As the Christmas season draws near, there seems to be a lot of chatter about the holy city, Bethlehem. However, not many people realize that Bethlehem is in the middle of the West Bank, one of American media's favorite taboo places. I find it ironic that the place that is arguably most important to the Christian religion is in the middle of an intermittent war zone with a community being town between two nations and it's citizens held captive. Yet we sing "O Little Town of Bethlehem" every Sunday and the words never resonate. To many of us Bethlehem is just some far off ancient land that is nothing more than a city in a song.

The West does not look favorably toward Palestine. On the U.S. Government travel website it says something along the lines of, "we highly discourage travel into Palestine, however, if you do decide to go against our recommendations and something bad happens to you in Gaza, we're not coming to the rescue." The message for the West Bank is a little more favorable (they might come rescue depending on the day) but nowhere near optimistic. 

Everyone I talked to about Israel said I had to visit the West Bank. I did not make the decision lightly, but with Christmas coming I figured it would be interesting to visit Bethlehem which is also one of the only Christian cities in Israel. Plus, my new knowledge of the occupation had me itching to see the situation for myself and meet some Palestinians. 

When I stepped foot into the West Bank I was terrified. As much as I wanted to venture into the area without any preconceptions, the media clips I had seen over the past few years kept replaying in my mind. 

I grabbed a pita sandwich and found a quiet staircase to sit and eat while I gathered my senses and gave myself a Palestinian pep talk. I was soon approached by a middle aged Palestinian man who said something that I didn't understand. Reverting to "I'm in an Arab land where they're aggressive and always trying to sell you something" mode I sternly said "no" and shook my head. The man repeated his statement, "bon appetite." Not all Arabs play by the same rules. We started talking and he told me that he was a tour guide in Bethlehem. He was giving a tour of the Nativity Church (the place where Jesus was born) in French, but invited me to join the tour group and translated everything into English for me. 

I finally got over my "I'm in the West Bank-I'm going to die" attitude and had the opportunity to wander the streets and poke into some shops. At the first store I went to I met a boy about my age named Saliba. He asked where I was from and invited me into his shop for some tea. Once again, I knew what "come to my shop for tea" meant and decided that since I wanted to meet a Palestinian so badly it would be worth it to sip tea and buy a small something later. 

Saliba and I had a nice conversation. I learned that as a Palestinian, he is not allowed to enter into Israel unless he gets special paperwork and permission. Also, there are checkpoints every few miles or so, so in order to travel anywhere in Palestine it can take hours (that is if they allow you to pass through the checkpoints). I didn't ask about his sentiments toward the Israelis, but despite having a relatively suppressed life controlled by another government and a fraction of the economic resources any Israeli would have, he seemed to be pretty cheery!

After our tea session, I browsed around Saliba's shop. I admired some Christmas ornaments and when I was about to leave, purchase-less, Saliba offered me the ornament as a gift. I was overcome with surprise at the extreme generosity of him. I got my ornament (and purchased a few more) and we said our goodbyes. I walked through Bethlehem with my spirits and head held high in amazement at the kindness of the two people I had met. 

As the sun sank lower and I began to meander my way through the maze of streets toward the bus stop I passed through a street market. Everyone noticed me and greeted me with a bold "you are welcome" as I passed by. A few people asked where I was from and one man even offered me a tangerine as a welcome gift. I seemed to be the chatter of the market. 

I took my final steps away from Bethlehem and toward Israel completely at peace and proud of myself for conquering my fear and opening my mind to a new culture. 
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The Palestinian flag waving high off a mosque tower in Bethlehem
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Standing in the spot where Jesus was allegedly born