Crossing checkpoints, visiting 'Wall Street' and refugee camps part of this Mideast adventure tour
Americans visit Israel, Palestinian territories to see situation with their own eyes
"Please make sure you have your passports with you, and stay together when we cross," retired American diplomat and aid agency executive Tom Getman instructed a group of 30 U.S. tourists.
Most were congregants from St. Mark's Episcopal Church in Washington, D.C., and Getman was their group leader.
They were heading for the occupied Palestinian territories in the West Bank, including overnight stays in Bethlehem and Jenin, and visits to Ramallah and Hebron and villages in between.
More than four million tourists visited Israel last year — a record number — but only a small proportion on religious pilgrims went on to the West Bank. Most didn't stay the night, returning to Israeli hotels to sleep.
This American group was bucking the trend, with a "dual narrative" tour last week aimed at understanding the politics and approaching all the different perspectives with open minds and hearts.
It's incredible. It's an almost overwhelming amount of information to absorb, to be honest. So many perspectives- Susan Hill, tourist from Montana
"It's incredible. It's an almost overwhelming amount of information to absorb, to be honest. So many perspectives," said Susan Hill, of Montana, who was on the tour with her sister, a member of St. Mark's church. "People describe the same thing, but it's as if they see a different part of it."
Cross between holiday and study tour
Getman said the dual narrative approach meant that in Jerusalem they first heard the Israeli narrative and history of Jewish connection to the land. The group visited Holocaust memorial Yad Vashem and met a Holocaust survivor. Other speakers he said included Israeli left-wing activists, hardline right-wingers and Israelis who live in West Bank settlements.
Dual narrative or "conflict tourism" is a cross between a holiday and a study tour.
There are now more such outfits, but the pioneer of dual-narrative tours in Israel and the Palestinian territories is MEJDI Tours, co-founded 10 years ago by Muslim Palestinian Aziz Abu Sarah and Jewish American Scott Cooper.
"The two of us were working together in conflict resolution. I want everyone to travel with us — those who are pro-Israel and those who are pro-Palestine," Abu Sarah said.
Enjoying Palestinian-Israeli band and belly dancing
Abu Sarah hosted a dinner for the tour group at his family home in the West Bank town of al-Azariya, where, according to the Bible, Jesus raised Lazarus from the dead. Abu Sarah's mother prepared a traditional Palestinian meal, and he told them about the history of his family and their struggle to hold onto this home in the West Bank, while continuing to live on the Israeli side of Jerusalem.
After that, everyone pushed the tables out of the way and listened to a Palestinian-Israeli band — another rarity here — singing in Hebrew and Arabic. They even managed a belly dancing lesson.
As they left Abu Sarah's home, Hill said that she found the tour complex, demanding — and enjoyable.
Members of the tour group began their West Bank stay in Bethlehem, less than 10 kilometres from Jerusalem. They entered the occupied town on foot, through an Israeli military checkpoint.
This was how most Palestinians entered and left — those who had Israeli permits — but it was something tourists almost never did.
Susan Backus, from Colorado, said that was the reason she chose this tour.
"To learn. To see. It's different to see than it is to read. It goes to your heart, as well as your head," Backus said.
Welcome to 'Wall Street'
Once through the checkpoint, they walked along the barrier Israel built, separating Bethlehem and its population of some 30,000 Palestinians from Jerusalem.
In most areas of the West Bank, this barrier is a chain-link fence; here in Bethlehem, it's a nine-metre concrete wall, with watchtowers and barbed wire on top.
Every MEJDI tour has two guides, one Palestinian and one Israeli.
As they walked along "Wall Street," the Palestinian guide told the group the stories behind the murals, graffiti and protest art covering it. There was humour — "Make Hummus not Walls" — as well as pictures of Palestinian resistance figures like teenager Ahed Tamimi, imprisoned by Israel in 2018 after slapping a soldier during a protest.
Mixed feelings a positive sign
At that point, Israeli guide Yael Moav said she had something to add.
"I admire Ahed Tamimi, but I also admire someone else: the soldier who didn't slap her back," Moav said. "At this certain moment, both sides are victims — I mean the soldiers and the people. I have a son in the army, and I really see the soldiers, because they are kids, as victims as well."
As the group headed to Bethlehem's star attraction, the Church of the Nativity, where Christians believe Jesus was born, the St. Mark's church members said they felt torn by all they were seeing and hearing.
"Such conflicting views. And so tragic for Israelis and Palestinians to have all that happen in the Holy Land," said Mary Proctor, of Washington, D.C. "I was raised a Catholic. I'm no longer one, but to have all this happen in the centre of Christian sites is very strange."
The group went on to visit refugee camps, as well as mosques, synagogues and churches. They stayed at an organic farm near Jenin where olive oil is pressed and exported around the world. They heard talks from academics and activists, as well as a joint group of Palestinian and Israeli bereaved parents, who reached out to each other for support after losing children in the conflict.
We wanted people to know that Muslims, Jews and Christians are doing things together to build civil society, when it appears hopeless to so many.- Tom Getman, retired American diplomat and tour group leader
"We wanted people to know that Muslims, Jews and Christians are doing things together to build civil society, when it appears hopeless to so many," said Getman.
But mostly they saw the situation on the ground with their own eyes.
For MEJDI's Abu Sarah, their mixed feelings were a positive sign; in fact, one of his aims. "And for them not to leave saying they love Jews and hate Palestinians, or love Palestinians and hate Jews, but they love everyone who's here."