Yesterday, referred to me by my friend Ariele, I took a tour of Jerusalem with the company Ir Amim whose aim it is to shed light on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Clearly, you cannot cover the entire Arab-Israeli conflict in just a few hours, however, the tour is a first-hand introduction to the conflict. The tour is a free, 4-hour overview of the reality of the conflict right here in Jerusalem (led by an Israeli tour guide who sheds light on both sides of the conflict), and in particular, it takes you from the nicest neighborhoods of Jerusalem into the neighboring third-world standard settlements where Palestinians live currently. Additionally, not only do you see so clearly the juxtaposition of wealthy Jewish neighborhoods next to poverty-ridden Palestinian settlements, but also, you see up close and personal the physical separation barrier along the Green Line that has been put up over the last 10 years as an attempt to keep the Palestinian West Bank residents out of Jerusalem. This barrier, part wall and part fence, was decided upon after the Al-Asqa intifada wreaked so much havoc right here in Jerusalem in the early years of the 21st century.
Living and socializing in the middle of Jerusalem's upscale neighborhoods, its easy to be unaware of what is going on just behind the separation barrier. Most of us who visit Israel will never make it into the Palestinian settlements because a) it's scary, and b) it seems that there's nothing to see. We are literally separated from our Palestinian neighbors and its as if the problems there aren't real - until you see it first-hand. I want to share with you a little bit of what I saw on my tour.
One of the first stops on the tour is in the upscale Israeli neighborhood of Gilo, looking out toward Bethlehem and a nearby Palestinian settlement. Two neighboring communities that are so close to each other, yet worlds apart. Additionally, you can see the physical separation barrier in one of the photos below, which is patrolled by police 24/7 in order to enforce that the barrier is not crossed.
Next, after listening to the history of this area, taking in views of Bethlehem and getting a good look at the separation barrier and one of its 13 checkpoints, we went onward to check out two neighboring communities: Har Homa (an upscale Jewish neighborhood) and the Palestinian community adjacent to it, whose name I did not catch. See for yourself the difference between the two neighborhoods in the photos below. Whereas Jewish neighborhoods are modern, new and upscale with the luxury of fancy schools, nice hospitals, paved streets, playgrounds and weekly trash collection; the Palestinian neighborhoods get none of the above. They are considered third-world communities. There are no playgrounds, no public schools, no paved streets, deteriorating hospitals and squalid living conditions. It is overcrowded and uncomfortable to drive through.
Har Homa (Jewish/Israeli neighborhood):
Palestinian Settlement (Beit Safafa) just across the street from Har Homa:
The socioeconomic differences between the two communities is obvious to the naked eye. I was torn between feeling compassionate for some of the innocent people and children living in such conditions, and at the same time, feeling intense anger and resentment toward these communities that have groomed terrorists responsible for some of the most atrocious crimes against humanity, and specifically, against my own people. As is obvious, its an unending and irreconcilable conflict.
After visiting these two communities, we made our way into another Palestinian settlement where the wall or barrier can be seen up close. You can even touch it if you want to; instead, I took a few pictures. It is ever so reminiscent of the Berlin Wall in war-torn Germany. I could not help but feel like the people whom this wall barricades must feel like animals caged in, which is never a good thing.
And here are a few more images of the separation barrier seen from afar in various locations throughout Jerusalem:
The last images from above is looking out over the one and only Palestinian refugee camp here inside the municipal boundaries of Jerusalem, meant to house 1,500 people, but is now home to around 20,000 Palestinians. Even though the refugee camp falls within the city municipality, the area receives no city amenities at all, including hospitals, police enforcement, and trash collection. The result is extreme poverty and destitute conditions that most either know nothing about or choose to shun. Like the other Palestinian settlements, residents inside these areas hold blue Israeli ID cards and permanent residents cards, however, in order to access modern Jerusalem and all the amenities inside Jerusalem, they must pass through one of 13 tedious and time-consuming checkpoints (similar to the US border crossing in San Diego/Tijuana).
Finally, here are a few vistas that I captured throughout the 4-hour tour, of the city of Jerusalem itself as well as from the outskirts of Jerusalem looking towards the Jordanian mountains:
The tour left us a bit unsettled, especially given the tour guide's perspective that things are going to get a whole lot worse before they can ever get better. As a reminder, the tour's overall mission is to educate locals and foreigners alike about both sides of the conflict and the realities that exist within both territories. Furthermore, the conclusive aim is to arrive at a more "viable and equitable city (of Jerusalem) for the Israelis and Palestinians who share it.....through a negotiated process between Israel and the Palestinians". Hopefully my overview of the tour gives you a little perspective into the peace process going on here in the Middle East. It's unbelievable to think about what's going on in the backyard of my current city, as a type from the comfort of my modern home and beautiful surrounding community.