“To women and girls who pass through our neighbourhood,” reads the sign at the entrance to Mea Shearim, “we beg you with all our hearts - please do not pass through our neighbourhood in immodest clothes.”
I’m male and conservatively dressed, yet my presence in this ultra-orthodox district of Jerusalem creates a stir. Women scuttle away down side streets when they see me, which I try not to take personally, while a group of young schoolboys react aggressively when I attempt to take a photo of them playing hopscotch. It feels like I’ve been transported to the eighteenth century, to a shtetl in eastern Europe, a religious community cut off from the rest of the world.
It’s not pretty here, but it’s certainly atmospheric. Laundry hangs from balconies (with no sinful undergarments in sight) and the walls are covered in posters, mostly news of the latest religious rulings in large Hebrew lettering, along with flags (Israeli and Palestinian), graffiti, and messages in Russian and English. The words “Zionist Murderers” are scrawled on a wall next to the words “Kahane was right”, referring to an ultra-nationalist rabbi who was assassinated two decades ago. There’s no TV, radio or internet in Mea Shearim but there’s no shortage of opinions. Moderation, it seems, is out of style.
The following morning I read another sign. “You are now entering Free Dheisheh,” it says by the entrance of a refugee camp just south of Bethlehem. Dheisheh was established in 1949 as a temporary camp for Palestinians who fled the Arab-Israeli war the previous year. As hopes of a Palestinian right of return faded from view, tents turned into permanent structures and while the living standards here aren’t bad, at least compared to the despair of Gaza, there’s high unemployment while water, controlled by Israel, is in short supply. Portraits of young men who have died in the conflict are stencilled on the outside walls of the apartment buildings.
At the camp’s Ibdaa Cultural Center, I speak to a twenty-something resident who’s lived here his whole life. He explains how the nakba (the “catastrophe” of 1948 when Palestinians were expelled from their homes) and the decades-old conflict has severely limited his life opportunities. He tells me people in Dheisheh have no hope for the future. “Israel”, he says, “has no interest in peace”, while the Palestinian Authority are weak and corrupt. Ominously, he says moderate Palestinians are increasingly turning to Hamas out of desperation.
If there were no checkpoints, the drive between the first sign and the second sign would have taken around twenty minutes. The closeness of everything comes as a revelation. It helps me understand why Israelis feel insecure – their country is only eight miles wide at one point. But it also shows how the occupation affects so many aspects of everyday Palestinian life. The Dome of the Rock and the Jerusalem skyline can be seen from much of the West Bank, but few Palestinians are given permission to visit them.
A holy city for the three major Abrahamic religions, Jerusalem is a beautiful place, albeit a confusing and somewhat maddening one. Here, secular and religious Jews live alongside Muslim and Christian Arabs. I find the city intoxicating, a smörgåsbord for the senses where it’s almost impossible not to overfill your plate.
The first thing I do is head to the Western Wall, at the edge of the Temple Mount. It’s a Friday and the sun is about to set. Jewish groups on religious tours dance in circles and wave Israeli flags. Ultra-orthodox males wearing shtreimels, the furry round hats, head to the wall and begin their Shabbat prayers, swaying back and forth.
At the same time, Friday prayers commence at the Al-Aqsa mosque, in Israeli-controlled territory but run by Palestinian Muslims. It takes less than a minute to walk there from the Western Wall. Half an hour later, the rabbit warren lanes of the old market fill with post-prayer traffic. Jewish and Muslim families shop at the same stalls, with little interaction but no obvious hostility either. And tonight there’s an added ingredient thrown in the mix. It’s Christmas Eve and pilgrims from all over the world are en route to Bethlehem for midnight mass at the Church of Nativity.
Not being religious, I feel excluded. I step inside a souvenir shop where “Free Palestine” and “Israeli Defence Forces” T-shirts sit side-by-side on the shelf. Business, as always, is business, and caught up in the midst of warring tribes it’s strangely reassuring. But the sad reality is that Israel and the Palestinian West Bank are separated by a 700km long barrier.
On my way to the refugee camp on Christmas Day morning, I pass through the Bethlehem checkpoint. A row of yellow taxis waits to take pilgrims to the town centre on the other side. Behind them, the barrier doubles as a gallery - a feast of art and graffiti. Among the provocative references to apartheid (“Welcome to Soweto”) and the Holocaust (“The oppressed becomes the oppressor”) there are many colourful calls for peace.
After a festive walk in Bethlehem and a tour of Dheisheh, I go to Ramallah where I get coffee at the Stars & Bucks Cafe, whose logo bears a striking resemblance to a well-known American brand. I put it down to a remarkable coincidence. After a reasonable attempt at a latte and a falafel from a stall at the bus station, I take the number 18 back to Jerusalem, which chugs slowly down busy Palestinian roads. Out the window I can see not-so-busy roads exclusively for Israelis, connecting Israeli cities with the settlements up in the hills. I return to Jerusalem.
I love CouchSurfing, but it's not without its drawbacks. At 9.45pm on Christmas Eve, having just been told by a hostel receptionist that I've got next to no chance of getting a bed in town on the busiest night of the year, I open my laptop and plead for help. "CS host gone AWOL," I tweet furiously. "Urgently need a bed in Holy Land. Any old manger will do." Just as the fear kicked in - the streets of Jerusalem are chilly at night - I got the call I was waiting for. My CouchSurfing host had lost her mobile phone and hadn't been able to reach me. I wouldn't be spending Christmas on the streets.
I meet my host, Tal, a 25-year-old Israeli woman, for a beer. We talk about what I’ve seen. She’s been to the West Bank before, but only as a soldier in the Israel Defence Forces. She opposes the barrier in theory, but admits she’s happy that she's no longer scared to go out to cafes and bars because suicide bombings have ceased to happen.
While staying on strangers’ sofas in Jerusalem and liberal Tel Aviv, I ask numerous Israelis about the West Bank. It’s a place they’ve all been to as soldiers. Some of them worked at checkpoints. A couple of them guarded Israeli settlements in Hebron. One fought in the Gaza war two years ago. All of them seem to be sick and tired of thinking and talking about the conflict. It’s not apathy, but it might be denial. In secular Tel Aviv, known by locals as “The Bubble”, the conflict feels far away. It’s all too easy to lose yourself in the city’s fantastic bars, cafes, beaches and galleries.
Jerusalem, however, is swamped in religion and politics. I’ve never been to such a fascinating place, although I left feeling pessimistic. I didn’t meet a single person, Israeli or Palestinian, who believed a peaceful settlement was possible in the near future.
Spray-painted onto a wall in Tel Aviv's hip Florentine district are the words “It’s Complicated”. It was probably referring to a Facebook relationship status, but it seemed more meaningful than that.