Imagine a country where buses have bulletproof glass, teenagers casually walk around the streets with machine guns, and there are security checkpoints in shopping malls and movie theaters. This is Israel.
Jerusalem, by no means, is anything like the rest of Israel.  Stores close early, people dress very conservatively, and just about the entire city shuts down every Friday night through Saturday night for the Jewish Sabbath, or holy rest day.
If you're a Christian, Jerusalem might be one of the most meaningful places to go. Everywhere there's a place where Jesus slept, a place where he performed a miracle, a place where he lived, and a place where he died.

However, if you're not religious like myself, watching people line up for an hour to kiss a rock Jesus touched was a little unsettling to me and - dare I say it - even creeped me out a bit.
One thing I could appreciate about the city is its old sites and a sense of religious peace: there's a Muslim quarter, a Christian quarter, a Jewish quarter, and an Armenian orthodox quarter, all stacked together with little or no conflict.
I stayed at one of the biggest hostels I've ever seen (over 400 beds!). The Abraham Hostel, unlike the rest of Jerusalem, had an amazing bar, a smoking terrace, and loads of events every night from pub crawls to karaoke nights.
On trivia night, I teamed up with a few new friends and - 25 questions later - we were the winning team with 20 answers correct! We won a total of 258 Shekels, or approximately $60!
Of course, we all celebrated with a bottle of wine on the rooftop.
If you mention the Palestinian Territories, a lot of people picture suicide bombers, gunfire, and armed conflict. While this has been true for decades, there has been a moment of peace since 2005. Today, there's a HUGE wall dividing Israel and Palestine.
I decided to go to the West Bank (Palestinian territory) to see Bethlehem, the birthplace of Jesus Christ, and to get a feel of Palestine itself.

What I found was one of the friendliest places I've ever been in my life.

Everywhere I went, people on the streets smiled and waved hello to me, many coming up to me to personally welcome me to Palestine. In one instance, I had a street vendor hand me some free fruit and vegetables!

Walking around Bethlehem, I met two Palestinian guys, Mohammad and Medhat, who actually lived in a refugee camp outside of the city. That afternoon, they invited me to their camp and offered me food, tea and shisha before showing me the world they lived in.
To me, it was absolutely disheartening to see the different living conditions in the refugee camp. While in recent years, permanent structures have been built, there are still many remnants of the war around the camp. Words can't really describe the feeling.
They introduced me to their friends and families, who were so welcoming and very curious about where I was from.
Smoking shisha that night on the rooftop of a Palestinian refugee settlement was something I never thought I would experience in my life.
I was so touched by the experience that I went back to the West Bank two days later to actually stay in the camp with Mohammad and Medhat.

It wasn't until we reached a checkpoint in Hebron where I realized what it was truly like for the Palestinians.

The Israeli soldiers separated me from my friends and asked me if I was okay or hurt - all while treating them like criminals and demanding identification from them.

At one of the synagogue sights, the soldiers forced them to stay outside while they welcomed me in, asking me why I was hanging out with those Palestinians and blatantly warning me that my friends were going to "rob and steal" from me.

Mohammad and Medhat were terrified of the Israeli soldiers and I finally knew why. While we were separated they taunted them, interrogated them, and accused them of stealing from me. They were so upset by the whole ordeal we went straight back to the camp afterwards.

They said this happens a lot. I can't believe this is their everyday lives.
They took me to the bakery where Mohammad worked and we spent the afternoon making pastries and listening to Arabic music.
Medhat taught me a bit of Arabic and as the night went by, we walked the streets of the camps, Palestinian beer in hand.
Walking around the West Bank at night, I asked Medhat if it was dangerous and he said, "For you, no. But for us, very."

When I asked what he meant, he told me that "sometimes Israeli soldiers go to the camps for trouble." Every once in a while, they inspect and raid the camps with smoke bombs and rubber bullets.

Leaving the West Bank after four days was a bittersweet ordeal. I couldn't shake off the feeling of how unfair history has been to these people. Being forced out of their homes into settlements, being treated like criminals in their own land, and not having any rights at all. How could our government support this?

It would be an understatement to say that I'm definitely pro-Palestinian. I having nothing against the Israeli people - they have been kind and welcoming to me as well - but I harbor strong distaste for their government and the American government's continued support of this occupation.
On a lighter note, one thing that's surprised me is that Israeli soldiers, unlike in the US, really enjoy having their pictures taken. It was strange yet funny to me to see how casual they were with their guns and uniforms.
One night when I missed the last bus back from the West Bank, two Israeli soldiers took me in and offered me coffee, snacks, and friendly conversation until they could find me a ride back. In one day, I experienced kindness from both sides of the wall.
They flagged down every car that passed by the checkpoint until they found a tour bus that took me back to my hostel for free. Hitchhiking back to Jerusalem from the West Bank was a bit of an adventure on its own.

On my last night in Jerusalem, I planned on catching up on some sleep over the week. That is until I met Sasha from Russia, who invited me to an Israeli rock concert literally 20 minutes before it was starting! How could I pass up such an opportunity? Life is short and I went.
While I didn't understand any of the words, I happily cheered with the Israeli youth and had a pretty awesome last night in Jerusalem.
A few beers later, Sasha and I topped the night off with a late night ramen noodle run. After a month of shawarma and falafels, the noodles were a welcome change.
At the end of the day, there will always be a place in my heart for the wonderful people of Palestine. Hearing about it on the news does not quite justify the humanity of the conflict I've experienced. I hope that one day they will finally get the freedom they've been waiting so long for.
9/17/2012 01:20:55 pm

you are so brave to experiencing things, most people here seen your two FRIENDS would assume you might in dangerous, of course those local soldiers too...
well, politics is always chicken and egg problem, I am sure everybody prefer peace if they can...


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