This section originates from information collected for the guidebook published in 2000.
During our survey for the guide, we visited all the main areas under both Israeli and Palestinian control, including some which are regarded as particularly sensitive. We took local advice about the security situation and not only did we have no problems but we were welcomed almost wherever we went. For visiting some of the places you might like to consider using the services of Alternative Tours or of The Alternative Tourism Group, details below.
Alternative Tours, c/o Jerusalem Hotel, Nablus Road, East Jerusalem website:www.jrshotel.com email: firstname.lastname@example.org Tel/Fax: 02 628-3282. The hotel itself is within easy reach of the Old City, and a number of ‘Experience Palestine Tours’ are run from it. These can include Hebron, Ramallah and Nablus, Bethlehem, Gaza, Nazareth and visits to refugee camps. We used AT to organise a visit to Gaza, and our guide was both interesting and helpful.
The Alternative Tourism Group (ATG), POB 173, Beit Sahour, West Bank website:www.patg.org email: email@example.com Tel: 02 277-2151 Fax: 02 277-2211. The ATG and the Alternative Information Centre are grassroots groups that are striving to create a platform for Palestinian-Israeli cooperation. There are both Israelis and Palestinians who are working to create a society of peace and justice for both peoples, and the Alternative Tours Programme offers visitors a unique insight into some of the realities of life in the area. Some of the tours have a religious focus, some highlight the history and culture of the peoples, while others look at the latest political and social developments. Two of these tours are called: ‘People in Struggle; Palestinians under occupation’ and ‘Palestine and the Other Israel; Meeting Israeli-Palestinian NGOs’. They involve people-to-people interaction, and can be tailored to meet any visiting groups specific needs. We used ATG to organise visits to Hebron, Nablus and Gaza, and found our various guides to be interesting, flexible and wholly constructive.
At the time of writing early in 2000, the outcome of the Oslo Peace Process is still uncertain. It has sadly been delayed and bogged down time and time again, but there are some territories which can now use the Palestinian flag and are under the total control of the PNA. Others, currently come under some kind of joint jurisdiction, while some of the occupied West Bank is under total Israeli control. The division of the land has brought all kinds of problems. Area A is controlled by the Palestinian Authority, but consists of a tiny part of what was (pre-1967) the West Bank of the Jordan. Area B is jointly controlled, and some of this territory may be handed over to the PNA as part of the negotiated settlement. Area C is the parts of the West Bank currently under Israeli control. Palestinians who live in these areas need permits to travel to other areas, and to Palestinian towns (in Israel) such as Nazareth. Local Palestinians cannot travel from Bethlehem to Ramallah via Jerusalem (the most direct route), and vehicles with Palestinian registration plates cannot travel outside their particular area without a pass or permit. It is not the function of a guide like this to comment on the politics, except in so far as they affect access, and the current borders between the areas under different jurisdictions do certainly make travelling around more difficult. During our surveying we visited the Princess Basma Centre for the Rehabilitation of Disabled Children which serves the Palestinian community, and is situated on the Mount of Olives in East Jerusalem. Its work was being severely hampered by the current travel restrictions. We hope and pray that these and other problems will be resolved, so that the different communities in the Land can live and work together after a just settlement. This process has not been helped by recent events and the second intifada.
Driving up from Jerusalem through Ramallah and Nablus takes you through some magnificent rock-strewn and hilly Biblical scenery. Signposting is relatively poor or non-existent, and can be confusing, as new Israeli settlements are better signed than some of the main towns. There is also an extensive network of bypass roads, not yet shown on most maps. We managed to get off the main route from Ramallah to Nablus, thus seeing some wonderful scenery, but at one point the signs were so poor that we did a neat loop around the same roads, saying after a while “We’ve been here before ……….. !”.
One of the really nice souvenirs to take home (in our view) is some of the stamps issued by the PNA. Not only are they well designed and colourful, but they are a way of buying something that directly supports the local economy, even if only in a small way.
Bethlehem is the most visited place within the PNA areas. It is the traditional site of the birthplace of Jesus, and this fact has distorted the economic base of the town, as it is heavily dependent on the tourist and pilgrimage business. Note that because of the different calendars, there are three Christmas celebrations – the Roman Catholic/Protestant one, the Orthodox one and the Armenian one.
It’s a relatively short taxi ride from Jerusalem, provided you can get one that is cleared to travel across the Israeli/PNA boundary (and agree the price before setting out). If you’re driving yourself, even though it is only some 8km south of Jerusalem, it isn’t that easy to find. You go south on the Hebron Road, and past the Mar Elias Monastery on the left. A little further on, you come to a major junction and traffic lights, with one of the new bypass roads going off to the right to Hebron. Extraordinarily, Bethlehem is not signed here, though in fact what you do is simply to go straight on. About 0.5km further on you meet the PNA/Israeli checkpoint, where there may be a queue. On either side of the border you will find service taxis, since many of those operating within the PNA area are not allowed to take their vehicle across the border. At a busy time, such as when Palestinian workers are either coming from or going to Jerusalem, the whole road can be bedlam, with many cars doing U-turns in the confined space and cutting across the traffic passing through.
Once inside the PNA area, navigating and finding your way is not easy, as there are very few signs and because of the hills, two-dimensional maps are not always clear. Manger Street is very long, and is not remotely straight. Two thirds of the way along there’s a huge U-shaped bend. The route we followed in order to find Manger Square was as follows. Follow Manger Street from the checkpoint, past Rachel’s Tomb where there is a strong Israeli military presence with heavily armed soldiers. Carry on until you come to a four-storey brick building on the right by some traffic lights, above which you can see a three-tier bell tower. Turn up the hill towards a mosque minaret straight ahead, and you will reach the top of the hill level with Manger Square. There is a map of central Bethlehem in the guidebook, showing the step free routes around Manger Square and the Souq.
We include some sample write-ups:
Rachel’s Tomb, Manger Street is about 500m past the main checkpoint if you come in from Jerusalem. She was Jacob’s second wife, and died in giving birth to Benjamin. In Jewish tradition she is regarded as the ‘mother of the nation’, and many Jewish women come here to pray for fertility or for a safe delivery. Parking is usually possible on the street outside. The shrine is a small synagogue with both a men’s section (considerably larger) and a women’s section, both of which are at ground level and separated by a curtain. Access is via a kerb +1 [15cm], and then +1 [6cm] step. Inside, a ramp bypasses the -4. Beyond the ramp, men need to put on a kippa (skull cap). The men’s section is to the right and down a corridor where three sides of the black-shrouded tomb are exposed. The route is step free. Women go a little further on, and access to their section is via -1-2.
Manger Square is the central focus for Bethlehem. It was looking rather like a building site when we visited, as there were extensive preparations being made for the Millennium celebrations. It was being paved and pedestrianised. This is a potential problem for disabled visitors, as the square is at the top of a hill, and you used to be able to come up and park in the square itself. Accessibility is now affected by how close you can get with a car or taxi, and where you can stop, as to how easy it is to get up to the square. This will depend on how crowded it is at the time. Parking is difficult, less so if you come off peak. Down the road from the drop-off point by Manger Square, numerous small boys will offer to find you a space (possibly some way away), for a suitable fee – and they will ‘watch your car’. The problem is that the roads around Manger Square are narrow and busy, and one way to tackle the problem is to park a little way away, and get a taxi in both directions, perhaps even from just inside the Israel/PNA border. You might find that reduces the hassle. Around the square are some shops which have ramped access from the end of the walkway in front of them nearest to the post office.
The Church of the Nativity is the oldest complete and working church in Christendom, and is built over the traditional place of Jesus’ birth. It was restored by the Crusaders, and later again in the 17thC. The easiest way into the church for many people is via St Catherine’s which is joined to the older church down one side. This route is not always available, particularly during a two-hour lunch time. However, there is a bell outside St Catherine’s and usually someone is on duty to open up for easier access. The problem with the main entrance to the old church is over an awkward tall threshold, and through a low door H175. Apparently the low door was to stop people riding into church ! It’s really difficult for a chair user, even with two strong friends, and the St Catherine’s route is certainly better. Once in the cloister, there are two ways into the Nativity Church, either over a rough threshold, or via a step. Neither is a major problem.
Inside the Church of the Nativity, the main nave is flat, with various old mosaics under the floor, and with fold-back panels in the floor. There is a raised area (+4) where the Armenian altar and worship area are. To get down to the grotto, there are some -15 large steps and a door 60cm wide. It is actually slightly easier for a chair user, and for some other people with disabilities to use the exit, as it is normally less crowded, and the door is slightly wider (at 65cm). An important difference.
St Catherine’s, the Franciscan Church next door, is flat, with access via the courtyard (a medieval cloister) which was described above as part of the route for getting into the Church of the Nativity. It is where the service which is broadcast around the world takes place on Christmas Eve, December 24th. It is quite a modern building, decorated, not unnaturally, with Catherine Wheels in remembrance of the Saint who was martyred on such a wheel centuries ago. There is a separate access to a grotto area underneath via -28 to the main section, and then a few more steps to other parts.