How much money would it take to make a better world?
What’s the price tag on something like that? Can we put a number on it? Have it appraised? What adjustments to make for inflation? Interest gained and lost.
It’s the end of July and I’m back in Alaska, but I can’t stop thinking about Turkey. Or Israel. My recent trip throughout the Middle East. Just last month the Golan Heights. Camping on Galilee. The Dead Sea. Hiking Masada before dawn. And traversing the Ramon Crater.
But what I really keep circling back to is Beit Sahour.
When I close my eyes at night I’m still there. In the present tense. Arriving on the 50th anniversary of the Six Day War. Or The Occupation. From Jerusalem, where I woke up this morning, it’s only a five mile trip. But as soon as I cross the checkpoint, driving through the wall marking the Green Line, the only First World country in the Middle East gives way to Palestine Territories. The road here is a potholed washboard missing stripes and lines and any other kind of delineation. Abandoned cars and trucks line the shoulders. Windows broken. Tires slashed. Others have been burnt down to the metal frames like gray, charcoaled skeletons.
Some of the worst conditions I’ve seen since I left Beirut where I taught creative writing at the American University and volunteered at Borj al Barajneh Refugee Camp. Simply known as Borj by the Palestinians who lived there and sometimes called the Fourth World by outsiders since there was no other category for that kind of poverty and despair.
This is my first trip to the West Bank.
Or Occupied Palestine. Depending on your point of view. I still don’t know how to feel about the Palestinian condition and that’s why I’m here. Because I don’t believe what any media tries to tell me. Liberal or conservative. They’re all biased. Like me. Consciously or unconsciously, we’ve all been conditioned one way or another.
I was raised by my family, my neighborhood, my church, and my government to support the Jewish state. Always. And because the U.S. has always got their back they are, in some ways, the world’s true super power.
Israel. The tail that wags the dog.
No American president has ever defied them. Only one presidential candidate—ironically the first ever Jewish candidate—has publicly debated that their treaties with the West Bank be honored, Israeli settlements halted, and that the annexing of Palestine cease altogether. Just this last election cycle. Not a popular stance. Like many of his beliefs. Needless to say he did not get the nomination.
I grew up wary of anyone outside the Judeo-Christian culture. Which would’ve been easier if my Muslim students in Lebanon hadn’t become some of my favorites. My Muslim friends and colleagues some of the most peace-loving, trustworthy, and generous people I’ve ever known. Not to mention more recently—just weeks ago in Istanbul—Ulvi and his family, who showed me greater hospitality than I’d ever known.
The waters get a little muddy when so much of what your society teaches you turns out to be a little off. Or altogether backwards. The whole time I lived in Lebanon I wasn’t allowed to visit Israel. No Lebanese (or anyone with a Lebanese stamp in their passport) was let in. So I explored Lebanon and the rest of the Middle East as much as possible. And waited for a time when I’d be allowed to visit Israel and Palestine.
That time has finally come.
Israelis. Many of my students, friends, and colleagues in Beirut hated them. Of course, they’d just been bombed by Israel when I showed up and everyone I met had lost loved ones to their bullets, rockets, or bombs.
But I didn’t want to hate Israel.
Not without coming here myself. Talking to as many people as I could. Absorbing as much as possible. I’d just spent a week between Tel Aviv and Jerusalem and every Israeli I’d met so far had treated me well. All likable, fun-loving people. Kind, generous, and open. Some were Palestinian sympathizers. Many were not. But they all seemed like good people. Like anywhere else in the world that I’ve visited, 95 percent of human beings are good-hearted deep down (or not so deep down) and would gladly give you the shirt off their backs. I’m starting to think that the five percent of truly bad people are the ones who find the power they so desire. The political leaders. Most of them, anyway. Those who self-loathe and hate and need to tell others what to do so they can feel better about themselves.
But their power is mostly illusion.
The historical figures who change the world the most are the ones who never hold office, but are truly willing to pay the price for a better world. Ghandi. Martin Luther King. Malala Yusafsa. On and on.
Martyrdom. Most of the time, that’s the true cost.
As I roll through the squalor of Bethlehem, the road winds down a long, steep hill and ends at the village of Beit Sahour. I drive past crumbling, abandoned houses, take a right beside a freshly cultivated field—littered with trash and debris—and left onto George and Najla’s road. Just as they described it. The third house on the left and they’re waiting to greet me when I pull up.
Both small framed, older Palestinians whose exact age is hard to pinpoint. They could be anywhere between fifty or seventy. I’m not sure. At first glance they seem beat down, but resilient. Weathered, but still strong. I get out of the rental car and shake George’s hand.
“Marhaba,” I say.
He smiles and there’s still a spark in his eye. A tired, but welcoming smile. “Marhaba,” he says. “Ahalan wa sahlan, Ifer. Welcome.”
Oh yeah. Ifer. I almost forgot. There’s no “v” sound in the Arabic language so here I will be Ifer as I was in Lebanon.
I turn to Najla, who is wearing a long gray dress, and wait to see if she offers her hand. I made the mistake of trying to shake orthodox Muslim women’s hands back in Beirut and, trust me, it’s awkward. But, to my surprise, she extends her hand and I shake it.
“Marhaba,” she says. Najla smiles and gestures to me. “Come. Follow.”
I walk behind her into their cluttered house where she opens a door to her left. “This yours,” she says, pointing into a small room with a wooden bed.
In front of us a staircase leads to a second floor but it doesn’t turn out to be part of the tour. Instead, we turn right and they show me their kitchen. I’m shocked to see a crucifix on the wall, but I don’t ask about it yet. Otherwise everything looks like my friends’ houses and apartments back in Beirut. Right down to the Arab décor.
George pulls out a hard plastic chair for me and grabs food from the counter. Next thing I know there’s a plate of sliced cucumbers, tomatoes, olives, and cheese in front of me. With a combination of Arabic and broken English they explain that they’ve already eaten and tell me to go ahead. George and Najla know less English than I expected and I’m struggling to remember the little bit of Arabic I learned while living in Lebanon. So I eat fast. I really just want to go to my room and regroup, but when I’m finished I walk to the sink so that I can at least do the dishes.
“Please,” Najla says. “I do. I do.”
I turn to her, leaving the water running in the sink. “It’s the least I can do,” I say.
“No.” Desperation rises in her voice as she rushes over and turns off the water. I back away from the sink.
Of course. In Borj there were times when water wouldn’t reach camp at all. And the same is true here. Water is only available after Israel takes their share. But as soon as Israel experiences any drought or shortage, as they do more and more these days, the West Bank is cut off altogether. So Najla has learned to wash her dishes with the least amount of water possible. And only when she has company.
No drop spilled. No drop wasted. The cost of survival.
As I unpack my rental car, George walks outside. “Ifer,” he says, pointing at my car. “We need hide.”
“Shoo?” I say. What? Why?
He points at the license plate. “Yellow,” he says. “People come hurt car.”
I think that by hurt he means vandalize but I don’t know why until he explains that my yellow license plates mean my car is from Israel, not the West Bank.
With his directions, I drive around the house and into the backyard, careful not to high center on any roots or rocks. I stop between two clumps of olive trees and get out. George looks around nervously. As I follow him back inside he explains that he hopes none of his neighbors noticed my car before we were able to hide it.
I’m growing more and more stressed. I definitely can’t afford to lose my deposit. Or have to buy a new car as I realize I’m probably not supposed to have it here at all. I’m sure it was part of the fine print I didn’t read when I signed the contract. For a moment, I consider backing out. Making up some excuse as to why I have to leave early. I’m actually shocked that Airbnb doesn’t have rules against renting out homes in quasi war zones.
I could tell George and Najla something’s come up and I need to drive back to Jerusalem. Just tell them I forgot my passport at the last Airbnb. Or my wallet. Anything. I don’t need to be here. These aren’t my problems. There are plenty of problems back home in the U.S. that I may actually be able to do something about.
But I can’t bring myself to back out.
It would be so wrong on so many levels and, if they sensed the lie, so rude and insulting to boot. Besides, I’ve come a long way to see this firsthand. To write about it. And that means sucking it up. Powering through it. And giving thanks that I’m only a tourist in this poverty, hopelessness, and despair. I have the privilege to come and go as I please. The privilege to feel sickened by all this sadness. Depressed—but only temporarily—by all this despair. For a moment I wonder about the price of all my privilege. I wonder what, exactly, is the real cost.
Before George and I leave his backyard I look across the small valley behind his house. There is some kind of sage growing, but not much else. Mostly dirt. The few houses on the facing slope look abandoned and, further up, a half-finished cinder block apartment complex seems to have been halted abruptly. Building material lay scattered around the ground floor but weeds grow through cracks in the lumber and concrete. There is an apocalyptic feel to this place where survivors live off scraps others left behind. Or maybe they’re more like prisoners of an ongoing war. Castaways on an ever-shrinking island as more and more of their territory is annexed by Israel.
Back inside Najla is putting her shoes on. She says something to George that I don’t understand.
So he turns to me. “It’s time,” he says.
Time for what, I wonder.
“Daughter’s house,” Najla explains.
I’m lost, but turn around and follow them back outside. This time to their 1980’s Honda, parked across the street. We drive up the valley and through the center of town where most of the businesses are boarded up. On the other side of Beit Sahour we ascend a steep hill and arrive at a house similar to George and Najla’s in design but bigger and newer-looking. As we walk in I’m greeted by a dozen Palestinians all eager to shake my hand. Najla introduces me to each in turn. I forget their names almost as soon as she tells me, but try to at least remember how everyone’s related. First Najla’s daughter. I shake her hand. Then her husband and their three children. Her husband’s brother and his family of five.
Next thing I know we’re headed out to the balcony where the sun's setting and plates of bread, hummus, and cheese wait for us. They give me the chair with the best view. Tell me that, beyond the valley, the most distant crimson ridge is Jordan. I gaze into the distance where lanterns flicker on across the darkening landscape. House by house.
Soon everyone is asking where I’m from and what I do for a living and I’m struggling to explain it. After a while they mostly give up trying to include me in conversation and I strain to remember my Arabic, wishing they had some Arak—the Lebanese whiskey that helped loosen me up in situations like these.
Now I’m remembering that part of the Airbnb page, which I’d only scanned, had advertised a real Palestinian meal with a real Palestinian family. As an American who’d never lived in the Middle East, this kind of experience would be once-in-a-lifetime. And way more enjoyable with a spouse or group of friends to talk to. But for me, smiling and nodding when it seems appropriate and avoiding eye contact at all other times, it’s just awkward as Hell.
And it goes on for an hour or two.
So I’m relieved when Najla finally stands up, says something to the group in Arabic, and I gather that the night’s over. After we say our goodbyes and drive back to George and Najla’s I’m exhausted and go to bed right away.
The next morning in the kitchen it’s obvious that they’ve been up for a while keeping breakfast warm for me. As we eat I thank them again for last night. They ask me what I plan to do after I leave Beit Sahour later this week and I smile.
“I’m driving all over to see as much as I can. The Golan Heights. The Sea of Galilee. The Dead Sea. Masada—”
They nod slowly, try to smile, and I realize these are places they may never visit again, even though they were all once part of what they consider their homeland. It’s obvious that I can’t wait to get back to the First World. So I just stare back down at my plate realizing there’s something wrong with my presence here. Something insulting. Not to mention I feel like a traitor to my family and my country for staying with these Palestinians. I was told they were all terrorists. Muslims of the worst kind who want to wipe Israel off the face of the Earth.
Suddenly I remember the crucifix and look back up. I nod to the wall. “So, you’re Christians?” I say.
“Yes.” Najla nods.
“I didn’t know there were Christian Palestinians.”
Najla sighs. “Most people don’t.”
I wonder if that would change things. If more Americans knew that not all Palestinians were Muslim. Not that that should matter. I want to ask more about it but Najla changes the subject. She asks me what I plan to do for the day and I tell her I want to take a walk and explore. Maybe go up to see the Nativity Church in Bethlehem.
“I drive,” George says.
“La, shukran,” I tell him. No thanks. “I can walk.”
But he insists. Neither he nor Najla will have it any other way. So I decide to let him. The cost of courtesy. After I pack some water and power bars we walk out to the Honda and head up the hill toward Bethlehem.
During our five minute drive I struggle to make small talk, but how, as a white American man, do you make conversation with people so poor they don’t even have a country of their own?
“Do you have guests coming to stay after me?” I hear myself say.
“La,” he says. “Not for long time.”
I don’t ask how long till their next paying visitor. The fact that they have to rent their place out is one thing. But to have to put themselves and their family on display for only twenty bucks a night? I’m relieved when we arrive and I can step out of George’s car.
“Shukran,” I tell him. “See you later.”
After I close the door, he waves as he drives off. I look around and start walking past the church and toward the Green Line—what really interests me most. But just before it, I see a sign—Palestinian Conflict Resolution Center.
I walk underneath the sign and down a set of crumbling concrete stairs to the center. Inside, a Palestinian woman with long dark hair greets me with a smile. I tell her I want to look around and she says Usama, the director of the center, will be back from lunch momentarily. Says he can give me a tour.
I spend the next five minutes admiring the artwork on the walls until Usama shows up. A tall man with tight curly hair.
“Iver,” I say, and shake his hand.
“He’s here to learn about the center,” the secretary tells him.
“Great,” Usama says. “Follow me.”
He takes me into a dilapidated conference room and I sit at a table while he gets an ancient projector ready. It’s the same kind my grade school teachers used some thirty years ago. Once he’s got it running his presentation lasts ten or fifteen minutes as he shows me maps of how much the West Bank has shrunk since the Occupation, since the first treaties were drawn up.
“I can take you to see some settlements,” he says at the end of it. “And a refugee camp.”
“Wow. Really?” I smile. “That would be great.”
“We could go tomorrow.”
I nod. “How much for a tour like that?”
“One hundred shekel. Usually I take groups for three hundred, but since you’re alone I’ll cut you a deal.”
His English is flawless and I can tell he’s educated. Formally or informally, I don’t know. His price is steep, but it seems fair since I wouldn’t know where to start to try to find these places on my own. And on my own I wouldn’t have Usama’s explanations to accompany the tour.
We shake hands and I agree to meet him back at the Center in the morning at 9:00.
The next day I leave Najla and George’s after breakfast and walk the two miles to the Center after convincing George that I’m in the mood for some exercise. Usama is waiting when I arrive and we have some Turkish coffee together as he tells me about the history of the Center. In operation for over fifteen years, it was founded as a way to educate people on the history of the West Bank. To raise money and awareness for the Palestinian cause. Usama took it over three years ago after the original founder retired.
I follow him out of the Center, back up the stairs, to a rusted Nissan parked on the side of the road. After I slide behind the passenger seat he tells me we need to stop by his place and take his kids to school. Half a mile away we pull up in front of a brokendown house that looks completely abandoned until two skinny boys between seven and ten years old run outside, backpacks slung over their shoulders. When they get in the back seat they are instantly curious about me.
I turn back to them. “Marhaba,” I say. “Kayf halik?"
They laugh at my pronunciation but say hello and tell me they’re fine.
It doesn’t take long to get to the nearby school, which is even more rundown than I’d expected. There is broken glass, empty window panes, and children of all ages, some without shoes, milling around an asphalt lot out front. After the boys get out of the car, Usama tells them goodbye and we’re off.
Our first stop is King Herod’s Mound, some five mile east of Beit Sahour. Herod actually had slaves build the mountain higher so that, from his palace on top, he could see Jerusalem. But now, all that’s left is a visitor center and an amazing view.
But we didn’t come to these ruins for a history lesson. Or the scenery. We came to see the future of the landscape beyond this mountain and those who’ve lived here for generations. From where we park we look toward the distant slopes of a desert valley where two of the newest settlements are under construction. Nokdim and Tekoa. They sprawl east toward the Dead Sea and Jordan. We get out of Usama’s Nissan and stare at the distant earth-moving vehicles leveling the valley.
Usama puts on sunglasses and nods toward the construction. “Two of the newest settlements I was telling you about,” he says.
“Wow. So they just keep building more and more of these?”
“Of course. These will be finished in a matter of weeks. You can already see the new walls. Soon they’ll build roads so Israeli settlers can live here and commute to Jerusalem or even Tel Eviv. They’ll build walls around the roads, too. But, as you can see, there’s no need. Even here, in the middle of our homeland, no one is trying to harm them.”
I nod. It seems he’s right about that. So far, I’ve seen no violence. And, even as an obvious outsider—an American, a Westerner—I haven’t felt threatened at all. And I showed up on the 50th anniversary of the Occupation. What should be one of the most tense, violent times here.
“They spend five billion dollars a year on these walls, Ifer. Think about that. For five billion dollars we could try to build a better world.”
I stare out across the desert and wipe the sweat from my brow. “How do they justify this?”
He sighs. “The Israelis tell us they need to block off part of the West Bank for defense against enemies to the East. To the East is only Jordan and they have always been allies. They tell us this new area in front of us, in this case Area A, is now a restricted area. Then they start building military housing. But really the housing is for civilians. And that’s who ends up living here. Israeli settlers. Then they bomb the cisterns in the nearby desert so even Bedouins can’t survive and the whole area eventually becomes part of Israel. It’s happening everywhere. The map looks more and more like swiss cheese every day. Shrinking islands where we are allowed to live only as refugees. But really as prisoners in what once was our home.”
Swiss cheese is the best way to describe it. That’s exactly what the time lapse images looked like in the presentation Usama had shown me back at the Center.
He takes a deep breath and continues. “I mean, of course there have been some bad Palestinians. Some who have resorted to violence, which is the natural response to harassment and occupation. But it’s the same in any culture. There are always a few bad people. And you can’t hate a whole group of people because of that. Not when there are innocent men among them. Innocent women and children. You can’t put them all on this dwindling piece of land, harass them, arrest them, and starve them for no reason. Make them wait hours to cross borders. Never let them see their families in Lebanon or Syria ever again—
“Look at this subdivision. The most blatant lie of all. Broken promises. Broken treaties. You see it now for yourself. Whatever American media tries to tell you back home, you are seeing it with your own eyes. No Palestinians are retaliating. The Israelis are safe in their illegal settlements. The walls are only there to reinforce fear and hatred. That’s all.” He kicks a rock off the mountainside with a small plume of dust. “The walls are for psychological reasons. To make us all feel different and detached from each other. Nowadays, with DNA testing, they could find out who is more Jewish and who is more Palestinian. But they won’t. Because I could easily have more Jewish blood than many Israelis. And there are plenty of Israelis with more Palestinian blood than they’d like to admit.”
Usama grows quiet. I have so many questions but, for now, we both just stare across the desert toward the settlements.
Finally he turns back to me and lets out a deep exhalation. “Okay,” he says. “Let’s go to Aida.”
“The camp I was telling you about.”
We get in his car and turn back toward Beit Sahour. Across the sweeping desert and, somewhere along the way, Usama stops to show me a wide valley that Israel is gradually building a wall across. We get out of the car so he can better explain the process to me. He shows me where the new part of the wall is being built and which part of this beautiful West Bank valley will soon belong to Israel.
Back in the car it’s not long till we reach Beit Sahour, drive through town and head back up the steep hill to Bethlehem. We pass right by the Center again and this time another block toward the wall. Usama is about to turn left when I stop him.
“Wait,” I say. “Can we pull over here?”
He slows down and parks on the curb. I get out to look at the wall. The Green Line. Tall and covered in graffiti. Much of the spray painted writing, to my surprise, is in English. The corner of the wall has an old watchtower up top that looks medieval. Or futuristic. Or somehow both. Either way, it’s a terrible dystopic scene.
I snap a few photos and take a quick video before getting back in Usama’s Nissan.
“They make a lot of Palestinians who work in Jerusalem wait two or three hours sometimes before they let them through the wall. Every day. Can you imagine? In hot, crowded holding cells.”
He shrugs. “Because they can. Those who work in Israel have proper papers but they just make us wait. As Palestinians we are always at the end of the line.”
He shifts into first and we continue down a narrow road at the base of the wall until we reach Aida Refugee Camp. The front entrance is crowned with a huge metal key.
“This,” Usama says, “symbolizes what Israelis told refugees when they first dragged them from their homes and brought them here. ‘Only take your house key with you,’ they said. ‘Leave the rest of your belongings. You’ll be back home in a matter of days.’ That was fifty years ago and still they’re here. Not home. Those who haven’t already died gripping those same keys.” He shakes his head. “Their homes have all been destroyed anyway. There’s nothing to return to.”
We get out of the car and I snap more photos. Next to the Key Entrance is a long wall of names. Usama explains that this is the Wall of Martyrs. Palestinians who died resisting the Israelis. Or have since died in Israeli prisons.
“The truth is less than one percent of Palestinians have ever been violent. But those are the ones you see on the news. And many times they’ve been deliberately provoked. Sometimes Israeli soldiers come here and harass people until they resist. Then they arrest them, take them into custody, and torture them. They make them confess to something they didn’t do. Like an act of terrorism. Or some violent crime. I mean, if you have no food or water for days on end—no sleep—and you’re out of your mind with delirium, hunger, and pain you’ll confess to anything.”
From the Wall of Martyrs we walk two blocks to an abandoned apartment building and climb to the rooftop where we have an extensive view of the West Bank. We can see much of Bethlehem and even parts of Beit Sahour in the distance. At the base of the nearby wall is Aida’s dump where Palestinian children rummage through trash for food or anything else they can salvage.
From up here we’re higher than the wall marking the Green Line and can see beyond it, back into Israel and the First World. Neatly manicured fields and olive groves stretch into the distance where the modern buildings of Jerusalem rise above the horizon.
The contrast is stark. Beyond bleak. The cost of war, oppression, and segregation.
Usama clears his throat. “Like I said, with DNA testing they could figure it out. Figure out that we are mostly the same. But they won’t. They want our land. They want more walls. Five billion dollars for all the walls they put up just this year. The Bible does say that this is the homeland of the Jews. But it also says that the time for them to take back their homeland is up to God to decide. Not man.”
Usama goes silent again. And as I stare out across the wall into Israel I wonder where the answers lie. Where are the solutions? I certainly have none. In fact, I feel more confused than when I first came to the Middle East eight years ago. But I do believe treaties should be honored once they’re in place. And people, especially women and children, should be treated humanely by all sides. There may even be some good reasons for this occupation. This displacement of Palestinians.
But I don’t know.
And I won’t decide till I learn more about the situation. Even though I know I’ll get a different story depending on who I ask. Different points of views from different sides of the walls and borders. Israel. Palestine. Lebanon. The U.S. It’ all so complicated. A million different sides to each argument. Each conflict. All I know is that Usama is not a terrorist. Nor are his children. George and Najla certainly aren't terrorists either. They’re good people. Like the rest of their family. Like so many Palestinians living in Bethlehem, Beit Sahour, and the rest of the West Bank.
All these questions will haunt me for some time to come. Probably keep me guessing for the rest of my life. But for now, up on this rooftop, I can only shake my head and listen to Usama wonder aloud about how his children will grow up in a world where they will always have less and less. Always be harassed. Always live in fear of imprisonment or death.
“I’ve studied this situation my whole life,” he says. “There were moments of hope when leaders seemed to be coming together to work towards resolutions. Maybe a two state solution. Maybe a nation for Palestine. But it never happened. And more and more the leaders on both sides are less inclined to work toward peace. The Palestinian leaders are beat down.” He turns to me, his face full of worry. “I hate to say it, Ifer, but I think it’s game over for us in the West Bank. This is still the land of miracles, but come on. We’ve lost this fight for good.” He takes a deep breath and slowly exhales. “All I can focus on now is keeping my people optimistic and trying to keep them safe. Just trying to find the best path forward for my wife and kids.”
He turns from me and gazes back toward the wall with its graffiti, razor wire, and watchtowers. Maybe he is looking beyond it. To Israel. Olive groves and green valleys stretching toward Jerusalem and the distant horizon.
He shakes his head one last time. “Five billion dollars,” he says. “Five billion. For that kind of money we could try to make a better world.”