Conflict up close: On the ground in Jerusalem

We began our trip to Israel on Dec. 8 — just two days after President Donald Trump’s recognition of Jerusalem as Israel’s capital. On our long layover in Spain the day before, as we watched television coverage of the protests unfolding in Jerusalem and the West Bank (both of which were on our itinerary), my wife and I debated whether to go forward with the trip, but we already were more than halfway there, and we decided to continue. Following our early-morning arrival, we rode from the airport in Tel Aviv to our hotel in Jerusalem. As we passed through the West Bank, the sunrise cast warm colors on the Palestinian city of Ramallah, headquarters of the Palestinian Authority. The city looked tranquil, drawing sharp contrast to the pictures of rioting we had seen on the news the previous night.

After arriving at our hotel in Jerusalem, we walked to the Old City. There were fewer tourists and dramatically more police than we had seen on our previous visits. As Friday prayers began at Al-Aqsa Mosque (one of the three holiest sites in Islam), police began moving in the direction of the Muslim quarter of the Old City and placing barricades along major arteries. We moved quickly through the Stations of the Cross, which begin near Al-Aqsa, deciding it best to move into a different section of the Old City. As we left late in the afternoon, we heard sirens in the distance. We later heard of angry demonstrations near the Damascus Gate.

The next day, all seemed quiet again. Although there had been clashes between Israeli police and Palestinian youth in several West Bank cities the day before, we were told by Ismail, our Palestinian guide (whose name has been changed in this article out of consideration for his safety), that the worst had passed, and he expected us to be safe on our trip to Nablus, which lies in the heart of Palestinian territory. At the very worst, he said, we might have to alter our schedule, as there had been reports of rocks being thrown at cars on the highway on the way to Jenin.

Ismail couldn’t have known what would happen to us in Nablus.

Guns drawn

Traffic was slow as we passed through multiple checkpoints en route to Nablus. Ismail told us that some of these checkpoints had been set up temporarily in response to the current unrest. We stopped in the town of Sebastia, home to a Samaritan village of Arabic-speaking Jews who live as Palestinians but practice the Jewish religion. Ismail pointed out that the Israeli-Palestinian conflict originally was not a religious one, but a political one that only later took on religious overtones.

As we made our way into the city of Nablus, we found the road littered with large rocks and ash from Molotov cocktails — remnants of clashes between protesters and police the night before.

Here we visited Jacob’s Well, the site of Jesus’ encounter with the Samaritan woman, and walked through a Palestinian refugee camp.

More Observations
Our two guides, Ismail and Moshe, provided some background on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Both cited the Israeli settlements in Palestinian territory as the major point of contention, stating that these settlements were “illegal by international law,” since they are on land the international community agreed should remain under Palestinian control. Moshe said that for deeply religious people, the settlements are important because they are generally built in places that have religious significance. For example, Hebron, one area in which settlements have been built, is the homeland of Abraham.

While driving on the road out of the city, we heard what sounded like gunshots in the distance, and traffic slowed to a halt. As we moved very slowly down the street, the sun began to set. We noticed crowds of young men gathered along the street. They had formed barricades and would not let traffic pass. We saw smoke in the air and realized that the fighting between police and protesters had resumed. Up ahead, some young men had constructed a barricade to prevent traffic from crossing either way. The men surrounded our van, shouting angrily as we tried to pass. One opened the door to our van. Our guide pleaded with them, telling them we were tourists and meant no harm. They finally let us pass, and we approached a line of Israeli police. Breathing a sigh of relief, we believed the worst was over — but something was wrong.

The police, seeing nothing in the darkness and smoke but headlights coming directly at them, turned their machine guns toward us. They shouted warnings to us, and the inside of our van became lit by the laser scopes of their guns. Our guide rolled down the window and tried to explain that we were tourists and needed to get out of the city, but it was no use. The police threatened to open fire if we drove any closer, and we were forced to turn around. Behind us, tempers were rising among the Palestinian protesters. We barely made it through the crowd of protesters with the windows intact, as they, too, perceived our van as a threat and began to aim their rocks and firebombs at us. With much tension and prayer, we made it through the crowd. As we caught our breath, Ismail explained what we observed — that the majority of people on both sides of these clashes are very young men who are inclined to act impulsively. He said this is how errors in judgment are made that only serve to escalate the conflict.

‘Like going backwards’

We spent the next day in Jerusalem, needing no further excitement for a while. The following day, we journeyed to the site of ancient Magdala. Our guide for the day, Moshe (whose name also has been changed to protect his identity), is a former history teacher. Moshe told us that he felt Trump’s recognition of Jerusalem as Israel’s capital “doesn’t help” the tense situation in the region. He said he would prefer that Trump “leave Jerusalem out of this.” Moshe said the Israelis “liberated Jerusalem 50 years ago” (in the 1967 Six-Day War) and that Trump’s announcement made him “feel like we were starting over again.” He said that while he believes Trump is correct, that Jerusalem is the capital of Israel, even needing to say this was “like going backwards.”

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We spent the last day of the trip back in Jerusalem, where a priest, upon hearing that we were from Texas, ironically told us that he heard our state is a dangerous place, and warned us to be careful when we return. But as we walked around the Old City, we saw Muslims, Christians and Jews crossing paths, talking with one another and shopping in one another’s shops. We were reminded of something our guide, Moshe, told us the day before: “People here want to live together and get along, but politics always seem to get in the way.”

Joseph D. White is Our Sunday Visitor’s national catechetical consultant.