Christmas in Bethlehem…New Year in Ramallah

January 3, 2011 by Ben Weiss
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Did you hear the one about the Jew, the Christian and the Muslim?…. a view from the “inside” of the West Bank.

Sydneysider Ben Weiss reported on Christmas in Bethlehem…today he files his report of New Year in Ramallah.

Sitting by a crackling fire, sipping tea with a view into the sprawling Jericho desert, an early New Year celebration was held in the West Bank – a Jew, a Christian and a Muslim – talking about women, Real Madrid, and Peace in the Middle East.   This was the culmination of an idea a week ago at Shaya’s Sabbath dinner table in Kfar Saba, and became a reality when my Christian Arab friend, Issar, picked me up inside Bethlehem and took me on a journey to see the sights and lights of the West Bank of the Palestinian Authority (PA) just as 2010 was drawing to its close.

And it all started in the heart and pulse of the 5640 km2 PA territory, the de-facto capital of the Palestinian Authority, Ramallah.

Left: A Christian, a Jew and a Muslim bringing in the new year .  Centre: An imitation Starbucks in Ramallah Right: Enjoying a felafel with Issar in Jericho city centre

Ramallah (Arabic for “Height of God”) is home to 26,000 people, and an economy which is seemingly at full throttle.  With an annual economic growth rate estimated at over 8%, a population that has doubled in the last 10 years and a construction boom that took off soon after it became self-administered, it is no surprise that it has become the HQ for most embassy officials and NGOs, with international restaurants and new 5 star hotels opening up to support its flourishing economy.  My jaw dropped when Issar showed me a house he had wanted to buy for $60,000 in 1993 (just prior to the signing of the Oslo Accord) which is today worth a staggering US$2 million (an average apartment in the nicer suburbs today will set you back US$200,000).  I noticed that construction has started a short drive away from Mahmoud Abbas’s President Office in the City Centre on a new $400 million 13 tower commercial centre, which will transform the city skyline.  Some would argue that Ramallah is a “bubble”, it is not representative of the suffering of the Palestine people, and while that is possibly true to a certain extent, it is hard not to be hopeful at what can be possible when minds and energy are channelled towards construction as opposed to destruction.

Left: The main mosque in Ramallah city centre during the call to prayer               Right: A new Honda dealership on Hungary St in Ramallah

A “Grave” Mistake?

The drive from Ramallah to Jericho takes you through the heart of the Judean wilderness, and a most unexpected building is awaiting you as you approach the outskirts of Jericho.   Known as “Nabi Musa”, it is believed to be the final resting place of the great prophet, Moses.  The religious pundits will be quick to dispel this notion by pointing to the last chapter in the Book of Deuteronomy which states that Moses died and was buried on the other side of the Jordan River and that no one knew where his Tomb was.   Muslim tradition, however, holds that the location of the tomb was revealed in a dream to one of its prophets.  The fine print on the entrance sign points to the shrine being erected during the Turkish reign in 1269 AD, some 2600 years after Moses is believed to have died – but who cares to read the fine print anyway?  Such a leap of faith, however, is a part of all major religions.  Was the dreamy Joseph buried with his 2 sons (and perhaps his technicolour dreamcoat) in the West Bank town of Nablus? Islam will tell you he was actually buried in the Cave of Patriarchs in Hebron, the site where Judaism itself holds that 4 biblical couples were buried; Adam and Eve, Abraham and Sarah, Isaac and Rebeccah, Jacob and Leah.  With such memorial sites a living reminder of our joint ancestry and bloodline, they could do much to bring the various religions of the world together but sadly so much blood has been spilled in the course of the ongoing debate over its true religious “ownership”.

Left: Nabi Musa,the final resting place of Moses   Right: Is this the tomb of Moses?

Jericho…Something Old, Something New, Something Borrowed, Something Blue

The “City of Palm Trees”, Jericho lays claim to being both the lowest and the oldest city on earth.  Located 250 metres below sea level (alongside the Dead Sea), this city of 20,000 inhabitants was returned to the Palestinian people in 1994 and is one of the oldest continuously habited cities in the world (next to Damascus and Beirut), and just started its annual celebration commemorating its 10,000th year of civilisation.   It certainly raises the possibility that the tale of Joshua leading the Jewish people into Israel and surrounding this ancient walled city 7 times before it fell, was more likely to have occurred when excavations have confirmed the existence of a walled city dating back to that period.  History beckons around every corner, as a short distance from the Jericho casino is an old building which houses the world’s oldest synagogue.  Move over Masada, the 70 seat Wadi Qelt Synagogue in Jericho dates back to 50 BCE and is considered to be the oldest ever discovered.  Today the Palestinian Authority have 3 armed guards around the clock to protect this ancient building and its artefacts from those whose interests are not aligned with peace.

L-r: The 1300 yr-old Hisham Palace in Jericho [old] ,  Toast R Us outlet [new],  riding a Bedouin’s camel [borrowed], the Jericho desert nf blue sky

A quick glimpse inside the West Bank was all I got, but it was enough to stimulate an interest to learn and understand more.  Admittedly, my 1 day census captured the views of a paltry 2 Palestinians (out of a population of 2.5 million), however, my personal mission was accomplished when a camaraderie of sorts was quickly formed breaking bread on Friday night and talking Hebrew freely in the company of a Palestinian Christian and Muslim.  And as I scampered across the border to join my friends in Jerusalem and Tel Aviv for a glass of champagne, I quickly realised that this was one NYE that I would never forget…

May 2011 be the year of “Hope over Hopelessness”…With love, Ben


One Response to “Christmas in Bethlehem…New Year in Ramallah”
  1. Lynne Newington says:

    What a lovely story and coincidence Ben, only the other day I was discussing with a friend with Jewish roots, Golda Meir’s, the Attainment of Peace address to the Israeli Knesset by Golda Meir, both full of hope.

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