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A Story Of Unexpected Meetings





It’s the 13th of December, my last day of volunteering at the Fauzi Azar Inn in Nazareth. For ten weeks I’ve been working at the reception of this most wonderful Inn. An Inn situated in the Old Town of Nazareth. The building is a 200-year old Ottoman villa with the typical three arched windows. The atmosphere of a family house is still present, and the people visiting the place tell me again and again how much it feels like home coming when entering the small door in the gate. The Inn is hidden in the alleys of the old city. Like almost everything that is beautiful in life, one has to search well to find it. But when one finally discovers it, he knows it was worth all the effort.

Beside the work at the Inn I had the opportunity to help the neighbour Bshara with getting his Vitrage Guesthouse started and to get involved in guiding people on the Jesus Trail. A 65-kilometer long trail running between Nazareth (where He is born) and Capernaum (where He worked). The magnificent scenery along the trail, especially on the third day, made this guiding the summit of my work in Israel. To guide people along places He might have visited, and to tell them a little about the history, has been a wonderful experience. The landscape is beautiful but the meetings with people on the trail and along the trail were even more impressive: a 89-year old man walking the trail, an Australian couple in their seventies coming over to walk in His steps, pilgrims from France walking and praying as they make their way to the Galilee Sea, the kids of Mas’had shouting Marhaba (welcome) at us as we’re passing their village, a lazy cow raising its head when we raise our voice. To walk peacefully in a country where war and conflict is as common as eating your daily bread is a real blessing. I hope and pray for the peace of Israel, and I believe one day there will be peace. Till then I would encourage everyone to visit this land and to meet its people and listen to their, sometimes heartbreaking, stories. Amos Oz, one of Israel’s greatest novelists writes the following:Near a volcano one still falls in love, one still gets jealous, one still wants a promotion, one still gossips.” Israel/Palestine is not about war, it’s about people living, working, loving and dying.

Said all this, as a too long introduction, I would like to write something about my trip through Israel and the Palestinian Territories.

It is Thursday night, the 13th, we have a goodbye party till late what causes us to wake up too late so we miss our direct service taxi (sheirut) to Jenin. This gives us, me and the Italian volunteer Elisabeth, the opportunity to say farewell to all our colleagues who weren’t there the other night. Via a taxi to Afula, one to the checkpoint and another one into Jenin, we finally arrive in our fist West bank city. It’s Friday today and the otherwise so crowded streets are abandoned, except for some kids who run after us to ask for some shekels. The difference with last week strikes me. I was here a week ago with Dominik, an Austrian art-director. We moved slowly through the streets that day, due to all the people asking us something or showing us the things they sold. Free cigarettes were reached to us, eggplants were given and we ended up eating with an old butcher is his shop, after he met us in the Mosque and invited us for a chai – nobody charged us anything though we didn’t look too poor. Today is different. The city and it’s refugee camp are sleeping. Jenin is a city known for its fierce resistance against Israeli occupation which recent summit was 2002, and for the in 2011 assassinated arab-israeli Juliano Mer-Khamis who founded the Freedom Theatre as a way to increase every kind of freedom. With our last week’s visit to the theatre still vivid in my thoughts we leave Jenin with one of the few sheirut taxies available that day. My neighbour starts talking about the oppression of the Palestinian Territory by the Israelis and how bad life is at this side of the fence/border/safety measurements. “They even don’t let me go to the Mediterranean sea anymore”. At this moment I suddenly understand the play I was listening to the other day in the Freedom Theatre. The guys in the rehearsal were shouting  ‘Bahar, bahar... bahar!!!’ – which means ‘Sea, sea... sea!!!’. They were dreaming of seeing the sea, but couldn’t go there. I didn’t like the way the man in the taxi was talking about the conflict, it was the same song I heard dozens of times. The song that tells ‘we are the victim, they cause all our problems’. But this image of the sea touches me and I know I’ll carry it with me as the illustration of the impact of the fence in the daily life of Palestinians.


We get out in Sebastia (also known as Samaria) to walk to the ruins of the old city. After searching and walking in a typical Palestinian village, with small shops, hospitable people, a road constructed with European support and garbage all over, we find our way to some ruins. Elisabeth, who studied about this place, is a little disappointment at the sight of it. Luckily we soon find out we aren’t standing at the right place. We walk up in the village and are struck by the beautiful restoration of old buildings by Italian archaeologists. Finally we enter the area with all the ruins. It’s located at top of a hill and we view the impressive landscape around. At the amphitheatre, or what is left over of it, we encounter two local guys, smoking a cigarette. I approach them to ask for the way as they are shouting something at us. At first sight I haven’t too high expectations, but in ten minutes Elisabeth and I are listening with awestruck to the stories Rami tells us about the history of Samaria. About the different occupations and the big amount of layers in the ruins: Hellenistic, Roman, Crusaders... and all the others who passed this piece of land and left their marks. Rami tells us about how important it is to know the history of the place you’re living: ‘It’s your identity, you shouldn’t believe all the crap people tell you, you should read the real books about your place’. He was angry about other youngsters not knowing anything about this wonderful spot. I was impressed by the guy’s stories and convictions. He assured me everyone had a story to tell and that everyone should keep on dreaming ‘otherwise we’re no different than dogs’. He shows us the beautiful and cheap guesthouse of Sebastia, where I definitely will return to, before we leave.


We set off to reach Nablus before sunset. The city is way bigger than we imagined, with huge residential building blocks on the slopes of the hills which form the boundaries of the valley, in which the centre of Nablus is located. We wander around and are sent from here to there by Arabs who don’t understand the word hostel or guesthouse. Finally we find our guesthouse ‘Bension’, an old building with high ceilings and the smell of fresh meat filling the air. The coldness of the place creeps slowly into our bodies as we hand over the 50 NIS (10 euro) we pay per person for a night. The owner invites us for a chai and he turns out to be really kind. We walk the streets of Nablus at night and eat Arabic fast food (something with sausages, fries and sauces put in bread) and the most fabulous sweet in the world, knaffe, in one of the few shops that are open in a city that promises us to be normally very alive. Mohammed, one of the other customers, starts preaching the ugliness of the occupation and admits, whispering, that his friend, the owner of the shop, is with the Islamic Resistance Party and supports Hamas. When he finds out I am a Christian, he wants me to know that Islam acknowledges Isa (Jesus) as well. I nod my head friendly, but realize their Isa has little to do with the Biblical one, who is our God and Saviour. We wake up early and when trying to leave the building the owner rolls out of his bed, standing in the lobby, to invite us for a cup of Arabic coffee. The perfect medicine to drive all sleepiness out of the body. In the now busy streets we sit down, at a corner, to let the energy of the city enter our minds and bodies, while smoking a cigarette and drinking a second cup of the spicy warm medicine.


Jericho and then Hebron is the plan for today. A sheirut carries us through the impressive seemingly abandoned landscape between Nablus and Jericho. Signs along the road tell us that behind the hills and the mountains settlements are hidden with names like Migdalim, Tomer and Gilgal. Once we’re stopped by eighteen years old soldiers who check our passports – this is the only moment today I am aware of the presence of Israel in the West bank. The main roads are under the control of the IDF (Israel Defence Force). We arrive in the centre of Jericho at the end of the morning. When eating our pita bread with ‘La vache qui rit’, extremely popular here, a taxi driver approaches us. He introduces himself as Abu Omar and he offers us to show us Hisham’s Palace and other famous sights in the city. We agree on a price of 100 NIS each to drive us around. The climb to the Greek Orthodox monastery, build in the side of the mountain of Temptation, is one of the highlights of the day. One can easily imagine Jesus being here for forty days in the mountains tempted by Satan – the silence of the landscape around, birds nesting in little caves, the magnificent view of the Dead Sea and the complete silence. After descending the mountain Omar brings us to Qumran. Close to the Dead Sea some IDF soldiers stop us. Omar asks me to tell we are friends. I don’t realize why he asks this, so on the question ‘what is your relationship with this man?’ I answer honestly that it’s my taxi driver. The soldiers assure me he’s not officially a taxi driver and that I should not pay him. I nod and thank them, thinking to myself: ‘what difference does it make? This man is trying to make a living in an honest way.” In Qumran we inspect the Cave of Caves, where the Dead Sea scrolls were found by a shepherd boy.


From Qumran our journey goes to Hebron. The driver and another customer of the sheirut help us to find a guesthouse in the city. We don’t appreciate it that much, knowing that we might end up in a too expensive place. The place turns out to be rather cheap, and we even got four rooms! Okay, tea we have to make in the oven and the shower only gives cold water today. We put the heater in our room on MAX and leave the deserted building to find a nice warm place with some good food. Warmed and filled with a lamb steak filling my stomach we wander around in the neighbourhood, which turns out to be four kilometres from the city centre. In a garage we see in the orange glow of a burning oven a middle aged man making glass sculptures. We peak in and decide to have a closer look. The man shows us his skills and his shop. Amazed and in love with his products we carry some glass art with us, knowing they might break during our journey. This is what we like to see, people trying their best to make a living and while doing so creating something beautiful for the local community. In Taybeh we visited some weeks ago a local beer brewery, once the pride of the local village and now one of the export products from the West bank.  This is how a country, a nation, is built; by people trying to make something of the place they are living in. There is so much to say about others resisting or slowing down these initiatives, we realize. But we love to hear and see people who refuse to take on the role of the victim and instead are standing up and try to make the best of the situation. We’re content to leave some money behind on this place and to carry beautiful products with us.

The next morning we walk to the city centre. Along the road we see vineyards, between big living blocks and neglected Ottoman villas. In the souq (Arabic market) we meet a local who is eager to tell and show us the conflict between Arabs and Jews in Hebron. He points up to show us the watch tower of the IDF. Through the fence, that protects the merchants from stones thrown by settlers, we see the tower peeking out above the city. He leads us to his house, his neighbours have huge fences around soccer fields that are built on the second or third floor of the city. The Jewish settlers seem to live on top of the Arabic city and are protected by all kinds of small watch towers. Shadi chose to keep living there and withstanding the aggression of the settlers. Later we learn, from Mordechai, an orthodox Jew, at the other side of the city, about the complex history of the city and the slaughter of Jews in the 30’s. Again a labyrinth of stories that show the complexity of the situation. And though Jews claim Hebron to be their city, it is situated in the West bank. It’s unbelievable that Jews and Arabs used to live in relative peace together up to the beginning of the 20th century.

After we leave Shadi’s house we head towards the Caves of the Patriarch or the Ibrahim Mosque/Synagogue, this place is believed to be the tomb of Abraham, Sara, Jacob and Leah, figures important to all three Abrahamic religions. In this place many Jews and Muslims were murdered during the last 50 years with most recently the killing of 29 Muslims in 1994 by Baruch Goldstein, probably the moment people stopped believing in a positive outcome of the peace program launched one year before. As tourists we have the privilege to visit both sides of the place. Ironically most of the tourists are Christian; they don’t own any part of the whole building but can enjoy the whole building. In the synagogue I wear a yarmulke (the Jewish cap) and we realize girls can’t enter all the parts. In the mosque Elisabeth is told to cover everything with a hooded dress. The side of the Muslims seems a bit more relaxed, people are chatting and walking around. The Jewish side breaths the spirit of prayer and holiness – orthodox Jews bow up and down in a fixed rhythm when praying. With their costumes and movement they give me the sensation I am watching a group of penguins, the beautiful sound of singing from one of the rooms wakes me up from that illusion.


We walk around the city again to find an ATM that will be so kind to give us some money out of its generous belly. They all keep their mouth shut when I am offering them my card. Out of, almost all our, cash we leave Hebron and head to Yatta, there we realize we won’t make it to Arad today. We continue and travel to Tuwani, a small Bedouin village in the south of the West bank. There we meet young Italians involved in Operation Dove. They explain us how they guide, with their cameras, the local shepherds to their hill slopes close to settlements and outposts (illegal settlements). Now and then there is an outburst of violence between the shepherds and the settlers. With the camera’s Operation Dove tries to keep the peace and to show the aggression shepherds have to endure from settlers. The next day we will find out, when talking to a socialistic Jewish family, that most of the Bedouin villages have no legal rights to the grounds. Their papers are from the Ottoman times and the borders are scarcely defined. Israel and the Palestinian Authorities don’t recognize these papers. In this way Jews can buy the ground that is ‘illegally’ used by shepherds for over decades, and build their settlements. One of the achievements of the volunteers of Operation Dove is the protection of Arabic school kids by the IDF when they are coming to the school in Tuwani and when they are returning. Once a volunteer got injured in an attack by settlers when guiding the kids. Because he was a foreigner the story reached the international press and finally the Knesset (Israeli government). There they decided to start protecting the kids against the violence of settlers. Some of the Italians have been working in this small village for over a year. We are impressed by their commitment to support these people to make it possible they can keep living their lives as they have been doing over centuries. ‘Yeah, we hope to make a little difference. Because soon the Israeli army might evacuate eight of the twelve villages. They want to make a training area here for the IDF. And all these people just try to make a living, but every time they build something it’s taken down by the army, since the villages are considered illegal’.

Israel National Trail

We say goodbye and try to make it to the other side of the Green Line (border between the West bank and Israel). A taxi drops us at the checkpoint near Methar. Luckily the closing time of 5 o’clock only counts for Palestinians. We can pass via the main road since the passengers checkpoint is closed. At the other side we get a ride to Methar. There we stop a car. The guy asks us what we want. We tell him we need money and food and a place to stay. He drives us to a supermarket and an ATM (no money again!). With my credit card we purchase some food. Then the friendly Jewish man picks us up again. He tells us he knows a place to stay the night: Kibbutz Keramim, known for its excellent grapes. In the kibbutz we’re told a night costs 300 NIS. We tell the lady we don’t have any money left and I start explaining that we want to walk a part of the Israel National Trail (INT). I walked a couple of weeks ago the first 100 km of the trail in the north of Israel and was deeply impressed by the landscape and the quality of the trail, which is 1000 km in total. So now I wanted to see some sand of the dessert in the south. The lady suddenly looks up when hearing me talking about the INT and she realizes they are Trail Angels (offering free places to INT-hikers). She shows us our free room and leads us to a family who invites us for a dinner. The husband of the family turns out to be an ultra marathon runner and has good knowledge of the trail. He provides us with addresses of more Angels and gives us a map. The next day we set off in the direction of Arad, where we will walk to in two days. Along the road we meet many nice people, aggressive Bedouin dogs and a lot of sand. In the nature we have the chance to process the experiences of the last days. The result of that process is written down in this short summary of our tour through the West bank. There is a lot more to tell. But to be able to not forget I consider this sufficient.

You may have noticed some stories in favour of the Palestinian case. I don’t try to take a side in this journal. There are many stories to be told. These are the stories I have heard and I have lived. That’s all we can do: share our stories. And hopefully with sharing stories increasing wisdom and humility and gentleness.

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