School in Zebabdeh, Villages in the West Bank, Checkpoints, being welcomed home to Bethlehem.

We made our way with a little traffic through the checkpoint and through Jenin and on to the small village of Zebabdeh. The quality of the roads was one sign that we had left Israel and entered Palestine. Zebabdeh seemed like a typical, busy, bustling village. Once we found the Church of the Visitation and the Latin Patriarchate School, we entered an oasis of calm and tranquility. Zelda had volunteered at the school 8 years ago as she helped her daughter get settled in as a professor at the local Arab-American University there. We learned that they serve 950 Catholic, Muslim, and Protestant students K-12, with language arts, computer skills, math and science – encouraging students to prepare for the dental, medical, and IT programs at the local university since the opportunities outside the region are sparse. Most needed, however, is a regular supply of water. What used to cost $1,000 a month a few years ago, now costs around $9,000 a month – and the water could only come on three days a week, so they have to store what they get. They also don’t have a modern sewage system. Tonight we learned that the Israeli water company pumps out water from the West Bank aquifer and other sources, supplies Israeli customers first, and then sells back what remains to the Palestinian water company for three times the price. This is a structural inequity that allows Israeli settlements in the West Bank have swimming pools while Palestinians are rationed.

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The beautiful moment in our visit was when one of the staff went and gathered a quilt of international messages of peace that Zelda had worked on 8 years ago with 8th grade students at the school. (Tears were shed.)

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After a tour of the church, we were on our way to Jericho through the central roads of the Samarian hills. There were many Palestinian farms, with children, animals, and fertile valleys in the midst of dry, rugged hills. When we reached the checkpoint, our driver had to back up and enter the next stall to manually unload and reload every piece of luggage for scanning in the heat of the day. Meanwhile, we went through a metal detector (while our handbags never did), and then stood in the heat without shade for the majority of our time before the bus was ready to proceed.

As we continued, we saw many settlements in the Jordan Valley that had plenty of water for their crops in the midst of a barren desert. Acres for green crops and greenhouses were on both sides of the road. Water is so important to the region, but so is how it is distributed.

We had a wonderful afternoon in Jericho, shopping after lunch, and swaying on the gondola to the Monastery of the Temptation. Some stayed in the valley near the oldest inhabited city in the world. Others rested at the top of the ride, but three valiant souls (Karen, Becki, and Zelda) made the hike to the monastery only to be told tours had ended an hour earlier. Again, “out of the mud grow the lotus.” Instead of the tour, they were treated to a group of 20 or so Eritrean pilgrims singing and clapping their praises to God. The men in special garb would come to the front to lead a song, and then defer to another. The women, with specially coiffed hair joined in and welcomed them into the song. None of them got in, but the experience continues to sing – echoing across the Jordan Valley. The rest of us enjoyed the views and shopping, an Allan wished he was there.

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We saw the Zacheus tree – a sycamore of substantive size, and continued on our way through Jerusalem to Bethlehem. We saw many Bedouin camps along the way, and an orchard of olive trees that had been cut down at the stump. Straddling the ridge lines, we also saw large Israeli settlements well to the east of Jerusalem dominating the Arab neighborhoods of East Jerusalem. After a quick glimpse at the old city, we drove around the old city to the road to Bethlehem, where we were expeditiously ushered into the crowded streets of the City of David.

There was no star to show us the way, but first time visitors were struck by the height of the concrete wall with the messages of peace and resistance. A picture of a dove with a bullet proof vest – in the target of a sniper is a powerful image. What a contrast with the permanent Christmas decorations commemorating the Prince of Peace. We made our way through the winding streets, now the licence plates were not only yellow (signifying Israeli vehicles) but also green and white. Upon finding the hotel, friends from near and far greeted us, including a wayfaring Presbyterian Minister from Berkeley. Blessed be.

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