“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 - they must sell these things by the hundreds of thousands. 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 footware and asked if they were real Keen sandals. It seems that Keens are difficult to get in Palestine.
Now, 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: well-fed and well-clothed. The city he lives in, Jericho, is a desert oasis with a warm and dry climate and a reliable water source. It is a nice enough place that people go there when they retire - like Phoenix, only Arab and smaller. 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 man cannot purchase a particular brand of consumer goods is not a definition of oppression or tyranny, but it is a place to start thinking about the political situation between Israel and Palestine. It tells us something about Palestinian life when a person who is ambitious and employed is unable to purchase Keen sandals on his side of the fence, but an Israeli citizen on the other side 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.
Palestinian people like Ahmad who want Keen sandals are just out of luck. They have to wear something else on their feet. Ahmad was wearing a pair of fashionable, blue-gray Adidas. Those, apparently, are available, but he wanted my Keens.
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 when I see them, I’ll remember Ahmad and I’ll remember how not everyone who lives under the control of the State of Israel has the same economic access. I’ll remember that as a tourist with an American passport, I had more freedom than he did, in the place that he calls home. Something doesn’t seem quite right about that.
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 good partners. 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.
The intention was to allow the formation of one political state for the Jewish people and another one for the Arabs - the Two State Solution. But the Jewish state was not particularly welcome in the neighborhood, and from the beginning, Israel has had to be aggressive and proactive in its defense - I understand this and am hawkish enough to say that I support this, in a conceptual, big-picture way.
But when the picture gets smaller, and you start talking to people living in the Palestinian territories, some uncomfortable truths emerge about our ally. The State of Israel has never accepted the two-state solution and has fought vigorously to oppose it.
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.
Because of Israel’s opposition, the Arab Palestinian government has never been allowed to form in a truly effective way and it isn’t hard to see that Israel has a systematic plan to fragment the Palestinian Territories so that they never will be governable as a separate Arab state. When you consider their point of view, it isn’t hard to see why Palestinians feel as though their country has been stolen from them.
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 decided that that particular hillside would be a swell place for new houses for Israeli citizens and orders have been given for the police and the army to move in, and clear the Arabs out.
This kind of thing is rarely reported in the Western press, but it happens all the time. A quick internet search will show you 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.
The eviction order essentially says, “This land is not yours anymore - it’s ours now, so get out.” And the Israelis will take homes, farms, even whole cities. Sometimes they raze them and build new, and sometimes they simply let Israeli people move right into the existing structures. Palestinian families have been evicted from their land so that Israelis can move right into their homes. It’s not colonization, it’s conquest.
As you might expect, this has enraged the people of Al-Khan Al-Amar 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 and military personnel were in the process of setting up a roadblock. 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 out. I wish I could have stayed to watch - not because I have some sadistic need to see people fight, but because I want to understand how something like this plays-out. Just what, exactly, does it look like when an occupying power moves into a village with bulldozers and just 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 explored and 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 speak with 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 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.
You have to travel with your eyes and ears open, and you have to ask the questions.
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 our 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’s a separation wall like the one President Trump wants to build on our border with Mexico. 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 effective in reducing attacks, but from a standpoint of advancing understanding or lasting solutions, it has done nothing.
Many, if not most, Americans don’t realize that Bethlehem is not an Israeli city - it is a Palestinian city. Israeli citizens are are forbidden (by the Israeli government) 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.
Other painters have created large, ambitious murals, used stencils to apply slogans, and still others just scrawl 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, stops dead where the wall crosses it. I assume the road continues on the other side, but I have no way of knowing.
On both sides of the wall, life goes on, because what else can it do? 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 what I’ve seen, I have to ask my friend, my ally, Israel, why some of the people under their control can vote and others can’t, and why some can move around more freely than others, and why some have governmental representation and others don’t, and why some have legal recourse for their grievances and others don’t and why some people are continually pushed aside to make room for others. And I have to ask why, when that intentionally-oppressed population protests and resists, they are shot.
I support Israel’s existence as a nation. I agree with Israel’s right to vigorously defend itself. But the Palestinians are tired of being characterized as terrorists. They have legitimate complaints about the occupying force, but 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.
All of this brings us back to the original questions: what do I want to remember from this trip, what should I take home for a souvenir, and 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. Sometimes. And in those times they might use one of these sponge rounds. A sponge round is shot from the same gun that would shoot a tear gas canister, or a grenade, and it might be non-lethal, but it would definitely knock you on your ass, break a rib or two, and cause you to consider retreat as a viable option.
The proprietor of the Gallery Under The Wall had difficulty believing that of all the things in his shop, I wanted a used 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.