’m not done processing the cultural and political pieces of what I’ve seen in Palestine, so maybe instead of trying to decide which thing to buy, I should ask myself “what do I want to remember?”.
Among other things, I want to remember Ahmad Mograbi. He works in a store in Jericho which sells art glass from Hebron. It’s the kind of store where your mother tells you to put your hands in your pockets and not touch anything. MSL and I did some shopping, and as we were leaving, Ahmad saw my footwear and asked if they were real Keen sandals. It seems that Keens are difficult to get in Palestine.
I don’t know Ahmad very well, and we didn’t have much time to get acquainted. He was friendly and enthusiastic and appeared to be solidly middle-class. The city he lives in, Jericho, is a nice enough place that people go there when they retire - like a Palestinian Phoenix. In the grand scope of all of humanity, there are a lot of people in the world worse-off than Ahmad, living in places a lot worse than Jericho. But he couldn’t get Keen sandals there.
The fact that a person cannot purchase a particular brand of consumer goods is not a definition of oppression, but it tells us something when a Palestinian is unable to purchase Keen sandals, while an Israeli just a few miles away has no problem doing so. It tells us something because it is the State of Israel which controls the movement of people and goods into and out of Palestine.
Ahmad wanted Keen sandals badly enough that he proposed a trade, right there and then. I only had a moment to think about it - our bus was loading, they were waiting for us, it was time to go.
It was a weird proposition, but I sensed the seed of a story, so we traded shoes. I gave him my Keens and I took, as a souvenir, his Adidas. I probably won’t display them on the coffee table, but they’ll remind me of Ahmad, and that not everyone who lives under the control of the State of Israel lives under the same set of rules.
Allies, friends, The Good Guys - that’s how I’ve always thought of the modern State of Israel. Israel has been a good partner for my country, the United States, in a region where we don’t have many of those. I celebrate that after thousands of years of persecution, and the horrors of the Holocaust, that the international community made a way for the Jewish people to have a homeland to call their own.
But that’s where things get problematic because there were already people living there when the Brits and the UN gave David Ben Gurion the keys to the place in 1948. From the beginning, Israel has had to be aggressive and proactive in its defense.
The ongoing struggle to control the local territory has been bloody, with attacks and all-out war perpetrated by both sides, even drawing neighboring nations into the conflict. Israel has emerged as the stronger power and now occupies and/or controls areas that were intended to be Palestinian: the Golan Heights, Gaza Strip, the West Bank. The resentment in the Arab community is enormous.
An hour or so after trading shoes with Ahmad, as we traveled the main Jericho-to-Jerusalem road, we approached Al-Khan Al-Ahmar, a village where mostly Bedouin Arabs have lived for longer than Israel has existed as a nation.
Al-Khan Al-Ahmar sits low on the side of a hill of scrubland, solidly inside the West Bank - unquestionably Palestinian territory. But the State of Israel has its own plans for that hillside, and orders have been given for the army to clear the Arabs out.
This kind of thing is rarely reported in the Western press, but it happens all the time. An internet search will show the maps of Palestinian land that Israel intends to develop for its own use, and the Palestinians who live there will simply have to go live somewhere else. They have virtually no say in the matter.
Israel will take homes, farms, even entire cities. They may raze them and build new, or simply let Israelis move right in. It’s not colonization, it’s conquest. When you understand this, it isn’t hard to see why Palestinians feel as though their country is being stolen from them.
As you might expect, the eviction order has enraged the people of Al-Khan Al-Ahmar and things were getting tense in the village. We weren’t supposed to see it.
As our bus approached the area, we encountered some traffic congestion at an intersection. It appeared that police were in the process of setting up a roadblock to direct traffic away from Al-Khan Al Ahmar. The barricades were not yet in-place. Another bus was stopped in the intersection and was occupying the attention of the officials. Our driver quickly assessed the situation and executed a brilliant work-around, and with the officials still distracted by the other bus, we went forward on the road that they were trying to close.
“You’re going to see something here”, our tour guide said. I didn’t get my camera out fast enough. Parked on the roadside were Israeli military and police personnel, armored vehicles, and ambulances staged for action. On the right was the village of Al-Khan Al-Ahmar. Angry people were massing and preparing for confrontation - fists were raised, a fire burned in a rusty barrel, Palestinian flags were flying. The shit was about to hit the fan.
I wish our bus had been going slower. I wish I had been faster to get my camera ready. I wish I could have stayed to watch - not to turn an unfortunate situation into a spectacle - but I’m curious, just what, exactly, does it look like when an occupying power moves into a village with bulldozers and levels the place, leaving the residents homeless and their livelihoods destroyed? Is it as coarse as it sounds?
Badly framed and poorly focused, shot from the window of a moving bus, I only got a few lousy pictures of Al-Khan Al-Ahmar to keep as souvenirs, but I’m not likely to forget the fleeting glimpse imprinted in my mind of those people about to lose everything.
It was a turning point in how I view my friend, my ally, Israel, because now I’ve seen his dark side. This dark side is not often fully presented in our Western media. We’ll see the pictures of the angry Palestinian crowds - but we rarely hear the full story of the Israeli provocation.
Even here, in the very land itself, it would be possible to be a tourist and not get a sense of the politics of the place. Tourists come by the hundreds of thousands to Israel and Palestine. They join tours where a bus picks them up in the morning, and after a full day of visiting sites significant to their faith, the bus drops them off again at their hotels in the evening.
The tour buses breeze right through the checkpoints, so unless you’re paying attention and asking pointed questions about what you see outside the window - like why everyone else has to stop and be questioned by the soldiers - you may not notice the controls on how people move around, because you, yourself, seem to move so freely.
If you don’t notice the high triple-fence with the razor wire and specifically ask about it, you may never know that it is to separate Israeli land from Palestinian land, but that Israel built the fence not on the actual border, but around the land it wants to keep for itself.
If someone doesn’t explain to you that the cluster of fresh-looking houses on that hilltop are an Israeli settlement on Palestinian land, you would have no idea that it was anything other than a housing development. The houses are clean and white and modern and so they add an air of progress and prosperity to the picture of the landscape, but the reality is that the development is part of a strategic plan to push Palestinians further from their land.
If you don’t ask why the visit to Hebron was suddenly removed from tomorrow’s itinerary, you may not know that there was an “incident” and things are “escalating”, and that the fighting is real, happening right now, and not very far away.
When you travel with your eyes and ears open, and you ask a few questions, you begin to realize that there is more to the Israeli / Palestinian situation than we often hear at home. I’ve never been so naive as to think that Israel is always noble and fair in the way they prosecute their side of the conflict, but I didn’t realize the extent of their intentional oppression of the Palestinian people. It was shocking and bewildering to see, and hugely disappointing to discover about my ally.
Wikipedia tells me that Bethlehem and Jerusalem are six kilometers apart. That’s not very far - you can easily walk that distance in less than 90 minutes. The cities have grown and the surrounding rings of development have merged into each other, as cities tend to do. They’re so close that you could throw a rock from Bethlehem to Jerusalem - or a hand grenade - and enough people have done so that the Israelis have built a wall.
It’s a real separation wall like they used to have in Berlin. It might be the ugliest thing I’ve seen, but I guess aesthetics aren’t the point.
Tensions between Israelis and Palestinians flared in the late 1990s and early 2000s and rather than do something noble, like look for a solution to ease them, Israel built this damn thing. Their solution to the divided people was to divide them further.
From a security standpoint, the wall has been a success - drastically reducing attacks - but from a standpoint of advancing understanding or lasting solutions, from a standpoint of moving people toward being able to trust each other, it has done absolutely nothing.
Many Americans don’t realize that Bethlehem is not an Israeli city, it is a Palestinian city, but Israel controls the access. Israel forbids its citizens from from entering Bethlehem at all, and the comings and goings of Palestinians are regulated at Israeli military checkpoints. The peaceful little town that we sing about at Christmas time is actually a city with a wall around it, and the guns in the towers point inward like a prison.
I loved walking Bethlehem’s streets and I felt perfectly safe doing so, but you can only walk so far before you hit the wall, and there it is in all its hulking, menacing presence. The Palestinians, to their credit, have turned it into a giant canvas for street art. It is along the wall and in the surrounding areas of Bethlehem and Beit Sahour that Banksy took his stand with simple, clever images of peace and resistance.
Other painters have created large, ambitious murals, used stencils to apply slogans, and still others have just scrawled profanity on the wall, but none of it is any more profane than the wall itself.
Immovable, impenetrable, intimidating: the wall stands as a crushing representation of Israel’s approach to coexistence. Slab-sided, monolithic, Brutalist: the wall has no regard for neighborhoods or human connection. Manger Street, a major Bethlehem artery, used to be one of those connectors, but now it stops dead where the wall crosses it.
In my short stay, I came to love Bethlehem, and all of Palestine that I was able to see. I also loved Israel. I loved the landscapes and the people and the food and the hospitality on both sides. I loved the immense history of the Holy Land and the feeling that the region is both everlasting and ever-changing.
But, after all I’ve seen, I have to ask my friend, my ally, Israel, why some of the people under their control can move around more freely than others, and why some have legal recourse for their grievances and others don’t, and why some people are systematically pushed aside to make room for others. And I have to ask why, when that intentionally-oppressed population protests, they are shot.
I support Israel’s existence as a nation and I agree with Israel’s right to vigorously defend itself. But the Palestinians have legitimate complaints about the occupying force, and no real recourse - no real pathway to resolution - and so it is no wonder that they become frustrated to the point of violence.
I understand that the occupation of Palestine grew from Israel’s struggle for survival. But after fifty years, the time has come to either give the Palestinians back their land, or find a way to bring them into full citizenship.
I came to the Holy Land to see the historical sites, but I’m taking home new questions about the political and humanitarian situation of today. Maybe these questions will be my souvenirs, along with Ahmad’s shoes, the pictures of Al-Khan Al-Ahmar, and the bullet.
So, how much for the bullet? The proprietor of the gallery reached back behind the paint cans and pulled out the spent projectile. It’s not a bullet per se, it is actually the tip of a 40mm sponge round. Sometimes when the Israelis shoot at the Palestinians they don’t want to kill them.
A sponge round is shot from the same gun that would shoot a tear gas canister, or a grenade. It might be non-lethal, but it would definitely knock you on your ass, break a rib or two, and redirect your attention.
The proprietor of the Gallery Under The Wall had difficulty believing that of all the artwork in his shop, I wanted a used rubber bullet for a souvenir, so I bought some postcards too.
The Banksy art that he sells is designed to draw attention to the Palestinian perspective, and the bullet can’t help but do the same thing. You can’t see it and not wonder about the circumstances in which it was fired, and who it hit.
“For you, the bullet is my gift”, he said. The gallery owner didn’t seem to mind parting with it. I guess he knows how to get another one.