This is the third part in a series tagged “A Stroll Through Israel”. If you won’t jump into the third episode of a Game of Thrones season, you may want to begin with the first article.
When you hear or read of the Israel-Palestine conflict, what comes to your mind? If all you think of is chaos, poverty, oppression and bloodshed, no one would blame you. The media have ensured negativity is groomed in people’s minds. However, there is more to Palestine than the media presents. Join me through a day spent unlearning and relearning about Palestine.
First thing on Wednesday morning, we checked out of our hotel in Bethlehem and went in search of the Church of the Nativity. There, our tour guide, Riman, introduced us to Isah, a Muslim guide who took us around the imposing structure. Isah began by explaining the circumstances behind the building of the first temple on what is believed to be the site of Jesus’ birth. He then proceeded to discuss the destruction of that church and its rebuilding centuries ago, before leading us through a door that seemed to have been designed with five-year-olds in mind.
Inside the UNESCO heritage site, which is currently undergoing renovation, we learned the temple is divided into three sections housing Greek orthodox Christians, Armenian Christians and Catholics. Each group’s sector highlighted the beliefs of that group; with altar icons, statutes and sparse furnishings discriminating between the different groups. Unfortunately, we could not enter the cave where Jesus was supposedly laid at his birth because a mass was ongoing at that time, so we consoled ourselves with pictures from the doorway. After going through some other historic artefacts in the temple, we returned to the Bethlehem sunshine.
Our next port of call was the Bethlehem Business Incubator (BBI) located at the Bank of Palestine building. BBI is a collaboration between the bank, the US government, Bethlehem University and Indiana University through the Kelley School of Business. Suha, our Canadian-educated Palestinian host, enlightened us on BBI’s efforts to boost entrepreneurial activities in Bethlehem, with special focus on women and youths aged 15-29, as a means of driving economic development. She highlighted the use of hackathons and similar events to attract innovative persons and help guide their ideas to reality. At such events, BBI aims at 60% women participation. Although BBI only provides cash and support services worth up to $10,000 per start-up, it also helps in linking entrepreneurs to venture capital funds to get more financing. During unofficial discussions, Suha criticised excessive media focus on politics while neglecting other aspects of Palestinian life.
Leaving BBI, we went on a long journey to Rawabi, the first Palestinian city to be planned and built from scratch. Rawabi is a private developer-led project targeted at housing young professionals seeking housing away from the expensive city of Ramallah. At Rawabi, we were joined by Mahmood, a business associate, and Roha, a civil engineer, respectively. While Mahmood covered the planning and business aspects of Rawabi, Roha covered our education on the engineering aspects, highlighting her strong engineering knowledge. After we had seen different parts of the city, including the 15,000-capacity amphitheatre, which Mahmood boasted is the largest in the Middle East, we proceeded to the Q-Centre—Rawabi’s shopping district.
At the Q-Centre, we were joined by the Palestinian billionaire, Bashar Masri, the brain behind Rawabi. He sat with us over cups of coffee, tea and fruit juices to talk about his life, his vision for Rawabi, and the challenges faced in trying to bring the project to life. Surprisingly, while even Palestinian officials doubted the possibility of the project coming to life, and sometimes gave official permissions to the “crazy” man just so they won’t be blamed if things went wrong, Qatar offered to be the only partner in the project, contributing 75% of the required funds. We were thus able to reflect on Qatar’s contribution to such a laudable project in light of the present political blockade in the Middle East where the Qataris have been accused of being major funders of terrorist groups such as Hamas. So far, the Rawabi project has triggered about 10,000 jobs and Bashar is looking at long-term sustainability for this ambitious project. To wrap up this paragraph in Bashar’s words, “My vision is not Rawabi. My vision is the domino effect that Rawabi would create”.
Leaving Rawabi, we proceeded to the city of Ramallah, which Riman said is the de-facto capital of a future Palestinian state as it currently houses the Palestinian Authority and several key private sector organisations. Our first task at Ramallah was to find a restaurant to refill our now grumbling storage cum processing tanks. After a sumptuous meal, we moved on to the offices of Leaders Organisation (LO), an NGO based in Ramallah.
Dinah, our British-educated Palestinian host, took us through the activities of the organisation. LO was formed around 2004 to promote economic development in Palestine, and has recently expanded its reach internationally through engagements in Jordan and some countries in Europe. LO grooms the development of start-ups by providing training, information and acceleration services, with financing of up to $35,000. It also advises entrepreneurs seeking to export their products on relevant standards and regulatory requirements to meet target international markets. The diversity of the Palestinian start-up scene was highlighted, with businesses ranging from ICT apps to lingerie in a normally conservative society. Dinah proudly informed us that the businesses they nurture feature about 30% women participation, and that LO has campaigns to get more women involved, especially, those with tech degrees. Although she acknowledged the impact of restrictions due to the political situation, especially regarding online payment systems, she also noted the impact of cultural restrictions in suppressing entrepreneurial activities in the area.
By this time, we were all very tired and proceeded on a journey from Ramallah to Jerusalem. For the first time since we began going through checkpoints, we had Israeli soldiers board our bus and check every single passport. Since we all had valid travel documents, we moved on into Jerusalem. Once we checked into yet another hotel, we had a quick “processing session” to review the learning process so far, and express our feelings about what is certainly a complex issue. It was interesting hearing the views of different participants, with some juxtaposing their own lives on the Israel-Palestine conflict.
Finally, we had dinner at a fancy restaurant. It was a befitting end to a long day, but the day was just not yet over; at least for most of the group. For the first time, I joined others to a bar inside a market. While others sipped their beers and other cocktails, I and another person proudly sipped from chilled bottles of Pepsi. Who said you cannot have Pepsi at a bar? Having some outstanding tasks to handle, I and a different participant left the group to return to the hotel. Without access to free Wi-Fi nor a mobile data connection, we confidently believed we would find the hotel on our own. However, we later came to the clear conclusion that we were truly lost like “sheep in the big city”. When all hope seemed to be lost, we luckily discovered the holy grail of finding directions—asking living human beings.
- I acknowledge the wordiness of this article. Believe me when I say I couldn’t find a way to make it shorter and more interesting and still cover all I had in mind. Thanks for your unconditional forgiveness.
- I understand that the conditions in the visited areas are definitely better than those in Gaza. This article is simply a perspective away from the conflict.